Dilettante's Diary

Dec 12/05

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
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The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
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A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
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Fall Reading 2012
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Art Toronto 2012
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
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MIMC
May 27/12
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
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The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
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Art Toronto 2011
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TOAE 2011
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Toronto Art Expo 2011
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The Artist Project 2011
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HIGHS 'N LOWS OF 2010
Jan 17/11
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Fall Reading 2010
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TOAE 2010
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The Shack
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The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
Feb 22/10
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Notables of '09
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How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
Oct 22/09
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
June 6/09
Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
March 24/09
Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
Jan 10/09
Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
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July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
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Head to Head
Feb 26/08
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Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
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Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
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Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
November 28/06
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Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
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June 27/06
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Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
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Feb 1/06
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Dec 31/05
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July 21/05
Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
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April 27/05
April 18/05
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March 21/05
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About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
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Reviewed here: Franco Corelli (Radio Canada); Jarhead (Movie); Everything Is Illuminated (Movie); Lie With Me (Movie); Artwalk (Art Exhibition) Go Train (Public Transit); The Magic Flute (Saturday Afternoon at the Opera)

1st Anniversary Celebratory Note to Readers:

Dilettante’s Diary has been up and running for a little over a year now. Readership continues to grow. Responses have come from as places as far-flung, geographically speaking, as Munich and Melbourne. I'm told that people in high places (editors, publishers, producers) are watching the site. Readers responding to the site tend to fall into three categories:

1. those who would like to be informed when new material appears on the site;

2. those who would prefer to check out the site spontaneously and be surprised at what they find;

3. those who would like me to shut up and go away.

If you are in category #1, please let me know by sending an email to patrick@dilettantesdiary.com. (To make sure the system doesn’t delete your message, put a reference to these reviews in the subject line of your email.) You’ll receive messages from me roughly two or three times a month, at the most.

If I don’t hear from you, I’ll assume you’re in category #2 or #3.

You might be interested to know that in the roughly 13 months just past, Dilettante’s Diary has reviewed: 82 books, 70 new movies, 30 videos and DVDs, 24 theatrical performances, 23 art exhibitions, 10 musical events, 3 tv broadcasts, 1 short story, 1 baseball game and 1 city.

In case you’re wondering, I have another life. This is website is written in my spare time for fun. (That bit about the "idle rich" on the home page isn’t to be taken literally!)

 

Franco Corelli Radio Canada

Once again, CBC radio wrecked my best laid plans. This time it was the French station. On Sunday morning, after a sleep-in and a leisurely bath, I turned on Radio Two, my default setting, for breakfast accompaniment. They were playing Edvard Grieg. I suppose he deserves his place in the sun but I don’t have to be there, so I switched to 90.1. Host Alain Lefvre, on "Espace Musique" was introducing a few arias sung by Franco Corelli. Then more arias, in what turned into an hour-long celebration of the great tenor who died two years ago. Nothing to do but sit there in my bathrobe for the duration, for fear of leaving the room and missing a note. All the projects that were going to get launched in that hour, the domestic chores that needed doing, the masterpieces that were meant to be accomplished, evaporated into the ether that is the final resting place of so many good intentions.

Franco Corelli. You could call him the Maria Callas of tenors. Not that he was a prima donna temperamentally, at least not that I know, but in the sense that he gives 110% of himself. It’s an all-out tour de force. The man is not so much a singer as a force of nature that just happens to take on a musical form: a tsumami sweeping all before him. This was probably what Italian opera was like before the academics and the purists got at it: a gut-busting emotional binge. There are times when you get tired of his growling attacks on the beginning of every piece but, what the hell, the arias weren’t meant to be heard in succession like this. And does all that swooping, and gulping and scooping worry you? Never mind, he’ll find the note eventually. They say he shut himself in a room with some records and taught himself to sing. Figures. Imagine a teacher scolding, "No, no, Frankie, don’t do it that way!" Like trying to stop a runaway train with your finger.

This is not to suggest that the man lacked artistry and technique. His high notes often had a ring like an anvil. Ending one aria in the stratosphere, he nailed it so loudly that you’d think it would break the bank but he gradually faded to a beautiful pianissimo, spinning it out ten times longer than any human should be able to. When he was crying out to Mamma in Cavaleria Rusticana on his way to his death, the terror in the voice actually made me feel sorry for the guy. Then there was Rudolfo’s aria in La Bohme. Poor Mimi didn’t stand a chance against this guy’s powers of persuasion. No gentle seduction here; if this wasn’t a case of date rape, I don’t know what is. It’s hard to imagine him singing Mozart – refinement is not the word that comes to mind. He did, however, sing a Bellini aria from Norma – but quite a bellicose, military one – at least he made it sound that way.

