Dilettante's Diary

May 2/06

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Reviewed here: Art School Confidential (Movie); Slow Man (Novel); United 93 (Movie); Renata Tebaldi (Radio Canada); Friends With Money (Movie); Figaro Live at the Met (Opera); Aquavision 2006 (Toronto Watercolour Society)

Art School Confidential (Movie) directed by Terry Swigoff, written by Daniel Clowes

Here’s this movie about the freaky art school scene. Max Minghella plays an innocent kid who wants to become an artist. The movie also has John Malkovitch, Jim Broadbent and Angelica Huston. Never mind the reviews, it can’t be all bad, can it?

Nearly. The art school freaks are all there. Lots of good points are scored about the art scene. But the directing is so dull and the script so laborious that the piece totally lacks life and spontaneity. It’s as if the edgy material was worked over with a how-to-write-a-script handbook, then assigned it to a director who hadn’t seen a movie since 1955. Pages of awkward exposition kill the actors’ best efforts: "What? You haven’t heard about the campus strangler?" And how about that lingering shot of a burning cigarette dropped on a carpet? Is that scary or what?

This movie keeps on dying, scene by scene. But just before the end, the plot takes an interesting twist and there are a couple of neat surprises. Like a sudden flourish of ecstasy from one of those tubercular operatic heroines just before she drops dead.

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

 

Slow Man (Novel) by J.M. Coetzee, 2005

When it comes to prizes, author J.M. Coetzee hasn’t done too badly: two Bookers and a Nobel. So you figure any book of his should be worth a look. This one tells about Paul Rayment’s recovery from a very bad bicycle accident. The trauma and the aftermath are very convincingly described. The minutiae of the man’s attempts to put together some sort of life read like a male version of Anita Brookner.

Around page 80, however, the book takes a weird, surrealistic turn. Mr. Coetzee starts playing writer-ish tricks to show how brainy he can be. Which proves far less interesting than the quotidian life of Paul. A female character from one of Mr. Coetzee’s previous novels appears in some sort of fairy godmother guise and engages Paul in great long discussions which seldom make an interesting point. Mainly, these flaccid dialogues sabotage the real story. Apparently the lady visitor wants Paul to accept the fact that he’s old. Which really burns me. The guy is sixty!

 

United 93 (Movie) written and directed by Paul Greengrass

Friends raised all kinds of objections to seeing this movie. It would play into the George Bush agenda. It would be exploitative. It comes too soon after the events. It would be an offence to the the victims and their families.

Maybe I’m totally lacking in principle but none of that occurred to me. I simply thought it might be a good movie. I hoped it would tell me something interesting about the plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001. The passengers had learned (from phone calls to friends and family) about the hijacking of the planes that ripped into the World Trade Center. Knowing they were doomed, they wrested control of United 93 from the terrorists so that it would not crash into the urban target it was intended for.

So, was it a good movie? Not in the traditional sense of a drama or a well-told story. You never really get to know the characters. Perhaps that’s a mercy in the case of the people on the plane but it robs you of the cathartic experience. More like a historical re-enactment, even a documentary, the movie does have some artistic merit. When everybody’s coming to work at the airport on that sunny morning, you feel a pang at the relative innocence before the event that would change our view of the world. It’s interesting to see how confusing everything could be to the authorities on the ground who were supposed to know what was happening in the skies. And we’re reminded that sometimes humans act bravely in difficult circumstances.

But watching the movie turned out to be much harder than I was expecting. Not because of the content. The wild gyration of the camera made me very ill. The intention was to create the sense of chaos as the camera swooped and swung from various air traffic control centers, to an air force command headquarters and the airplane itself. But the result was that my head was spinning. My stomach too. It got to the point that I could only take a peek at the screen now and then. Puleeese! Let’s have an addition to the list of warnings about sex, nudity, violence, swearing and drug abuse in movies: HAND HELD CAMERA!

Rating: D (i.e. "Divided" = some good, some bad)

 

Renata Tebaldi (Espace Musique, Radio Canada, Sunday, May 7/06)

Once again, Alain Lefvre wrecked my Sunday morning plans. The ravine was beckoning for a lovely spring hike and some piano practice was supposed to happen beforehand. But I turned on Radio Canada and found that M. Lefvre was playing a tribute to the great Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi. When you get a chance to listen to something like that, you simply have to listen.

