Dilettante's Diary

December 11/06

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Reviewed here: Don't Get Too Comfortable (Essays); Rigoletto (Met Opera, CBC Radio Two); Stranger Than Fiction (Movie); The History Boys (Movie); Glorious! (Play)

Don’t Get Too Comfortable (Essays) by David Rakoff, 2005

Who would have guessed that David Rakoff has a thing for Martha Stewart? In my favourite essay in this collection, Mr. Rakoff admits that he has always admired Ms. Stewart because she preaches that making is better than buying. And so it turns out that Mr. Rakoff is an arts-and-crafts geek. There’s nothing he loves better than a cupboard full of glitter and glue, baubles and beads. His friends get kitschy presents like mirrors that he has decorated. Mr. Rakoff analyzes, in his intellectual way, the dynamics of giving gifts that you’ve made, but the most delightful aspect of the essay is the discovery that this severe judge of contemporary foolishness has this corny side to him.

That essay stands as quite a contrast to the rest of the book where the critic gets full rein. Mr. Rakoff’s writing rips when he’s really pissed off – as in his essay on why he became an American citizen (to vote against George W.). Here, the transplanted Canadian, is at his sharpest and most incisive. His essay on the Log Cabin Republicans has a similar edge to it. Mr. Rakoff can barely contain his mad-on at the fact that these gay men stay loyal to the party that despises and abuses them. He comes to the conclusion that their adherence to the party must be based on capitalistic greed.

Between the extremes of political invective and personal whimsy, there are some less gripping essays. One of Mr. Rakoff’s frequent approaches is to put himself in novel situations and to report on how they affect him: a flight on the Concord, a 21 day fast, a behind-the-scenes look at high couture fashion shows in Paris, a Playboy shoot with nude models in Belize. And then there are the situations that are very ordinary for a large part of the human race but only extraordinary for someone of Mr. Rakoff's standing: acting as a pool attendant at a Florida hotel.

Maybe the reason some of these essays aren’t as impressive is that Mr. R. seems to lack the true story teller’s gift for making the situations and the other participants come alive. I have no doubt that he is endowed with the usual quota of the milk of human kindness but he doesn’t express much of it here. The curmudgeon is always lurking close to the surface, trying to get his two cents in. You’ve got to admit, though, that the guy’s pretty good company on this trip through today's world. As implied by the title of the book, his snide comments will jolt you awake if there’s any fear of your being lulled into a doze by your contentment with the passing scene.

 

Rigoletto (Opera) by Giuseppe Verdi, conductor Friedrich Haider, Metropolitan Opera (CBC Radio Two, December 16)

Sometimes you wonder if you’re up for another dose of perfervid Mediterranean melodrama: curses, vengeance, sainted mothers and fathers obsessing about their daughters. But you listen for a bit, in a somewhat skeptical mood, and the music is so damned beautiful that you’re hooked. News flash: Giuseppe Verdi has done it again! And it’s not just the beautiful melodies. What amazes me is the way the man (with the help of his librettist) packs so much into three acts in a couple of hours.

Two singers were making their broadcast debuts in this production: Ekaterina Siurina as Gilda and Joseph Calleja as the Duke. In an interview broadcast beforehand, Ms. Siurina said something about the fact that the aria "Caro nome" shouldn’t be sung in a legato style because Gilda would be breathless and excited after her encounter with the amorous student. As Ms. Siurina started to sing the aria, I wasn’t sure that I agreed with her hop-and-skip style of dishing it out. I wanted more legato, character be damned. As the aria progressed, however, she conveyed the essence of girlish delight with her very high, clear, pure sound, so I was quite willing to set aside my quibbles. She didn’t have a genuine trill on the very end, but a person has to lack something just to show that nobody’s perfect, right? Mr. Calleja’s voice struck me as being somewhat thin at first but later on it seemed to have beefed up. (Could that be because, in the meantime, I’d taken a look at photos of him online?) There is an excited quiver to his voice which is very appealing but when I hear that in a young singer I worry that it will develop into a wobble, then the voice will be shot.