To fully appreciate Corelli, you have to know that the guy was incredibly sexy. Picture a Robert Downey Jr., or a young Alec Baldwin, who could sing – really sing – only more ruggedly handsome, standing there in his tight pants, his frilly shirt open to show his hairy chest. The hell of it is that I saw and heard him in person but have no memory of him. I was totally into sopranos then. It was my first opera – the Met touring production of Cavaleria, starring Eileen Farrell at the Masonic Auditorium in Detroit. By a strange accident, I found myself backstage, was introduced to Ms. Farrell and chatted with her. (That’s another story for another time.) To think that Signor Corelli was in a nearby dressing room!

I loved Monsieur Lefvre’s quiet, hushed way of presenting him. After the Boheme aria, he said "I’m not ashamed to tell you that I had tears in my eyes." Pass the Kleenex, Alain.

 

Jarhead (Movie) directed by Sam Mendes

When I was in the seminary, training for the priesthood, one of our professors was fond of intoning, "You’re in the army now, gentlemen!" This when we were balking at disciplines like silence at meals or 5:30 am rising and 9:30 pm lights out. But it was so not the real army – very little swearing, or fighting, or shooting, or killing – that I’ve always wondered what life in the real military is like.

Not very nice, according to this movie. Much more fighting and swearing than in the seminary. Jake Gyllenhaal plays US marine Anthony Swofford, one of thousands of soldiers sent to guard Saudi Arabia’s oil fields in 1989 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Real bad asses, those marines. Truth to tell, it gets a little tiresome watching them prove how bad they are. There might be some significant inter-action going on but it’s hard to tell what with all the yelling. Clearly, the training manuals these guys studied didn't include The Imitation of Christ.

The main point of the movie is that patrolling the desert can be pretty boring. No shooting or killing after all For lack of plot, we get little traumas about girlfriends and wives back home. A voice-over narrative from the Swofford character tries to convey some of the angst but you get the feeling that it probably came through better in the memoir the movie’s based on. Trouble is, on screen, boring comes across as....um...not very dramatic. There’s a good scene where a guy has to apologize for trying to kill a buddy. And some striking visuals like when burning oil wells light up the desert with an eerie glow, showering the guys with black goo. Must have been quite a trip for Mr. Swofford but it left me pretty much unmoved.

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

 

Everything Is Illuminated (Movie) directed by Liev Schreiber

I’d been avoiding this movie. That title sounded far too uplifting for me. But a friend told me it was really good. And then I heard Eleanor Wachtel of CBC’s Writers & Company (my favourite radio program) say that she was going to be interviewing Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of the book (and co-author, with Liev Schreiber, of the screenplay). So I rushed to Cineplex in downtown Toronto to catch the movie before the broadcast of the interview.

It turns out there are two movies here. The one that I was dreading tells about Jonathan, a young American Jew who goes to the Ukraine to solve a mystery about his grandfather’s survival in the Second World War. A certain amount of cultural kitsch must be endured, but eventually a touching story evolves. A horrible secret is revealed, some healing happens, people change. All this at the price of being subjected to a treacly musical score that keeps pulling at your heart strings till they’re ready to snap back. And I don’t get Elijah Wood, the actor who plays Jonathan. The camera finds nothing in his expressionless, sculpted face that would make me want to connect with him. And wouldn’t you think movie directors had got beyond the old clich of using thick horned-rimmed glasses to make a guy look nerdy?

Sandwiched in the middle of the story of Jonathan’s quest is the movie that I did enjoy a lot, thanks to the character of Alex, the guide who takes Jonathan under his wing. Alex is to translating what George Bush is to statesmanship. Alex, played by Eugene Hutz, thinks he’s very studly, with his metal canine tooth and his painfully acquired Americanisms. He walks like he’s trying to create the impression that he’s carrying a six-pack between his legs. His English sounds like he learned it from a bad translation of Tolstoy: words like "proximal" for "close" and "carnal" for "sexy". In fact, that scary title is a sample of Alex's freaky use of the language.

