Dilettante's Diary

Feb 16/06

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Reviewed here:  Enemies (Theatre); Inspirations in Acrylic (Art Show); La Traviata (Met Broadcast); The City Of Falling Angels (Non-fiction); Matador (Movie); Cach (Movie); Pavarotti at Seventy (CBC Radio Two); Galileo's Finger (Science)

Enemies (Theatre) by Jason Sherman, adapted from the play by Maxim Gorky, directed by Liza Balkan (Ryerson Theatre, Toronto; to Feb 16)

It’s summer, around 1900, and the beautiful people are sitting around swilling tea. This is one of those sprawling Russian households: the factory owner and his wife, the drunken brother, the factory manager, his brother who is a lawyer, an actress, a niece, a maid, and more. A sycophantic creep arrives to complain that somebody is stealing his cucumbers. Then comes word that the factory employees are threatening to strike at noon. Somebody wonders: could it be the heat that’s causing all this turmoil?

Welcome to the world premiere of Enemies, Jason Sherman’s intriguing adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play, as directed by Liza Balkan. (Liza directed me in my Fringe play My Dying Day a couple of years ago). What we have here is sort of Chekov but with the political issues closer to the surface: less soul-searching and more drum-beating. Mr Sherman and Ms Balkan shepherd the huge cast of Ryerson theatre students through this complex play with panache and style: a great ensemble feel with lots of excellent moments for many actors. The translation manages many witty lines (most of which seemed to be lost on the audience). Not being familiar with the Gorky original, I’m wondering about the ending of this adaptation. Does the volley of gunfire flow dramatically from what came before or is it just an accident that conveniently brings down the curtain?

My only major complaint with the adaptation is a predictable one – the language. From time to time, characters use expressions like "in your face". For me, that has the interesting effect of blurring the chronology, suggesting that these people could be closer to our own times than we might have suspected. But when they start flinging around the "f" word – and worse – the blurring turns into a bomb that destroys any sense of the period. It seems to me that, if these people are going to swear like that, then they should be dressed like us, not like Victorians.

Whatever difficulties the actors may have bringing the piece to life can be blamed primarily on the venue. A play with so much chat, so much domestic to-ing and fro-ing, needs to have moments of intimacy where things seem very real, very natural. It’s not easy for the student actors to create that effect in the cavernous auditorium of Ryerson’s mainstage. Even though the front rows of seats are curtained off to make a cozier ambiance, the acting space is still almost larger than the seating area. Up against that rather formidable obstacle, the cast members uniformly turn in very good work. They handle the tea cups and silverware as if to the manner born. (Few of them, however, are completely innocent of what seems to be the typical young actors' fault these days – rushing their lines and slurring words.) One aspect of the casting did bother me. I wasn’t able to make a clear distinction between the characters of the factory owner and the lawyer. That may not be the fault of the actors – both tall, thin blonde young men with goatees. But the experience showed me that the need to know what type of person you’re watching onstage can become a real craving.

It would be unfair to single out one performance among so many good ones but I cannot resist mentioning one that took my breath away. Laura Burns, as the youngster of the household, comes running in to report that, while she was gathering mushrooms in the woods with a companion, they came around a corner and guess what? They nearly bumped into some real, live workers! And they actually talked to them!!! On Ms. Burns’ entrance, the needle on the production’s voltage meter suddenly leaps into the red zone. Note to any producers or directors out there who are looking for an enthusiastic, totally believable, charming and loveable ingenue: this young woman is so ready.

 

Inspirations in Acrylic: Art Exhibition, Ann Harvey, Homer Watson House and Gallery, Kitchener, Ont (to March 12)

Dry, sunny weather made Sunday a perfect day for a drive to Kitchener to catch the opening of this exciting show by my friend Ann Harvey, the President of the Toronto Watercolour Society. Almost all of Ann’s works in this show, as far as I could tell, are acrylics – large pictures, very free and exuberant, with lots of swirling paint. The great thing about Ann’s work is that you can tell she keeps pushing the envelope, courageously striking out to see what might happen in her work on any given day. Some of the works end up totally abstract, some of them semi. Several of them feature dark vertical shapes like trees in a forest with glowing light – red or orange – coming from behind them. An eery atmosphere often creates an effect like a setting for some mythological drama. One that I particularly liked was a jumble of yellows, oranges and earth tones that somehow managed to evoke an African savannah. In the entrance to the main gallery, there are some of Ann’s smaller, more traditional landscapes, executed in an impressionist manner, but still with great abandon. The picture that my eye kept coming back to was a large abstract in greys, whites and blacks with just a hint of a pinkish hue in places. As I remember the composition, there was some linear stuff happening in the background and some glowing blobs in the foreground. Why did it keep drawing my eye? Maybe it had something to do with the muted colours and the still, contemplative quality of the piece, like a resting spot among the more wildly passionate pictures.

