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Apr 30/14

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Cosi Fan Tutte (Opera); Vinegar Tom (Play); Opening Windows (Memoir); A Special Providence and Young Hearts Crying (Novels); The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (History)

Cosi Fan Tutte (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; conducted by James Levine; production by Lesley Koenig; starring Susanna Phillips, Isabel Leonard, Matthew Polenzani, Rodion Pogossov, Danielle de Niese, Maurizio Muraro; with the Metropolitian Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Met Opera HD Live Transmission, April 26, 2014

When singers are asked about their work with James Levine, they trot out all the superlatives: he’s the greatest, he’s the best, he’s like no other conductor, he teaches them so much about the music, about the development of their characters...and so on. This year, everybody’s making a special fuss about having him back on the podium after his two years’ absence on sick leave. I always wonder if these are the sorts of things that singers feel they need to say if they want to be hired to work with the maestro again. This performance, though, gave me some inkling of the truth of all the claims of greatness for the man.

Throughout the overture, the camera focussed mainly on Maestro Levine. Some glances towards specific orchestra members helped illustrate what was happening musically. The interplay between the flute and clarinet, for instance, was especially appreciated. But mostly, it was the conductor we were watching. And what a sight! He looked like a kid who was having a ball. You could see him speaking words to himself to carry him through certain song-like passages. When it came to loud booms and crashes, he looked like a boy setting off firecrackers. At times, his eyes were almost closed, as though he was being swept along on waves of bliss. The most important thing, through all of it, was that you sensed that this was an intimate communication with the players; not only was he conveying to them his love and enthusiasm for the music, he was "playing" them, as it were.

You could see how this kind of rapport would mean so much to singers. And they all did him proud. The only one whose voice seemed a little iffy to me was Danielle de Niese, in the role of Despina, the maid. In the upper registers, her voice was as sparkly as you’d expect but, in the middle range, it sounded woolly and muffled, as though she had a cold. However, with her flashing eyes and her dazzling smile, she was a beguiling comedic favourite with the audience. One of the show’s subtler comic touches came from baritone Rodion Pogossov, in the role of Guglielmo. As the plot to trick the women kicks into gear and the two men have to pretend that they are shipping off to war, Mr Pogossov managed to give the effect of a guy who is slightly at a loss when it comes to acting out such a silly premise. I think that’s not the easiest assignment for an actor: to give the impression of somebody who’s not a very good actor.

Try as you might to rationalize the unsavoury side of it, this is one of those pieces – like Merchant of Venice – that presents a company with a big problem: how to mount a production that won’t offend today's audiences? Perhaps Renée Fleming, the host for the afternoon, said it best when she acknowledged that the theme – that all women are unfaithful – isn’t exactly politically correct in today’s terms; we tolerate it for the sake of Mozart’s music. (It also helped when Ms. Fleming pointed out that the two young women in question were supposed to be teenagers; that’s easy to forget, given that you need experienced and mature singers to handle the music.) Or as tenor Matthew Polenzani (Ferrando) said in the intermission interview, it’s just an entertainment; it’s not something that we believe would happen today. The thought occurred to me about mid-way through the show: maybe it’s a metaphor; maybe it’s a way of speaking about the fact that all of us, no matter how sincere our convictions or how honourable our intentions, have a tendency to screw up, to betray ourselves, to find ourselves in moral quandaries we never could have envisioned.

The Met’s solution to the problematic aspects of the opera was to emphasize the artificiality and theatricality of it all. Much of the time, the backdrop was simply a set of very tall louvered doors that opened and closed on various locales, the identity of which were left pretty much to the imagination. Now and then, a trap door in the floor opened to produce, without any logistical rationale, whatever props happened to be required at the moment. In the context of this heightened superficiality, one aspect of the casting struck a slightly incongruous note. The role of Dorabella, the sister who succumbs more quickly to a "foreign" suitor, was sung by mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard, who has great dignity – one might even say majesty – on stage. (With her finely sculpted features, she is surely one of the most beautiful women on any stage or screen these days.) She didn’t seem like the one who would yield first. Susanna Phillips looked like the more flighty, fun-loving one, and yet, her character, Fiordiligi, was the one who was supposed to hold out longer and to give in, finally, with great reluctance.

