Dilettante's Diary

April 16/08

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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: 

La Fille du Rgiment (Met Opera Live HD Broadcast); Sheryl Luxenburg: American Watercolor Society (Art); Marco Sassone: Toronto (Painting); Micheal Zarowsky (Watercolours); Audrey Garwood: Northern Journey (Works on paper); Ray Catell: New Horizons (Painting); James Nizan (Photos); Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind (Biography); Enchanted (DVD); Jesse Stone: Sea Change (DVD)

 

La Fille du Rgiment (Opera) by Gaetano Donizetti; HD Met Opera Live Broadcast, April 26; conductor Marco Armiliato; production by Laurent Pelly; starring: Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Florez, Felicity Palmer, Alessandro Corbelli, Marian Seldes, Donald Maxwell

For the first twenty minutes, I’m thinking: if the Met’s going to do this fluff, why not give us The Mikado? When are we going to get The Gondoliers? Here we have villagers praying to the Blessed Virgin for deliverance from a cartoon army, an orphan girl raised by soldiers, an amorous swain who happens to be in the enemy camp, a grande dame who has a dark secret in her past.... This libretto makes W. S. Gilbert look like Shakespeare. However, once Gaetano Donizetti’s sublime music really gets going, we leave Sir Arthur Sullivan in the dust.

It was the singing of Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez that really did it for me. In a review of a radio broadcast of this opera (see Dilettante’s Diary, Aug 8/07), we discussed the fact that his voice doesn’t have the heft of Luciano Pavarotti's, who became famous as the "King of the High C’s", precisely because of his rendition of this opera’s showstopper "Ah, mes amis". So let’s just acknowledge that Signor Florez is not another Pavarotti and get over it. This was the first time I’d seen Signor Florez in performance and I found that there’s a unique beauty to his voice that wipes out any longing for anyone else in this role. That tiny quaver in the voice particularly thrills me. And come to the end of the celebrated show-stopping aria, it was great fun to watch his response to the tumultuous ovation: eyes closed, arm raised and head thrown back for the first minute or so, then gradual lowering of the arm, opening of the eyes with a look of grateful astonishment, then bow. You can have your Olympian athletes crowned with laurels; to me the sight of this tenor soaking up the adulation says everything there is to say about the greatest achievements that humans are capable of.

Natalie Dessay has less spectacular arias but much more music to sing and she does it very beautifully. But the most amazing thing about her performance is the comedy. When has there ever been a leading soprano who threw herself so generously and unstintingly into the physical comedy of a role – tossing off elaborate coloratura all the while? And what other soprano would tromp around in a sweaty undershirt for the whole of the first act? More to the point, what other soprano could? (You should try to banish thoughts of Joan Sutherland in the role.) Ms. Dessay is constantly on the move, whether ironing or peeling potatoes or marching or shadow boxing and she does it all with tremendous energy and a totally convincing presentation of a flippant tom-boy. What makes it all particularly delicious is the impression that she draws on her own natural impulse for clowning. When the end of one aria finds her with arms outstretched and back to the audience, she holds the pose, finally acknowledging the applause with a tiny dip of one foot. For her curtain call, she came running out with the conductor’s baton, making goofy with it until she handed it over to him.

For me, director Laurent Pelly’s relatively modern setting – approximately First World War – worked perfectly. The dancing long johns on the laundry line and the arrival of an armoured tank helped to prevent the proceedings from tipping over prettily into Naughty Marietta territory, which they could have so easily done. Plastering the background mountains with maps of Europe helped remind us, though, not to take any of it too seriously. Still, one question bothers me: why, given the time-period, did Ms. Dessay wield  a state-of-the-art, contemporary-looking appliance for her ironing?

