Dilettante's Diary

July 4, 2023

Who Do I Think I Am?
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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A Toast to 2012
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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Academy Awards Show 2012
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Notables of '09
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Stand-outs of 2008
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Notables of 2007
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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Me and the Jays
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Reviewed here: The Quiet Girl (Movie); The Magic Flute (Opera); The Magic Flute (Movie); Come Softly to Me (Short Fiction); Don Giovanni (Opera); The Champion (Opera)

The Quiet Girl (Movie) written by Colm Bairéad and Claire Keegan; directed by Colm Bairéad; starring Catherine Clinch, Carrie Crowley, Andrew Bennett, Michael Patric, Kate Nic Chonaonaigh

Welcome to Ireland, about forty years ago. But this isn’t the idyllic, pastoral Ireland dotted with sheep that we know from postcards. This is rugged, rough territory. The farmhouses are bleak structures covered with dun-coloured stucco. The homes have tv and radio, but no cell phones. People drive old, saggy American automobiles that almost scrape the ground.

We’re focussing on Cáit (Catherine Clinch), a girl about eight years old. Her family, along with a mom and dad, includes two older sisters. Their house isn’t quite falling down but it’s the definition of shabby: paint peeling off walls, junk crowding the horizontal surfaces, doors and walls looking lopsided. The parents aren’t exactly abusive but they’re not all that keen on parenting. The mother is weighed down, literally, by the final month of another pregnancy. The dad – a slipshod farmer who likes to pretend that he’s doing better than he is – doesn’t seem much interested in family. When the girls find that their mother hasn’t prepared any school lunches one morning, he tells them to find some scraps of bread somewhere. He’s so thoughtless that he can drive away with Cáit’s suitcase in his car after he’s delivered her to some relatives she’s going to stay with for a while.

Cáit’s time with those people is what the movie’s about. However, so little is said in this movie that it takes a long time to figure out what’s going on. It seems that Cáit is being sent to live with relatives because her mother finds it too difficult to keep an eye on her at this time. Maybe that’s because Cáit is seen as a bit of a weirdo. She has a tendency to sneak away from groups, to be hiding in the fields when people are looking for her, to high-tail it over the wall surrounding the school yard when class is called. For lack of a provided lunch, she’ll try to steal a drink from another kid’s milk jug when that kid isn’t looking.

The relatives that Cáit is taken to – a three-hour drive from home – are a prosperous middle-aged couple who don’t have any children. Their house is a lot nicer than Cáit’s. Everything is clean and neat here, bright and shining. When a bath is drawn for Cáit, she’s taken aback by the hot water. And yet, you’d never have picked this couple for the ideal foster parents. Carrie Crowley, who plays the woman, has sharp, severe features, not the picture of motherly benevolence. But that makes it all the more meaningful when she beams a kindly smile on Cáit. Andrew Bennett, who plays the man of the house, a stocky, taciturn guy, is preoccupied with the work on his dairy farm. When Cáit is going to bed, all he can manage is a curt “Good night,” without looking away from his television program. The first sign that he might be starting to thaw a bit towards her is that he leaves an Oreo cookie on the kitchen counter for her, without saying anything about it.

We eventually learn what might be a reason for his detachment, his reluctance to connect emotionally. But reasons for things don’t come easily in this movie. Scenes are often cut off before encounters are quite finished to our satisfaction. Many of the connections between events have to be inferred. A character can receive an important letter but we don’t know what’s in it until we see the consequences. We’re half way through the movie before we find out that the wife in the house where Cáit is staying is her mother’s cousin.

There’s so little dialogue in this movie that you could get about 95 percent of it simply from watching, with no sound and no subtitles. Appropriately, then, the photography is magnificent: a still life, for example, of a kitchen seen through a door, the table laden with fruit and dishes. A car’s ashtray filled with cigarette butts says all you need to know about a long journey. In one of the movie’s few notable speeches, a character says: “Many’s the person who missed the opportunity to say nothing and lost much because of it.” The movie itself faithfully adheres to that admonition. It wants us to see what matters and to think about it without a lot of verbal persiflage.

