Dilettante's Diary

Feb 26/08

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. The more recent reviews will appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: Lucia di Lammermoor with Natalie Dessay (Opera); Dad (TV drama); In Bruges (Movie); Kiwanis Music Festival; Leonard Gilbert (Encore); Battle Royal: Britain vs Hollywood (TV); From The House of the Dead (Opera); Hardcore Zen (Spirituality)

Lucia di Lammermoor with Natalie Dessay (Opera) by Gaetano Donizetti; Metropolitan Opera Broadcast, CBC Radio Two; conductor Joseph Colaneri; starring Natalie Dessay, Giuseppe Filianoti, Mariusz Kwiecien, John Relyea. CBC Radio's "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera," March 8/08

Suppose you’re sitting at home and the phone rings. It’s the Met and they want you to sing Lucia. What are you gonna do? Do you put down the phone, then go out and kill yourself because you’re not Joan Sutherland. I probably would. But not Natalie Dessay. She gets up there and gives it her all. And good for her. If nobody had the courage to take on the impossible challenge of following in Dame Joan’s footsteps, we’d never again hear those gorgeous melodies live. And you know what? Ms. Dessay does damn well. Granted, her top note are not Dame Joan’s. Chances are, we’re never again going to get that lovely floating quality in the stratosphere. With Ms. Dessay, you get something else up there. But never mind. You get lots of glorious singing elsewhere and, thanks to Ms. Dessay’s acting chops, you get more of a sense of character than you ever got from Dame Joan. And how nice, for a change, to be able to hear the words so clearly!

 

Dad (TV Drama) written by Lucy Gannon; directed by Sarah Harding; starring Richard Briers and Kevin Whatley. TVO, Sunday, March 9/08

Every once in a while, you’re just too tired to read. You don’t know how to stay awake until bedtime. Then the idea hits you: isn’t that what tv is for? So you decide to give it a try. After all, you might as well check out TVO occasionally, seeing that you send money to them (on top of your share of taxes) because you believe in keeping some tv on the air without commercials even if you almost never watch the tube.

The much-touted Dad promised to be one of those fine, subtle dramas that made the BBC the envy of the rest of the tv world. The play starts with an old guy (Richard Briers) gently coaxing his senile wife to brush her teeth. But then he falls down the stairs and breaks his ankle, so the spouse has to be sent to a nursing home. (I’m revealing more plot than usual here because if this show ever comes around again, you’ll have forgotten these details, as will I.)

When the old guy gets out of hospital, he’s not able to manage on his own, so he goes to live with his son (Kevin Whatley) and the son’s wife and daughter. At first everybody tries to be very nice. That leads to an awful lot of banality. Which makes me squirm: is this the great and glorious BBC that we used to know and love?

Before long, though, tempers wear thin. And that’s when things take a decided turn for the worst – not just in the household but in the production. Lots of over-acting pops up, people grimacing and wincing all over the place. Worse still, the behaviour of some of the characters is implausible. On finding a pair of underpants that the old man has messed in, the son and daughter-in-law freak out. But it’s hard to say whether that grosses them out more than the fact that he bleached a spot on the carpet while trying to clean up after himself. The son, when confronted with suspicions that his mother may have been abused in the nursing home, refuses to look at the bruises on her arms because he doesn’t want to see his mother "undressed". For godsake, we’re only talking about her arms, buddy. Didn’t you ever see her in a bathing suit? Granted, the guy is under considerable financial stress, but that doesn’t mean he should act like a fourteen-year-old. As for the twenty-something granddaughter, she seems pretty nice on the whole and she would love to give grandma a massage except that, you know, she just can’t, like, force herself to visit "that place".

Too bad the principal roles weren't more like the minor ones -- the rank-and-file health care workers, for instance -- which were played to perfection. And the unresolved ending hit just the right note. But that wasn't enough to redeem this production for me. Have the BBC’s standards fallen so far from the height at which I remember them? Or is it just that I have a problem with the way the media these days present the hysterics of supposed adults when obliged to deal with the inevitable decline in their elders? [See Dilettante’s Diary review of Savages, January 17/08]

 

In Bruges (Movie) written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes; with Clmence Posy and Eric Godon.

I headed off to this movie with a vague impression that it might be a murder mystery, a comedy or a thriller. It’s all of those, and then some. What the total of the parts amounts to, it’s kinda hard to say.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell play two British hit met who are sent to Bruges to hide out (or so they think) after completing a job. Mr. Gleeson’s character, Ken, is the seasoned one of the pair, his gentle manner and his rumpled look belying his professionalism. Mr. Farrell plays Ray, the neophyte, a loose cannon whose cocky manner and hair-trigger temper attract trouble.