In the early 1960s, when I was just beginning to love opera, Time magazine published an article proclaiming the reigning prima donnas of the day (one didn’t use the word "diva" then): Renata Tebaldi, Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price and Eileen Farrell. Shortly afterwards, I happened, by a fluke, to meet Eileen Farrell in her dressing room at the Masonic Temple in Detroit during the Met's spring tour. That was the first time I'd attended an opera. Within a few years, I heard Sutherland and Price, got their autographs, did the stage door johnnie thing and became a great fan of both of them. I did eventually hear Nilsson live too. Tebaldi was the only one I never heard in person and I never acquired much familiarity with her art.

When I tuned in, M. Lefvre was playing Tebaldi in Puccini arias. The timbre of the voice is not quite as beautiful as I would like. There’s a slight shrillness, compared to some of my favourites but it’s very dramatic and emotional. She uses it so beautifully and expressively. It’s hard to imagine anybody getting any more voltage out of the explosive big aria from Turandot. M. Lefvre said such singing is rarement endendu (rarely heard) these days – jamais would be more like it!

Then we got two Verdi arias. First, "Ritorna Vincitor" from Aida. For this aria, I prefer Leontyne Price’s darker, richer sound but Tebaldi certainly doesn’t have to apologize to anybody for her Verdi singing. Then came the Willow Song from Otello. For my money, you can’t do better than Sutherland when it comes to willowy. That climax where Desdemona cries out, double forte, "O, Emilia addio!" is one of the five great hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments in all of opera. Ms. Tebaldi made the magic happen. If I remember correctly, though, Sutherland does it without breaking for breath as Tebaldi does and, for me, that makes La Stupenda’s performance just a little more stupendous.

On a welcome note, from a personal point of view, M. Lefvre ended the segment with an aria of Santuzza's from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. That was the role Eileen Farrell was singing when I met her. Hearing a sample of Ms. Tebaldi’s version of the role not only brought back fond memories. It made me feel that I was finally beginning to make up for a huge lacuna in my appreciation of operatic splendour. All of which is to say: here’s hoping my piano teacher accepts my excuse for not practising.

 

Friends With Money (Movie) written and directed by Nicole Holofcener

All the way home, I was examining my conscience to see if I was being too hard on this movie. I had tried to be ok with the fact that it was pretty much a chick flick: four women gossiping about each others’ problems. Never mind that when they were tossing names around, I seldom knew who they were talking about. That could be because the characters weren’t interesting enough for their names to stick with me. I tried to endure the set pieces like the dinner party where the camera swings nauseatingly from one character to another as they all show us how witty they are. I was even willing to accept the fairy tale ending in the spirit of goodwill.

If only any of the people had seemed real. To make a cozy, chatty movie like this work, you have to have very believable characters that we can identify with. These women swear a lot and talk about sex to prove how contemporary they are but none of the shtick convinced me. Jennifer Aniston as a high school teacher turned cleaning lady who can’t find a decent boyfriend? Gimme a break. Frances McDormand plays a designer whose dresses sell for truckloads of cash but who refuses to wash her hair. For no reason that we can ever discern, she has a mad-on against the world, causing her to do things like bumping into a store window and breaking her nose. Catherine Keener’s character keeps stubbing her toe. What pathetic attempts to give characters some individuality. The Keener character is presumably smart enough to write scripts but it never occurs to her that her house renovations might affect someone’s view. On the other hand, there’s no reason for her neighbours to treat the bit of fuss caused by the renvoations like the testing of nuclear warheads in the subdivision. Get real people!

It’s as if the writer/director knows more about life in air-conditioned screening rooms than in the world outside. Not that there aren’t some good bits in the movie. A snotty salesman at a cosmetics counter makes a hilarious impression in just a couple of lines. Some scuttlebutt about somebody’s sexual orientation is handled with stylish ambiguity. One of Jennifer Aniston’s scum bag boyfriends steals the show for me. He's so awful that you can sit back and enjoy him without feeling guilty about not being able to like him – which I couldn’t do in the case of the ditzy women.

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

 

The Marriage of Figaro Opera, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, production by Jonathan Miller (Live at the Metropolitan Opera, Thursday, April 28, 2006)

At the end of the broadcast of Figaro on Saturday, April 22 (see Dilettante’s Diary review on the page dated April 12/06), host Margaret Juntwait announced that the season’s final performance of the piece would be on Thursday, the 28th. I hadn’t yet got off my butt to honour this year’s 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, so I spent a couple of days scrambling to make arrangements and flew off to New York to catch the show.