 

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi (CBC Radio Two "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, Feb 11)

La Traviata is the first opera that I listened to completely as a broadcast from the Met. It was back in the 1960s and I carted my spiffy new transistor radio from room to room of my family home, even into the bathroom while I had a bath, so that I could catch every note. The performance starred Anna Moffo as Violetta and Barry Morell as Alfredo. I was already the proud owner of an lp of the highlights of Traviata, starring Ms Moffo. They say now that she was possibly the best Violetta of all time. Her voice was gloriously supple for the coloratura, yet rich and full. On top of that she was very beautiful, so much so that, at one point in her career, she pulled off a credible nude scene in a movie. Not that my transistor conveyed much of that aspect of her allure, but you knew and it helped. So my fondness for Traviata is deeply rooted, you might say.

No more carrying the radio from room to room for this guy. We have so many radios that I can have one tuned to the opera in every room. (You thought you were dealing with some kind of peasant here?) In Saturday's broadcast, it struck me that Angela Gheorghiu's voice did not sound very Italianate, but maybe that’s an easy thing to say, knowing that she’s not Italian. Besides how would I know? Well, I’m still going to make the claim on the basis that her voice was somewhat tighter than the typically florid Italian voice. She omitted the expected high note at the end of "Sempre Libera" but, given that she sang everything else perfectly, I think she was wise to play it safe. As for Jonas  Kaufmann, making his Met debut this year as Alfredo, in "Libiamo" I thought he sounded like the stentorian type of tenor rather than the lyrical, more Jon Vickers, say, than Luciano Pavarotti. After the first act, though – maybe it took him time to warm up – I found his voice much  sweeter in tone. Anthony Michaels-Moore sang very beautifully as Germont, although he sounded very young to me. Still, his scenes in the second act, first with Violetta and then with Alfredo, struck me as possibly the most beautiful of the whole production.

Verdi amazes me. He brings on one fabulous melody after another – lots of composers do that – but he accompanies the tunes with such wonderful rhythms that keep the drama pulsing forward. How on earth does he (with the help of his librettist) manage to make so much happen in four short scenes, each barely more than half an hour? I always end up crying but this time I couldn’t help trying to think of a way out of all the suffering for Violetta. She could simply have told old Germont pre, "Sure, I’ll give up Alfredo so that your girly daughter can marry her prince charming," then continued to meet Alfredo privately, linking up publicly with him again once his sister’s decorous wedding had taken place. But when I pictured myself putting this proposition to Violetta, it was immediately obvious that she was  too honest to agree to the scheme. Damn, you try to help these operatic heroines out a bind and they insist on taking the high road. Bring on the hankies.

The City of Falling Angels (Non-fiction) by John Berendt, 2005

It’s not often that I get to read a book this new. If added to my list of library orders, it  would have taken a couple of years to reach me. But some friends who actually buy books loaned it to me with enthusiastic recommendation.

John Berendt (he’s the author of the well-known Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) travels to Venice in January 1996 in the hopes of getting to know the city in the lull between Christmas and Carnival when it’s not overrun by tourists. Just a couple of days before his arrival, a disastrous fire destroyed the celebrated opera house La Fenice. Mr. Berendt decides to stick around and write a book about Venice – not another art-history-travelogue-guide-book – but a book focussing mainly on the Venetians themselves and what goes on behind the doors of those castles that tourists never get to see into.

What gets the Venetians going, it turns out, is controversy. In every chapter, Mr. Berendt manages to uncover some sort of dispute: legal wrangling about the fire at La Fenice; quarrels about Ezra Pound’s estate; in-fighting in a philanthropy dedicated to saving Venice; bickering over the last will of a homosexual poet who (presumably) hanged himself; the strained relations among the members of a family who stand to lose their palace; the alienation of a famous glass blower from his son....and so on. Mr.Berendt has a great knack for telling a story; he structures his narratives very well and he knows just when to dole out that juicy bit of information that he was withholding. And he conveys the atmosphere of Venice so well that you come away feeling you've been explording those dank canals with Lord Byron, Robert Browining, Henry James, Helena Bonham Carter and all that gang. 

