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Dec 20/18

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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: La Traviata (Opera); Green Book (Movie); The Overlook, Chicago and Twisted Prey (Mysteries)

La Traviata (Opera) music by Giuseppe Verdi; libretto by Francesco Maria Piave; conducted by Yannick Nzet-Sguin; production by Michael Mayer, starring Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Flrez, Quinn Kelsey. Met Opera Live in HD production, December 15, 2018

This was the only offering in the Met’s HD Live productions that merited a must-see status for me this season. Mainly what drew me to it was the urge to see how it compared with the Met’s previous production, the one by Willy Decker, starring Natalie Dessay.

It may not be wise to see a show mainly for the reason of comparing it to another one that you loved so much. However, I tried to approach this one with an open mind. It has its merits but it almost looks like the designers went overboard to make a contrast with the sleek, minimalist look of Mr. Decker’s show. In this case, you felt you were looking at the decoration adorning a Faberg egg. In the first two scenes, the walls were an intense blue-ish green. Introduce a conglomeration of costume colours and you’ve got visual overload.

The direction sometimes struck me as ill-advised. In the first act, the chorus members were making choreographed movements in unison – raising an arm in the air, for instance – that looked like a throwback to the corniest high school productions of yesteryear. Mind you, the ballet in the third scene – with half-naked men and slinky women – was stunningly erotic. It may have seemed like a strikingly original idea to introduce the presence of Alfredo’s innocent young sister in some scenes but I don’t think it added much to our appreciation of the work.

On the whole, then, this production could not erase my impression of the Decker production as the best Traviata ever. I think the reason for that may be that his concept for the show, stripping it of all the nineteenth-century frippery, showing it in a bleak, contemporary setting, emphasized the eternal, existential angst at the heart of the piece, making the tragedy all the more piercing.

Although one doesn’t think of Diana Damrau primarily as a coloratura soprano, she has a glorious, ringing, clear voice that handles Violetta’s music beautifully. (She didn’t do the high note that some sopranos toss in at the end of "Sempre Libera" but that’s okay; one respects a singer for knowing her limits.) Ms. Damrau has a worried, mature look that suits Violetta. I liked the fact that her "Sempre Libera" showed a conflict between delirious joy and anger at herself for being being tempted to succumb to love. I also liked the way Ms. Damrau seemed to be laughing in a demented way when Alfredo insulted her by throwing the money at her.

However, Ms. Damrau was over-acting much of the time, particularly in the second scene. When a character receives a great shock such as Violetta does at that point, I think she should hold off on the boo-hoo-hoo. It’s more effective if you see someone trying to stand up under an enormous blow, rather than giving in to bawling right away. In the death scene, Ms. Damrau flopped around and coughed convincingly but I didn’t find the final duet as emotionally wrenching as when Natalie Dessay did it. Ms. Damrau sang along with Alfredo as though her Violetta was getting carried away, just as he was, with the dream of recovery in Paris. What was shattering about Ms. Dessay’s singing of the piece was that she clearly knew that dream of recovery was nonsense, that death was imminent, but she was pretending to buy into the dream just for Alfredo’s sake.

Another reason for seeing this production was to hear Juan Diego Flrez in a role that’s somewhat meatier than the bel canto ones he’s best known for. If his silvery voice is not as rich or as golden as you might prefer, it has the high tessitura to make for great excitement. Now into his forties, and having thickened considerably in stature, Signor Diego Flrez has lost some of the romantic freshness that he used to radiate but he can still cast a seductive spell when wooing Violetta.

Quinn Kelsey, not one of your Giorgio Germonts who oozes elegance and suavity, has more the look of a thug. But his compassionate singing of "Di Provenza il mar" was one of the high points of the show for me. Some baritones deliver the aria like a call to arms, a sort of get-your-ass-in-gear challenge, but Mr. Kelsey made it very soothing, even if the second part of the aria does devolve into an "all-about-me" mode.That sudden shift in tone could be seen as typical of the whole second scene of the opera. Things keep shifting so fast, with people coming and going, that I find it dramatically somewhat unwieldy.

Generally, I find it a bit cloying when stars who are being interviewed at the Met insist on sending out messages to viewers in the stars' native lands. But not in this case. For us Canadians, it was a special treat to see our own Yannick Nzet-Sguin in his new role as the music director of the Met. During the first intermission, a short documentary on his work, showing him in rehearsal with Ms. Damrau, then with the orchestra, was an invaluable glimpse into the inner world of the maestro’s work. And his fond words to us all -- in English and French -- capped the afternoon beautifully.

 

Green Book (Movie) written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly; directed by Peter Farrelly; starring Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini.

It’s the early 1960s and a feisty, uncouth bouncer from a night club, now unemployed, is hired to drive a pianist on a tour around the United States, a trip that includes a foray into the deep south. Given that the driver is white and the pianist is black, you can imagine some of the trouble they’re going to encounter. Based on a true story, the movie proceeds along fairly predictable lines – some comedy, some drama – in the manner of the usual saga involving two disparate characters who have to get along with each other in the face of daunting circumstances. Unless you’re in the mood for a heavy dose of social justice, including multiple iterations of the anti-segregation message, there might not be much reason to see this movie.

Except for one of the stars.

You might not have thought that somebody with a name like Viggo Mortensen would be the ideal choice for the role of the swaggering Italian from the Bronx. But Mr. Mortensen grabs the role and makes a masterpiece of it. There’s not one moment when you don’t catch an intriguing mix of emotions flickering across his face. Take, for instance, the moment at the end of the trip when the pianist tells the driver’s wife: "Thank you for sharing your husband with me." In the subtlest of ways, Mr. Mortensen lets us know that he’s pleased and yet disconcerted, not at all sure what to make of the implications of that remark.