The big revelation of the afternoon – for me – was the new style that the Met has adopted for the broadcast package. Perhaps this was introduced with appropriate fanfare and explanation on the season opener the previous week (Dec 9) but I didn’t hear it as I was attending what could be described as the very antithesis of Metropolitan-quality opera. (See review of Glorious! below.) Apparently the attempt is to make the program more listener-friendly, less stuffy, less "high-brow". If the intention is to bring in lots more listeners, especially younger ones, I sincerely hope it works.

So we get – would you believe? – live interviews with some of the singers as they are coming off stage at intermission. And the interviews are conducted in some cases by other celebrated Met stars. Thus, Renee Fleming collared Joseph Calleja in the wings after the first act. Mr. Calleja expressed the opinion that the show was going well. He sounded excited and pulsing with adrenalin. You couldn’t escape the impression of a sports event with reporters catching the sweaty, panting players outside their dressing rooms between periods. When Ms. Fleming asked Signor Calleja how he prepares for "La donna mobile", he mentioned praying. You almost expected him, like many a sports hero, to start thanking "The Lord" for his slam-dunks on the high notes.

Other very interesting items during intermissions included an interview with the stage manager about his job. The new format also features quicky clips from various stars and Met personnel such as the rehearsal manager. All of this does serve to liven up the program considerably. In the longer interviews, it sounded to me as though the interviewees had probably been prepared to the extent that they were given some of the questions beforehand. And who would begrudge them that? I don’t think any of us listeners is blood-thirsty enough that we want to hear a performer in such a high pressure, intense situation being confronted with some really tough zingers. But I think the Met should be wary of the danger that these interviews might begin to sound like those stilted, scripted exchanges you used to get in the old days of radio – the kind of interviews that the comedians Bob and Ray parodied to such great effect. And by the way, much as I love Ms. Fleming’s work, I think she’s at her best with somebody like Verdi or Mozart providing backup.

In keeping with the new feel of the event, host Margaret Juntwait seems to be relaxing into the job and finding her own voice – one that is a touch more casual and conversational than the solemn, plummy tones of her predecessors. I particularly appreciated her analysis of the dynamics among the four voices in the famous quartet.

The highlight of the program – apart from Verdi – was the quiz. At the beginning of the "new and improved" format, an opinion question is posed, to which listeners are invited to reply by email. The results of the poll are announced at the end of the quiz. Obviously, this adds an "interactive" aspect to the occasion. Another innovation is the introduction of a "presto" quiz. Panelists are peppered with a series of quick questions, all on the same theme, and the idea is to see which panelist racks up the most correct answers. This makes for a certain amount of pandemonium as each panelist tries to be the first to ring his or her bell and give the answer. (A case, I guess, of the higher culture borrowing from the lower.)

Apparently the new deal is to break from the long-revered tradition of an urbane, erudite quiz host in the Edward Downes mode. This week the host was Mexican tenor Rolando Villazn who, believe it or not, was scheduled to sing Rudolfo in La Boheme at the Met just a few hours later. As quiz master, Signor Villazn was delightfully wild and crazy, tossing off impromptu high notes, flubbing his script, and providing an ominous vocal ticking to signal the passing of the seconds in the presto quiz. He came across as a great big bundle of bumptious Mexican charm. At one particularly disastrous moment, he expostulated, "Goodbye, dees ees my farewell as host of dees quiz!" I suspect not. Many of us can’t wait to hear him again in the role.

 

Stranger Than Fiction (Movie) directed by Marc Forster, written by Zach Helm, starring Will Ferrell

Harold Crick, an auditor with the IRS, wakes up one day and discovers that he is a character in a book some author is writing. The way this dawns on Harold is that he hears the author’s voice describing his actions – teeth brushing, for instance – while he does them. For obvious reasons, then, this movie requires a certain amount of voice-over narration. Now, I love movies that display a great skill in telling stories but I hate it when movies resort to literal story-telling. Especially when, as in this case, the narration has a rather arch, pretentiously literary quality, liberally sprinkled with phrases like, "Little did he know".