And what matters is the character of Cáit. Little that she says, her face captivates and fascinates. Not that she’s the typical movie “waif;” there’s nothing pathetic about her, far from it. Her face and her attitude express the quintessence of all that’s wondrous about childhood: she’s patient, curious, wondering, but knowing that she’s helpless to change what’s going on. We often see her in the back seat of a car, the tops of the trees whizzing by, the wind whipping strands of hair around her face as she’s being driven somewhere she knows nothing about. My heart ached for her. I kept longing for her to get the love and attention she needed. This movie, then, is an object lesson in how children need to be raised, how they need to be treated if they are going to become the happy, well-adjusted, contributing human beings we want them to be.

Near the end of the movie, a couple of plot-like elements crop up. One of them is occasioned by someone who doesn’t observe the movie’s credo: a local gossip says what had been better left unsaid. But that touch of drama, along with a couple of others, soon fades into the background, leaving us, not with thrills or excitement, but with profound truth about life and children.

Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder; starring Lawrence Brownlee, Erin Morley, Thomas Oliemans, Kathryn Lewek, Stephen Milling and Brenton Ryan; conducted by Nathalie Stutzmann; directed by Simon McBurney. Metropolitan Opera HD Live Transmission, June 3, 2023

The Magic Flute is one of the traditional operas that offers lots of scope for innovative staging. One of my favourite versions of it is the Igmar Bergman movie that presents the opera as performed by a little company in a rinky-dink provincial theatre where the Papageno character happens to miss his cue because he’s fallen asleep under the stage. And then there was Julie Taymor’s gorgeous production at the Met, some years ago, which presented the formidable beasts of the magic kingdom as huge puppets, manipulated by puppeteers onstage.

I don’t always rush to a production of Magic Flute. Although there’s lovely music in it, it doesn’t reach sublime heights as often as do Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. Also, I find the story of Magic Flute so episodic and irrational that it’s hard to make any sense of the proceedings. But the promos for this production promised an ingenious approach. It turns out to be what I would call a techno production, in that it involves a lot of state-of-the art technology. The visual artist, on one side of the stage, in front of the proscenium, was doing things with a blackboard and various gizmos that were projected on the back wall of the set – a quick sketch of mountainous terrain, for instance. When Tamino first saw the photo that made him fall in love with Pamina, we saw the photo projected all over the set – even on Tamino’s t-shirt. The three maidens, after rescuing Tamino from the dragon, couldn’t resist snapping selfies with him. In Tamino and Pamina’s big trial of fire and water, we saw them floating through the air. How this was achieved, I don’t know. Maybe we were seeing a pre-recorded video?

And yet, some aspects of the production were as simple and mundane as you’d get in the most humble show. For instance, the sound of flying birds was created by the foley artist (sound effects person), on the opposite side of the stage from the visual artist, flapping rubber gloves. One of the most charming of the simpler aspects of the show: flights of birds were shown simply by black-clad actors waving folded pieces of eight-by-eleven white paper.

The nondescript set – with much of the action taking place on a movable platform hovering over an empty stage – gave the feeling that this could be taking place anywhere or nowhere. Somehow, this acknowledgment of the unreal aspect of the story, quieted my concerns about irrationality and made the whole thing more believable as a kind of dream or subconscious escapade.

The success of a production of Magic Flute depends a lot, of course, on the two singers in the roles of Tamino and Pamina. Lawrence Brownlee (Tamino) isn’t the sweetest sounding Mozartian tenor that I’ve ever heard, but his ringing, declamatory tone serves the music very well. Being somewhat short and stocky, he doesn’t have anything princely or glamorous about him, but his ingenuous, boyish quality wins us over. I’ve been a fan of Erin Morley ever since the Met’s Covid gala where the singers performed from their homes. For that event, Ms. Morley dashed off one of those fiendish arias from La Fille du Regiment while accompanying herself on the piano and, when she had one hand free, she managed to hold up a sign encouraging us to support the Met. The beauty of her voice and her attractive personality made the most of Pamina in this production.

Notable among the other singers, Kathryn Lewek, who has sung the Queen of the Night more times than anyone else in Met history, played the Queen as a hobbled hag in a wheelchair but, during the intermission interviews, she showed herself to be a relatively young, energetic woman. She’s justly famous for the intense fury of her two big arias but maybe that’s why I didn’t find the execution of the coloratura quite as precise and pointed as I would have liked. As Papageno, Thomas Oliemans had the look of a lovable goof – round face, popping blue eyes, curly mop of hair – but I somehow didn’t get the feeling that he was as nice as you want Papageno to be.

