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July 21/08

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. The most recent reveiws appear towards the top of the page.
 
Reviewed here: The Marriage of Figaro (Royal Opera HD Broacast); Mamma Mia! (Movie); When You Are Engulfed in Flames (Humour); I Am America (And So Can You!) (Humour)

The Marriage of Figaro (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; conducted by Antonio Papanno stage direction by David McVicar; starring Erwin Schrott, Miah Persson, Gerald Finley, Dorothea Rschmann, Rinat Shaham; The Royal Opera HD Broadcast; July 26, 2008

You should always go to see The Marriage of Figaro. You never know how many more chances life may offer you and, heaven knows, you need as many as you can get. Since no one production can ever convey all the marvels of this work of genius, you’ve got to keep sampling different ones. Then maybe, by putting together aspects from each of them, you’ll get some idea of what Mozart had in mind.

But I had additional reasons for attending this one. In the first place, I’ve long wanted to witness the great Canadian baritone Gerald Finley in a production. In recordings and on radio, his voice strikes me as the brightest and most powerful baritone in the business but I’ve never seen him on stage. Also, I wanted to compare this HD broadcast from the Royal Opera to the live HD broadcasts from the Met in the last two years.

Well, this experience wasn’t nearly as exciting as the Met broadcasts, not just because it wasn’t live, but mainly because we didn’t get the fabulous intermission features that make the Met shows so much fun. Still, there was lots of superb stuff happening in the Royal Opera’s Figaro. For instance, a kind of ballet or dumb show during the overture: the Count’s servants scurrying about and flirting, being scolded by the head housekeeper, even a burst of jock behaviour from the male servants where they pulled down Figaro’s pants and spanked him in honour of his upcoming nuptials. Sometimes the bursts of action were ideally timed to the music, although some of the nonsense looked a bit silly, as those stagey antics are inclined to.

The chorus was imaginatively used throughout. Almost every time anybody opened a door, a cluster of embarrassed servants was caught listening at the keyhole. In this respect and in various directions for the principals, it seemed that stage director David McVicar was determined to show us some different touches in this production. In the very first scene we usually get Figaro measuring the length and width of the bridal chamber. But here, he's measuring the bed, then Susanna's body! Another innovation was Cherubino’s getting dressed as a woman behind a screen instead of before our eyes. This made it hard for Susanna to sing out to us while instructing him, but it provided the slightly risqu touch of the two women trying to get peeks at him in his state of undress. When it came to the discovery of Susanna in the closet, instead of the usual dramatic business of the Count and Countess standing there and summoning her forth, she emerged from the closet while they weren’t looking. In a similar spirit, the entry of the Countess for the forgiveness scene in the grand finale was under-stated rather than highlighted; she was there on stage almost before you noticed. The lack of any marching or dancing during the third act ceremony where Susanna slips the note to the count was especially disappointing. Granted, it was more plausible to have everybody milling around higgledy-piggledy but the music, to my ears, demands choreography at that point.

Perhaps most of these directorial touches were justifiable in the spirit of naturalism. The one truly bad choice in terms of staging, in my opinion, was anything but natural. During the final moments of the Count’s great aria "Hai gi vinta la causa", the director had the rest of the principals file on and watch him. To me, this distracted greatly from the effect of what should be a very private descent into a hell of bad temper on the part of the Count. The presence of the observers might have made sense if they had some purpose in being there at the end of the aria but, no, they simply trooped off stage when he did. Since this is the only aria where the Count gets to show his vocal pyrotechnics, it was perhaps because of the intrusion of the onlookers that Gerald Finley’s singing didn’t have quite the impact that I was expecting. He sang beautifully throughout but I found his acting a bit hammy. It seemed that he was scowling and sneering too much to compensate for the fact that his face is, let’s face it, somewhat bland, almost angelic looking – what you might call the mug of a typical Canadian nice guy.

