Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni; starring Eva-Maria Westbrook, Marcelo Álvarez,
George Gagnidze, Jane Bunnell, Ginger Costa-Jackson; and Pagliacci by Ruggiero Leoncavallo; starring Patricia Racette
Marcelo Álvarez, George Gagnidze, Lucas Meachem, Andrew Stenson; conducted by Fabio Luisi;
directed by David McVicar; with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Transmission, April 25, 2015
This popular double bill was the first operatic production that I saw live. It was around 1960 and the Met was making its
spring visit to Detroit. The production featured stars of no less magnitude than Eileen Farrell as Santuzza and Teresa Stratas
as Nedda. Mightily impressive for a neophyte opera-goer!
But now? Hmmm.....I guess these two operas are ok if you want some nice music, as long as you can stomach the implications
of a culture in which machismo and male prerogative prevail and where it’s taken for granted that they lead to violence.
It also helps if you don’t mind a lot of melodrama, with chorus members milling around pointlessly much of the time.
As for the particular look and feel of this production, it seems to me that when you’re going to stage something
in a way that isn’t the traditional one, the question is whether your new approach is going to add anything to our understanding
and appreciation of the work. David McVicar’s intervention is somewhat iffy in that respect. He has decided to set the
two operas in the same venue – a village square – separated by about fifty years. That helps to provide a sense
of unity between the two operas that is otherwise lacking. But why does the setting have to be so bleak, particularly in Cavalleria?
This looks like a village where the sun never shines. And what’s the point of having all the characters in dark clothes?
It never occurred to me that this opera would benefit from appearing to take place in an Amish community. If there’s
any meaning to be found in Mr. McVicar’s approach, perhaps it would be that life is pretty dark at the best of times,
that it’s dire and gloomy even when we don’t want it to be – i.e. times like Easter.
Perhaps the point of having chorus members seated, at times, on chairs in a circle around the stage was meant to convey
the sense of a community passing judgement on an outcast woman. During the famous orchestral interlude, there was a striking
moment (even if I don’t know what it meant) when some chorus members surrounded Santuzza with glowing candles. The set
revolved at certain times, to no particular purpose, as far as I could see. And what about Mr. McVicar’s idea of having
Santuzza onstage all the time? I think that was too much to ask of any actor. During the overture, Eva-Maria Westbrook was
obliged to stagger around, trying to emote in a distraught way for about ten minutes. Perhaps that was effective in the house;
maybe you could be struck by the sight of this solitary, abandoned figure lurching back and forth. On screen, though, the
close-ups made it all too obvious that this was hard work for Ms. Westbrook.
During the intermission interview, Ms. Westbrook came across as a pleasant, unassuming person but her singing voice, unfortunately,
seems to be past the stage of the ideal Santuzza. It has that wobbly, broadened sound that comes from pushing too much and
for too long, often in Wagnerian roles. Musically, the highlight of the afternoon was Marcelo Álvarez’s
ringing, resonant delivery of Turiddu’s farewell to his mama. That, in fact, was the only moment of the whole production
that engaged me emotionally. While Mr. Álvarez and Ms. Westbrook may be – in the
way of many opera stars – somewhat mature to be credible as romantic leads, the one character in Cavalleria who
seemed perfect, exactly who she was supposed to be, was Jane Bunnell in the role of Mama Lucia.
Mr. McVicar’s staging of Pagliacci in the same village square in the 1940s worked better, thanks to the addition
of lots of colourful props, the entrance of a live mule decorated with gorgeous plumes and the players’ battered truck
belching sparks and fumes. The little play within the play is necessary, of course, in order to capitalize on the ironic overlap
between theatre and reality as related to the theme of jealousy. Musically, though, the playlet is a waste of time, as my
ears hear it. Mr. McVicar tried to enliven the proceedings with a lot of clowning and farce, none of which was very interesting,
except for one old Vaudeville shtick wherein a character appeared to have three arms. The highlight of this second half of
the afternoon was, again, Mr. Álvarez’s singing.
Wild Tales (Movie) written and directed by Damián Szifrón; starring Dario Grandinetti, Maria Marull, Mónica Villa, Rita Cortese,
Julieta Zylberberg, César Bordón, Leonardo Sbaraglia,
Walter Donado, Ricardo Darin....and many others.
The makers of this movie must have cringed at the news of last month’s tragedy in the world of aviation. In the movie’s
first scene, all the passengers in a plane are discovering that they have connections with a certain guy – bad connections.
You could say that these folk are all enemies of his. And guess what? They discover that he’s the captain of this flight,
he has locked himself in the cockpit and he is clearly in the process of crashing the plane.
Well, you can’t blame filmmakers for the correspondence between something they’ve imagined and something that
has subsequently happened in real life. In this case, however, the unfortunate coincidence doesn’t make it easy to love
this movie right off the top. Nor do several of the subsequent episodes, although the problem with them is more about the
esthetics of movies than about any unintended reference to recent events. The question in my mind for much of the watching
is: what do people want from a movie? Do they want outrageous incidents? Do they want a lot of slapstick and violence? Silliness?
They’re getting all of the above in this offering from Argentina. Each of the movie’s six short stories pictures
some hapless person or persons venting their fury at some of the exasperating aspects of contemporary life. To give the overall
thrust of the film the best interpretation, you could say there’s an element of social satire to it. Perhaps it’s
meant to depict what we would all like to do, if we could only unleash our inner wild person, when we’re up against
it big time. (And maybe we have to grant that, for Latin American audiences, there might be special delight in seeing the
little guy pushing back against bureaucracies that are widely seen as corrupt.) On the other hand, the strain of gallows humour
running through the movie would seem to suggest that the stories might be taken as morality tales with clear messages or warnings:
Watch what you say, or, Try to keep calm, or, Don’t sweat the small stuff!
And yet, each episode is like an anecdote, a collection of incidents. Stuff just happens, fuelled by one person’s
extreme emotion. It’s all very spectacular, but I’m not involved; I’m just watching. But then comes the
case of a guy who goes to outrageous lengths in his anger about parking tickets. His wife tells him that she’s fed up
with the way he’s always finding something to blame for his problems. I’m thinking: Oh, good, we’re
going to work through some relationship stuff now! But no, the wife’s intervention turns out to be just one more
damn thing that happens to the guy, and he moves on.
Admittedly, there’s very stylish movie-making going on here. Super acting. Great photography and lighting. Very effective
music. Excellent pacing and editing. The movie’s brisk and efficient story-telling shows to best advantage in the penultimate
offering. We’re in somebody’s dark bedroom. A young man is trying to wake up his dad. Next scene, the mother is
opening the front door to a lawyer. Turns out the son has caused a hit-and-run accident. The parents want the lawyer to figure
out how to get the kid out of trouble. This is the first of the six stories that works as actual drama. You keep wondering
how everybody’s going to handle the complications that keep piling up. But even here, there’s a satirical slant,
in that the whole thing turns on the venality of human beings.
The movie’s final scenario, a wedding reception, is in some ways the most ridiculous. We start with an explosion
of flamboyant hoop-la – singing and dancing, strobe lights and glitter, almost like one of those Bollywood weddings
– but things start to go wrong and something of a Donnybrook breaks out. And yet I found this the most engaging of any
of the stories. Why? Because now we have a couple – a bride and groom – who have to deal with some serious stuff
between them. As they do so, what takes place in that ballroom and in other parts of the hotel on that one evening is almost
a metaphor for life: the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, all packed into one event lasting an hour or so.