In terms of costuming, one of the most striking effects was the dressing of the male choristers in business suits. This made them instantly recognizable: oh, there’s our banker, there’s the lawyer who lives down the street from us, there’s my niece’s husband! Their somber demeanour led to one of the most dramatic moments in the show: the meeting where Sarastro and his court considered what they should do about Tamino. The men – about forty of them – were sedately seated around a board table with Sarastro. When he began to sing, they all lowered their heads in a prayerful mood, then, after a few moments, raised their arms in a supplicatory way. What a striking way to create a moving effect in a situation that could – in another style of production – come across as corny.

The orchestra pit had been raised so that it was just a few feet lower than the stage. This enabled the involvement of the orchestra members in a way that you don’t usually see in opera. For Sarastro’s big entrance – in modern dress, topped by something like a frock coat – he strode through the ranks of the orchestra players, waving regally to his loyal subjects gathered onstage.
When the sound of the magic flute was required, the flutist from the orchestra came up on stage to play his instrument. Come the glockenspiel’s starring moment, the instrument appeared at the edge of the stage and a friendly looking man from the orchestra came forward to play it, smiling into the camera, while conductor Nathalie Stutzmann turned her baton to him, encouraging him like a benevolent music teacher.

Was that my favourite moment? No, come to think of it, my favourite moment was later in the show when the glockenspiel was required again. The spotlight caught it at the edge of the stage but the instrumentalist was missing. So Papageno sat down and started playing it. Then the musician who had been playing it previously came rushing out from the wings with a cup of coffee in his hand. He tried to sit down at the instrument but Papageno, now enjoying the opportunity to show off his own talent, brushed him away.

The Magic Flute (Movie), 2022. Written by Christopher Zwickler, based on the work by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder; directed by Florian Sigl; starring Jack Wolfe, Niamh McCormack, F. Murray Abraham, Waldemar Kobus, Iwan Rheon, Asha Banks, Stefan Konarske, Sabine Devieilhe, Morris Robinson and Rolando Villazón.

I stumbled on this movie having never heard of it and having no idea what to expect. It’s about a young teen, Tim, who wants to be a singer. He wins a scholarship to a special music school in a castle in Austria. While there, he gets embroiled in all the social angst that besets any teenager. But, guess what? Through a sliding panel in the school’s library, he stumbles into a portal that takes him into the original story of Mozart’s Magic Flute and he finds himself playing the role of the opera’s tenor star, Tamino.

At first, I wondered: what’s the point? Is this just another way to show how creative some people can be with a classic piece? Is it a way to try to get younger, newer audiences interested in opera? Maybe it’s both of those things. But it’s also, I eventually realized, a way of showing how the fantasy of the opera and the real world of school intersect. It gradually dawns on us that the problems that Tamino is encountering in the opera are somehow echoed by the problems that the teens are grappling with in school – romances, bullies, irritating peers.

As opera, though, there are a few drawbacks to this version. None of the actors are real opera singers, except perhaps for Sabine Devieilhe (Queen of the Night) and Morris Robinson (Sarastro). Jack Wolfe, who plays Tim has a nice tenor voice but he’s more of a pop singer, at this stage, than an opera singer. Still, he sings Tamino’s arias nicely. (In the original key?) Perhaps because of judicious limits to the length of a movie, we lose some treasures from the opera. We don’t get the three spirits who accompany Tamino in close harmony. The glorious hymn to Isis and Osiris is missing. So is the endearing scene where Papageno is threatening to kill himself for lack of love.

However, film technology makes for some splendid effects that you can’t get on stage. The Queen of the Night’s entrance comes with fantastic swirlings of black chiffon (or some such fabric) from which her face gradually emerges. Tamino’s being lost in an arid desert and his pursuit by a hideous beast are conveyed much more frighteningly and realistically than they ever could be on a stage.

When it comes to matters of plot and characterization, I felt that one bullying situation in the school was resolved a bit too easily. A character interpretation that I liked very much was that of Papageno (Iwan Rheon). He was believable and likeable as a somewhat seedy, latter day hippie. There was even something redeeming about the arch villain Monostatos. True, he was objectionable in his rapacious urge, but there was a slightly kooky, off-kilter thing about him that made him – if not charming – at least a little less despicable than he might have been.

