Sunday, April 26, 2009

OPERA: Die Vögel

This afternoon I had the delightful experience of attending Die Vögel (The Birds), an opera by Walter Braunfels. This opera is a continuation of Los Angeles Opera's "Recovered Voices" program, which seeks to rediscover the works of Jewish composers of the early 20th century which had been surpressed by the Nazi regime. They have been giving new life to lost gems, restoring them to their rightful place in the opera canon. I found Die Vögel to be a charming work. Historically, Braunfels was strongly influenced by Wagner (upon seeing Tristan and Isolde, Braunfels decided to drop his law career and pursue music instead), but at least in this work, I found much more influence of other Germans, notably Richard Strauss and Mozart. How can an opera featuring birds, and opening with two guys carrying bird cages, not call to mind The Magic Flute? And some of the Nightingale's arias featured coloratura ornamentation worthy of the Queen of the Night. The story itself was fanciful and allegorical in a Magic Flute sort of way, based on Aristophanes' play The Birds, though made less farcical and with a changed ending (to support the established order rather than overthrow it), giving it more of a story arc and an opportunity to insert a romance. All the performers were strong, but two young stars making their LA Opera debut were particularly captivating. Désirée Rancatore's exquisitely beautiful soprano voice and graceful bearing as the Nightingale made it easy to see her allure, and how Good Hope could fall in love with her. And the honey-golden tenor of the handsome Brandon Jovanovich made Good Hope's passionate arias soar. Their nocturne duet in Act II was so moving, just sigh-inducingly beautiful. Another notable voice was baritone Brian Mulligan, as Prometheus, rich, deep, powerful and commanding. The play was charmingly visualized by director Darko Tresnjak (whom we knew from his Shakespeare work at The Old Globe in San Diego), with a large chorus swirling around in vibrant many-colored costumes, and a bird city in the clouds looking like classical Athens done as birdhouses. The one awkward piece of staging was the conquest of the city by Zeus, which was anticlimactically undramatic, with the birdhouses being gingerly dismantled. A plot-irrelevant thunderstorm from the evening before was more dramatically staged than the actual battle which is the climax of the story. But the final scene is touching, where the two adventurers return to the human world, Loyal Friend shrugging off the experience having learned nothing, and Good Hope having been profoundly moved. "Now I will go back down the mountain, for I have lived," he sings. I left very grateful to James Conlon, not only for his fine conducting, but his leadership in the "Recovered Voices" program for bringing us this unjustly neglected gem.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

OPERA: Wagner's Ring (the first half)

Having now seen two of the four installments in Wagner's Ring Cycle, I can understand the appeal of seeing the whole cycle in succession, although the idea of taking in four Wagner-magnitude operas in one week seems insanely daunting. We saw Das Rheingold and Die Walküre two weeks apart, and that's about perfect. Opera on that scale is the most grandiose of art forms, a culmination of voice, orchestra, dramatic story-telling and magnificent staging, and I think one needs some time to let one sink in before taking on another. Two weeks was sufficient recovery time, but close enough that the previous installment was still fresh in mind. Alas, now we'll have to wait a year for the third and fourth parts. But based on what we've seen, we'll be eagerly awaiting. The first two have been magnificent. Wagner's music, of course, is a marvelous experience in its own right. His dramatic flourishes and vivid leitmotifs (the shimmering Rheingold, the lumbering giants, the regal fortress) would inspire great stories in one's imagination just from listening. Even if you think you're unfamiliar with this justly famous music, much of it would sound familiar from having been used in film scores (and not just Apocalypse Now). And then there's the epic story. Drawn on Norse myths and sagas, it's a riff on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (well, actually, vice versa), complete with gods, giants, dwarves, heroes, magic gold, and a ring of terrible power.