Their affairs in Bruges, as they must, go very wrong. As the movie get more complicated and plotty, the tone verges on something like one of those macabre Joe Orton farces, although some of the witticisms here sound more contrived than Mr. Orton’s. In keeping with the style, there’s even a small hotel where characters run up and down stairs and at least one door slams. Innumerable implausibilities and coincidences crop up. Characters turn out to have unexpected connections and arrive on the scene just when needed. A prolonged climax, dragging in lots of violence and gore, involves people struggling to their feet and fighting long after they should have been dead. Knowing that it’s all in fun (or is it?), you don’t quibble too much about the deficiencies in the department of realism, but I kept hoping to find out in the end that it was all based on a book. Sometimes in a novel wildly outrageous improbabilities can go down more easily, thanks to authorial chit-chat and a more securely established context.

Well, there’s no novel cited in the credits but an Internet search on writer/director Martin McDonagh explains a lot. Apparently, this is the first film both written and directed by the author of such successful plays as "The Lonesome West," "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "The Pillowman". (See review of "The Pillowman" at Dilettante’s Diary, Oct 25/07.) Mr. McDonagh’s work, like a lot of Irish theatre, offers up a concoction of contrasting elements that can make for a wildly uneven experience for an audience. In his case, there’s a lots of sentimentality mixed with the hilarity and the violence leans towards a somewhat morbid preoccupation with harm done to children.

One of the most peculiar aspects of this movie is the treatment of Bruges and Belgium, relative to other places. Ken, who appreciates the city’s cultural attractions, opines that it’s lucky that Bruges is in Belgium, "Because if it was someplace good there’d be too many visitors." On the other hand, Ray feels that Bruges could only be interesting to somebody who was brought up on a farm and was "retarded". No such hick our Ray. After all, as he smugly insists, Ray was born in Dublin. While I’m not a connoisseur of the attractions of cities around the world, I take it to be funny that Ray should think Dublin so obviously superior to Bruges. And, in spite of Ray’s constantly dissing the city where he and Ken are stranded, our eyes are constantly being invited to feast on its beauty. But Ray can’t see it. With a keener sensitivity to linguistic nuance than you’d give him credit for, he comes to see the phase "In Bruges" as synonymous with "In Hell".

Perhaps at its most subliminal level, then, the piece is about language. It will be a long time before I forget Colin Farrell’s way with words. For instance, his insult to some fat American tourists, "Yiz ‘r fooking elephants." The script even has him remarking, when somebody suggests that he try to learn a European language, "I can barely manage the English." (Or something like that.) And then there’s a Belgian gun dealer (Eric Godon) who drools over English words like "alcove" and "nooks and crannies" and "dum-dum" (as in bullets) which he calls "dim-dims". Not to mention Ralph Fiennes’ hilariously low-rent Cockney accent for his character, Harry.

That accent contributes much to the unforgettable impression Mr. Fiennes makes. His performance rivals Ben Kingsley’s work in Sexy Beast; it’s as if the two actors are trying to see which of them can produce the most evil, most foul-mouthed, yet most gentlemanly English criminal on screen. The other two stars of In Bruges, make for a nicely conflicted odd couple, with Brendan Gleeson’s unflappable Ken providing ballast to Colin Farrell’s flighty Ray. No denying that Mr. Farrell makes a very appealing on-screen presence, but I couldn’t help noticing lots of over-acting on his part; he keeps telegraphing what he’s supposed to be feeling: this is where I look surprised, this is where I pull a worried face, etc. But maybe it’s not his fault; maybe it’s those eyebrows. The saying is that you should never perform with animals; maybe furry eyebrows that have a life of their own should be included.

Interesting as the character of Ray is, one thing about him somewhat undermined the whole business, for me. He’s supposed to feel enormous guilt about a mistake that he made in the course of his first killing. Not only is this remorse necessary to explain his character, his misdeed is supposed to have stirred up revulsion in others that propels the plot to its climax. But I never for one moment believed that Ray or anyone else in this madhouse of characters would react to the incident in the way they're meant to. Which ultimately made the entertainment of the whole enterprise ring somewhat hollow.

Still, it was entertaining.