I do have some reservations about the writing, though. The engaging quality of the material makes a somewhat cloying "best seller" style easy enough to forgive. But what of the passages where his interview subjects speak in perfectly-formed sentences, one long paragraph flowing on the heels of another, with a barely an interruption from Mr. Berendt other than the  "And-then-what-happened?" sort of interjection? Are we to believe that the people he spoke to actually talked that way? Even more worrisome to me are the private conversations that he reports. Mr. Berendt can hardly claim that he was a fly on the wall. So what are we to make of his reporting of them? I only raise the question because we all know now, thanks to James Frey, that, when it comes to authors passing off their own inventions as non-fiction, it’s a question of caveat emptor et lector!

 

Matador (Movie) written and directed by Richard Shepard

So why go to see this movie? From what I could gather, the reviews weren’t very good. I wasn’t hearing any recommendations from friends. The story sounds pretty schlocky: Pierce Brosnan plays an assassin who befriends Mr. Nice Guy in the person of Greg Kinnear. But I’d seen the previews. Now, you have to know that, around our house, Mr. Brosnan has reigned supreme – starting with his Remington Steele days and on through his James Bond career – as Mr. Cool-Charm-Personified-Sex-Symbol. But the previews showed him totally transformed into a seedy scumbag. So much so, that at first I couldn’t be sure that it was him. It looked like this movie might be worth checking out just for his acting.

Which it certainly is. Mr. Brosnan is amazing. It’s not often that an actor can make such a sharp turn away from his trademark screen image and still be believable. In fact, I found myself wondering whether the performance would be as enjoyable without our knowing the history of Pierce Brosnan as glamour puss. Maybe an unknown actor could do great work with the role but the fact that we’ve come to expect something very different from Pierce Brosnan gives him lots to play with. Leaving his spit-and-polish in the dressing room, he emerges as a rumpled, lived-in human being with such a foul mouth that half the time he barely seems aware that he’s swearing. He lies so much that he’s probably not sure anymore what’s true and what isn’t. When a little kid bad-mouths him in a park, he bad-mouths the kid back. But somehow, believe it or not, he retains that Brosnan charm and wit that make you like this killer. Maybe the fact that he’s having a nervous breakdown helps.

But the movie as a whole doesn’t quite mange to provide a framework worthy of such a great performance. Mr. Kinnear has the thankless task of acting pretty much as the foil. The story often puts him in contrived situations – belaboured set-ups, cutesy stuff to show his ducky relationship with his wife – and it would be pretty hard for anybody to come through all that seeming like a real person. The script veers wildly – great scenes between the two men contrasted with clunky plot devices – but it delivers a really neat double (or triple?) twist ending that made me willing to consider forgiving everything.

Ratings: for Pierce Brosnan’s acting: A (i.e. "Absolutely fantastic"); for the movie itself: C minus (where C = "certainly worth seeing)

 

Cach (Movie) directed by Michael Haneke

Somebody is sending videos to this smart French couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche). The videos show that their house is being spied on. Violent drawings sometimes accompany the videos. The intrigue drags on and on. Sometimes a silent scene lasts for minutes. Sometimes we don’t realize it’s one of the troubling videos we’re looking at until it fast-forwards or reverses. It’s all very existential and arty. The couple’s surroundings are beautiful, stylish, trs cool. There’s enough mystery to keep us watching – we want to know what’s going on here. But I’m not sure we ever do get an adequate explanation. Let’s just say that, in the end, all the skulduggery and the angst seem a bit exaggerated. (I bet the credits didn’t include a notice to the effect that no chickens were harmed in the making of the movie. I forgot to look.)

None of which would matter if we cared about the couple. I didn’t. I’m tired of the many film versions of the sophisticated French tv host and his gorgeous wife with her glamorous job, their house crammed with high-brow books, where they sit with their witty friends, crumbling their baguettes, sipping their wine and picking at their salads. Maybe this fare is satisfying if you consider yourself a French intellectual. But me, a plain old Canadian, I need something more substantial to chew on.

