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Jan 12/13

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Les Troyens (Opera); Shirley Temple Three (Short Fiction); Stuart Hamilton (Radio Interview); This Is 40 (Movie); The Life of Pi (Movie)

Les Troyens (Opera) music and libretto by Hector Berlioz; based on the poetry by Virgil; conducted by Fabio Luisi; starring Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Bryan Hymel, Dwayne Croft, Kwangchul Youn; with the Metropolitian Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Transmission, Jan 5/12

Of all the Met’s HD offerings this season, this one ranked highest on my must-see list. First, because it’s not often that you get a chance to see it. At five-and-a-half hours (including two intermissions), with the enormous resources required of singers, dancers and orchestra, it’s a challenge that not many opera companies can take on. So much so, in fact, that Berlioz never saw the complete work performed. Just to take one example of the unwieldiness of this opera: you’ve got four or five singers who star in the first act, after which their characters die; the singers then take their curtain calls but they have to hang around in their dressing rooms for a couple of hours so that they can come back as ghosts late in the opera to sing a few simple lines.

And then there’s Berlioz himself: slightly crazy, tormented and always swimming against the stream. You have to admire a creator who keeps churning out what his genius demands of him, even if it doesn’t conform to the conventional tastes of his day. Parisian opera-buffs of his time wanted style and refinement, not grandiosity. But he persisted, and here on the stage of the Met today is his vindication.

Grandiose as the work is, it’s not the most dramatically engaging of operas. It’s more like a collection of set pieces, almost a series of tableaux. Most of the big action takes place off stage. People stand around telling you that they’re happy, then sad, then happy, then sad....and so on. At several points, you could close your eyes for about ten minutes and find that nothing much had changed when you opened them.

In case your memory of Virgil from high school Latin classes is a bit cloudy, a few words about the story – Cassandra is warning the Trojans that the Greeks don’t mean well by them. The stupid Trojans ignore her. Apparently, it doesn’t occur to any of them to Google "Greeks bearing gifts." So the Trojans are in for a big fall. Some of the men escape but the women kill themselves, rather than fall prey to the conquerors. In the next act, Aeneas, one of the escapees, finds himself in Carthage, where he helps Dido to fight off the Numidians. That done, he falls in love with Queen Dido. But ghosts decree that he must leave her because he’s supposed to zip over to Italy to found Rome. He obeys. The Queen is not amused. Suicide time, again.

This is one opera in which the non-vocal aspects of the production figure more prominently than usual. There must be at least a half hour, all told, of dance. It was accomplished here very beautifully, in a style that combined classical and modern. There were also several passages where the actor-singers simply moved about without singing, not performing mime exactly, but enacting various rituals and bits of business to the background of magnificent music. I couldn’t always understand all the complicated business in Francesca Zambello’s staging. At one point in a gathering of Trojans, kids were body-surfing over the heads of the adults in the crowd. To what purpose, I couldn’t say. Eventually, I decided that you had to take the interesting – if baffling – actions of the chorus as a riff on the main action, a sort of abstract commentary on the more realistic aspects of the story.

All of which was much enhanced by the visuals. The virtually bare stage and minimal set, with just a few geometric shapes, allowed the imagination to conjure various possibilities. In the Trojan setting, the costumes (by Anita Yavich) were a combination of biblical and medieval: long robes and some veils for the women, something like tunics and tights on the men. What’s notable about the fabrics is that, in the close-ups on camera, they’re very attractively composed of subtle blends of earth tones. (I’m not sure the audience in the house at the Met would get the full benefit.) That makes for a wonderful contrast on arrival at Dido’s court, where everybody’s in bright white pants and tops. Even the women wear slacks under a shirttail skirt. It looks a bit like you’ve wandered into the neighbourhood dojo, but more elegant: no smell of sweat, sensuous music instead of the stomping and whacking in a karate session.

The big role in the first part of the story is Cassandra. I’ve often thought that Deborah Voigt’s voice was well past its best-before date but there was no sign of that here. Her voice was rich, full and dramatic. That could be because there weren’t a lot of really high notes in her role. She herself noted in the intermission interview that the role lies lower than her usual ones. She seemed to speak of that as a possible disadvantage to her; I didn’t hear it that way. In the role of Coroebus, the guy who loves her, baritone Dwayne Croft looked heroic and sang beautifully, but I was bothered by the impression that his voice didn’t seem big enough. That may not have been his fault. During the first intermission, the manager of the movie theatre was fielding complaints from audience members about the fact that the orchestra was too loud. He said that was because of the way the sound was being mixed at the Met in New York as it was sent out via satellite to the theatres.

