Dilettante's Diary

April 12/06

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Reviewed here: The Marriage of Figaro (Opera Broadcast); Small Craft Warnings (Play Reading); Creative Journeys (Art Show); L'Enfant (Movie); Sovereign: Elizabeth II and the Windsor Dynasty (Biography)

The Marriage of Figaro (Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, CBC Radio Two, April 22/06)

There’s really only one question about opera: which of Mozart’s masterpieces is the greater work – The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni? That’s the question that our kiddies pleaded with us to solve for them every night when we were tucking them into bed. Alas, not being the omniscient paragons they took us for, we never could.

But I’m still trying. I’ve tended to lean towards Figaro because it seems to work better as a piece of theatre. It’s a well-constructed four-act play. So fiendishly well-constructed, in fact, that I never can follow every detail of the plot. Don Giovanni strikes me more as a collection of scenes where people run on, do their bit, and then run off when not required any longer on stage. And yet the music is superb in both pieces.

Last Saturday, I settled down with libretto in hand, hoping to settle the question once and for all. Luckily, the cold, rainy weather meant that you didn’t have to feel guilty about listening to the radio all afternoon instead of going outside to play, or rake the garden or clean the garage.

Following the libretto makes me notice the music more closely and, this time, I was hearing some very interesting things. Take that early passage where Susanna and Marcellina are insulting each other in a deferential way. The music is so elegant and gracious. But our knowing that it’s put to satirical use gives it a particularly delicious spin. Later, all the kafuffle about the locked closet door in the Countess’ room reminded me of the place in Don Giovanni when the duped women, with Don Ottavio’s help, are vocalizing about the vengeance they’re going to visit on the Don. Somehow, though, I can’t help thinking that the comical context of the music in Figaro adds a special delight to it.

Then there’s the moment when the Count thinks he has firmed up a tryst with Susanna. You can feel the Count’s anticipation. The lilting joy is unbridled, innocent, sublime. But we know that he’s being conned and that adds a whole other dimension to the music. Come the scene where Marcellina and Doctor Bartolo are outed as Figaro’s parents, we get a preposterous situation, again with glorious music. Shortly afterwards, the Count and Don Curzio fulminate while the others rhapsodize ecstatically. Somehow, Mozart makes the music work equally well for the opposite emotions.

Something struck me as very odd about the Countess’ heart-breaking lament "Dove Sono". (Not sure about the sequence of the numbers here. My libretto seemed to have mixed up the order of things but I’m not sure because at times my eyes were too teary to see straight.) The lively ending, where the Countess marshals her courage, echoes the military sound that comes at the end of "Non pi andrai", the buffo aria in which Figaro teases Cherubino about being sent off to war. What’s happening here: one of the most poignant moments in the opera recalling one of the most comical ones?

Figaro’s darkest moment – "Aprite un po’ quegli occhi" – has always struck me as a rather unfortunate outburst of misogyny. But this time, I was hearing not so much anger as depression and despair. The orchestral accompaniment is much deeper and darker than I ever realized. It conveys more of a sense of Figaro’s disappointment and unhappiness. Which makes him much less of a chauvinistic boor.

In the lead up to Susanna’s aria in the garden, once again we get the tenderest music put to mischievous purpose. The yearning for union with her lover is palpable in the music and yet it’s all for the sake of tricking poor Figaro who, she knows, is listening. Later, Susanna is beating on Figaro, not knowing that when he pretended to be romancing the countess he had actually recognized that it was Susanna in disguise. She is furious but he is delirious with happiness, having discovered that she wasn’t betraying him with the Count. Ingeniously, the music suits both moods beautifully.

Shortly afterwards, their plans to run away together bring to mind, both linguistically and musically, the scene in which Don Giovanni is seducing Zerbinetta. The first audiences for Figaro can’t have made the connection, given that they hadn’t heard Giovanni yet, but we can. So the innocent joy of the Figaro scene takes on another dimension when we hear it with reference to the sleazy scene in Don Giovanni. Am I suggesting that Mozart’s brain, when it was creating Figaro, subconsciously knew that it would recall for listeners a darker scene that would come later? That would give a whole new meaning to genius, wouldn’t it?

In any case, it seems to me that Mozart pours the very best of himself into his music when it serves the purposes of comedy, ambiguity and satire. That would seem to fit with what we know of his character. In Don Giovanni, you get sublime music but it’s relatively straightforward and unambiguous. Maybe that’s not where Mozart truly lived. Which settles the question. For me. For now.

 

Small Craft Warnings (Play Reading) by Tennessee Williams, Actors’ Repertory Company, directed by Kyra Harper, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, April 23/06

As I admire the work of this young, adventurous company, it didn’t take much persuading to get me to their semi-staged reading of this rarely performed work. (They say it may never have been done before in Toronto.) But it took me a while to warm up to this piece about losers and misfits sitting around a bar on a foggy night on the California coast. A play about a night of heavy drinking isn’t exactly a fresh idea. This one falls back on the device whereby the action stops so that characters can stand in the spotlight and deliver long monologues where they let it all hang out. It generally makes for much better theatre if you let the action, the story and the dialogue reveal the characters. (Mr. Williams might have made something of himself if he’d listened to me.) Also, the character of the bitter, self-hating homosexual seems well past its best-before date.