What makes Alex bearable is that you gradually begin to see quite a different person beneath all the bravado. You almost feel sorry for him when his US visitor points out that Alex’s undershirt is inside out. Not only does Alex have trouble understanding what that means, he clearly doesn’t know why it should matter. When Jonathan explains that a valet parks cars in America, Alex asks, with guileless simplicity, "Why don’t you park your own car?"

While they’re on the road trying – ineptly – to find the village Jonathan’s grandfather came from, we get a hilarious take on the road movie from hell, with fascinating glimpses of devastation in post-Soviet Ukraine. In Alex’s company, Mr. Wood’s character actually begins to thaw and to show some potential for human interest. Come to think of it, traveling with Alex is a crucible experience: it would bring out the best and the worst in anybody. But then, the village is found, the high-minded theme takes over and Alex, to my regret, fades into the background.

Rating: C minus (C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Geoffrey Armstrong (Art Exhibition) at the Roberts Gallery, Toronto, until December 3rd

Just happened to luck into this show on my way to a movie. That’s the beauty of the Roberts Gallery’s location right on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. You can always catch some gorgeous art right in the heart of the city; no trekking to the arty reaches of Queen Street West. I’m just sorry that this show was almost over by the time I stumbled on it.

Mr. Armstrong has several distinct styles on display in these acrylics. In one of them, the subject is Greece: white buildings, blue sky, blue sea – it’s all very indistinct, roughly sketched, nothing precisely architectural. Just fragments of the compositional elements, as in a dream, you might say. But the feeling of heat and light is conveyed evocatively and with great beauty. The artist’s economy of means and the expressive sweep of his style are breath-taking. Another intriguing style shows huge paintings composed mostly of rectangles (bluish green in one example), overlapping a little, not quite geometrically precise. It’s as if you’re looking through window blinds inexpertly hung. They’re semi-transparent and, if you look closely, you think maybe you see a suggestion of a landscape through them. In another picture, you may be looking at the rectangles on the side of a building. The lure of these paintings is the way the artist’s absorption in the forms pulls you in. Another style shows intensely coloured blobs of paint swirling and creating vaguely biological-looking forms that pulse and come to life on the canvas. I’m less found of this style but it shows what amazing things paint can be made to do. There are also some paintings of totem-like shapes jumbled up and fragmented, looking as if Emily Car was strung out on something. On the level of pure visual pleasure, these paintings don’t appeal to me as much as some of the others but it’s fun to see somebody mix it up a little when it comes to certain overly familiar symbols in Canadian art.

 

Lie With Me (Movie) directed by Clment Virgo

You walk into a movie theatre and find that the audience consists of five middle-aged men sitting as far from each other as possible. You should turn and run. But me, I keep hoping that maybe this will be the rare movie that combines a frank, honest look at sex with good acting and story-telling. Silly me.

Here we have Leila (Lauren Lee Smith), a chick who has some sort of hang-up about sex. Nothing wrong with Ms. Smith’s acting – or looks – just that Leila’s a very boring girl. As if her dialogue doesn’t provide sufficient proof of that, her voice-over narrative hammers home the point by giving us access, regrettably, to her banal thoughts. Seems she isn’t getting enough bang per bang, so to speak. Bless, her, she keeps trying. And just when she’s getting the knack, that pesky business of love threatens to screw things up. As for Eric Balfour, who plays the man who might change everything, it would be undeserved flattery to describe his performance as one-note. Wooden, more like it, or bronze, or marble. (Can that quick shot reminiscent of Michelangelo’s "David" be accidental?) I suppose actors with anything to offer other than their bodies don’t take roles like this because they don’t have to. And what’s with the dead eyes? Do directors get turned on by that "closed for lunch" look? The sex between him and Leila comes down to pretty much the same old thing: lots of tease followed by the usual discreet pulling away, leaving us with screens full of heaving shoulders and butts.

The only significant thing about this movie is that there are a few moments where it actually threatens to become interesting. For instance, a sex scene inter-cut with shots of the young couple dancing nude and acting goofy. Or the fact that the young man seems to have some sort of caring relationship with a geezer played by Don Francks, Canadian film’s official old koot. Near the end of the movie, we see Leila in her frilly finery riding her bicycle to a dressy wedding. Now that looks like a character who would have made a good subject for a movie.

