Dilettante's Diary

Sept 6/06

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Reviewed here: Beniamino Gigli (on "Espace Musique"); Aloft (Novel); Half Nelson (Movie); Little Miss Sunshine (Movie); The 1950s on CBC Radio (on "Here's To You"); Finding Myself (Novel); Lucia di Lammermoor (Saturday Afternoon at the Opera)

Beniamino Gigli (On "Espace Musique", Radio Canada, Sept 17/06)

One of the most serious problems in my life is that Alain Lefvre often plays his tributes to great singers on Sunday mornings when I’m supposed to be going for my walk. So I was delighted to hear that he was going to be saluting Beniamino Gigli this Sunday at a time when my inner dictator had declared a break from walking. Gigli, although I’m not terribly familiar with his oeuvre, is one of those tenors that I’ve always thought of as being up there at the very top, possibly one of the five  greatest tenors of all time.

The program was not quite what I was expecting – even allowing for the schmaltzy arrangements and inferior recording techniques of the past. The opening aria Celeste Aida seemed iffy in pitch, he was sneaking little breaths in the midst of phrases that most tenors take in one breath and the final high note went through three or four phases before it finally died. But I was impressed with the fact that there was no scooping. Signor Gigli covered the big gaps from low note to high with one clean jump, something that you don’t often hear from tenors. Then came La Donne Mobile: bright, clear sound, perfectly on pitch, with the words beautifully articulated. But there was a tremendous variety of tone; at times he was using an itsy-bitty, almost comical voice. For all I know, the words may justify that but it sounded a lot like hamming to me.

Pretty soon it became obvious that one of Signor Gigli’s claims to fame is the passion that he pours into his singing. Lots of gulps and sobs. I suppose that style made for a dramatic, even charismatic, performance. But when it came to Schubert’s Ave Maria the singer’s eccentricities made me cringe. Quite contrary to the way the piece is sung by every other artist, he was dragging out certain phrases on one syllable, then squeezing in the rest of the syllables at the end of the phrase. I’m in no position to say whether this is the way Schubert intended it to be sung but hearing it Gigli’s way was very unpleasant. Even worse, he was slowing down phrases and inserting little stacatto bursts of "heh...heh...heh" in a way that any respectable singing teacher would squelch in the first lesson. The message that was coming through was, "To hell with Schubert. I’m such a great artist, I can do what I like with the music." Instead of mortis nostrae we were getting the infuriating morti nostrae. It sounded like the singer hadn’t even bothered to learn the words properly. Or maybe he was just carelessly mixing Latin and Italian.

Returning to opera, Signor Gigli turned in a very respectable Nessun Dorma. In fact, all of his Puccini was less annoying than some of the other pieces. Maybe that’s because Puccini allows for more freedom of emotional individuality. And the final selection of Italian folk songs sounded just great. Here I was getting the true beauty of the voice. It made me think of John McCormick’s sweetness with more guts, a darker tone in the lower register. So, yes, Gigli has a lot to offer. But I will certainly hesitate in future before offering knee-jerk homage to the legendary singers of the past.

 

Continuing to plough through the summer's pile of library books:

Aloft (Novel) by Chang-rae Lee, 2004

I made a note to check out this book after hearing the author interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio’s "Writers & Company" some time ago. Can’t remember anything that was said about the book or the author. I assumed the novel would be something strange and esoteric, possibly just because of the author’s name. (He was born in Korea, I find out.) Did he have a soft, mysterious voice? Wasn’t there something special about his Asian take on the American scene?

Well, what’s strange about the book is that it’s not strange at all. In fact, it’s a typical novel about a middle-aged American white male (actually he’s just on the brink of sixty). You could almost think you were in John Updike or Richard Ford territory. The only thing in Aloft relating to the author’s background is the fact that the narrator’s long-dead wife was Asian and so his kids are mixed race. Apart from that, the narrator is a very ordinary Italian American whose family made good in the landscaping business. At times, his tendency towards macho bluster struck me as a little suspicious. Maybe the picture of the author with his delicate, porcelain features helped to sow doubts, but the narrator’s swagger didn’t seem to fit with the thoughtful, sensitive tone of most of his observations.