Come Softly to Me (Short Fiction) by David Gilbert. The New Yorker, October 17, 2022

In my catching up with past issues of The New Yorker, this short story made a strong impression. It’s about the members of an extended family who are gathering at their rural homestead for a special ceremony. At first, there are so many characters – brothers, sisters, spouses, ex-spouses, aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews, grandparents and grandchildren – that you despair of remembering them all. But it turns out that you only need to focus on a few of them who become the central characters. There’s the grandfather who has throat cancer; the ten-year-old grandson who’s preoccupied with birds but who, on a dare, asks to touch the grandfather’s feeding tube; and the three sisters whose deceased parents were the owners of the property where the gathering’s taking place.

What’s most remarkable about the writing is that the author takes you into thoughts and feelings of these characters that are different from the kinds of things you usually read about. These thoughts and feelings have probably never come to you and yet, on hearing them, they sound utterly true to human nature. Mickey, the grandfather with cancer, feels that he doesn’t know his grandchildren very well, “not because he didn’t spend time with them but because he never reached a space outside his own Mickey performance, which was also true with his children.”

While people are praising Mickey’s ex-wife for looking after him in his illness, she wonders about what she’s feeling. “It was somewhat hard for her to puzzle out. The feeling was bigger than any she’d ever had for Mickey. And it wasn’t some bullshit about grace, or compassion, or service for a person in need. Not at all. She loved him for being sick, not because she wanted Mickey to suffer but because she was back in the company of sickness. There was a warmth there, its own kind of simple conjuring.”

The story leads to the family’s commemorating their deceased members with a ceremony that I somwhat bizarre and off-putting, compared to the believability and recognizable humanity of the rest of the story. But then I thought: well, these people do have deep thoughts and unique feelings, so I guess they’re entitled to the rituals that bring them peace in their own way.

Don Giovanni (Opera) composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte; starring Peter Mattei, Federica Lombardi, Ana Maria Martínez, Adam Plachetka, Ben Bliss, Yin Fang, Alfred Walker, Alexander Tsymbalyuk; production by Ivo van Hove; conducted by Nathalie Stutzmann, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Met Live in HD broadcast; May 20, 2023

Let’s say this off the top: the singing in this performance was excellent, all round – as you’d expect of a Met production of this classic.

The other thing worth mentioning, then, is the show’s non-traditional look. The set is something like the typical European town square bordered by towering stone buildings, lots of arches, many steps, twisting alleys threading among the buildings – all completely drab and colourless. The costumes, though, are strictly contemporary, in a non-descript way: suits, ties, trousers, plain dresses, mostly in blacks and greys. Instead of swords, we have guns.

I think the point of presenting Don Giovanni this way is to emphasize that lecherous types like the Don are very much with us in this age of the #MeToo movement. Hence the focus on the depraved, despicable aspects of the Don’s character (if there could have been any doubt about them). For me, the modernistic approach worked relatively well, except in a few instances.

When the Don is escaping from Donna Anna’s room after trying to rape her, she is chasing him down the stairs into the square. He’s not wearing a mask or any sort of disguise, so it’s perfectly obvious who he is. Then why is there any mystery about the would-be rapist’s identity? Are we supposed to imagine a deep darkness of night that the stage production can’t actually achieve?

Another place where the setting ran into problems was the ball scene where Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Don Ottavio are meant to arrive incognito. For some reason, it was decided to present this scene as a costume ball with the participants arriving in 18th century apparel. In an attempt to establish this ambiance, mannequins wearing the gowns and finery of the period were placed in many of the window arches; then the three conspirators arrived in those sorts of outfits. For me, this was a somewhat clumsy attempt to reconcile the needs of the plot with the contemporary setting.

I’ve admired Peter Mattei ever since he kicked off the Met Gala during Covid. As the first singer on that program, following the introductory greetings from the Met management, Mr. Mattei, from his cottage by the sea in Sweden and with a friend accompanying him on an accordion, launched into Don Giovanni’s “De, vieni alla finestra.” The look on his face seemed to say that Mr. Mattei wasn’t at all sure how this home-based gala was going to work out, but he was willing to give it a brave try. Maybe that lingering impression of him made him seem a bit nicer than the Don that this production had in mind, but he did manage a few lewd gestures in that direction.