It could be that the staging also diminished somewhat the impression of Miah Persson as Susanna. While she sings beautifully and conveys a very natual, wholesome charm that’s perfect for the part, she had to sing her best aria – "Deh vieni, non tardar"– crouched on her knees behind a garden bench. Again, a very logical position, given the hide-and-seek farce that’s going on, but not one that lets a singer make the best of the piece, no matter how gloriously she sings.

I found Dorothea Rschmann’s acting as the Countess over-wrought, especially the moping and hand-wringing when she first appears. Nor did her stature make a very favourable impression: short and stout. But when she opened her mouth to sing, all was forgiven. Mozart could not have asked for a more perfect production of his vocal line. You don’t often get it this pure and unsullied by extraneous vocal mannerisms. And eventually, thanks to some glowing moments, Ms. Rschmann’s characterization won me over.

Rinat Shaham, as Cherubino, managed to look like a very plausible teenage boy who is both vulnerable and horny. But, more importantly, her singing was divine. The aria "Voi che sapete" is the acid test for Cherubinos. One of the most gorgeous little pieces ever composed, it requires great skill to be delivered simply without wrecking its exquisite charm. Ms. Shaham passed the test and then some, conveying just the right balance between a boy’s breathy nervousness and a passion that overtakes him.

It was interesting to hear two arias in the last act that are, I think, usually omitted. Both Graciela Araya (Marcellina) and Philip Langridge (Don Basilio) made the most of their rare moments to shine. Among the other singers of the comic parts, it was only Jonathan Veira (Bartolo) who failed to make the kind of impression one hoped for. Perhaps the orchestra was too loud – maybe that was the fault of the people responsible for the sound settings in the movie theatre – but his voice could not be heard very well, which robbed his big vengeance aria of some of its power.

As for Erwin Schrott, there is one word to sum up his effect in the role of Figaro: astounding. His bass-baritone is unbelievable: inexhaustible riches at the bottom and golden warmth everywhere else. On top of which, there are his hunky good looks and his charisma. Plus his acting. In the first act especially, he swings through a range of subtlety and nuance that you seldom get on an opera stage. He continually surprised me with flashes of very real, believable emotion that seemed to have nothing to do with the usual operatic posturing. With most Figaro’s, the last act tirade against women ("Aprite un po' quelgi ochi") becomes an unfortunate sexist lapse that makes you squirm. But the heartache and bewilderment in Mr. Schrott’s singing of the aria brought tears to my eyes.

 

Mamma Mia! (Movie) music by Stig Anderson, Benny Andersson and Bjrn Ulvaeus; written by Catherine Johnson; directed by Phyllida Lloyd; starring Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgrd, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Dominic Cooper

Pop music, as you may have noticed, isn’t one of our specialities here at Dilettante’s Diary. But I have had some exposure to the music of the group ABBA. In 1988-89, when we lived in a village in the south of France, an early morning bus took shoppers and high school students to Aix-en-Provence. The bus driver regularly played some bouncy music on the pa system to help us wake up. I eventually learned that it was the music of ABBA. Pleasant as the music was, however, I didn’t attend the stage production of Mamma Mia! – which is based on ABBA songs – during the century or so that it was playing in Toronto. Friends and neighbours who attended multiple times warned me that it was one of those over-miked productions that would have me crawling under the seat for relief. Still, the previews for this movie version looked promising.

On arriving at the theatre, however, we suddenly remembered that we don’t go to really popular movies much, especially on Saturday afternoons on opening weekend. Although we had shown up ten minutes early, there was only limited seating available by the time the lineup inched us up to the box office. That meant that, once in the auditorium, we were forced to push some elderly and infirm patrons out of the way to get the acceptable remaining seats. We’re nice people here and we hate it when we’re forced to do that sort of thing, so the whole endeavour was starting to look like a bad idea.