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

 

Artwalk (Art Exhibition) by Joanne Lucas Warren (451 Trafalgar Rd, Oakville, Nov 25-27)

A phone call lured me to Oakville one snowy Saturday morning for this show by Joanne Lucas Warren, a friend from the Toronto Watercolour Society and an elected member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour. We members of the TWS typically see only a few samples of each other’s work in our two annual shows, so I was glad to take the opportunity of seeing lots of Joanne’s pictures in one place. It didn’t hurt that she mentioned that her studio and show room is a stone’s throw from the Oakville Go station. And what a studio: a small office building which Joanne has modernized and brightened up so that it serves beautifully as a gallery and a workshop. Most artists I know would think they’d died and gone to...well....way beyond Oakville!

What thrills me about Joanne’s work is the essential watercolour-ness of it. She creates her paintings by applying colours to very wet paper. The excitement of the pictures comes from the way the pigment and the water inter-act on the paper. Sounds easy, but it takes great skill to know when to intervene without mucking it up. You get magical effects, very natural looking shapes that seem to have grown right there on the paper. If a bloom occurs – one of those "accidents" where a puddle of water dries, leaving a sediment of pigment around the edges – then it’s incorporated into the design; it becomes a tree, a cloud, a flower.

Immediately on walking into the show, you’re greeted by a gorgeous picture of a huge, luxuriant flower, vaguely pinkish, that’s facing you, inviting you to look right into its depths. You can tell that the pigment has been allowed to swirl on the page, creating the effect of petals spontaneously and naturally. On another wall white flowers are created with hardly any paint, just ghostly shadows mimicking the delicacy of blossoms the way no other medium could. Some of Joanne’s flower compositions feature stronger colours with a little more design, almost approaching a naturalistic style. But probably my favourites among her paintings are the landscapes where she captures the chill, grey beauty of our true north strong and free. A picture entitled "Cross-country Trail" leaves lots of white paper, with just a few blurry patches of muted colour. It’s almost abstract and yet it imparts the feeling of our well-known winter better than if you stuck your head in the freezer. Another picture with great sweeping washes of brownish stuff gives you a frightening impression of towering cliffs with just a tiny patch of beach at their base. Joanne has included some acrylics in the show, several of them abstracts, with busy design and patterning – virtually the opposite end of the compositional spectrum from her watercolours. Which proves that we’re dealing with one very versatile artist here.

Go Train (Toronto-Oakville run)

As it’s been quite a while since I experienced this aspect of our local culture, it seemed a few notes for Dilettante’s Diary would be in order.

On the westbound trip to Oakville this past Saturday, the train was sparsely populated, which made for a quiet, contemplative ride. The scruffy, semi-industrial landscape looked surprisingly beautiful in the fresh falling snow. Every junk yard we passed made me want to pull out my sketch pad. Except that there wasn’t time. The train, while not breaking any speed records, was still faster than my pencil. There sure are a lot of dog-walkers in this party of the world. At least half the number of people I saw venturing out on foot had a canine companion.

The return trip started with me being one of those boors who thinks he can hog an extra seat for his coat and stuff. But that didn’t last long as the train soon filled up with folks headed for a good time in TO. Many teenage females with girly looking purses. Lots of cell phones, of course. Middle aged woman: "Hi, yes, it’s me, I’m on the GO, yeah, he’s picking up the tickets, we’re meeting them at the Air Canada Centre, I’ll call you after the game, ok, bye." Teen age girl: "Hello?.... yeah.... yeah.... yeah.... yeah... yeah...Ok, Mom...bye." A dad and his thirteen-year-old son were sitting in the seats facing me. They said very little that I could catch, apart from the son’s comment about falling asleep while watching something.The dad was wearing a "C.A.W." union jacket; I wondered if he’d recently received any bad news about his job prospects.

For most of the trip, I was entertained by a party of two teenage girls and one boy sitting kitty-corner to me. When I first noticed them, the boy was telling the girls about a dream in which a friend needed to speak to him, and then, he said, the phone in his bedroom rang – for real, not in the dream – and he thought he must be psychic because here she was phoning him when he had just been dreaming about her. But it was somebody calling to say, "I hear you’re gonna work for me tomorrow." Mostly these young people talked about the attractions of Toronto. The young man gave a disquisition on the fact that the Jay’s games are not as popular now as in the early 90s. One of the young women said her mom had taken them to Toronto to see, "The Lion King, The Phantom and what’s the name of that magician? Oh yeah, David Copperfield. My mom loves David Copperfield." Moving further afield, they discussed Disneyland. One of the girls had been there four times. The other girl: "My mom saved up for years to take us to Disneyland because she never got to go when she was a kid." The girl who’d been there four times told about a hotel with a pool slide in the form of a big dragon. You climbed up inside the dragon and slid down its tongue into the water. "I have a picture of my dad sitting on the dragon’s tongue." The family liked the place so much that they stayed an extra week. The other girl struck me as rather intelligent. About some performer or comedy show, she said: "I thought it was humourous, just not quite as funny as everyone else did." The group decided to get off at the Exhibition stop. The intelligent girl kept asking the other one, "You’re sure you know where to go from here?"