Mezzo soprano Susan Graham’s voice was at its golden best in the role of Dido. It may be the result of getting to know her through her hosting of many of the Met's HD transmissions, but it seems to me that there’s something especially warm and gracious about Ms. Graham’s acting. That was especially noticeable when, resplendent in white attire, she was doing a royal walkabout among her adoring subjects. At the beginning of the final act, when she’s so pissed at Aeneas, I worried that the growling and yelling was causing strain on her voice. Much to my relief, though, she produced some very sensitive singing after that. And I must admit that the parting of Dido and Aeneas was the only part of the opera that engaged me emotionally.

Some of the sweetest music came from Dido’s duet with her sister, Anna, a soprano . As evidenced by this role, it would appear that Berlioz was very kind to lots of singers, wanting to give them all a chance to shine. (Unfortunately, I can’t give the names of all the singers in this production, as the programs for the HD Transmissions list only the stars.) Another fine soprano role went to Aeneas’ son. Two tenors in lesser roles both had gorgeous arias. One was Hylas, a sailor in Aeneas’ group, pining for the comforts of home. Another was Iopas, a poet in Dido’s court who offered a stirring serenade. Baritone Swangchul Youn, as another of her flunkeys also had lots of good music to sing.

But the most important thing about this performance – if the other singers will forgive my saying so – was tenor Bryan Hymel, making his unexpected Met debut in the role of Aeneas. Mr. Hymel, born and raised in New Orleans, had stepped into the production just a few weeks earlier to replace Marcello Giordani, who had withdrawn from the final performances. It was astonishing to see such a young singer as Mr. Hymel (thirty-three), a newcomer to the Met at that, toss off such dazzling vocal pyrotechnics with seeming ease and facility. Quite appropriately, he got the biggest ovation of the afternoon. The security and ring of his high notes reminded me of no less a tenor than Luciano Pavarotti. To add to Mr. Hymel’s star quality, he has a face that is handsomely noble and romantic. It will be exciting to see what a man with so many gifts at his disposal will accomplish in years to come.

 

Shirley Temple Three (Short Fiction) by Thomas Pierce; The New Yorker, Dec 24 & 31, 2012

I wouldn’t have thought this one would appeal to me, given its sci-fi premise. A guy is the host of a tv reality show that brings back extinct mammals by cloning. There’s a problem about a drawf mammoth that didn’t get euthanized, contrary to established procedure, after appearing on the show. The guy, who’s a bit of flake, brings the animal home to his mom and asks her to keep it in a pen in the yard while he, the son, scurries back to the showbiz world. (The title is the name of the animal. Don’t ask!) What makes the story stick in my mind is the character of the mom. An unmarried woman, she has a somewhat kooky, but laid-back and accommodating attitude to life. Her relationship with the beast in the yard and her way of dealing with it are entrancing.

I don’t usually embrace symbolic readings of stories but I can’t help noticing how neatly this one could wear an interpretation that would see it as an allegory about the way that all of us can incorporate various strange things into our lives and become attached to them.

 

Stuart Hamilton on CBC Radio’s "The Sunday Edition"

What fun to hear Stuart Hamilton again!

On CBC Radio One’s "The Sunday Edition" last week (Jan 6th), Michael Enright interviewed Mr. Hamilton on the subject of his just-published memoir Opening Windows. In the book, Mr. Hamilton, one of Canada’s foremost singing coaches and musical impresarios, tells about his work with the divas of the opera world and his brushes with many other celebrities.

Back before the devastation of CBC Radio Two, under the aegis of Richard Stursberg, who oversaw the erosion of the classical core of the programming, Mr. Hamilton was one of my favourite radio hosts. In fact, his absence from the airwaves in recent years could be considered one of the most poignant signs of the network’s sad decline. Quite apart from his fascinating knowledge of all matters musical, what struck me most vividly about Mr. Hamilton was that he sounded like a man who was very much in love with life and with his own lucky position in the world. Not many people give you such a lift. As the ebullient host of the CBC’s opera quiz, he was required once a year to have the tables turned and be subjected, himself, to a rigorous grilling by the panelists. I’ll never forget the time they ordered him to come up with the name of a soprano for every letter of the alphabet, within an outrageous time limit of something like sixty seconds. Mr. Hamilton had everybody – panelists and listeners – laughing helplessly at his rapid-fire witticisms.

In the recent interview with Michael Enright, Mr. Hamilton sounded not quite as witty, perhaps a little tired. That’s understandable, I suppose, given what’s happening to all of us as time moves on. But he was still very much the irrepressible Stuart Hamilton that we all enjoyed so much. It’s good to know that we can look forward to a generous helping of his humour and wisdom in this memoir.

 

This Is 40 (Movie) written and directed by Judd Apatow; starring Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow; with Jason Segal, Annie Mumolo, Robert Smigel, Megan Foz, Charlyne Yi, John Lithgow, Albert Brooks, Melissa McCarthy, Graham Parker, Chris O’Dowd.