In his narration, great long sentences spin out, with clause after clause, the cumulative effect having a decidedly ironic effect, often with laconic overtones, occasionally verging on the sardonic. (I think this style owes a lot to Phillip Roth but I could be wrong.) Underlying it all is an implied critique, not to say satire, of contemporary American mores. Sometimes the narrator appears to have very interesting things to say but untangling his thoughts from the onslaught of verbiage is not always easy. And the thoughts must be the main point of the book because the stop-and-start plot lurches along in a not very compelling way. Still, there must have been something good about this book because it kept me reading several nights much later than I intended.

After reading the novel, I googled the author and discovered that he was one of the young writers (under-forty) touted by the New Yorker in a special 1999 issue. His name had faded from memory but not his story. "The Volunteers" was about Asian "comfort women" forced to work as prostitutes to service the troops. Devastating. Unforgettable.

 

Half Nelson (Movie) directed by Ryan Fleck, written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, starring Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps

I was dreading a movie about an idealistic teacher who turns his students’ miserable lives around. No fear. In this movie, it’s the teacher who needs saving. Ryan Gosling plays a cute history teacher who’s losing his battle with cocaine. Nothing wrong with his acting, but I ran out of patience with the guy. You certainly get the feel of what it’s like to be wandering in a druggy fog but a movie that wanders in the same way doesn’t make for very good watching. The one great thing about the movie is Shareeka Epps as the student who takes a special interest in the teacher. She has a self-contained poise and her lustrous eyes hint at a wisdom that goes far beyond her thirteen years.

The movie’s sudden and inconclusive ending strikes just the right note. So in retrospect, I find myself wondering why I disliked this movie so much. Could it be something as simple as the hand-held camera? Presumably it’s supposed to lend a documentary-like feeling of authenticity. For me (apart from inducing a tight knot in the stomach), it has the opposite effect: it draws attention to itself as an intrusive device. Or could it have been something as basic as the lack of plot that bugged me? You keep waiting for something to happen that will lead to something else. But no, it all drifts by in a very slice-of-life sort of way. Occasionally, somebody says something that might be interesting to develop but it drops into the void with barely a ripple.

Maybe it’s that tension between expectations and reality that kept me on edge. Maybe what made me so uncomfortable was never knowing where the movie was going. And maybe that’s my problem with life, not the movie’s. All of which is to say that I now feel a sort of begrudging admiration for the movie even if watching it was not my idea of a good time.

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

 

Little Miss Sunshine (Movie) directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, written by Michael Arndt, starring  Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette, Steve Carell

The previews made it obvious that this one was about a somewhat geeky seven-year-old girl’s participation in beauty pageant. Her family was being dragged along. So I was expecting a gentle domestic comedy, perhaps a bit edgy (a gay uncle had just tried to kill himself). What I wasn’t prepared for was being picked up and whipped around by an emotional cyclone. One minute I’m riding a crest of pure joy, the next minute I’m watching my heart get ripped out and carved up on a platter. In the aftermath, I feel like the traveler who wants to tell you all the highs and lows of his once-in-a-lifetime adventure. The danger is that I’ll say too much and spoil the movie for you. So here’s the deal: go see it yourself and form your own impressions. Then you can read about mine.

Ok. How did you like it? Now, please bear with me.

For the first ten minutes or so, I was bewildered: why did this movie have such a grip on me? It’s like you’re at a party and somebody gives you something to drink (or eat or smoke) and five minutes later you’re wondering: what the hell hit me? Pretty soon (and I congratulate myself on the wisdom of this course of action) I just let go and enjoyed the ride. But looking back, I think it was the authenticity of the characters that packed such a wallop. The family in the movie are all borderline freak cases, they’re hilariously comic and yet they somehow stay just this side of believability. Also, the combination of opposing genres sets up a dynamic tension: comedy and deeply-moving drama. It’s as if you put together the most ridiculously contrived situations in I Love Lucy, the existentialist absurdity of Samuel Beckett and some of the most life-affirming passages of Thornton Wilder (as in Our Town) or Eugene O'Neill (Ah, Wilderness!).