Luckily, however, you can tune out the narration for most of the movie and concentrate on Will Ferrell as Harold Crick. He’s worth every second of your attention. I don’t have much familiarity with Mr. Ferrell’s comic oeuvre but I pity the young males who were sitting near me and who were apparently expecting more of the same from Mr. Farrell. They laughed at the few opportunities that came along but eventually left looking rather forlorn. Me, I was fascinated.

Mr. Ferrell is so nerdy, anal and repressed that he almost seems barely to qualify as human. And yet he’s the neatly-groomed businessman you see standing next to you on the subway, the guy folding his lunch bag before he deposits it in the recycling bin, the guy timing his coffee break to the second. He goes home to his all-beige modern apartment where everything has a place – put away for the most part – and the premises are largely bare. He is so dull that he would bore himself to death if he actually thought about it.

And yet, there is something tremendously appealing about this guy looking out at life from the depths of his private cave. What makes his loneliness so touching is that he's too brave to show it. Your heart aches for him and you wish there were something you could do to inject a bit of joy into his life. When a young female tells him that she thinks she likes him, the merest twitch of a tiny smile breaks out at one corner of his lips. It feels like Handel’s "Hallelujah" chorus.

Compared to Will Ferrell’s understated credibility, every other performance in the movie seems a bit hyper. At first, I found Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feisty baker a bit over the top but she slowly grew on me. Dustin Hoffman, as a literature professor who tries to figure out what’s happening, has been given a lot of odd business – fussing with coffee, lounging in his bare feet in his office, even acting as lifeguard at the faculty pool, for heaven’s sake. The professor is an interesting enough character without all that. Why the shtick? Is it just to show that he’s more alive than Harold? The most problematic character, for me, is the author of the on-going narration, as played by Emma Thompson. It’s such an odd role that I don’t know whether it’s even playable. Unfortunately, Ms. Thompson’s grimacing and twitching don’t quite manage to create a real person.

In terms of story, the movie held my attention, although I’m not sure I bought the ending. The intellectualizing gets a bit wobbly at times. I kept waiting for the point of the movie’s strange conceit to kick in. What does it mean that a man should find he’s living out a life as written by somebody? Is there some cosmic significance here? If so, I missed it. But none of that matters, really. Will Farrell's great performance provided significance enough in my life for the time being.

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing")

 

The History Boys (Movie) directed by Nicholas Hytner, based on the play by Alan Bennett

You might wonder whether we need another movie at this point about teachers and students. But the stage version of this piece was playing when I was in Manhattan in the spring (see Dilettante’s Diary, "Me in Manhattan") and the New Yorker review more or less said that if you couldn’t get tickets you should kill yourself. Well, I balked at that but the movie shot to the top of my must-see list.

We’re in a boys’ grammar school in Yorkshire in the 1980s. A select group of ten or twelve boys is being prepped for Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams. Much of the story revolves around a whale of a teacher, an avuncular fellow nicknamed "Hector" (Richard Griffiths). It’s a bit difficult to tell what exactly he teaches, but maybe that’s the point. We get some discussion about whether the goal is to teach them to be "smart" or to be "thoughtful. The purpose of studying history is examined. There are some sexual-orientation issues to deal with. A little evangelical Christianity is tossed in. And out of the blue we get a feminist diatribe from the one woman who plays a significant role in the movie (the superb Frances de la Tour). She sees history as nothing but a recital of the blunders of incompetent men.

In many ways, this seems like an affectionate look at a certain style of education rather than an actual drama. There’s such a mish-mash of themes that you keep wondering what the point is. What is the central conflict that should be driving the story forward? Eventually some plot lines kick in but they seem somewhat perfunctory and predictable. Lacking a straight line that carries the tension right through it, the movie doesn’t pack the punch of a classic teacher movie like "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie".