I’m never sure whether it’s a good sign or not when I walk into a movie theatre and find that the audience consists mostly of females under the age of twenty. Let’s say a situation like that puts me on guard. It makes me even more uneasy when it appears that the movie’s main appeal is gross-out sexual talk. There are more slangy references to genitals and sexual function in the first fifteen minutes of this movie than in a typical porn movie (I’m guessing, of course). Lots of explicit detail comes in the opening scene where a husband and wife argue about whether he should or shouldn’t take Viagra. Then we get a scene with a trainer who’s talking to his female client about which women give him an erection and which ones don’t.

If this is what the young women in the audience have come for, that makes me bit sad.

But this is a Judd Apatow movie. You have to accept that going-too-far is the point. People say and do things that you’ve never seen on screen before. As when a wife walks into the bedroom and finds her husband on the bed, his legs spread, his pants off, and he’s using a mirror and a cell phone camera to try to figure out whether or not he has hemorrhoids. Twice, she bursts in on him when he’s on the toilet, which leads to a discussion of what he may or may not have produced while sitting there. And let’s not forget the bit where he keeps farting while they’re trying to have a discussion in bed.

Another aspect of Mr. Aptatow’s going-too-far syndrome is the hostility that fuels a lot of it. In a couple of scenes, parents who are enraged at somebody else’s kid pour out on him all the vile, filthy venom that people would never say in real life. When a car driver opens his door suddenly, injuring a bike rider, it’s the driver who’s incensed and who yells at the bike rider for damaging the door. It seems that everybody in the world is mad at everybody else.

All of this anger is really just a spillover of the tone set by that couple who were arguing about Viagra. Pete and Debbie, played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, are just turning forty. They’re constantly kvetching. Supposedly, the big deal is that he apparently doesn’t find her sexually attractive anymore (hence the Viagra discussion). But they complain and whine about all aspects of each other’s characters. Given the way Debbie comes off, you have to wonder about Mr. Apatow’s view of women – especially considering the fact that he cast his wife in the role. Debbie’s not exactly an airhead or a ditz. More like a shallow, trendy person, who’s always grasping at the latest fad. Pete seems the more reasonable and stable of the two, except for the fact that he never tells Debbie the truth about what’s going on. It can be amusing watching him try not to show that he thinks about her flakey ideas.

Granted, this pair does have some genuine problems: financial troubles with the dress shop she owns and with his business as owner of a record label. But why do they squabble like children? Is this forty? I beg to differ. People I know try to discuss their difficulties with a little politeness and consideration for each other. Not this constant bickering. Maybe it’s a tv thing. It could be that this is what young audiences are used to seeing on sitcoms. It doesn’t matter why people are griping, as long as the acrimony stirs things up, as long as it provides a springboard for some kind of action. Not being a tv watcher, I don’t know, but I suspect there’s some such influence at work here.

Still, there’s a lot for me to like in the movie. Some of the script writing shows comic cleverness at a high level. Good lines keep flying by (mostly unnoticed by the audience at the showing I attended). For example: "I’m not making comparisons, but she’s better than you." Or: "I am in the present moment. I’m so in the present moment that I want to get out of it right now." (These aren’t exact quotes, as I wasn’t taking dictation, but they give a fair sense of what was said.) One of the best scenes is the one where the troubled couple escape for a romantic getaway at a seaside hotel and their most intimate moments are spent cuddling in bed and describing the ways they fantasize about killing each other. And then there’s the time when the wife insists that they not fight in the usual way, that they discuss things in the way their therapist prescribed. The result is that they end up using the clichd phrases like "It makes me feel bad when...." and "I’m not comfortable with...." to introduce the worst imaginable insults.

Not all of the best bits go to the stars. Albert Brooks, whom I haven’t seen on screen for a long time, does a marvellously dead-pan turn as Peter’s dad, a sixty-year-old under-achiever. Peter has been loaning the dad lots of money but now he has to cut back because of his own financial troubles. How, the dad asks, is he supposed to continue feeding the three boy triplets he has with his new wife? Then he matter-of-factly hits on the idea: he’ll just kill two of them, and keep the best one.

The teamwork by Maude Apatow and Iris Apatow, who play Peter and Debbie’s kids, also makes a great contribution to the movie. Maybe the fact that their sparring relationship looks so authentic has something to do with the fact that they are, in real life, the daughters of writer/director Judd Apatow and star Leslie Mann. At one point, Peter and Debbie are telling the thirteen-year-old daughter (Maude Apatow) that, instead of spending so much time on her electronic devices, she should go outside and do something like build a fort. The girl’s incredulous reaction rang so true that it was the first thing in the movie that made me laugh.