Just a couple of favourite bits, with your permission. The mom is having a meltdown and the sullen teenage son, who has taken a vow of silence, passes a note to the little sister: "Go hug Mom." When a motorcycle cop approaches the family’s van menacingly, the harried dad tells everybody, "Just pretend to be normal." (Not an exact quote as I didn’t have pen and paper handy.) The family members have to push the broken down van to get it going, then they climb in one by one. The gay uncle and the teenage son are still pushing as the van threatens to run away from them. Huffing and puffing to catch up, the uncle says, "Did I happen to mention I’m the foremost Proust scholar in the USA?" And there’s the son’s t-shirt. The first two lines in Gothic script read "Jesus Was...." Nothing is ever said about it but, given camera angles or the boy’s posture, we don’t get to see the third word until about half way through the movie. I can’t think when a one-syllable word had such a droll impact on screen.

All the actors deserve an Academy Award. That’s one award – to be shared by all of them. The ensemble acting is so good that it would be ridiculous to single out any of them or to try to decide who is starring and who is supporting. All the parts, regardless of their size, feel equal. But to be more specific about the individual contributions: Greg Kinnear lets his cuteness wear off and a genuine, rumpled dad shows through, a guy who is as ordinary as the bus driver on your route to work in the morning, even though he harbours a bit of a fanatical obsession. Toni Collette is so the mom next door – a woman who could be sexy and attractive with a bit of effort but who is too worn down by the everyday-ness of family life. As for the grandpa, if you were to read his lines in the script, you would think he was too obnoxious to bear. Alan Arkin not only makes him funny but shows us the glimpses of tenderness that make all the difference. Steve Carell amazed me. His work in The Forty Year Old Virgin made me think he specialized in doing jerks. But he’s completely sympathetic as the sensitive, gay intellectual. Paul Dano, as the mute teenager, has perhaps the hardest role of all, given that he has to do most of it with no words and a dopey facial expression that never changes. But he pulls it off beautifully and manages the most harrowing scene of the movie with an emotional swing that is as terrifying as it is credible.

None of this would work, of course, if it weren’t for the seven-year old girl at the heart of the movie. Abigail Breslin is quite a find. We’ve become accustomed in recent years to child actors who can seem spontaneous and natural on screen. The bad old days of the puppet-like Shirley Temple clones are long gone. But I’ve never seen a child actor who can show the whole range of childish emotion – from silliness to heartbreak – with such gut-wrenching honesty.

Maybe honesty is the word that sums up the whole movie. The hi-jinks are ridiculous but the movie almost never feels fake or contrived. You half dread the big build up to the ending, expecting it to be a bit hokey. And it is. Still, there’s enough originality in it and enough evidence of authentic humanity that it doesn’t feel too much out of sync with the rest of the movie.

When the family’s yellow van finally chugs off into the distance, I’m sitting there yelling at them: Hey, you people, come back! Can’t we spent a few more days together? I want to take another trip in your van. Can we at least make another movie?

Rating: A (for "Absolutely Fantastic")

 

The 1950s on CBC Radio (on "Here’s To You", CBC Radio Two, Sept 6/06)

All serious business had to stop around here when Shelley Solmes, host of "Here’s To You", announced these selections of old radio programs. Who ever expected to hear again the voice of Kate Aitken, she who has ruled our kitchen for these past several decades? Mind you, all we got from her was a cheery pitch for some long-forgotten brand of margarine. Then there was Max Ferguson, doing his Rawhide voice, followed by a sweet soprano putting a social justice spin on Lux laundry soap, in insisting that our clothes "have a right to be white." I was pleased with myself for recognizing the voice of Lester Pearson, yet-to-become Prime Minister, announcing the end of the Korean War as a great success for the UN.

But mostly what these excerpts showed me was that our humour in the 1950s was very bad. Libby Morris having to endure some totally lame joking about nudity. Then an extremely heavy-handed political satire about Socrates, featuring John Drainie. And, of course, Wayne and Shuster. How can we ever have thought those guys were funny? Apart from one genuinely witty line, the rest of this skit was about as clever as what you’d get with a do-it-yourself booklet on how to write humour. I suspect that we admired their Shakespearean parodies just because they had the nerve to do them in those days when Shakespeare was about as much fun to most Canadians as the bible. Not to deny the team’s showmanship, though. They ended with a song "Canada’s the place for me" about two world-travellers who decided to stay home. You might cringe at the soppy patriotism but I think it was intended as somewhat tongue-in-cheek: what was keeping the boys here was their debts. The song had a great up-beat feel to it and even a memorable melody. You could easily imagine them performing it onstage. Does Canada have forgotten treasures of musical theatre buried in the vaults somewhere?