Rating: E (as in "Eh?", i.e. iffy)

 

Pavarotti: The Legend At Seventy (Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, CBC Radio Two)

It doesn’t quite rank with Mozart’s 250th birthday, but still.... I’m glad that "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera" has decided to honour the big man with this documentary. It aired this past Saturday after the broadcast from the Met and will be continued next Saturday. Various experts and colleagues weigh in with their appreciations of Pavarotti. And there’s a generous sampling from interviews with Signor P. himself. Not to mention many gorgeous excerpts from his recordings. It was particularly interesting to hear his very first recording, a short piece from La Bohme when he was in his 20s. Strange to say, his younger voice lacked some of the brightness and ring that it developed later, although it was tremendously musical and lyrical already in that first recording. Of all the people heard from, I think Rene Flemming said it best when she spoke of the naturalness of Pavarotti’s singing, of the fact that he seemed to stand there and do instinctively and effortlessly what everybody else struggled to achieve.

For me, the way to think of Pavarotti is as a phenomenon of nature. Other tenors may sing very well and very beautifully but nobody is gifted with such an extraordinary voice and ability. It’s not the most beautiful or the sweetest tenor voice ever, but the range, the power, the lyricism and – again – the ease with which he uses it, are incomparable. I hope they include some comments from Joan Sutherland in next Saturday’s segment. There were references this past week to their work together in the bel canto repertoire with conductor Richard Bonynge (her husband). For me, Dame Joan is the other great phenomenon of nature when it comes to singers in our time. I consider myself lucky to have been alive and in my prime when Sutherland and Pavarotti were at the top of their game.

 

Galileo’s Finger: Ten Great Ideas of Science by Peter Atkins, 2003

In high school, some of us in grade twelve were invited to take grade thirteen physics in our lunch hour. This was supposed to be a reward for being good students. It soon turned out to be a hollow honour for me, as I rapidly discovered that I did not care how fast a wooden block slides down an inclined plane. The final exam (remember, these were the dreaded Ontario government’s departmental exams!) was the only time I can remember sitting and staring at an exam paper, paralyzed with panic. Somehow or other, I passed. Word was that the exam was considered so hard that the pass mark was lowered to 35.

Still, I enjoy reading science. The scientific viewpoint offers a refreshing change from the way I usually look at things. The only science I’ve read much of, though, is biology, specifically evolutionary science. So it looked like this book would be a good opportunity to enlarge my outlook. The book came highly recommended by reviewers as a very accessible introduction to some key scientific concepts. No less an eminence than Richard Dawkins proclaims on the cover of the book that author Peter Atkins, Professor of Chemistry and Fellow of Lincoln College at Oxford, deserves the Nobel Prize for literature, because his "literate prose leaves us inspired, fulfilled, enriched, and properly alive."

It left me frustrated, exasperated and humbled. About one third of the way through the book, it became obvious that I was going to understand hardly anything. Here’s an early example of a sentence that made me realize I was losing it: "We should be able to sense that whereas the conservation of momentum stems from the shape of space, the conservation of energy stems from the shape of time." Professor Atkins sounds very nice, he keeps making genial remarks to jolly us along, but he often assumes I have some essential piece of information when I don’t. The problem, I think, is that the reviewers who rave about such clear and inspiring writing are themselves scientists; they’re part of the conversation. If authors and publishers truly want to make works like this accessible, they need input from some pest like me who keeps saying things like "What the hell are you talking about – shape of time?"

But I slogged on through all 363 pages in order to see if my stupidity was breachable. (Towards the end, I was running into so many typos – wrong tenses of verbs, wrong prepositions – that I began to suspect that maybe even the editors and the people who raved about the book hadn’t made it to the finish line.) The first chapter, which dealt with evolution, wasn’t too hard, although, even there, a few problems cropped up. Then came a relatively benign discussion of Gregor Mendel. The real trouble began once we got to DNA. But I screwed up my courage for the chapter on Newtonian physics; my grade thirteen teacher would have been gratified to see me struggling with the basics once again. On to entropy and atoms, with the going getting tougher and tougher, until I sank hopelessly in the bog of quantum mechanics. The chapter on cosmology sparked my imagination with the picture of our dear earth as a speck of dead matter spinning off into nothingness in a few billion years. Oddly, the chapter on mathematics, the final subject treated, was one of the most intriguing for me. I can really get into that philosophical attempt to decide what numbers are and how they work.

Which shows that there are dumb people like me out here who really would like to be able to understand these things. Isn’t there somebody who can write about them in a way that speaks to us?

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com