Even more so, when we found ourselves crammed in among some very young teenage girls who talked all through the advertisements and the previews. I kept wanting to explain to them that watching a movie in the theatre isn’t the same as lounging around the tv with your friends at home. The only thing that stopped me was an inability to think of a way of presenting my point that would not result in their seeing me as a hopeless geezer. Once the movie proper got going, it looked like their constant laughter was going to sabotage what little prospect was left of my enjoying the movie. These were the kind of girls who think it’s hilarious when a woman disembarking from a boat gets her high heel caught in the planks of a dock. When the young heroine in the movie is leading some men to their accommodation through a secret underground route, these young girls laughed constantly for the minute or so of ducking under beams and stumbling around dark corners.

You probably know the plot pretty well, so we won’t say much about it here. In fact, you’re better off if, like me, you know almost nothing about it beforehand. All we’ll say is that the action takes place on a Greek island where a young woman (Amanda Seyfried) and her unmarried mother (Meryl Streep) run a dilapidated hotel. The girl has never known who her father is. But now, without her mother knowing it, the girl has invited to her wedding the three men who, she figures, are the likeliest candidates for her father (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgrd). (See, mom was one of those free-love hippies.) In the first few minutes, you have to sit through some clunky expository dialogue, the likes of which you probably haven’t heard since the last church basement show you attended. Not that it matters much. In the style of the schlocky musicals, the story serves mainly as a framework to get you from song to song.

As for those songs and production numbers – they lift you out of your seat and take you on a jet propelled pleasure ride that’ll make you forget all the fuss getting into the theatre, the annoying kids sitting nearby, the cost of your ticket and how you're going to explain to your accountant about those undeclared T5 forms that turned up in a back drawer. In fact, the only problems that came to my mind during the movie were ones that it was a pleasure to mull over. Like: how the hell did they film this thing? The musical routines are fantastically complicated, roaming over hill and dale, across the rocks and into the water, with aerial shots, extremely elaborate choreography, hundreds of reaction shots in every number. Moses shepherding the Israelites across the Red Sea would be a cinch, by comparison.

To put it bluntly, the big "Dancing Queen" number is probably the most joyful thing ever seen on screen. One of the things that makes it so much fun is that the massive chorus includes lots of very ordinary looking singers and dancers, even some distinctly peasant types, some of whom have delightful bits of small business, giving the feel that the whole of humanity has joined in this exuberant celebration. But the most striking thing about the whole enterprise is that the lead singers are three middle-aged women: Meryl Streep and her two buddies (Julie Walters and Christine Baranski). When have three mature women ever had such glitzy starring roles as torchy sex symbols (other than in opera)? Part of what makes their act so charming is the inclusion of slightly amateurish details. When the three pals get up to perform their famous song and dance from the old days, there’s just a moment’s delay while Ms. Streep gives the signal to a helper to start the tape recorder.

This movie proves beyond a doubt that Ms. Streep truly is a phenomenon. We already knew that she was one of our leading dramatic actresses. Nobody can show a raw truth, a glimpse into unsuspected realms of human-ness, better than she can. (Witness her meltdown in the kitchen in the movie The Hours.) But here she proves that she’s just as good as a song-and-dance girl. We got a hint of her musical abilities in her duets with Lilly Tomlin in The Prairie Home Companion but here she goes the full way, belting it out on top of a mountain with a gusto that could match Julie Andrews any day. Not that there would be any competition in the acting department. In the midst of all the fluff of Mamma Mia!, Ms. Streep manages to hit us square between the eyes with a few moments of genuine pathos.

Which is not to say that there’s much occasion for teary-eyed sympathy. It’s all about having a really great time. So much so, that the presence of those young teenage girls turned out to be part of the pleasure. Their burbling laughter carried me along and made the experience much better. Like having kids around on Christmas morning.

Rating – Setting aside our usual highbrow artistic standards and assessing this movie simply on the basis of the enjoyment quotient, and in terms of its perfection as what it is, we give Mamma Mia! our highest rating: A (i.e. "Absolutely fabulous")

 

When You Are Engulfed In Flames (Humour) by David Sedaris, 2008

I declare myself an ardent David Sedaris fan. I love what he does. Some of his oeuvre is as funny as anything written in English. (See Dilettante's Diary Feb 16/07 for a review of Me Talk Pretty One Day and May 18/08 for a review of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Barrel Fever.) But it would be evading the truth not to admit that his more recent work is getting less and less funny. In fact, some of it isn’t amusing at all. Interesting, yes, and strange, but not necessarily funny.