With so many delicious acting opportunities throughout the movie, you could almost say Mr. Apatow is too generous to his actors. There are even some cameos for real NHL players. But many of the marvellous little scenes Mr. Apatow provides for his performers, not having anything to do with the plot, should have been cut to save time. Two-hours-plus is stretching it for a comedy. Pete’s relationship with a cycling buddy (Robert Smigel) expands on the male view of what’s going down but it doesn’t add anything to the momentum.

That’s a symptom of another of the movie’s weaknesses: it’s too loose. There isn’t a systematic build-up to a climax. We’re working towards Pete’s fortieth birthday party but too many tangents get in the way. Nothing is added to the main story – in fact tension is slackened – by some business about two guys (Jason Segal and Chris O’Dowd) vying for the attention of a sex bomb (Megan Fox) who works in Debbie’s store. Similarly, too much time is given to an ageing rock star (Graham Parker) whom Peter has signed for his record label but whose records aren’t selling well.

Then there’s Melissa McCarthy, who plays the mother of the boy that both Peter and Debbie have dissed in the school yard. Ms McCarthy seems in danger of becoming one of those actors who has had a terrific impact in her first big supporting role (in Bridesmaids, in her case) but risks being over-exposed subsequently. (This is what has happened to Zach Galifianakis, in my opinion.) She featured prominently in previews for two movies prior to the showing of This Is Forty. Both of them looked like they were giving us too much of her. But her role in this movie does have a significant connection to the main story and she has been reined in enough that she makes a great impression, without over-doing it. Her big scene is reprised while the credits are playing and it goes on at such length that it appears to have been improvised – to hilarious effect.

Capsule comment (instead of a "rating"): Iffy fun.

 

The Life of Pi (Movie) written by David Magee; based on the book by Yann Martel; starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Ayush Tandon, Gautam Belur, Adil Hussain, Tabu, Grard Depardieu

When the book made such a big splash on publication in 2001, I was wary. A novel about a guy crossing the ocean in a lifeboat with a tiger that he talks to....? Hardly the sort of thing to gladden the heart of a diehard realist. And yet, I enjoyed the book very much. Yann Martel’s such a good writer that he makes the story of the boy and the tiger gripping.

Unfortunately, the movie takes a long time getting to the good stuff. We have to sit through nearly half an hour of laborious exposition that sets up the family’s ownership of the zoo in India, then the dad’s decision to move to Canada and sell the animals. Every time the parents are on screen, they serve up leaden, ponderous dialogue that reeks of the written page: portentous, solemn pronouncements about responsibilities and dangers. There’s also a little romance between Pi and a very pretty girl that doesn’t have anything to do with what follows. It’s all very beautifully photographed, though.

But then comes the really amazing photography: about ten minutes of the storm at sea. It’s hard to imagine how the filmmakers could have managed such a tempest. The lifeboat and its occupants are tossed around like buttons that have come loose in a washing machine. The sequence also demonstrates the lung power of young Pi (or the actor, Suraj Sharma, or his stunt double). That kid sure can spend a lot of time underwater.

When things settle down after the storm, there’s just Pi and the tiger. Their relationship was developed so well in the book that my memory of it has the tiger talking to the boy. Maybe it was a question of the boy’s imagining the tiger’s responses. In any case, there’s no repartee between the two of them in the movie. The situation is, therefore, somewhat less interesting than in the novel.

However, the photographing of the tiger is exquisitely beautiful and real – as with the various animals who appeared earlier. How on earth do you get such life-like animals to perform in the ways required? Does it have something to do with a combination of live action and computerized animation? Whatever the technology, the animals all respond to the cameras like real movie stars. Suraj Sharma, in the role of Pi, isn’t quite so convincing, given a certain tendency to over-act in the more emotional moments. But, with his bee-stung lips and his tangle of black curls, he’s pleasant to watch, if you like your teenage males in the Angelina Jolie or the Penelope Cruz mode.

While the movie’s entertaining enough in its way, my mind kept wandering to questions about the difference between drama and simple story-telling. What you have here is a tale, an adventure, almost a fable: this-happened-and-then-this-happened. It helps to pass the time, but there’s nothing much to engage your mind. You don’t feel you’re getting any insight into life or human nature. I guess that’s an inherent problem when your four-footed cast members aren’t very good on lines: not much opportunity to hash out the big issues with incisive dialogue. Maybe the part near the end, where Pi spins a completely different interpretation of what happened, is meant as a sort of brain teaser. And some God talk, what with Pi’s adherence to three different religions, may provide mental fodder for some viewers.

Not me. I’m expecting the "Making of" documentary to be a lot more interesting.

Capsule comment (instead of a "rating"): Great visuals, thin script.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com