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Dec 19/14

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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: Die Meistersinger Von Nrnberg (Opera); The Theory of Everything (Movie)

Die Meistersinger Von Nrnberg (Opera by Richard Wagner); conducted by James Levine; production by Otto Schenk; starring Michael Volle, Johan Botha, Annette Dasch, Karen Cargill, Paul Appleby, Johannes Martin Krnzle, Hans-Peter Knig, Matthew Rose; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Transmission, Dec 13, 2014

You might not call me the most ardent Wagner fan. Not like those guys in the upper reaches of the Met Opera house who drool and yell at the mere mention of his name. I’ve only ever endured the full length of one of his operas: Tristan und Isolde. (See review on DD page March 26/08) But I knew there was some music that I liked in Meistersinger (the prize song ), so it seemed like a good idea to sit all the way through this one to see what I’d been missing.

What a gruelling six hours!

Not that the story’s terribly complicated. We’re in Nuremberg in the 16th century and a competition has been announced: the guy who sings the best song will win the hand of Eva, a  rich man’s daughter. A young knight named Walther arrives in town, and being the male romantic lead of the piece, he, of course, is determined to go for the big prize. Trouble is, a local clique of mastersingers rules over everything having to do with singing. Walther’s style is too edgy and new for them, so they bar him from the competition. You can bet our Walther’s not going to take that sitting down.

Who couldn’t respond empathetically to the young artist whose bold new approach is condemned by the old fogies? And Herr Wagner fleshes out the story with good music. The overture, for instance, is great. And the overture to the third act is especially beautiful. In fact, any time you can pay attention to what the orchestra is doing, it’s very interesting. I suppose this is what Maestro James Levine meant when he spoke (during an intermission feature) about the endless marvels of the score, about the fact that every time he opens it, he finds new and fascinating things. And there’s no denying that the closing scene delivers thrills comparable to the finale of any great opera.

But I’m the kind of opera buff who would like the singers to have more opportunity to shine. Like a few melodies, maybe? This opera has exactly two good melodies (the main theme and the prize song). Apart from that, there’s hours and hours of what you might call speaking-on-pitch. Monologues go on and on without any tune that catches you up and helps to carry you along. Granted, if you understand the German and don’t have to rely on subtitles, the talk is probably a bit more engaging. (I did experience this in the brief sentences and phrases of German that I could catch.)

To me, it’s not so much an opera as a theatre piece, with music added. I suppose that was fine with audiences in Wagner’s day. They didn’t have movies or tv. The only way they could get entertainment in the form of acted-out stories was on the stage and, if the stories came with music added, well so much the better. And I know that theatre evenings were expected to last much longer back in the day; there was a different sense of time. (Concerts often included twice the amount of material that we’d consider suitable today.)

And yet, this is not good theatre. It’s self-indulgent, drawn-out and lazy. Take the discussion among the mastersingers about whether or not they should admit the newcomer to their ranks. They keep harping on the rules of good song-writing. There’s a lot of swaggering and mugging. Clearly, these guys love seeing themselves as the jury on "Nuremberg’s Got Talent." The scene goes on for about twenty-five minutes when, dramatically speaking, it’s worth about ten. In the second act, some dolt is trying to serenade a lady who’s perched in her balcony but the cobbler across the street keeps interrupting the serenade by hammering at some shoes. Ok, that’s fine for a bit of comedy – about five minutes, maybe. But it goes on much too long. At the end of the opera, everything has been brought to a suitable climax and it’s obviously time to ring down the curtain. But no. We have to wait for a big long aria championing the importance of German culture.

I can see how this might appeal to people from that background. (The same way my predecessors would have thrilled to celebrations of Irish culture.) And yes, there is a certain appeal in knowing that this business of the mastersingers is part of the true history of the German people. Apart from that, what are the rest of us supposed to get from this opera? Does it have something to do with the cult of Wagner? Are we supposed to be thrilled with anything from the pen of the Great Man?