Given that there was only one intermission, we didn’t get as much of the backstage stuff as usual, although we did see the chorus milling about behind the curtain during host Rene Fleming’s introduction to the first act. The interview with Signor Florez and Ms Dessay, panting and exultant after the first act finale, was delightful. Rather than fall into the clich about the chemistry between the stars, I will say that this is one of the few opera broadcasts in which we got lovers who were convincing in terms of age and physical condition. No question that Signor Florez’s ravishing good looks make him totally believable as the amorous villager. While Ms. Dessay is somewhat more mature (I’m guessing) and not as gifted in the looks department, the youthfulness of her acting made for a perfect match with her suitor. To my frustration, though, Signor Florez hinted that he might have encored "Ah, mes amis" if those people in the Met auditorium had shouted and yelled a little longer. My only complaint about the whole broadcast package is that we didn’t get an interview with the conductor this time. Marco Armiliato, with his mop of shaggy hair and his boyish grin, looked like he was having a hugely good time throughout. It would have been nice to hear what he had to say about it all.

 

Sheryl Luxenburg: American Watercolor Society

Back in the early days of Dilettante’s Diary, we reviewed a show of the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour, giving special mention to the excellent work of Sheryl Luxenburg, an Ottawa artist (Dilettante’s Diary December 20/04). Ms. Luxenburg spotted the reference and contacted me, with the result that we became friendly for a while in an email sort of way. What a thrill, then, to visit the site of the American Watercolor Society recently and to discover that Ms. Luxenburg has won the Gold Medal for this year’s show! I wonder how many Canadians know of this accomplishment by one of our own? To me, this honour is up there with Brent Carver winning a Tony or Carol Shields winning the Pulitzer. I’m not claiming that this acclaim for Ms. Luxenburg is the direct result of being mentioned in Dilettante’s Diary but I don’t mind if you get the feeling I’m hinting at it. To get a look at Ms. Luxenburg’s superb painting, go to: www.americanwatercolorsociety.org. (Note to Canadians: remember that you have to spell "color" the wrong way.) Ms. Luxenburg’s astounding painting comes up on your first hit.

 

Marco Sassone: Toronto (Painting), Odon Wagner Contemporary, 172 Davenport Road, Toronto, until April 26

This show caught my attention because it's about the hectic mess of city life (one of my favourite subjects in art). In this show, Marco Sassone, an international artist with a very distinguished career behind him, celebrates his love for Toronto, the city where he now makes his home. I must admit, though, that the small pastel sketches on paper, several of them studies for larger works, appeal to me more than the huge oils. A framed pastel of College Street (apparently near University Ave) – consisting mostly of squiggles and smudges – captures perfectly the shimmer and bustle of the city, the large glass surfaces of the Hydro building floating over everything like a luminous ghost. Several unframed pastels offered in a bin are breath-taking.

For my taste, most of the large oils have a heavy, mucky-ness about them. The colours are dark and foreboding and the paint is applied in what looks like a rather sticky, clumsy technique. In some of them, the composition seems off-kilter. Sometimes that can be done to good effect but in these cases it looks inept. Given Mr. Sassone’s reputation and the price of some of these expressionist paintings (the $30,000 range), far be it for me to say that there’s anything wrong with them. Let’s just say that whatever it is that Mr. Sassone is trying to express, I’m not getting it. One that does appeal to me more than others is "Toronto 4": a view through a gloomy, ominous underpass towards a light-filled street in the distance – a scene that you encounter often when prowling around downtown Toronto. And in "Carlaw Parking Lot, Winter", Mr. Sassone certainly has caught the grey, drab light of a slushy winter day in the city.

 

Micheal Zarowsky (Watercolours) Leonardo Gallery, 133 Avenue Road, Toronto, April 18-19

Readers of this website will remember Micheal Zarowsky’s name from several previous reviews of art shows. With meticulous detail, Mr. Zarowsky captures the dazzling effects of light on trees, flowers and water. (To feast your eyes, check out: www.zarowsky.net) Some of his paintings of long shadows cast on snow by groves of evergreens are enough to bring tears to the eyes of anybody who has the Canadian landscape in his or her heart. The extraordinary thing about these watercolours is that they’re painted on panels of Norwegian Birch that have been prepared with gesso (a hard surface, something like plaster). Mr. Zarowsky tells me that he pioneered this technique because so many art buyers these days turn up their noses at watercolours painted on paper and framed under glass. These new paintings, then, have a solidity that you don’t usually associate with watercolours. What you lose in softness and transparency, you gain in immutability. But I’m glad to say that this show includes some of Mr. Zarowsky’s earlier watercolours on paper – still very painstakingly worked and dancing with light – of streets and gardens in Paris.