Up against such wonderful acting, it might be difficult for any actor to make a good impression in the role of the pianist. There is an additional problem here in that the musician’s character is prissy and pedantic. Perhaps there are ways to make a character like that seem human and engaging but Mahershala Ali isn’t able to do it. Throughout, he remains cold and aloof, except for the emotional climax of the movie where he gets to let it all hang out in a scene that takes place in the pouring rain.

 

The Overlook (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2006

A doctor is shot to death, presumably by some terrorists who forced him to provide them with radioactive substances he had access to for cancer treatments. Their way of pressuring the doctor was to send him an email photo of his wife tied up and prepared for torture if he didn’t go along with them. Michael Connelly’s star detective, Harry Bosch, is called in to help find the terrorists before they can unleash the lethal material into the public realm.

This is a good mystery, with a surprising twist in the solution. I did find, though, that the character of Bosch seems a bit thinner than in other books about him. We don’t get such a rich sense of his soul. I wonder if this is because the book originated, as the author explains in a note, as a sixteen-part serial for the New York Times.

Because of the implications of terrorism, the federal authorities become involved, as does a special branch of the Los Angeles Police Department. As a result, much of the book involves wrangling among the various law-enforcement agencies about who is in charge of the case. I gather that this sort of trope provides much grist for many mysteries in all media these days.

 

Chicago (Mystery/Crime) by David Mamet, 2018

David Mamet is such an esteemed playwright that I was intrigued to see what kind of novel he might produce. The setting of this one is 1920s Chicago and our protagonist, Mike, is a young newspaper reporter. The atmosphere is riddled with crime and corruption, of course. A murder that touches on Mike’s life in a particular way occurs about half way through the book and he thereafter sets out to find the murderer.

One thing that comes through clearly in this book is that, while dialogue may be Mr. Mamet’s speciality, it comes across much better on stage than in a book. The people in this novel speak in such a slangy, jargonistic way that it’s difficult much of the time to tell what’s going on. One small example: the phrase "trying to" becomes "trine." Other instances: "wasn’t" becomes "wu’nt" and "sitting" becomes "s’inn." In the theatre or in movies, when you can see a person’s facial expressions and body language, this sort of communication is much easier to catch than in a novel. Much of the information about the underworld comes from a woman who runs a brothel but her way of speaking is so cryptic and opaque that not much of her speech is comprehensible to this reader.

On the other hand, Mike and his journalist buddies kibbitz in a way that is, at times, grandiloquent and orotund. (Makes you think they’re trying to ape Stephen Dedalus and his pals in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but Mike & Co. might not have read that book, given that it was only published in the early 1920s.) And Mr. Mamet, as narrator, adopts an old-fashioned, arch literary style:

They had passed through the inadvertencies of constant concern for the bereaved; and time had enforced the dictum never to mention a rope in the house of a hanged man, and there were no new inadvertent, hurtful reminders of Mike’s loss.

Is he trying for an antiquated style of journalism that might have been in vogue in the 1920s? Or is he wanting to set his own eloquence apart from the street talk of most of his characters? Whatever the reason for this style, it has an artificial effect.

Maybe this book is a pleasure for people who love to feel that they’re wallowing in that seedy 1920's Chicago of legend. (The author appears to enjoy it a lot.) Mike’s investigations do involve some clever sleuthing but I was put off by the prevailing tone of hard-nosed cynicism. Everything is necessarily corrupt. Everybody is inevitably lying. The newspapers, the cops, the judges – none of them can be trusted. Go there if you like, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

 

Twisted Prey (Mystery/Crime) by John Sandford, 2018

This Sandford mystery revives the conflict between Senator Porter Smalls and his arch enemy, Taryn Grant, the psychopathic millionaire. Having now become a Senator as well, she’ll stop at nothing when it comes to eliminating anything or anyone that will impede her progress to the Presidency. This involves, in the opening episode of the novel, her hired thugs running Smalls’ vehicle off the road and over a cliff in the hopes of killing him in what would look like an accident. Smalls survives but his girlfriend is killed. Smalls enlists his friend, Lucas Davenport, to find out exactly how and by whom the deed was perpetrated. In the process of Davenport’s investigation, he uncovers unsavoury links between Senator Grant and people who may be selling weapons to terrorists overseas.

Twisted Prey offers all the usual pleasures of a Lucas Davenport mystery. We get the steady, slow interviewing of witnesses and suspects, the gradual build-up of evidence, the neat solutions to puzzling aspects of the case. Page sixty-four notes Davenport’s first diet Coke of the day; several more come throughout the following days, but perhaps the habit is not quite as intense as in other books. We also get a generous sampling of Davenport’s indulgence in sartorial finery. A reference is made to his reading a Carl Hiassen mystery. (Is this sort of thing a courtesy that mystery writers are extending to each other these days.) In a brawl with some goons, Davenport seems to be taking his cues from Jack Reacher, Lee Child’s famous hero.

However, I didn’t find this novel quite as satisfying as some other Davenport outings. There could be several reasons for that. One could be that the people he’s involved with here are mostly upper echelon law enforcement officials. I don’t find them as interesting as the more ordinary folk who people some other Sandford books. Also, the extensive discussion of arms and clandestine manoeuvers in the world of international crime don’t appeal to me as much as the more mundane settings; there’s almost a touch of James Bond in the air.

What puts me off most about the book is the machiavellian character of Taryn Grant. She flashes winning smiles and charm to the media and her fans, but her intentions are dastardly cruel and selfish. I’m willing to admit that there may be some politicians like that. But I don’t want to read about them unless a writer can somehow give me access to a more human side of them.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com