 

Finding Myself (Novel) by Toby Litt, 2003

I nearly gagged on opening this book: lines scratched out and lots of scribbling in the margins. (You wouldn’t believe the indignities that some boors inflict on library books.) What a relief when it turned out that this was the way the book was published. The premise is that what we have here is an author’s journal, which was to provide the basis for a novel, along with her editor’s cuts and comments. (A check on the note inside the cover confirms that this is all fiction.) The writer, a successful author, invited 11 people to spend a month with her in a house by the sea in Britain and she would write a novel about whatever happened. At the end of the journal come letters from the participants, each giving his or her side of the story. An amusing concept.

But the resulting package turned out to be less entertaining than you might think. Although the premise was clever enough to keep me reading (all 423 pages) with very little skipping, the goings-on felt very thin. Maybe this is because we’re getting the author’s notes rather than an actual novel. For most of the first half of this book, nothing much happens. That leads to some wry observations about to what extent an author can manipulate her characters or predict their behaviour. When stuff did start happening in a major way, it struck me as pretty far-fetched. I was reminded of Iris Murdoch's novels where friends gather for great, long gab-fests but none of these characters engaged one's attention the way Ms. Murdoch's do.

The narrator in particular seems a vapid character. She never seems to understand the consequences of her actions, she acts entirely on impulse, she’s constantly posing and bursts into tears when she can’t think of anything else to do. She frequently refers to Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse; in fact this book was going to be called From The Lighthouse. But the comparison unfortunately shows up the barrenness of this novel as compared to the great Virginia’s writing. Maybe there’s some joke there that I’m not getting.

About half way through my reading of the book, I happened to notice, just inside the cover, the note on the author. Toby Litt, considered one of Brit Lit's best young writers, is a man.Could it be this information that undermined the credibility of the female narrator? I would hate to think that any such sexist bias would affect me. Some men – William Trevor, Brian Moore – have written very convincingly from the female point of view. I can accept their "voice appropriation" without qualms. Maybe the narrator of this book is a silly twit regardless of who created her.

 

Lucia Di Lammermoor (By Gaetano Donizetti, Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, CBC Radio Two, September 2, 2006)

Ever since Joan Sutherland’s retirement, I’ve been wondering who would be the next great Lucia. I haven’t heard all the contenders by any means but, judging from this broadcast from Nice, it sounds as though Patrizia Ciofi has a good shot at the title. Not that she, or anybody else, will ever come up to Dame Joan’s standard. We’re not likely ever again to hear the miracle that was her voice: the unbelievable suppleness, the richness of the sound, the effortless coloratura, the high notes that never sounded pinched or strained. Most coloratura sopranos have a sound that could be called bell-like but Dame Joan’s was more like a flute. Ms. Ciofi tends towards the lighter, thinner sound but she has a beautiful pianissimo and a floating coloratura. And it’s nice to hear the words, which wasn’t always the case with Dame Joan. Ms. Ciofi doesn’t have a real trill (as far as I can tell) and her final high note was not very secure but the fans at Nice didn’t seem to care. The only way to describe the audience’s reaction to her mad scene would be pandemonium. It’s a long time since I’ve heard such an uproar in an opera house. To my taste, it was slightly overdone. You get the impression those guys in Nice come to the opera hoping the performance will give them a chance to shout up a storm.

For once, Edgardo’s subsequent death scene didn’t seem anti-climactic. CBC host Howard Dyck referred to it as the "harrowing" conclusion to the opera. That may be going a little far for such a cornball story but I have to admit that Rolando Villazon’s ringing tenor wrung a few shivers out of me. His performance reminded me of Hamlet’s line about the player who can "tear a passion to tatters." (Shades of Franco Corelli.) And it was nice to hear that this hot young tenor studied with none other than Dame Joan.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com