The particular staging put on by Los Angeles Opera is by German artist/director/designer Achim Freyer, and has been controversial, if you read the reviews (and judging by some booing mixed with the applause when Freyer appeared for the curtain call at the close of Das Rheingold). While it's unabashedly modern and at times abstract, which will not be to the liking of traditionalists, I've been favorably impressed. In Das Rheingold, Freyer has realized this epic world with larger-than-life costumes for all the characters, and even larger doppelganger representations of the gods and the giants. I'd read complaints of the singers not being able to project from under all the weight of these oversize costumes, but perhaps they'd solved that problem by the time we saw it, because bass Vitalij Kowaljow projected Wotan (the Zeus-like ruler of these gods) strong and clear, and likewise for the others. I thought the larger-than-life visuals were appropriate for these larger-than-life gods and giants, and Freyer's stage, topped by a "sky" decorated with symbolic objects like Wotan's eye and a cartoon Valhalla, conjured a magical world (even if it was a bit reminiscent of Space Mountain at the same time). His visual motifs suited the grand gestures and motifs of Wagner's music. Admittedly, some of the symbolism eluded me completely (like the vintage aircraft thing), and others (like Fricka's freaky-long arms) were quirky, intriguing, and memorable, even if puzzling. Perhaps Fricka (goddess of marriage and wife of the filandering Wotan) is eternally reaching for something beyond her grasp. Her arms reminded me of that allegory of heaven and hell where people's arms are too long to feed themselves. But I think most of the visual motifs worked well to make characters readily recognizable. In the special effects department, you can't expect the operatic stage to compete with motion picture special effects, but when the dwarf Alberich transformed himself into a dragon, it was quite visually impressive.

In Die Walküre, where we first get some human characters mixing with the gods, the visuals get a bit more abstract. The humans have normal size costumes, but they also sport symbolic body paint. Siegmund and Sieglinde, twin brother and sister separated since youth, are signified by both being painted half black and half white (but on opposite sides, kinda like that old Star Trek episode). Swords and spears, which figure prominently in this part of the saga, are represented by long neon shafts (i.e., Star Wars-style light sabers), conveniently color-coded as red for the Huns, white for the immortals, and blue for the magic sword that the hero Siegmund pulls from a tree, where it had been stuck like Excalibur waiting for the right hero to be able to pull it out. The tree is left entirely to the imagination, and the blue sword is just standing on end in the center of the stage at the start of Act I, the hub of a giant circle that figures prominently in the staging. In Act I, a white neon tube lays on the floor, anchored to the center of the circle, and a shadowy figure slowly, methodically, relentlessly pulls it around, like the hand on a clock. Indeed, this is meant to symbolize time (and perhaps that we're seeing mortal characters for the first time in the saga), and when Siegmund and Sieglinde meet and start to exchange stories of their past, the clock hand moves backwards when they're relating a past event. Also, as they relate stories, mimes appear on the wheel symbolizing the characters in the story, including doppelgangers of the two speakers. When the dialog returns to the present, the mimes disappear like a dream upon awakening, and the clock hand starts going forward again. When the two meet, the abstract staging has them placed on opposite sides of the stage, separated by the giant abstract clock, even though they are talking face to face. Just as when we meet someone special and time stands still or goes real slow, this is conveyed in this abstract symbolism by their interactions being surreally separated by the clock. At one point, when he's thirsty and she gives him a drink of water, she hands the water glass to the shadowy time keeper, who carries it slowly from her position at "3 o'clock" to his position at "9 o'clock". As they become more and more caught up in one another, they slowly move toward each other and toward the center stage, when finally they're both together when he pulls out the magic sword. It's a very surreal and creative way of visualizing the inner dynamics of these two apparent strangers discovering their once and future connection. Freyer keeps the staging minimal and cerebral, letting Wagner's voluptuous music in this act speak the emotional volumes. (Yes, we are talking about a twin brother and sister falling in love, but that's the saga, and you just have to go with it.) And of course we were all eager to see whether Plácido Domingo (age 68) still had a Wagnerian hero in him, and indeed he did.