Perhaps it was the prolonged, effortful attempt to sway Fiordiligi that made me feel, towards the end of the nearly four-hour performance, that things were dragging on too long. Had my 21-st century sensibilities finally had enough of this assault on the loyalty of women? Or was it just that the silliness was wearing thin? Could be. There was almost no moment at which I felt touched by an insight into a very real human emotion. Would the piece, then, have worked better for me if everybody had played it straight? Possibly. But never mind. Mozart’s music is so glorious – and the visuals of this production so beautiful – that it felt like being immersed in a miracle, even if a few bothersome human foibles rippled the calm surface if the idyll now and then.

 

Vinegar Tom (Theatre) by Caryl Churchill; directed by Carly Chamberlain; sound by Chris Reineck; starring Madeleine Donohue, Sophia Fabilli, John Gordon, Kelly Penner, Sabryn Rock, Lynne Griffin, Keelin Jack, Jessica Moss; from Neoteny Theatre; 798 Danforth Avenue; to May 4th.

I don’t know whether The Playwright Project could be called Toronto’s best-kept theatrical secret, but it’s news to me. (If you check the cast list of this show, you might get some idea of how we happened to hear of it.) For the past few years, a number of theatre companies have got together to produce a festival of several plays by one noted playwright. Previously, they’ve featured the work of Tennessee Williams (2012) and Sam Shepard (2013). This year, the festival is all about Caryl Churchill, and the performances take place in a small space on the Danforth.

Ms Churchill’s Vinegar Tom appears to be set in a rural community – somewhere in Britain, presumably – some time before the 20th century. For one reason or another, the members of the community begin to suspect that certain women among them are witches. Evidence gradually piles up, more or less according to the snowball effect: one bit of "evidence" seems to produce another. Before long, the horrible results are inevitable. In short breaks between the scenes, we hear poetic words that are also flashed on a screen, to the accompaniment of heavy metallic music. The point of the very contemporary-sounding words is to remind us that this kind of "witch-hunting" goes on in our own day. We still isolate and victimize people who are strange and bewildering.

Although it’s scaled down in terms of set and costumes, this is a slick show, smoothly directed by Carly Chamberlain. It’s also intense, loud, dramatic and harrowing. All of the polished young professionals turn in very good performances. I was particularly struck, however, by the more mature member of the cast, Lynne Griffin, as one of the supposed witches. She has a warmth, a naturalness and a steadiness that one sees only in long-time troopers. The question, then, is why haven’t we seen her before this? (Perhaps we have, but you’d think I’d remember any encounter with such a strong performer.)

In spite of all the good that went into the production, I’m left with a big question about the play. Does it say anything that we don’t get in The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s much earlier treatment of witch-hunts? As I recall, Mr. Miller’s play was meant to have parallels to the McCarthy hearings in the US. I can’t see that Vinegar Tom adds anything new to the discussion. It’s the same old deplorable human animosity on display.

 

Opening Windows (Memoir) by Stuart Hamilton, 2012

If the author of a memoir is not known primarily as a writer, there’s a good chance that his or her personality will not emerge in the writing. It often takes someone else’s skill to bring the subject’s voice to the page. In this memoir, Stuart Hamilton doesn’t credit anyone else with any such task, although he does thank a friend for helping to organize his first chapter. But I shouldn’t have worried about Mr. Hamilton’s voice coming through strong and clear. Anybody who has enjoyed his presence on CBC Radio Two in past decades ought to know that his ebullient personality would burst out of the covers of any publication involving him. He’s a man who loves words and whose talk is invariably engaging and entertaining.

Like his book. It’s a treasure trove of delicious morsels for anybody who’s interested in opera, particularly as experienced on the Canadian scene. Mr. Hamilton could very well be our country’s best known vocal coach and one of its most loved accompanists. Many of our biggest stars are here: Elizabeth Benson Guy, Carrol Anne Curry, Lois Marshall, Maureen Forrester, Glenn Gould, Ben Heppner, Richard Margison, Isabel Bayrakdarian. And, given Mr. Hamilton’s many international accomplishments – not least, his appearing often on the quiz of the Saturday broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera – he knows the opera world far beyond our borders. As you might well expect, Mr. Hamilton is kind and generous to all his colleagues in his reminiscences about them. The closest he ever comes to a critical comment is to note the incompatibility between himself and Hermann Geiger-Torel, a former artistic director of the Canadian Opera Company. After a short stint of working together, Mr. Hamilton notes – with an implied shudder – that the two men went their separate ways as soon as possible.