Perhaps that’s because a shift seems to be taking place in the persona that we have come to know as David Sedaris. Most of Mr. Sedaris’s hilarious material until now has portrayed him as either an odd kid in a somewhat helter-skelter family or as a floundering doofus who’s somewhat lost in the world of grownups who know how to do things. It seems as though most of the childhood material has been mined now. As for the adult stuff, the image of the bumbling innocent is being replaced by a picture that is probably somewhat closer to the real truth of the situation. Bit by bit, we’re hearing more about the successful writer who travels business class, who does book tours, who is famous and who seems to have enough money to go just about anywhere he wants and do what he wants for months on end. This platform gives the writer a perspective from which life can look very interesting but it doesn’t seem to provide the comic take on things that was so prevalent in Mr. Sedaris’ earlier material.

Mind you, he can still provide some great laughs. As in one of the few essays in this book about his family of origin, a character sketch of a certain Mrs. Peacock whom Mr. Sedaris’ mother hired to look after the four children for a few days. Mrs. Peacock’s slatternly ways and her crude way of speaking brought on a fit of choking and strangulation in which the expression "to die laughing" very nearly became a tragic reality around here.

Many of the rest of the essays create an effect that’s more poignant than funny. For instance, the awkward friendship forced on Mr. Sedaris by the child molester who lives down the road in Normandy. Or the annoying guy in the boarding house who turns out to be schizophrenic. Or the Polish man who sobs about the death of his mother all the way through a transatlantic flight. The essay "Old Faithful" about Mr. Sedaris partner Hugh lancing a boil for him (it was re-printed in Best American Essays of 2005) paints a touching picture of the ordinary kindnesses that keep a partnership going.

As in the earlier writing, some of the most striking essays revolve around the issue of Mr. Sedaris’ sexuality. There’s the time when he’s twenty years old and, for the first time ever, he blurts out the truth about his sexuality to two strangers who have picked up him as a hitch-hiker. That watershed moment is quickly followed by an encounter with a truck driver obsessed with the possibility of a blow job (to be either given or received). This leads Mr. Sedaris to some thoughtful observations on the whole sorry business of quick sex that may or may not be welcome. A visit to some "white trailer trash" for a marijuana purchase leads to a woman’s making some very intrusive and insensitive inquiries about Mr. Sedaris’ sexual relationship with his partner. Without a hint of anger or resentment, the author relates the insulting incident with a shrug that seems to say: well, that’s the way people are.

In that essay, as in others, the question of unity can become a bit of a problem for a reader. Mr. Sedaris’ habit of meandering through seemingly unconnected by-ways can make you wonder what’s going on. Didn’t the essay start with something about the water being cut off in the Normandy house? Then how did we end up in this trailer in the US? You go back and you find that the water’s being cut off leads the writer to a vase of flowers as a source of water for his morning coffee, and that leads him to reflect on his partner’s picking of the flowers, and that raises the question of sexual roles in a partnership and that reminds him of the offensive encounter in the trailer. In the end, you can see how it all fits together and Mr. Sedaris’ engaging voice makes the journey quite agreeable, but some of our greatest humourists would certainly have got to the main point a little more directly.

A few of the essays in this collection, though, strike me as unsatisfying. One that starts off with some amusing observations about the passion that people have for their pets ends up with a rather trite recital of Mr. Sedaris’ tasking on a spider as a his own pet. An essay about problems with a woman sitting next to him on a plane simply strikes an unpleasant note. Because of a minor issue about his refusal to change seats, the woman calls him an asshole. To polite Canadian readers, who would never use such a word, the main effect of the essay is to make you wonder what’s happening in the US when people can be such assholes.