So what makes The History Boys so enjoyable? Apart from the superb acting from every member of the cast (an attribute we expect of most British movies these days), it must be the charm of the characters and the situations. Was there ever a class of such witty, articulate, creative, friendly, co-operative students? Well, maybe in certain arts schools or gifted programs. These guys toss off reams of poetry at the drop of a hat. If a song is called for, an excellent pianist in the group hits the keyboard before you can say "Play!". These guys kibbitz with the teachers like cronies. They jump up and act out scenes from movies (very well) whenever the mood strikes. They’re the kind of guys who will instantly concoct some goofy scenario to get the teacher off the hook when the sourpuss of a headmaster (the hilarious Clive Merrison) comes calling. Even without subtitles to help us with the (sometimes) very thick North Country accents, the fun is infectious.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by some of the sexual politicking near the end of the movie but several of the scenes have that startling quality of something that you’ve never seen on screen before and that gives you a new slant on life. Like the scene where one student (the awesomely good Samuel Barnett), stands in front of the class and sings a sweet, sad version of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered". He makes no secret of the fact that he’s singing it to the studly guy at the back of the room. Everybody knows, including Studly (Dominic Cooper). And that’s ok. They’re all be fine with it, bemused and accepting. Could such a thing ever happen? I dunno. But a scene must have something going for it when it brings tears to my eyes as this one did.

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Glorious! (Play) by Peter Quilter, directed by Christopher Newton (Canstage, Toronto, until December 16)

I went to this play mainly out of curiosity. How could you make a play about Florence Foster Jenkins? Every month or so, we hear one of her recordings for comic relief on Shelley Solmes’ "Here’s To You" on CBC Radio Two. Those recordings attest volubly to the fact that Madame Jenkins was arguably the worst opera singer ever. It was only her wealth –  financial, not artistic – that enabled her to create a sort of career performing and recording. Surely such a person must have been demented? Wouldn’t watching a play about her be like laughing at unfortunate people who appear in freak shows?

Well, Peter Quilter has decided that the person behind the squeaky, tunless voice was an indomitable spirit who followed her dream (as we would say today) despite the naysayers. And good on her, says Mr. Quilter. He tells her story from the point of view of a young pianist (played by the very talented Jonathan Monro) hired to accompany her. As the young man gets over his shock at her sound, he begins to like her. And so do we. She is fun-loving, generous, magnanimous and lavish with her expenditures. She’s convinced that she’s bestowing a great gift on the world with her singing. Admittedly, people have to be interviewed before they are granted tickets to her performances, but you always have to keep out the riff-raff, don’t you? As envisioned by Mr. Quilter and brought to glorious life by Nicola Cavendish, Mme Jenkins is a marvellous study of a determined ego faced with daunting odds.

Mr. Quilter has, however, decided to set this amazing character in a play that is out-and-out boffo farce. We get flatulence jokes, tasteless gay jokes, an over-sexed dog and a lunatic maid (Maria Vacratsis) who drinks and wields a mean butcher knife, and whom nobody can understand.  Given the tone of much of the play, the writing would be on a par with Charley's Aunt From Brazil – if only Glorious! had as good a plot. For lack of one, Mr. Quilter throws in car accidents and heart attacks to give the impression that things are moving along. One particularly unsuccessful bit of stagecraft involves the interrupting of a concert by a harridan making a protest on behalf of music lovers. In keeping with all this palaver, Christopher Newton has directed with a broadness that calls for mugging and pratfalls. It’s not that the actors telegraph their emotions; more like they shout them through a bullhorn.

But who am I to diss a play that makes people laugh as much as this one does? Even this stern critic was helpless with mirth during Ms. Cavendish’s routines. Her second act opener in Spanish ruffles and mantilla, clacking castinets and tossing red carnations into the audience is a tour de force not to be missed. Actually, Ms. Cavendish’s voice isn’t that bad. To disguise the occasional good notes that emerge, she resorts to all sorts of antics, sometimes braying like a hound dog, at other times growling like a truck on a hill. All of this accompanied by wild bodily contortions. I have no idea whether or not Mme Jenkins actually performed this way but it makes for great clowning. And, as always with really good clowns, there is the hint of sadness. You know the clown has to act this way to stave off the tragedy just around the corner – or, in this case, those naysayers lurking just outside the door.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com