 

Audrey Garwood: Northern Journey  DeLong Gallery, 965 College St., Toronto, until April 27

For the true lover of watercolour, it’s a rare treat these days to see a show featuring several paintings in the classic, light, purely transparent style for which the medium is best known. Audrey Garwood, a Canadian artist who died in 2004 at the age of 78, wasn’t influenced by the craze for photographic realism that has been fostered, I think, through the tremendously competitive spirit fired up by the American watercolour magazines. Ms. Garwood’s technique harks back to an earlier period when watercolourists used the medium in a truly watery way. There’s no attempt at detailed realism; you just lay down some washes and some streaks of colour and let them create the scene. In fact, I was reminded of the watercolours of Paul Czanne: the more you look at them, the more they come alive. The white spaces and the blotches of colour play off each other, creating the picture in your eye. One of the best of Ms. Garwood's suggests something like an aerial view of tundra-like hills beside a vast expanse of glacier or snow. It’s very satisfying as landscape and yet, at the same time, it works as an abstract. Some monoprints, with their chaste design, bring to mind the minimalist landscapes of David Milne. As for the acrylics in the show, the groupings of rocks in the foregrounds are well done but sometimes there’s a heaviness in the use of the medium in the distant hills. Still, it was well worth the trip to the gallery for the chance to see Ms. Garwood’s refreshingly simple and direct watercolours.

 

Ray Catell: New Horizons Moore Gallery, 80 Spadina Ave, Toronto, until April 26

One thinks of Ray Catell as one of the most accomplished watercolourists in Canada today. In fact, he was one of the artists recently honoured in a special show by the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour. So it was something of a disappointment to discover that this show doesn’t include any actual watercolours. There are some small-ish mixed-media pieces but most of the works are large acrylics on canvas. Many of them suggest a kind of landscape, if only because of the presence of what seems to be a horizon somewhere in the composition. The ones that appeal most to me feature colours that are naturalistic and earthy: for instance, one autumnal-looking piece in browns and oranges with greyish-white blotches of early snow. One of the biggest of the acrylics seems inspired by an enormous stretch of prairie beneath an infinitely airy sky. Some of these paintings include quite startling but inspired daubs of bright, electric colour in the horizon area. The paintings that appeal less to me are the ones where the colours overall seem less plausible, in fact downright jarring: in one, for example, a purplish-pink sky above intensely dark green field (or a body of water?). Responding sympathetically to my lament about the absence of any of Mr. Catell’s watercolours in the show, the gallery staff brought some out of hiding. These abstracts feature great washes of watercolour flowing and colliding across the paper, with accents of more intense hues strategically placed. How Mr. Catell manages to make the medium work this way is a subject for endless speculation and fascination.

 

James Nizan: Dwellings Toronto Image Works, 80 Spadina Ave, to April 26

While at 80 Spadina Ave, I poked around to try to find some other interesting shows. James Nizan is showing photographs of the interiors of houses that have been abandoned. Presumably, the photos were taken just before the health department arrived with a demolition order. There’s an incongruously lush, soft glow in his treatment of these grubby, rubbish-strewn rooms. I think Mr. Nizan is on to something: the mess we leave behind says lots about the way we live. One of the most intriguing pictures, for me, shows a room that has been stripped bare except for several cheap-looking doors, taken off their hinges, and propped haphazardly, leaning against each other, in the doorway to this room. Don’t ask me what that says exactly; one of these days it'll come to me.