[Here follows my review of the performance;  for the story of my Manhattan experience click on "Me In Manhattan" in the navigation bar]

It had been 29 years since I last visited the Met. It’s not hard to remember the year because my wife was seven-months pregnant with our first child then. A guy handing out flyers in Times Square, which was the epitome of sleaze then, said to her, "I hope it’s a boy." (It was.) My impression was that the Met had changed somewhat since then. I didn’t remember it as being a horseshoe-shaped house with narrow balconies stacked up in the European style. Mind you, we’d been seated up in the gods where our perspective was somewhat skewed. I didn’t remember the gold and red motif either. But the ushers that I consulted were too young to be able to say whether the house had been renovated in the last 30 years.

This time, I took care to get the best seat possible: thirteen rows from the front, fairly close to the centre. That seemed pretty far back, but even so, I was less than half the distance from the stage to the back of the hall. At the sound of the beloved overture welling up from the unseen pit, my first thought was to wonder what Mozart would have made of it. Would he have been pleased? Amazed? Bewildered? Disconcerted? Such a lush, velvety stereo sound seeming to seep out of the surrounding air couldn’t have been anything like what he’d have been used to in the opera houses of his day.

Hearing the singers (unamplified, thank goodness) in a vast space like the Met is very different from listening to a CD with earphones or watching a DVD. Even though I’d studied the libretto carefully on the flight, it was impossible to catch many of the words in the recitative because it passed so quickly and because of the distance it had to travel. For the first act, I avoided the Met Titles, wanting to keep testing my ability to catch the Italian. I’d heard that the Met system used a small screen on the back of the seat in front of you. The screens are actually mounted on a velvet-covered bar that runs the length of the row, just above the tops of the seats. The screens are cleverly positioned – I guess it’s the science of optics – so that, unless you’re right in front of it, the screen looks dark even when it’s on. That way, you’re not distracted by your neighbours’ screens. As for the screens in the rows in front of you, the illumination is low enough that you barely notice them. In the second act, I started using the screen sporadically. It bothered me a bit at first, having to change focus from the screen (reading glasses required) to the stage, but eventually I got the hang of it. It was obvious that many people were relying on the screens because often the laugh came from the audience before the performer had sung the line.

In the broadcast, John Relyea had struck me as a very dark-sounding Figaro, one that no Count in his right mind would trifle with. But in person, Mr. Relyea has a youthful, lithe look. Still, he’s not the cuddly, funny sort of Figaro. Rather dignified on the whole, like a Count in training. Andrea Rost’s voice, as heard in the broadcast, had struck me as a bit thin for the ideal Susanna. The live appearance confirmed that impression, although she sang very beautifully.

For me, the show really started to happen when Alice Coote came bounding on as Cherubino. Her rich mezzo voice filled the hall and reached right to the heart. But it was her acting that stunned me. This was no female singer dressing up and pretending to be a boy. This was a genuine actress who had mastered every gesture, every nuance of her teenage male character. Never for a moment did I doubt that this was this was a love-struck adolescent boy. Her sculpted features, including a good jaw, helped. At one point, there was even a slight irregularity in her voice – almost the suggestion of a squeak. Far from seeming like a fault in her singing, this struck just the right note: yes, exactly, a teen-age boy whose voice is threatening to change any minute.

When the Count came on, I realized that here was an alpha male who might very well take on as formidable a Figaro as Mr. Relyea. John Hancock (the only cast member who wasn’t in the Saturday broadcast) must be something of a giant. About six-foot-six, he towered over the rest of the cast. In a dressing gown, with his shoulder length hair flowing loose, a billowing silky shirt open on his chest, you got the impression of an 18th century pop singer on the prowl. Ladies of the court run for your lives. For my taste, though, Mr. Hancock resorted to a bit too much stage-villain grimacing and sneering.

The singing was uniformly excellent. The Countess’ two killer arias – often the make or break aspects of the opera – were sung flawlessly by Soile Isokoski. What I really want to talk about, though, is the staging and the design of the production.

First the look. The condition of the palace clearly reflected the state of the owners’ marriage. Tall, drafty rooms with sunlight filtering through dusty windows where you could practically smell the mildew. Everything with a greyish-pinkish cast. Even the Countess’ bedroom, which could have been a gem given its architectural merits, looked barren and damp. You got the impression that the castle contained abandoned and forgotten rooms that the owners barely knew of. So help me, when the shenanigans began to unfold, I thought of some of the awful rumors we’ve heard in recent years about the goings-on in the households of Britain’s royal family. You got the feeling that stuff like that’s bound to happen in such cavernous abodes with so many hiding places.