If I remember correctly, in the Globe and Mail review of this book, Bill Richardson was somewhat peeved at the inclusion of the long passage on Mr. Sedaris’ successful struggle to quit smoking. Mr. Richardson, as I recall, felt that the passage was too long (83 pages) and that it didn’t say anything new or original on the subject. I had no such problem with the passage. As someone who rather liked the David Sedaris I’d come to know in his writing, it pained me that, until now, he appeared to be a defiant, un-reformed smoker. So I was keen to hear the how and why of his conversion. That story is combined with a sort of casual travelogue of Japan. Mr. S, feeling that new surroundings always help when it comes to changing a bad habit, booked himself and his partner into a Tokyo apartment for three months. You might object that much of his commentary on Japanese life amounts to supercilious joking about incorrect use of English but that’s balanced by Mr. S’s candid admission of his being a lousy student of Japanese.

One thing that did slightly put me off about this essay, though – the quality of the writing is not up to Mr. S’s usual standard. It's more prosaic, more prolix, even a little cumbersome at times. The attempt to stitch facts and events together is more laborious and more obvious than in the other pieces. The material doesn’t jump out at you with the same unforced immediacy here. This could be partly because of a lot of adverbial phrases at the beginning of sentences. Within two pages we get the likes of: "When I was in fourth grade...A few years later, while sitting around the kitchen table....When I got home....In later years....At the age of fourteen....Throughout the first semester....When my sister Lisa started smoking." These phrases tend to choke the passage. And these rhetorical interjections don’t help add freshness: "How could she, could anyone, really, make a habit of something so fundamentally unpleasant." Nor does this arch construction: "There we witnessed...."

It makes you wonder how the other essays manage to sound so free of prosaic effort. Could a hint to the answer be found in the fact that, as far as I can determine, this is one of the few essays in the book that was not first printed elsewhere? So maybe the author didn’t have the same expert editing here that he gets on his magazine pieces. Which brings to mind the old saying: the writing that sounds freshest and most spontaneous is probably the writing that has been worked on most painstakingly.

 

I Am America (And So Can You!) (Humour) written and edited by: Stephen Colbert, Richard Dahm, Paul Dinello, Allison Silverman; with writers: Michael Brumm, Eric Drydale, Rob Dubbin, Glen Eichler, Peter Grosz, Peter Gwinn, Jay Katsir, Laura Krafft, Frank Lesser, Tom Purcell; 2007

This book reminds me of a story about Bob Hope. Somebody made a joke at his expense and he quipped, "You wouldn’t have said that if my writers had been here." To me, the amazing thing about that remark was that any comic would publicly admit to relying on a team of writers. But that's what Stephen Colbert does big time here. On the cover, I Am America (And So Can You!) is presented as being by Stephen Colbert but, on opening it, you find thirteen more writers credited. Very honest on Mr. Colbert’s part. But kind of disillusioning. You want to think that the work is the product of one brilliant mind. On the other hand, maybe it’s consoling to realize that no one person could ever be this clever.

The book is presented as an encyclopedic compendium of Stephen Colbert’s opinions on the state of the world, with chapter headings on Family, Immigrants, Hollywood, Science, Sex, Sports and so on. The book sports a jazzy, layout, with lots of different fonts, some red ink, many photos and striking graphics, even little witticisms in the margins and footnotes. This format, I gather, is for the benefit of people who can only grasp short blurbs of text; they can flip open the book at any time and enjoy a few lines on any given page before quickly turning to some other matter. I, however, not being a member of the attention-deficit generation, would prefer to read, rather than these brief snippets, continuous prose that carries me from the first page of one chapter through to the next chapter. That said, though, I enjoyed the book enormously.