Immersed in a world of so much glamour, Mr. Hamilton portrays himself as a bumptious prairie boy who, enraptured with the movies, was determined to make his way to the big time. He’s candid and honest about the flaws that prevented him from becoming a top-flight pianist: his spontaneity, his impulsiveness, his giving himself over to the emotion of the music without enough work on technique. He’s so relaxed about being gay that he speaks of it in an off-hand way, as though it’s hardly worth mentioning except for the fact that he wouldn’t want to give the impression of hiding anything. He does admit, though, that he’s never had much of a sex life and that his obsession with music hasn’t left any room for what we, these days, would call a "long-term relationship." Best of all, he offers up plentiful evidence of his self-deprecating humour. Some of his slapstick scenes – most notably the fiasco of his training as an army cadet in high school – actually made me laugh out loud. That’s something that not many authors can do.

The book doesn’t often stray into theory or philosophy but Mr. Hamilton does touch on some interesting ideas, as when, for instance, he expounds on his preference for French opera. His explanation of the difference between a vocal coach and a singing teacher is enlightening. He gets a nod of approval from me when he says that jurors in musical competitions shouldn’t award marks, just prizes. After all, what real difference could be signified by awarding two competitors marks of 80 and 82, respectively?

While this book made for a very enjoyable few hours’ reading (it’s only 169 pages long), it’s my job here to flag any potential deterrents for buyers and readers. In this case, I would say the book might have benefitted from more exacting editing. Sometimes the chronology and geography can be confusing, as when, in the process of talking about the various places he worked and lived, Mr. Hamilton gets sidetracked on other stories before coming back to the main one. At one point, Mr. Hamilton says that he’s been very happy for most of his life, except for about five years; I kept waiting to find out about those five years but, as far as I can tell, they were never specifically pointed out. Also, I occasionally wondered about the accuracy of some of the memories. Regarding his early days in Toronto, Mr. Hamilton speaks of the downtown central YMCA and the Toronto Conservatory of Music as being within a block of each other. If I’m not mistaken, the Y was on College Street (where police headquarters is now) and the Conservatory was housed in its venerable building on Bloor, near St. George, far more than a block away.

However, one doesn’t want to trip up a grandfatherly type on questions of accuracy when he’s in full flight. The main thing is the richness of the memories. And there’s lots of that here. In fact, Mr. Hamilton leaves you wishing for more. But it was probably an astute artistic decision to make the book as short as it is. Anything longer might have risked getting boring and that would certainly not be an appropriate impression of Mr. Hamilton.

 

A Special Providence (1963) and Young Hearts Crying (1984) both by Richard Yates

Two more novels from the author so highly recommended by David Sedaris. (See the review of Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade on DD page Apr 16/14)

Three books in, I’m beginning to note certain characteristics of the work of Mr. Yates. Key themes, for instance: young men in the military or with a military background; fathers who die or fade out of the picture fairly soon; mothers who have a tendency to be romantic, unrealistic and flighty. Typically, the structure of a Yates novel introduces two characters who have a close connection, then follows each of them separately, perhaps bringing them together at the finale. In all the books, the smoothness, the facility of the prose is impressive. Also, there’s a fluidity about Mr. Yates’s use of time. He flips back and forth between past and present in a way that can seem very natural; this involves making interesting choices about what to tell when.

In A Special Providence, we’re dealing mostly with a mother and son. He’s in the army and is about to be shipped off to France in the Second World War. She’s a would-be sculptor with some artistic accomplishment to her credit, but she’s hampered by hopes beyond any reasonable expectations. Still, she has an unshakeable conviction that she and her son are being looked after by some "special providence." Given her somewhat extravagant taste, she’s always having to plead for more money from her ex-husband. He seems to love his son from a distance but never gets much chance to be closer to him.

The opening section of the book establishes the relationship between mother and son during a brief furlough when he visits her in her apartment in New York. The point seems to be that she’s far too attached to him. Then we follow his exploits in the army for roughly two-thirds of the book. It’s a good account of how a guy fared in the front lines in WW II, if you’re keen to know all about that sort of thing. But what about his connection to the mother? I always thought that one of the key elements – if not the key to any novel – was the study of relationships among people. But here we leave behind the only relationship that means anything much. The guy forms some friendships in the army and there are eventually some consequences to one friendship that could be said to be motivational, but what you’re getting mostly is an adventure or an action story. For the final hundred pages of the book, we go back to the mother in the US and we find out how her life has worked out. She’s an interesting character but it gets to be rather tedious watching her make one bad decision after another.