Still, the play has its merits. In the thought-provoking department, there are a some take-home party favours. Such as the observation that everybody should have at least one beautiful thing in his or her life. And this one: you should try never to loose the capacity to be surprised.

But mostly the play is a vehicle for some great acting. A few of the actors, professional though they are, couldn’t quite bring the text off the page to the point of making it sound like natural speech. No such problem with Lorna Wilson as the loud-mouthed drunk who veers constantly between homicidal rage and maudlin sentiment. If you think of the role as a baseball asking for a home run, I’d say Ms. Wilson slammed it somewhere into the middle of Lake Ontario. Deb Drakeford grew on me as the neurotic, promiscuous waif. After an hour of tears and hysteria, her smiles were thrilling. Matthew Deslippe looked very comfortable in the entertainingly horrible role of the self-appointed super-stud, a toned-down version of the monster he played in ARC’s recent production of Family Stories. I was hoping Ben Clost’s ingenuous Bobby would return in the second act. But I suppose Mr. Williams felt it would spoil the fun if he let us see too much of the one character who wasn’t jaded and disillusioned.

 

Creative Journeys (Paintings and Soapstone Sculptures) by Caryolyne Pascoe and Willi Wakenhut, 1862 Woodview Ave, Pickering, Ont. April 22-23, 29-30.

A person comes away from Carolyne Pascoe’s show of paintings with a dazzled feeling. It isn’t easy to take in the full effect of some 200 pictures (mostly watercolours): landscapes, florals, still lives, seascapes and abstracts. Carolyne, a friend who is now the vice-president of the Toronto Watercolour Society, captures the feel of widely dispersed settings from Canadian Shield cottage country to castles in Europe. Her florals convey a wonderful sense of colour and the play of light and shade. Some of my favourite pictures in the collection are snow scenes of Bark Lake with marvelous shadows conveying a serene, contemplative mood. I also enjoy the energy and tumult of some of the abstracts.

Carolyne’s affable husband Willi gave me a quick course on sandstone sculpture while we were admiring his beautiful works. He says he’s getting requests these days to give lessons in the art. I bet he makes a very good teacher.

 

L’Enfant (Movie) written and directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

If you want to know what happens in this movie, go read other reviews. Dilettante’s Diary will reveal as little as possible of the plot. Not knowing what’s going to happen next is one of the best things about watching this movie. It’s one damn thing after another and you can’t predict one minute into the future.

Let’s just say this much about the story: a young woman, Sonia (Dborah Franois) is just out of hospital with her newborn infant. We're in the Belgian town of Seraing and she’s looking for Bruno, the baby’s father. Bruno (Jrmie Renier) lives on the edge. He’s a petty thief, about twenty-five-years old, who has a couple of fourteen-year-old apprentice thieves working under him. Dickens comes to mind, and not just because of the obvious reference to Fagan. There’s a Dickensian quality to the endless problems that come hurtling down on these people.

But the characters are so contemporary. Bruno and Sonia express their relationship mostly with a lot of hilarious physicality, play-fighting like kids in a schoolyard. So it seems like they love each other. But is Bruno a decent guy or not? When somebody asks if they’re going to raise the baby themselves, Bruno answers, "Of course." Can we count on him to do the right thing? You think you’ve made up your mind on that score and then you’re not so sure.

It’s not that Bruno’s immoral. It’s just that he never thinks about what he’s doing, about other people’s feelings or the consequences of his actions. He just does what he needs to do. This makes for lots of very bad choices, a few good ones. He doesn’t bother to try to charm anybody (including us) – he simply is what he is. Somewhat amazingly, there doesn’t seem to be any hint of drugs in his lifetstyle. Nor is there a cruel bone in his body. He’ll lash out when cornered but otherwise he’s innately polite: excusing himself, apologizing, thanking people like any well-bred young man. But you soon see that the "child" of the title isn’t the newborn baby. When Bruno’s waiting for an assignation, he stomps in a mud puddle, then jumps at a wall to see how high he can place his footprints. A fart by one of his apprentices sends him into spasms of giggles.

Monsieur Renier's performance goes beyond good acting. What we have here is the revelation of a person such as we’ve never seen before. M. Renier is so completely Bruno that you can’t believe that this is an actor who has learned lines and taken direction. In that sense, this seems like a documentary about somebody that the directors found and decided to build a movie on. At the very least, this actor must be some theatre-school-dropout who convinced some pals to write a movie based on his character?

I’ve seen movies with characters whose level of fascination might approach Bruno’s. And movies as good as this one when it comes to giving us the feel of the lives of down-and-outers. But few of those movies have such a compelling narrative drive, with a film-making style to match. This is one of the few cases where I wouldn’t consider it pretentious to comment on the excellent direction of a movie. In one scene, somebody’s getting beat up in a dark alcove and the fact that it’s hard to see what’s happening makes the horror of it all the worse. In another scene, Bruno walks across a large room to meet someone and you’re kept in suspense about who the other person is. He enters some kind of institutional setting and for a minute or so you’re wondering: is this a welfare office, civic hall, police station? Frequently we don’t even get a good look at the faces of minor characters – mugging victims, swindlers and fences. Isn’t that more like life than the movies?