 

The Magic Flute (Opera) by Mozart, Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, CBC Radio Two, Nov 26/05

My hope was to get back from Oakville on time for the opera. Even with a quick stop at the grocery store for some lunch supplies, I walked into the house as the overture was playing. One of my main objectives was to hear Canada’s own Michael Schade singing Tamino in this production from the Salzburg festival, conducted by Ricardo Muti. Mr. Schade sang very beautifully, as did everybody in the cast. Genia Kuhmeier (Pamina) has a glorious, golden voice. (Hope I haven’t mixed up the women's names here.) Baritone Markus Werba struck me as a little less cuddly than the typical Papageno but a very good singer. In her first aria as the Queen of the Night, Anna Kristina Kaapola surprised me. Instead of the expected piss-and-vinegar, there was a touching hint of a mother’s concern for her daughter. I’d never noticed that in this aria. Which is not to say that there was any lack of fireworks in Ms. Kaapola’s voice. In the second act, her show-stopping Der Hlle Rache, with all its pyrotechnics, was perfectly executed, although it did seem that the microphones were a little too far away at that point. Possibly my favourite of the whole performance was Rene Pape as Sarastro. His low notes weren’t the deepest and most intimidating that I’ve ever heard but, over all, there was a lush, velvety quality to his voice that got richer and richer the more he sang.

The panelists on Stuart Hamilton’s quiz during the intermission were three oustanding Canadian opera stars: Adrianne Pieczonka,  Russell Braun and none other than tenor Michael Schade, the broadcast’s Tamino. After the quiz, host Howard Dyck interviewed Mr. Schade. Amazingly, Mr. Schade actually talked about the fact that the performance had not been very well received at the Salzburg festival. Not that there was anything wrong with it musically. It was the stage direction that struck a wrong chord for many. The director had intended to empahsize the magical qualities of the show, some of which worked well, but others led to some pretty unwieldy staging.

I’ve never been able to follow the plot of Magic Flute – let’s face it, I can’t follow the plots of most operas. In this case, I’m content to know that librettist Emanuel Schikaneder steered the characters into some pretty weird situations. In fact, I suspect that maybe some aspects of the story don’t bear too close examination. There are occasional whiffs of something very alien to my sensibilities in the story-telling. Speaking of which, this is the first time I ever felt a bit of a shiver at the crackle of the spoken dialogue. Mostly this was in the case of Sarastro and his gang. A definite hint of a Nazi snap and crackle there. Could this be because it was an Austrian production?

But all that really matters is that the machinations of the plot allowed Mozart to give the characters sublime music to express themselves. This time, I was more aware than ever of the fascinating undercurrents of the music, hinting at some really deep human truths. It could be, paradoxically, that my attention to the words made the music so significant. Once lunch was out of the way, I was trying to follow along in the libretto published by G. Schirmer. Apparently the Salzburg production was making huge cuts in the dialogue. I can understand that performances have to come in under the wire to avoid overtime pay but all the chopping is a little hard on a guy whose only backup is a lunch hour course in introductory German at the YMCA. The worst of it was that Sarastro seemed to be jumping forward, then going back and picking up dropped bits – at least, as far as I could tell. Is it possible that an elderly opera singer can be as iffy as a senior actor when it comes to getting his lines right? Or are we dealing with different versions of the text here?

But the most maddening aspect of the whole experience for me was the fact that, when it came to the arias, the Schirmer translation insisted on rhyming lines. As everybody knows, this means that you end up having to twist the meanings to accommodate the rhymes. So we were were often getting lines wildly out of synch with the original. Even a guy with YMCA German knows that "Warum sprach er nicht mit mir?" works way better than "Why in silence did he stay?"

 

Agree? Disagree? Wanna pick a fight? Email: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com (Put a reference to these reviews in the subject line of your email.)