The staging offered some delightful touches. Some of them may be standard practice now, for all I know, but they fascinated me. For instance, Don Basilio – the wonderful David Cangelosi in a red wig and purple suit – discovered that Cherubino was hiding under the sheet in the armchair and he (Basilio) kept trying, with gesticulating and winking, to warn the Count who was in the process of revealing his designs on Susanna. At another point, Susanna was sitting in the same chair, with Figaro on her lap. He completely shielded her from our view, except for her feet which were vigorously beating time to the music.

A more serious note was struck just before the Countess’  plaintive "Porgi Amor". It’s usually sung all alone in her bedroom. But this time, the door opens and in runs a little girl who gets a big hug, followed by a nurse carrying an infant. The Countess cradles the baby in her arms for a few seconds before the visitors leave. Then she sings. Who ever thought that the Count and Countess had kids? That, as they say, puts a "whole 'nother" spin on things.

The scene where Cherubino sings the love song he has composed, "Voi che sapete", started with a lot of teasing while the Countess looked over the words of the song on a piece of paper. With much awkward hemming and hawing, Cherubino prepared to sing, but once he really got into the song, the Countess’ expression gradually became more serious, to the point that she was clearly in a trance and the paper with the text on it fluttered from her hand to the floor.

A couple of things were overdone, to my taste. Marcellina, Wendy White, used her fan far too much. Actors who have a tendency to ham should never be given a fan as a prop because they’ll underline every emotion with a frantic flurry of fanning. (However, I did forgive Ms. White a lot when, at the curtain call, she proved herself a good sport by bouncing out in a jolly way, skipping down the steps of the castle while holding her skirts above her knees.) The character of the gardener (Patrick Carfizzi) was also far too broad. He was made to seem so drunk that he had to crawl around the stage much of the time. I didn’t see the point of making him ludicruously unbelievable but that was really the only major flaw in a production notable for its restraint and realism.

Take the entrance of the chorus. Instead of charging in on cue like a bunch of trained circus animals, the peasants entered the palace room slowly and tentatively, a few at a time – just like real people would do. From what I’ve seen of DVDs, such naturalism may be a trademark of Met productions. Another example – both the Count and the Countess sang most of their two big arias sitting. Difficult for a singer but far more realistic human behaviour than strutting around the set. In each case, they only got to their feet near the end of the aria when the music sounded a call to arms.

Speaking of such motifs, the only aspect of the naturalism that disappointed was Figaro’s "Non pi andrai" where he teases Cherubino about being sent off to join the military. The music begs for some stomping around, a broom in hand to simulate a rifle, a pot on the head for a helmet – as is usually done. In this case, the two of them fiddled a bit with a gun-like stick but they didn’t have a whole lot of fun with the aria. It was almost as if the director (Robin Guarino) couldn’t think of anything better than the usual shtick so he took a pass on the opportunity.

The most striking staging comes near the end. Instead of setting Barbarina’s lament about the lost pin in the garden at the beginning of the fourth act, she sang it while looking for the pin in the hall where she’d lost it during the third act – which made eminent good sense to me. Then the set started to turn and we got the outdoor setting for the fourth act. But no leafy bower here. The set now consisted of soaring, somewhat cockeyed palace walls enclosing a piazza. No dressing of the set at all except for the lighting.While spying on Susanna, thinking that her lovely "Deh vieni, non tardar" was all about her love for the Count, Figaro was standing flat against the wall of a wing at one side of the piazza. A moonlight effect cast a long shadow from his head onto the wall. Standing stiffly there, he looked like some romantic revolutionary before the firing squad. Through the whole aria, he changed position only minutely, ending up with his head bowed against the wall. The effect of his anguish was exquisite. All the more so, because Susanna, as she finished the aria, was sitting on the steps at right angles from where he was standing. She was virtually at his feet, reaching her hand up so that she was nearly touching her suffering lover just around the corner from her. And, at this point, the look on her face clearly said that she was tired of the game of pretending to love the Count and that she really wanted to express her love for Figaro.