Rating: B minus (Where "B" = "Better than most")

 

Kiwanis Music Festival, Toronto, February 08

My Kiwanis Music Festival visit to marvel at the pianistic prowess of Leonard Gilbert (see Dilettante’s Diary, Feb 13/08) brought back nostalgic thoughts about music festivals of old. And that reminded me of the phenomenally successful play Two Pianos Four Hands (by Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra) which reviewed the personal history of two young would-be pianists. The show always got a huge laugh when one of the two actors adopted a world-weary pose and announced, "Ladies and Gentlemen, on behalf of the local Kiwanis club...."

But were those festivals of old just a laughing matter? What’s their place in today’s metropolis? Might the Kiwanis Festival be a chance to catch some rising stars at the ridiculously low admission price of three dollars per day?

Yes, it turns out. In fact, my visit to the singing sessions started off with incredible good luck. At 9:30 on a Monday morning, I was treated to the very professional, polished singing of tenor Justin Ralph. Through several classes over two days, I was able to hear him sing opera arias and concert songs. It was amazing that a young man of just twenty years old could stand and deliver with such poise and panache. His high notes are bright and ringing, everything that an opera director could wish for. Sometimes, his voice sounds less beautiful in the middle register; I worry that he pushes it a bit but, if he takes good care of his instrument, this young singer should be very much in demand.

My good luck held further with the arrival on the scene of baritone Kyle Merrithew, who sang opera arias as well as concert and cabaret songs. This is one of the most beautifully produced voices I’ve ever heard – absolutely seamless from top to bottom, with smooth, effortless-sounding coloratura. In the rapid high passages, where his tone is bright and silvery, you fear that the low notes won’t be there when he drops to the depths. But they are. On top of all that, Mr. Merrithew’s acting is honed to a fine degree. On learning that this magnificent singer is only seventeen years old, one could only utter a silent prayer that one will be around to hear his voice in five years.

Among the women, two very accomplished sopranos were Jennifer Sullivan and Leanne Thorne. Several of the other women participants had very beautiful voices but one that made a particular impression was Claire Renouf. Her big voice has an usual quality that makes one wonder if she might become a Wagnerian singer. What struck me most was a very direct way of communicating a song; her sound seemed to touch a place in the brain that wasn’t used to being grabbed and forced to pay attention.

Many of the women, to my taste, while gifted with amazing vocal equipment, seemed to lack training in very precise vocal production. Too often, when it came to the high notes, one got, rather than a clearly focussed note, an enormous clang that swirled around the room and threatened to swamp the listeners. And then there were the participans who, it must be admitted, are really not singers but who seem to enjoy trying. The same could be said for some of the men who participated.

Which brings us to adjudicator Torin Chiles. Professor Chiles, a member of the Faculty of Music at the University of Western Ontario, has sung tenor with many major opera companies in Canada. Whatever his qualifications in those lines of work, he is a very gifted adjudicator. He manages to convey an astounding amount of musical erudition with a congenial, even palsy style. No participant, no matter how inept, could come away from one of his adjudications, without feeling more encouraged than discouraged.

And I suppose that is as it should be. Why put anybody down for getting up there and doing their best? As one who is accustomed to hearing, for the most part, fully-fledged professional singers, I found some of the performances downright disconcerting. But not Professor Chiles. His kindness and tact eventually brought me round to considering, at least, the possibility that everybody was to be commended simply for enduring what he often called the "torture" of participating in a music festival.

 

Leonard Gilbert (Encore)

After spending the better part of two days at the singing classes, I attended another piano class where Leonard ("Yun-Yun") Gilbert was performing in the session featuring works by early twentieth century composers. Of five competitors, all of them formidably talented, Leonard took the first prize, with a mark of 94, for his performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata #7.

What made the class particularly interesting for me was the fact that an other competitor, Daniel En-Hao Lin, played the same piece as Yun-Yun. When Mr. Lin (who won second prize) finished his powerful performance, you wondered how anybody could improve on his playing of this extraordinarily complex and challenging piece. But then Yun-Yun sat down at the piano, and suddenly the piece sounded – incredibly! – simpler and clearer. The patterns were more precise, the harmonies cleaner. With the result that, come to the conclusion of the piece – where it’s time to "go crazy", as adjudicator Michel Fournier put it – the fireworks were all the more spectacular.