Regardless of the help he gets from his writing team, I assume that the persona Mr. Colbert adopts is his own creation: the right-wing, anti-intellectual conservative Catholic. (As I’m not a tv watcher, my impression of him comes strictly from this book.) It’s a brilliant shtick. Tone of voice is a great device for a comic; adopt the right one and you’re half way there. Playing a self whom we know must be quite contrary to his true self gives Mr. Colbert tremendous leverage, enabling him time and again to prove that the best way to say anything really serious is with humour. Take this line: "The worst thing about affirmative action is that it encourages reverse discrimination, so-called because it goes in the opposite way of how we naturally discriminate."

Many of Mr. Colbert’s most incisive lines come in the religious context. About the answering of prayers, he has God explaining that it gets pretty complicated now, with all teams praying for divine assistance. So, sometimes God simply has to grant victory to the team that has practised the most or that has the best players. Also in the section on religion, the book pulls off absolutely the best – perhaps the only possible – joke about Islam that could be managed in today’s world. Towards the end of the book, Mr. Colbert envisions a scenario in which he himself might be worshipped as a god some day. "You’re lucky to have this book as your one and only scripture," he says. "Every word of it is the revealed Truth, so interpret it literally. Including the typos. I put those in here for a reason – a mysterious reason that I know, but you don’t. It should give you great comfort that I will tell you the reason after you die. I promise."

As that quote shows, part of the assumed persona is megalomania. Early on, he advises us not to read other authors but later he admits, "I’ve come to realize that my biggest problem with other books was simply that I didn’t write them." Elsewhere, he says: "The point is, no one is more qualified to tell me what the world means to me, than me. And don’t think you’re any different: No one is more qualified to tell you what the world means to you than me."

If you look closely at the bland arrogance of those lines, you can detect the streak of genuine malevolence lurking not far under the surface. That trait gets a thorough airing in the chapter on the elderly, where the author makes it perfectly clear that the state should not be wasting money to keep alive old people who don’t work any longer. But maybe the most delicious example of the author’s evil bent comes with an experiment that he proposes as a way to disprove evolution. The materials required include a jug, some water and a living hamster. Not surprisingly, the book does not bear the SPCA’s guarantee that no animals have been harmed.

In a less malicious vein, there are examples of various other kinds of humour. One of my favourites is the stance of the "innocent-at-large", i.e. the guy who claims to know everything but actually hasn’t a clue. As in this comment about his problems with a live performance of The Lion King: "....at home, I can safely end the movie before Musafa’s untimely death. But when I bring my remote control to the live performance, it doesn’t work. [footnote: I even tried changing the batteries]." Silly but fun. Even sillier is the passage purportedly written by the scribe who assists Mr. Colbert in a Dickensian form of servitude. The poor jerk’s typewriter won’t type a lower case ‘p’, with the result that it appears in upper case every time. Surprising how that can get to your funny bone. One of the finest pleasures of the book, though, is the deft way with language. This gives you lines like: "The only good book is the Good Book" and "Over the last few years, the Internet has grown from a haven for pornography and pet anecdotes into a haven for pornography and pet anecdotes where people go for news."

It must be admitted, though, that the wit sags in places. A scientific glossary with entries de-bunking everything in alphabetical order from "Aerospace" to "Zoology" comes up with some lame cracks. After being informed that Botany is all about flower sex, we get this: "If you meet a botanist in a bar, chances are she is ready to go. Botany? More like Hotany." That has a 1950s cornball sound to my ears. In another section, he says it’s not true that immigrants do jobs Americans don’t want to do. "They pick our fruits and vegetables. Who wouldn’t want to have a job that got them out in the fresh air more often? Hell, I pay twenty bucks a pop for the privilege of picking apples and pumpkins every October." On a good day, I could probably come up with something to equal that. And even you could probably write something better than this one, about neighbours who tried to paint their house in a colour not approved by the Home Owners’ Association: "Thanks to my observation and flier campaign, their gracious home is now a beautiful Mannered Taupe."

Not that I’m complaining. In fact, it’s almost a relief to learn that even fourteen highly-paid writers can’t manage to come up with enough sure-fire jokes to fill the entire 228 pages.

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