Young Hearts Crying tells the story of a young poet who has served as a gunner on a B-17 in World War II. On graduation from Harvard, he marries a Radcliffe girl from a well-to-do family. After the marriage, he discovers that she has tons of money of her own. That fact sort of hangs over their marriage and sort of doesn’t. He insists that he is going to make a living for them on his own and she more or less agrees to let him try. For a while, we follow them in their life together; then we follow her for the next third of the book; the final third takes up his story again.

I found this book more enjoyable than the other two by Mr. Yates. Perhaps that’s because this one is longer; the complexity of the characters’ comings and goings builds up a more complete picture of these lives as lived. One of the things that Mr. Yates does very well is to show what we might call the ambiguity, if not the downright hypocrisy, of many social exchanges. People are always voicing things that are very different from what they really think. Dark undercurrents are running through the most banal exchanges. It’s an interesting, if somewhat cynical, take on human nature, even if it does make me – someone who’s accustomed to believing that people mean what they say – feel hopelessly naive.

And yet, there is still a feeling that the author is dealing with his characters at arms’ length. It’s hard to tell whether he really cares about them or whether he’s observing them as human specimens. There isn’t the intensity of an author’s feeling for characters such as you find in a book like Stoner by John Williams (reviewed on DD page Feb 11/14). It doesn’t feel as if Mr. Yates is really inside his characters’ lives.

It’s hard to say why. One reason may be that the author often fails to give us certain details about the minutiae of people’s circumstances. For instance, he’ll often say that a woman bought a new dress or that she was wearing a soiled dress, but he won’t tell us anything else about the garment, not the colour, not the style. Maybe this kind of omission causes that feeling of not-quite-being-there. And then there’s the omission of certain important aspects of people’s lives. For instance, when dealing at length with a married couple, there’s almost no reference to their responsibilities for looking after their little child. The young parents are constantly heading off to parties but there’s hardly ever a mention of baby sitting. If the author had simply noted that they had a live-in nanny, that would have taken care of it. But no. The author doesn’t seem to realize that childcare is such a huge deal for young parents. If he’s that clueless about such an important aspect of family life, how much can we trust him on the rest of it?

Another thing that bothers me is that none of Mr. Yates’s characters seems to believe in anything much. Not that I feel they should all have the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas tucked under their belts, but it’s hard to see what ideas or philosophies – if any – drive these people. They stumble along blindly, more or less propelled by vague impulses from their egos, often towards some sort of artistic achievement but, even then, rather unthinkingly and inchoately. Of course, we do also see examples of a character’s being drive by his or her id. There’s lots of sexual compulsion. But relationships seem to form suddenly, on very flimsy foundations; they dissolve just as suddenly and inexplicably. Nobody tries to work through any relationship. It’s good for a while; then it’s over. Period.

Is Mr. Yates trying to say that this is the reality of human existence in the late twentieth century? Is he saying that all attempts to apply narrative sense and coherence to our lives, to provide explanations for why things happens or don’t, is a sham? I’m thinking that this may have been his great appeal to the readers with whom he was so popular. Perhaps they felt that this guy was finally telling it like it really is. Well, maybe life is like that for some people. But reading about it portrayed that way leaves me feeling that something I expect from a novel is missing.

 

The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (History) by Bernard Bailyn (1992)

I’ve always thought that I understood our neighbours to the south. After all, my mother was from Michigan. That means that many of my relatives are Americans. We’ve always got along well. But, given the political machinations in the US in recent years, I began to feel that maybe there was something about the American character that I was missing. We must have learned one or two facts about all that in school. But what were they? Perhaps some research into the spirit that formed the American nation was called for. A New York Times review of another book by Bernard Bailyn mentioned that this earlier one was generally regarded as pre-eminent in the field.

First, you might ask: how does Mr. Bailyn know what ideas were in the air at the time of the Revolution? Well, he has consulted a vast archive of newspapers; the journalism of the day was boiling over with the subject. More importantly, though, there were the pamphlets. We tend to forget how important pamphleteering was back in the day. Almost anybody, it seemed, who could scrape together enough cash to put his or her opinions in print was publishing a pamphlet. It was almost like our blogging (except that the typical pampleteer was probably better informed than the average blogger). Statesmen, land owners, academics, judges, lawyers – many of them produced pamphlets expressing their opinions on the fate of the colonies. Some pamphlets on the subject were produced by clergymen who adapted their sermons to serve the purpose.