 

Freud: The Inventor of the Modern Mind (Biography) by Peter D. Kramer, 2006

Let’s say you have this secret wish to be analyzed by Sigmund Freud. You’re fed up with all these other psychiatrists and their clumsy attempts to figure you out. You want to lie down on the master’s couch and let him do his thing on you.

If this book is even half-true, you’d better be glad that time travel in reverse isn’t covered by most health insurance plans and that you won’t, therefore, get your wish. Chances are, if you found yourself in the great man’s office, he would bully you and distort your story to make it fit it into his theories. If he liked you, you might be one of the favoured ones invited to stay for dinner and socialize with his family; on the other hand, he could be very stern with you. In other words, he would break all his own rules about being neutral and objective. He liked – even expected – adulation from his patients. Sometimes he accepted gifts from them – on one occasion, a chow that subsequently sat in on all sessions. If he got really interested in you, he might start dishing out advice about how to live your life and, in the process, he would ruin it – as in some cases where he interfered in his patients’ choices of partners.

These facts about Freud’s practice have come to light in recent decades, not just from interviews with people he treated, but from the release of his private papers. Ok, so maybe he didn’t exactly practice what he preached. But what about that preaching? Don’t Freud’s theories still stand as landmarks in the discovery of how our minds work? Well, landmarks that have been eroded and nearly erased by the passage of time. There’s hardly a theory of Freud’s that isn’t lying in tatters today. You name it: penis envy, Oedipal complex, dream interpretation, castration anxiety, the causes of nightmares and depression – almost none of Freud’s dicta on these subjects hold sway today.

Then what about the man himself? Doesn’t he command our respect for his personal qualities? Freud was arrogant, vain and ruthlessly ambitious. When he wanted to prove a theory, he thought nothing of claiming greater success than was actually achieved in his therapies – although he got a little more honest on that point later in life. He often proclaimed as his own ideas that had been promulgated earlier by less vainglorious thinkers. To say that he was absolutist and over-reaching in all his assertions is a bit like saying that popes have a tendency to pontificate. He was ruthlessly hostile to any perceived opposition or disagreement, managing to squelch or sideline disciples who didn’t fall into line.

Perhaps a disclaimer is in order. This isn’t my estimate of Freud (I never met the guy); these are strictly impressions gleaned from this book. Does the author, then, reveal anything that wasn’t despicable about Freud? Well, he did shun opportunities for big bucks offered by entrepreneurs who wanted to showcase his psychoanalytical prowess as a kind of circus act. He worked hard, even when his health was failing. And he was courageous about his physical suffering towards the end. Oh yeah, he reportedly had a sense of humour.

Not much on which to build a case for greatness. And yet, given the title of this biography, author Peter D. Kramer seems to think we owe lots to Freud. Dr. Kramer, called "America’s best-known psychiatrist" by the New York Times, is a professor at Brown University and the author of several books. In spite of the damning evidence that he builds up, his tone throughout is respectful towards his subject. So what gives? Well, you have to look carefully to see why Dr. Kramer feels that we should still revere Freud in spite of all his failings. The idea seems to be that, even if you don't agree with Freud, he opened up a whole new way of looking at things. Take modern literature: we need a Freudian mindset to de-code the works of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. Freud provided medical and scientific respectability to the new sexual openness among the upper classes of Vienna in his day. It seems that his daring exploration of sexual topics – even if his conclusions were seldom on the mark – made it more acceptable for people to acknowledge such dynamics in their lives.

Still, I put down this slim book (213 pages) with a shudder at the thought of ever submitting to the great man’s attentions. Granted, this brief biography, part of a series of short biographies on "great figures" can hardly be expected to do full justice to its subject. The technical discussion of certain theories is sometimes, perhaps necessarily, somewhat elliptical, making them difficult for a non expert to grasp in their entirety. For the most part though, Dr. Kramer’s prose is admirably clear and lucid. I particularly like a brief description of what is, as he sees it, the compassionate, open-minded, non-doctrinaire version of psychiatry prevalent today. Maybe we had to go through Freud to get to this. You could say he’s the explorer who returned from terra incognita with a map that was pretty wonky in many respects; but at least he lead the way.