During the two intermissions, I enjoyed roaming the various lobbies, even though I had to crawl over several elderly people each time I came back to my seat. It was a perfect spring night, so many beautiful people, flutes of champagne in hand, were strolling on the balcony overlooking the plashing fountains in the plaza. Virtually any state of dress appeared to be acceptable. Many of the older men in business suits, but not all of them. The women somewhat more dressy in most cases. But lots of young people in jeans and wind breakers. One little man sporting a soft fedora and a bow tie looked like some race track tout from a 1930s movie but I see in the weekend’s Globe and Mail that such hats are the height of cool now. A tall, husky man in his 30s was bedecked in what I took to be some sort of formal military attire, possibly navy, with a starched white shirt, cummerbund and rows of medals on the breast of his jacket.

It surprised me that there wasn’t much vocal acclaim from the audience after the big arias. On the broadcasts, you expect to hear all those "Bravos" and "Bravas" from the guys in the upper balconies. But, come the curtain call last Thursday, they really let loose and I got my money’s worth of cheering. Even the old guy next to me was yelling his head off.

Not sure about this, because I haven’t attended the opera in Toronto much in recent years, but it struck me that there were a lot more young adults in the New York audience. You got the feeling that, for a lot of  Manhattanites in their 30s’, this was just something that they do once a month or so – an evening at the opera. Like it’s a normal part of life in Manhattan, not something freakishly artsy. And, judging from the smiles afterwards, as we flowed out the doors and across the plaza towards our various destinations, everybody seemed to have had a really good time.

Would it be too totally Canadian of me to admit to a small quibble, a small reservation in my own exhilaration? Magnificent as the production was, I came away feeling that it all seemed a bit distant, a bit like looking at a museum piece behind a glass case. I wonder if it’s really possible in such a cavernous space to get the best of what is essentially a drawing-room comedy? In the 1960s, the Stratford Festival (Ontario) produced Figaro two years in a row at the comparatively intimate Avon Theatre. For both productions, I sat about five rows from the front and I felt totally caught up in every moment of the show. That is when I fell in love with the opera. Not long after, I saw a production in London, Ont., in a church, where the stage was about the size of a modest living room. The chorus consisted of two women. It worked for me. Ah well, those memories will keep me coming back time and again whether to a temple of art like the Met or the auditorium of the neighbourhood high school.

 

Aquavision 2006 (Toronto Watercolour Society), Juried by Marc Gagnon and Marlene Madole, Ode to Joy Gallery, 65 Port Street, Unit A, Mississauga, until May 12

As usual in the case of an art show in which we are involved, we have asked our dear Aunt Agnes McGrath to provide a review. This is for the purpose of maintaining our scrupulous objectivity about all such matters. Here follows Aunt Agnes' review, without editing or revision on our part.

Well, I was very happy to attend this lovely show  but once I got there, it was immediately obvious why my nephew Patrick had asked me to take on this assignment. Presumably he wants to make sure that you know he won a prize for his painting "Joy of Junk". The last time he won a prize (see Dilettante's Diary, Nov 25/05), I expressed some reservations about the subject matter -- an untidy corner of his workroom. But this time he has really gone too far. He is subjecting viewers to a "painting" of a complete mess in a dark corner of his basement. Why a so-called artist would focus on such subject matter is beyond me. And what is to become of art in this country if jurors are going to award a prize to such a thing? We can only hope that Patrick gives up his attempts to play Michaelangelo and devotes the rest of his time on this earth to something useful like gardening or cooking.

But there are a lot of very beautiful pictures in the show. (Which makes the award to Patrick's "Joy of Junk" all the more astonishing.) I particularly love the abstracts by Ann Harvey, Shirley Heard, Ruth Seidman and Rina Gottesman. Margaret Roseman, as usual, has painted some very beautiful vegetation and Gill Cameron, the first-prize winner, truly deserves the accclaim for her fresh, lively depiction of Georgian Bay scenery. Alejandro Rabazo's bicycle shadows on a brick walkway very much merits the prize received. So does Elisabeth Gibson's evocative rendering of the Algonquin landscape of Northern Ontario. Pam Portanier-Tong's snow scene has a peaceful feel to it, as does Jake Mol's woodland setting, and Virginia May's flowers are, as always, stunning.

So, don't let my disappointment in my nephew's contribution discourage you from seeing this show. It's well worth the trip to pretty Port Credit. The Ode To Joy Gallery sits right at the water's edge with a view of Lake Ontario. All you do is take the QEW west, get off at Hurontario Street (exit 132) and head straight south, right to the lake. I was able to drive it myself without any difficulty -- which proves that I still know a thing or two about which way is up when it comes to directions -- and painting!

 

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com