The experience reminded me of a master class given by Anton Kuerti at the University of Toronto years ago. All the students who took a crack at the assigned piece seemed, to me, to do very well. But then Mr. Kuerti sat down at the keyboard and the music sounded more limpid and silky. Compared to what he was playing, the students’ efforts sounded like fists full of notes. Not to say that Mr. Lin’s playing was anything like ham-fisted – after all, his final mark was only one less than Yun-Yun’s – but the contrast between the two pianists showed the fine line between impressive musicianship and absolute mastery.

So it was a great pleasure to hear that, at the end of the festival, Yun-Yun (age 17) won the President’s Trophy for the best performance in all categories for the entire festival. He's busy now auditioning for prestigious music schools. We wait with great eagerness, while extending the best of wishes, to see how that goes.

 

Battle Royal: Britain vs Hollywood (CBC TV and CTV, Sunday, Feb 24/08)

It was very inconsiderate of the Academy to schedule the awards for last Sunday night when the CBC was showing the third in the series of documentaries about Britain’s royal family. Everybody knows that I’m deeply committed to watching that series. To do something like this to a guy who hardly watches anything but the Academy Awards on tv was particularly thoughtless on the part of the Hollywood decision-makers. The result of this lack of sensitivity to my needs was a battle for my attention: Britain’s royalty pitted against Hollywood’s version.

To tell the truth, though, switching back and forth between the two camps made them both look pretty cheesy although there were scattered moments of genuine interest – or, what you might call touches of spontaneous humanity – in each of them.

As for the Brits, the focus this time was more on the second generation royals. Prince Charles explained how, on official royal encounters, he just gets to the point at which people begin to see that he’s more or less human, then suddenly he’s whisked off and he has to start trying to break the ice with a new bunch of people. You had to feel to feel for him when he wondered wistfully what it would be like to go back and spend more time with people after that friendly contact had been established. Princess Anne won my sympathy by her candid admission that she sometimes breaks out in a "cold sweat" at remembering how bad she was at public relations in her early years on the job. Prince Edward expressed the frustration of never knowing whether or not you’ve hit the mark in your attempt to do some good by shaking hands with people. (Prince Andrew may have been briefly featured; if so, I missed that, due to Jon Stewart’s opening monologue on the other channel.)

Princes William and Harry seem like decent enough chaps – enough so, at least, that they’re willing to play along with the cameras for a few brief scenes. Unfortunately, I could make out hardly anything that either of them said. I don’t know whether it’s that they, like all their contemporaries, don’t articulate very well or that the microphones couldn’t get close enough to them. Part of the problem with William is that his voice is so deep that he seems to be talking into his chest.

As for the seniors, you’ve certainly got to give Prince Philip credit for being game enough – at age eighty-six – to traipse around the world trying to jolly people. There wasn’t much of the Queen in this installment but it was comforting, in an odd way, to know that things can go wrong even in her meticulously planned routines. On a visit to the Kentucky Derby, someone gave her the wrong cue and she ignored a gaggle of photographers waiting for a photo-op that the palace had set up. Presumably, some intense negotiating went on in high places to get Her Majesty to re-trace her steps, so that the photographers could do their thing.

Maybe what made that slight faux pas interesting was the overall effect of deadeningly dull formality. The more we see of those gilded halls, the elegant parties, the unctuous minions, the more pointless it all seems.

Ditto the ceremonies on the other channel. I probably missed some sparks of genuine excitement but, for the most part, the display of so-called glamour and mutual back-patting looks more than ever like hollow ritual. The one unexpected touch I liked was when Jon Stewart called back Marketa Irvglova, co-winner for best original song, so that she could make her speech of thanks which had been cut off earlier. Too bad, though, that, instead of coming up with something original, she offered the usual Oscars clich about following your dreams.

As for the slate of winners in the various categories, do you think that means anything? Does it matter that the Academy’s choices were wildly out of synch with my opinions? Only in so far as it shows that the people in Hollywood don’t really know anything about movies. The fact that three of the big winners – best actor, as well as best actress and actor in supporting roles – were performances that I found particularly problematic proves that what we’re dishing up here at Dilettante’s Diary is a very sophisticated point of view that has little relation to the vagaries of uninformed popular taste.

 

From The House Of The Dead (Opera) by Leoš Janček; Alexander Briger, conductor; Dmitri Bertman, director.

One can see why many Toronto opera-lovers embraced this production: at last, something new and different! No satin and lace, no frills and champagne, no trills and arpeggios. No buxom sopranos pretending to fade away; no portly tenors impersonating love-struck youths. Instead, a bleak, modernistic prison setting with a hundred men traipsing around in blue denim. Here we are, not in a castle or a brothel, but a Siberian penal colony where the prisoners clearly are having a no-good-horrible-very-bad day.