Judging from all this written evidence, the sources of the revolutionary thinking were widespread and comprehensive. Going furthest back, there were the classical authors of antiquity with their pronouncements about the dignity and status of humans. Also, there was the bible with its sense of justice. English common law came into the picture in a big way, as did the Enlightenment (think of authors like Voltaire, Rousseau and Locke). New England Puritanism, with its concept of a Covenant Theology, i.e. a contract between God and people, also had some influence. One of the most crucial factors, according to Mr. Bailyn, was the model of the English Civil War of 1688, also known as the "Glorious Revolution," in which a coalition of parliamentarians invited William of Orange to unseat England’s James II.

Early on in the book, I came to a statement which, in a way, encapsulates everything that could be said about the formation of the distinctive American character. Mr. Bailyn is talking about how the debate about social and political problems had, in 1776, led to a certain sense of American life:

By then Americans had come to think of themselves as in a special category, uniquely placed by history to capitalize on, to complete and fulfill, the promise of man’s existence. The changes that had overtaken their provincial societies, they saw, had been good: elements not of deviance and retrogression but of betterment and progress; not a lapse into primitivism, but an elevation to a higher plane of political and social life than had ever been reached before. Their rustic blemishes had become the marks of a chosen people. "The liberties of mankind and the glory of human nature is in their keeping," John Adams wrote in the year of the Stamp Act. "America was designed by Providence for the theatre on which man was to make his true figure, on which science, virtue, liberty, happiness and glory were to exist in peace."

It became clear to me early on in my reading of the book that one of the key factors in the shaping of the American sensibility wasn’t so much a contempt for, or a rejection of, the monarchy. Perhaps as Canadian school kids, we tended to think of that as the dividing difference. But it seems that the inhabitants of the colonies that became the United States didn’t actually despise the king as such. In fact, some of them toyed with the idea of remaining loyal to the crown while striking out in some newly independent way. The real bugbear was the corrupt bureaucracy that flowed from the monarchical system. More and more bureaucrats were springing up all over the place and they were bleeding the colonies dry.

In devising a new system, the colonists had to grapple with many thorny issues. What, exactly, did "Sovereignty" mean? And that, of course, raised the question of how the loyalties of citizens could be divided between state and federal governments. Also, what would be a just "Representation" of citizens in government? (Certainly not the so-called "Virtual Representation" of the colonies by British parliamentarians whom they hadn’t elected.) What should be the relationship between the Constitution of a country and its laws?

Some of the founders’ beliefs and assumptions strike a rather incongruous note today. In a time when the two-party system in the US is so entrenched, it’s sobering to note that the founders of the nation felt that the involvement of many political parties in government would make it impossible for one party to oppress the people. And the fear of standing armies loomed very large. That may seem odd to us in a time when it’s taken for granted that every country has to have an army ready for action. The way the colonists saw it, if an army was standing around with nothing to do, then the government would inevitably put it to work against the people.

Although Mr. Bailyn’s sentences do, occasionally, take on a slightly Proustian character in length and complexity, he deals with all of these ideas fully and clearly, in some of the most beautiful and balanced prose that I’ve ever encountered in a book about history. One of the discussions that I found most interesting, given the dispute in Canada today about the nature and the role of our Senate, was the question of an Upper House of government. One tends to forget that it was thought that the great virtue of Britain’s House of Lords, was the fact that its members were wealthy and that they were appointed for life. Supposedly, this would mean that they were above the fray of politics and could not be bribed or corrupted.

I also found the discussion about established religion fascinating. Some argued that to have an established religion was part of God’s order; the structure of society was clearly meant to be hierarchical, and that implied a special place for religion. Other colonists could not see why, since they were rejecting the authority of the crown, they should pay taxes to the representatives of England’s established religion, Anglicanism. In some states, the pro-establishment side argued that this was no restriction on freedom, since all their opponents had to do was sign a document declaring themselves to be dissenters. But the so-called "dissenters" bridled at accepting the judgement of the established authorities as to who was or wasn’t a "dissenter." In other words, why should anybody submit to the authorities’ definition of who he or she was? That strikes me as an expression of a surprisingly modern sensibility.

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