 

Enchanted (DVD); written by Bill Kelly; directed by Kevin Lima; starring Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden, Susan Sarandon, Timothy Spall, Rachel Covey

I guess it takes all the resources of the Disney Industry to concoct such an incongruous mixture of the brilliant and the unbearable.

First, the good stuff. A wicked queen from fairytale land banishes a would-be princess to contemporary New York, where she finds herself relying on the kindness of a stranger who happens to be a divorce lawyer. For this gal from happy-ever-after land, getting the drift of divorce takes some strenuous mental gymnastics. Lots of opportunity for great satire. Sort of Monty Python but with an American sensitivity. Given that this is a Disney movie, lots of cash has been lavished on all-out production numbers. On top of which, the script manages to hint at some existential truths about real love – and real people – as distinct from the fairytale kind.

But this intriguing premise is introduced and wrapped up by animated cartoons (literally). And thus we are subjected to the most nauseating excesses of Disney cartoons: singing birds, dancing cockroaches, and a loveable little chipmunk who has more balls than brains. In the main body of the movie, you can almost believe that the folks at Disney studios are parodying their own product. But these drippy cartoon sequences don't give you any choice except to take the schlock at face value.

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

*Special Note: Timothy Spall’s role as flunkey to the wicked queen wouldn’t have been particularly notable except that I realized he was the guy who made such a strong impression in Intimacy (see review on "Videos and DVDs" page, listed towards the bottom of the navigation bar). That was one of the first DVDs reviewed on this site. Back then, I hadn’t yet learned how to access imdb.com for actors names, so I wasn’t sure who he was. At long last, then, I’m giving credit where it’s due.

 

Jesse Stone: Sea Change (DVD) written by Robert B. Parker and Ronni Kern; based on the book by Robert B. Parker; directed by Robert Harmon; starring Tom Selleck, Kathy Baker, William Devane, Stephen McHattie, Rebecca Pidgeon, James Preston Rogers, Saul Rubinek, Nigel Bennett

It turns out that Tom Selleck has essayed the role of police chief Jesse Stone, a character I just discovered in Robert B. Parker’s High Profile (see review Dilettante’s Diary, March 26/08). In Sea Change, our Jesse, the laid-back police chief of the small town of Paradise (near Boston), digs into an unsolved murder from years ago because his psychiatrist says he needs something to keep his mind off booze. Mr. Selleck gives a solid – perhaps even stolid – performance in his trademark style but my reading of the character in the book led me to expect somebody with a little more colour, a little more variety in his moods than the brooding, taciturn mensch Mr. Selleck gives us. Among his supporting actors, some do very good work – especially Kathy Baker as the dispatcher in the cop shop.

Apparently this movie was made for tv and it goes down pleasantly enough if you enjoy the kind of flick that earns a lot of its points by reaction shots from a beautiful dog. But it doesn’t feel to me like this was made with great care, even by the standards of tv movies. Chief Stone confronts one character whose sports car is parked illegally by a fire hydrant – while the rest of the somnolent street is entirely empty of cars. Not to be cranky about minor details, but it insults me when producers don’t take us seriously enough to try for a little more verisimilitude. A brief scene in a convent has nuns traipsing around in long black gowns and veils (which no nuns except the most reactionary wear these days) while close-ups of their feet show them in stylish high heels!

The resolution of the mystery, thanks to author Parker, is clever but the final shoot-up feels perfunctory. I haven’t read the novel version of this story but, judging from my reading of Mr. Parker’s other books, his energy and pace seem to have evaporated in this adaptation. How is it that the mega bucks poured into a movie can result in something that seems so much less than a book?

Rating: D (i.e. "Divided": some good, some bad)

 

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com