All sorts of amazing effects are conjured up to create the nightmare of the world suggested by Dostoevsky’s memoir. When desperate prisoners poke their hands out from their metal cages, all those wiggling fingers look like so many maggots emerging from the rotting bodies. Guards overhead watch the proceedings on video screens. A live eagle flies across the stage.

All of which is very studied. If the highly-choreographed movements of the chorus seem a little too structured, you’re willing to accept that they contribute to creating a striking impression. The principal singers resort to a very broad style of acting – large gestures, sweeping movements – that leaves much to be desired in terms of naturalism. But this too helps to build a tableau, so you put up with it.

What isn’t so easy to put up with – after a while – is the utter lack of plot or forward momentum. For the most part, these guys stand around and bemoan their fate. One after another, they come forward and tell about their troubles: mostly with the law and/or women. After a while, you realize you don’t need to watch the surtitles closely because, every time you check, the men are going on about the same sorts of things.

So you close your eyes and listen. The music isn’t actually as horrific as you were dreading. Quite pleasant even, in places. The chorus makes some very beautiful sounds, especially when the prisoners are pining for their homes. All the soloists perform splendidly. In particular, bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka cuts through the orchestra with amazing clarity and sustaining power. Every now and then, in the midst of all those male voices, the rich mezzo-soprano voice of Lauren Segal (playing a boy) sounds a very welcome note.

Meanwhile, though, one guy stands and delivers his sorry tale for about twenty minutes while another guy interjects, every five minutes or so, "What happened next?" This is not my idea of good theatre. Maybe some people enjoy the static representation of a mood or a situation, like the painting of a grand picture, within the proscenium. Not me. To be engaged by something on stage, I need an on-going tension between the characters, some sense of a drama unfolding, not just a recital of old woes. Admittedly, towards the end of this piece, a little bit of plot emerges. But the overall effect of the piece has that deadening pall that some European art casts: we know this is dreary as hell but you will sit and endure because it will be good for you.

 

Hardcore Zen (Spirituality) by Brad Warner, 2003

An interview on CBC Radio One’s "Tapestry"made me think that Brad Warner might be somebody worth checking out. And the cover on this book convinced me. How can you not love an author who adorns the cover of his book on spirituality with a photo of a bathroom with the toilet sitting there smack in the middle?

Still, it seemed odd to me, while reading the book, to be listening to spiritual advice from somebody whose other two main interests are punk rock and monster movies. Brad Warner has performed professionally with the kinds of bands that, as far as I can tell, are all about screaming and yelling and making as much noise as possible. Not sure about that, though, having never listened to one. Nor have I ever seen a monster movie. Brad Warner’s so nuts about them that he took himself to Japan and got a job with the company that makes the monster series whose popularity in Asia rivals that of Godzilla in America.

Given the author’s background, it’s not surprising that this book strews four-letter words around like salt on a Toronto street in February. The overall tone is in-your-face. Not the usual hushed reverence of a spiritual tome. I wondered at times whether Mr. Warner was striving a bit too much to sound hip but, given his relatively young age (mid forties), I suppose the slang comes naturally to him.

Occasionally, his explanations of some of the more technical aspects of Zen are a little hard to follow but, for the most part, his ideas are clearly and accessibly presented. As one who has had very little instruction in Zen but who has experienced some strong hints that it may be my type of thing, I found the book a feast of fascinating reading. Unlike what is, I gather, the tone of many books on Budhism, it’s surprisingly down-to-earth and full of common sense. The only times the author blows his cool are when he’s fulminating about idiots who equate drugs with enlightenment. Apart from those sections, the book overflows with good humour, even flippancy.

I’m over-simplifying here, possibly even mis-construing some things, but here are some of the main points that really appeal to me:

- The self is an illusion; we are not isolated beings; we’re all one.

- There’s no past or future; all we have is the precise present moment and it’s slipping by so fast that we can’t catch it.

- Contrary to what many people mistakenly think was the Buddha’s teaching, it’s not desires that are wrong; the problem is our thinking that everything’s going to be great if our desires are fulfilled.

- There’s no enlightenment in the sense of some plateau reached; enlightenment just means seeing reality clearly for what it is.

You could say that the main effect of this book was to whet my appetite for more. With the result that Mr. Warner’s next book Sit Down and Shut Up is perched at the top of my to-read pile. Watch for a response soon.

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