Which is not to say that there aren't some memorable visuals. Without being too obvious about it, the film manages to plant in your mind images that will never go away. Let me tell you, I will never again feel the same way about the sight of a young guy pushing a baby carriage down the street. In the abandoned warehouses, river shacks and sleazy apartments, a kind of beauty sneaks up on you, a beauty that has something to do with the directors' respect and love for these characters in their grubby settings.

Very near the end, the directors give Bruno a moment where we can clearly see him thinking – for the first time – about what to do next. It’s has the shock effect of seeing a pig fly. Then, as with lots of really great movies, the ending comes suddenly and unexpectedly. At first you feel cheated but then you realize that you know enough; you can fill out the rest of the story for yourself. It’s not a fun movie, it’s grim and desperate. But it’s shot-through with such tenderness for people and the messes they make of their lives that it earns the highest rating we’ve ever given a movie in Dilettante’s Diary.

Rating: A minus (where A = "Absolutely fantastic")

 

Sovereign: Elizabeth II and the Windsor Dynasty (Biography) by Roland Flamini, 1991

This biography of the Queen came my way in a gift package of royal bios discarded by the library. Such books are about as trashy as my reading gets. Not to say that the subject matter is low class. It’s my motive for the reading that gives it the feel of slumming. I happen to be one of those dummies who is fascinated by royalty. At times, I try to justify this interest as a philosophical or an anthropological curiosity: why is it that human societies always set up hallowed beings – kings, chiefs, priests, shamans – who are supposed to be above the rest of us? Surely, there can’t be anything inherently special about such individuals. Then why the mystique that clings to them? I think it must be an atavistic thing; humans are wired to revere. Nowadays, most people have out-grown the tendency or transferred their attentions to movie stars. Not me, I’m embarrassed to say.

Let’s face it, the main lure of the subject is the opportunity to fantasize about being royal. How cool must that be to have everybody think you’re special just because of who you are, just by being born, without having to do a damn thing to earn such adulation? W.S. Gilbert captured it perfectly in his song in the Gondoliers "Then One of Us Will Be A Queen". One of the young Venetian maidens marvels at how neat it must be for a Queen when people "will say ‘How clever!’ at whatsoever she condescends to say."

In this book, though, there’s not a hint of fan-magazine gushing. The writing is balanced and sober, with most of the juicy bits well referenced. However, Mr. Flamini has an odd way of handling a story. A former Time correspondent, he tends to jumble the sequence of incidents in an anecdote. It’s like somebody telling the punch-line of a joke first. (Which convinces me that a lot of successful journalists owe much to the editors of the magazines where their material appears.)

But I did pick up several interesting tidbits of history and politics. Beginning with the financial negotiations with the Duke of Windsor who wanted some compensation for handing over a couple of palaces to his brother. A few years later, there was Princess Elizabeth being formally asked, when she found out that she had become the monarch overnight, how she would be known as queen. "Why, by my own name, of course," she replied. It had never occurred to me that there could have been an alternative. I’d forgotten that her two immediate predecessors had chosen names other than their baptismal ones. I remembered all the fuss about the Princess Margaret-Peter Townsend affair when I was a kid, so it was interesting to learn that it was more the old farts in the Tory cabinet than the Royal family who blocked the lovers’ run for happiness. Mr. Flamini shows how the young Queen gradually became comfortable with the father figures who were her first Prime Ministers and how her relationship with Margaret Thatcher got off to a rocky start. Also the political differences between the Queen and Prince Philip: he is apparently more radical when it comes to things like modernizing the royal routine but more of a reactionary than the Queen in matters of what might be called social justice or human rights.

As for the secret at the heart of the whole subject –  what it's like to be royal – I was touched to find that the Queen’s parents tried very hard to establish an affectionate family life with their two daughters. Apparently, they were more successful at it than the Queen herself when she became a parent. I learned how an introverted young woman who was most at home with horses and dogs gradually acquired an easy manner in public, without ever quite shedding a certain reserve. In private she can be lots of fun. When VIP’s visit Balmoral, she likes nothing better than to drive them to a remote cabin on the property where she and Philip whip up a meal of sorts, which ends with Her Majesty up to her elbows in dish water.

Given the publication date of this book, it ends before some of the worst crises of the Queen’s reign. The picture up to the point of her becoming a senior citizen shows a combination of Mother Superior, Movie Star and Tweedy British Matron who has amassed a formidable savvy about world affairs. A woman whom life has landed in very peculiar circumstances, she appears to accept her role with a deep sense of duty. Clearly, she enjoys the perks and privileges. She insists on the respect that traditionally is due to her. But you can’t help wondering if, at times, the formality and the specialness get a trifle boring. Possibly a person in her situation wishes she could have had an ordinary life without all the fuss. For a little while. Now and then. Maybe.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com