As for specific aspects of other performances that I found particularly interesting, one of the best was that Donna Elvira (Ana Maria Martinez) was considerably older than Donna Anna (Federica Lombardi). This made it much easier to see Donna Elvira as the jilted woman. Sometimes the two women singing these roles are so close in age and looks that it’s hard to see how their situations differ vis à vis the Don. Adam Plachetka, doesn’t have the richest, warmest voice of any Leporello that I’ve ever heard, but his round, plump face conveys great expression with exquisite comic timing. No tenor could ever have had a more triumphant moment on the Met stage than Ben Bliss did at the brilliant conclusion of his “Il mio tesoro.” One of my favourite moments in the opera is Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir,” the aria in which she tries to convince Ottavio that she’s not being cruel to him when she tries to stall their union for a bit. In another production I saw, the soprano sang this aria to the house, as if she were barely aware of Ottavio’s presence beside her. No such problem this time around: as the singing poured out of Anna, the two of them were crawling over each other on the floor. I liked the fact that the Commendatore (Alexander Tsymbalyuk), having been murdered by the Don, stalked onto the scene later as a dishevelled man with a bloodied shirt. In other words, a kind of ghost or nightmare that might well haunt a person who has done what the Don has done. Much more believable than the business of the talking statue in the cemetery, which is what the script calls for.

One aspect of the production that did disappoint me a bit was the character of Masetto – the peasant whose bride the Don tries to seduce. In many productions, the singer who plays Masetto manages to show that, while justly outraged, he, not being the swiftest peasant in town, has a slightly comical quality in his attempt to stand up to the Don. In the case of Alfred Walker’s Masetto, though, there was not the slightest touch of humour. His anger was frightening. But I suppose this interpretation was part of the production’s intention to impress on us the horror of actions like the Don’s in our own day.

Champion (Opera) composed by Terence Blanchard; libretto by Michael Cristofer; starring Ryan Speedo Green, Eric Owens, Latonia Moore, Stephanie Blythe; production by James Robinson; conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin; with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Met Opera Live in HD Broadcast, April 29, 2023

This is the story of Emile Griffith, the prize-winning boxer who led a troubled life. When he emigrated from the U.S. Virgin Islands to New York as a teenager in the 1950s, his only noticeable talent was making women’s hats. But a promoter who became his manager spotted a potential boxer in Emile. After considerable training, he went on to win many championships. He embarked on a spontaneous and short-lived marriage to a woman he hardly knew but gay liaisons also appealed to him. His career started to take a downward turn when his opponent in a 1962 match died in hospital after the pummelling Emile gave him. A sensitive man, Emile wanted to visit the man before he died but he wasn’t allowed to. Eventually, Emile ended up living in a small room and being cared for by a friend.

Ryan Speedo Green played the younger Emile and Eric Owens played the boxer in his later days. Sometimes, if the structure of a piece is chronological, the shift from the younger persona to the older one – employing two different actors – doesn’t work very well. In this case, though, the piece moved fluidly back and forth in time, which meant that we were comfortable switching from one Emile to the other. Fortunately, both Mr. Owens and Mr. Green have superb bass-baritone voices that commanded our attention easily – and they both also have the acting chops to convey different aspects of the main character: Mr. Green as the feisty, ambitious up-and-comer; Mr. Owen as the ruminative, somewhat puzzled elder. In the opening scene, it was a bit disconcerting to find the elder Emile speculating about his shoe’s purpose, almost singing an ode to it. Gradually, however, we realized that we were seeing a person struggling with dementia.

Not being a person who rushes to hear new music, I was somewhat skeptical about this production before seeing it. But the Met obviously needs to stage new works, to show that the company is in touch with some of the social issues of our time. And it also needs to attract new and more diverse audiences. If you’ve got to produce new work, then this is a fine example. It’s not Mozart or Verdi but it’s a good show. The razzle-dazzle of a festival in Emile’s Caribbean homeland makes for a scene as flamboyant, colourful and frenetic as you’d see on any Broadway stage.

Just one thing puzzled me. The thematic arc of the piece is Emile’s struggle to reconcile the two sides of his sexuality. At one point, he says something like: -“I killed a man and they loved me for it. I love a man and they want to kill me for it.” Was this just one of those current themes that we’re supposed to accept without question, or was there some basis for it in the opera? As for Emile’s killing a man – yes we get that; it was that unfortunate outcome of one of his bouts. But is anybody trying to kill him for loving a man? Well, a gang of anti-gay thugs once attacked him in the street. But who is the man Emile loves? Is he referring to several men? Or is it the benevolent man who is looking after him in his old age? It wasn’t apparent that they were lovers. A bit of research tells me it was probably Emile’s adopted son. In any case, the man who sang the role (I can’t find his name) radiated more kindness and goodness than I’ve seen on any stage in a long time.

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