As for the performances in this production, the person who stood out for me through most of the first part of the show was Hans-Peter Knig, in the role of Pogner, Eva’s father. He’s one of those wonderful stage fathers who has dignity and authority that seem to come naturally to him, and yet his facial expression is benevolent and kindly. Best of all, his voice is one of the brightest, clearest and strongest in the production. Paul Appleby, in the role of David, a cobbler’s apprentice, is a charming and attractive young performer but his voice didn’t seem to be coming through strongly enough in the HD transmission. Johan Botha can certainly sing Walther’s demanding music but there’s not much sweetness to his voice. (Also, it would have helped if he had a slightly more romantic look to him, less of King Henry VIII at his most dissolute.) Annette Dasch was lovely and fresh as Eva and she sang beautifully but, as she herself said in the intermission interview, it’s a small role that doesn’t offer much opportunity for amazing singing. On the other hand, Michael Volle’s performance in the role of Hans Sachs was a tour de force, especially in his soul-searching and tortured monologue about the meaninglessness of everything.

 

The Theory of Everything (Movie) written by Anthony McCarten, based on the book by Jane Hawking; directed by James Marsh; starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Harry Lloyd, David Thewlis, Alice Orr-Ewing, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, Charlie Cox

You can hardly go wrong with a movie about the life of Stephen Hawking. There are so many key moments that make for excellent drama.

You start with the geeky, shy student. Then his professors’ amazement at his brilliance. The flowering of his genius. The tender romance with a sincere young woman. The gradual appearance of his physical problems. The horrible diagnosis. The fatal prognosis. His friends’ reactions to this news. The steadfast young woman’s refusal to give up on him. Marriage. Kids. The worsening of his physical condition. Fame and international honours. Medical crises. Marriage problems.

Imbue all this with the setting of Cambridge university – the hallowed halls, the dons flopping along in their academic gowns, the lofty spires, the lush greenery, punting on the river Cam – and you’ve got a movie that’s sure to please. Which this one does. It’s beautifully made, virtually flawless in every detail -- as long as you're not expecting any enlightenment on Mr. Hawking's stupendous theories. But....does the movie give us anything other than the theme of the indomitable individual who triumphs over tragedy, thanks in no small measure to the loyalty of a good woman? Well, things do not work out quite as gloriously as in the usual exemplar of the genre. There’s a bittersweet quality to the ending.

And that has to do with – I’m not giving anything away here, since the biographical facts are well known – the Hawkings’ marriage. Even though the movie doesn’t sugar-coat the truth on that score, it doesn’t do much to illuminate the situation. Things simply fall apart without any explanation. Ok, life’s like that. But don’t we expect the theatre – and movies by extension – to give us some insight, some understanding? I’m not saying that the characters have to verbalize like Edward Albee creations but it would be nice to get some idea of what’s going on between them.

In a way, Eddie Redmayne, as Mr. Hawking, has the somewhat easier acting job: the withdrawal into a kind of shell as his physical disabilities become more and more incapacitating. The more interesting performance comes from Felicity Jones in the role of Jane, his wife. We watch her transformation from the wide-eyed, ingenuous idealist to the mature woman who has, without losing her sensitivity or her gentleness, been seasoned by the hard realities of the passing years.

One of those realities that gets scant mention is the question of raising three kids in a home with a handicapped father. As intellectual celebs, the Hawkings are gadding about (in so far as you can do that in a wheel chair) with no talk of who’s looking after the kids. Maybe the movie-makers think that’s not a relevant issue but the failure to deal with it leaves some of us wondering whether we're looking at the life of a genuine family. But the thing that bothers me most about the movie is the obnoxiously intrusive music. It's so sentimental that it makes Peter IlyichTchaikovsky sound like he's suffering from emotional blockage. Do movie-makers truly believe that a story won’t succeed without this blatant manipulation of our feelings? Maybe this one wouldn’t, given the lack of exploration into the feelings of the two main characters.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com