In Act II, I couldn't help but be distracted by the strange echoes of Prop 8 rhetoric when Fricka harangues Wotan about how the sanctity of marriage must be upheld. (Nothing intentional there, and the metaphor is inapt; it was just an odd juxtaposition with current events.) But thanks to Freyer's visual motifs, and having Das Rheingold fresh in mind, we immediately recognize Wotan the one-eyed and Fricka the long-armed when they appear, and we recall their backstories. (Opera is much more enjoyable when you don't have to struggle to keep the characters straight.) Finally, the much anticipated Act III delivered on the heightened expectations. It opens with the famous Ride of the Valkyries (now cue the Apocalypse Now helicopters and napalm), with the semi-immortal daughters of Wotan looking a bit bride-of-Frankenstein-ish and riding metallic steeds, half skeletal horses and half Harley-Davidson. But somehow that's appropriate for these fearsome demi-goddesses who haunt battlefields and gather the bodies of fallen heroes. In the end, when the most spirited Valkyrie Brünnhilde must be punished for disobeying Wotan's command (even though she did what he really wanted her to do), the circle of flames that surrounds her enchanted sleep is symbolically spectacular. No real flames, as other productions do, but bright red cartoonish flames suited this abstract staging, and they enchanted my eyes. In a final inspired touch, we see Siegfried (the foretold hero of the latter half of the saga, readily identifiable thanks to Freyer's visual motifs) cross the circle of flames, foreshadowing the next installment. I eagerly await.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

FILM: Adventureland

Adventureland film posterGreg Mottola surely had fun directing Superbad. Now, in Adventureland, he has written and directed a film with the same coming-of-age authentic awkwardness, but where the kids are just a few years older, their lives just a bit more complicated and interesting. The film takes place in a cheesy amusement park where college kids from a town outside of Pittsburgh work a crappy summer job, while dreaming of moving to New York City for grad school. They're at the age where academic intellectual pursuits seem really cool, but also at the age where it's becoming clear that making their way in the real world might require some work. "I'm not even qualified for manual labor," says James, a comparative lit major, after being rejected for a trucking job. Jesse Eisenberg plays James with the perfect balance of earnest innocence and sardonic remarks for our 21-year-old virgin coming-of-age hero. Comparisons to Michael Cera are inevitable, but Eisenberg's James has a bit more spark and drive going for him than Michael Cera's meek Hugh Grant-esque deer-in-the-headlights aphasia, and it's a delight to watch James blossom. The film's setting in the 1980s gave it a slight (but not cloying) Wonder Years nostalgic patina, and James is much like Fred Savage's character probably turned out ten years after the Wonder Years. Eisenberg is well-matched by Kristen Stewart, who plays Em, the girl of that memorable summer, a bit more worldly than him, confident and outgoing, but not quite as ready to handle it all as she projects. A cast of quirky characters, some stock (the bubble-gum-blowing sexy Catholic New Jersey-type girl) and some more interesting, add color to the retelling of the archetypal story. The film is tender, funny, and enjoyable to the expected but satisfying end. But it's not about the end, which we know from the start, but the summer of how he got there.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

BOOKS: A Thousand Splendid Suns

My heart and mind are still racing, having just finished Khaled Hosseini's breathtaking epic novel A Thousand Splendid Suns. All week, I have been commuting with anxious nerves, shaking with rage, or tears running down my cheeks, as I have been making my way through this marvelous story of two women spanning several decades of Afghanistan's tumultuous recent history. The two women, whose stories begin many years and hundreds of miles apart, come together in a surprising and inspiring way. The epic tale not only spans the monarchy, the communists, the warlords, the Taliban, and beyond, the horrors of a war-torn city, the despicable injustices of Islamist rule, conflicts of traditionalists versus the more modern-minded, and the conflicts between compassion and the cruel treatment of women and illegitimate children under cover of traditional Afghan and Muslim codes of honor. Hosseini illustrates these grand themes with an engrossing story and vivid memorable characters. I loved his descriptions of children, how they perceived the people around them, and how those perceptions changed as they matured. The recurring themes of memory were hauntingly poignant, how even the greatest memories can be like trying to hold water in your fingers, but also how the memory of someone lost who once shaped us can mark us indelibly and affect us years later. And it is also the story of a city, Kabul, vividly described, once a place where children played in the streets and women gossiped around a communal tandoor, then later a place where people hid inside as rockets and bullets strafed the city skies, and then later the place where religious fanatics enforced beards on men, burqas on women (never unaccompanied), and prohibited music and kite-flying. While there is a lot of sorrow and pain in this story (how could there not be?), Maryam and Laila persist and inspire. Their spirit is like a weed growing up from a dry river bed toward the sun, despite being parched by drought and ravaged by fire, there is a dignity and beauty in its endurance. Though the book ended in a very fitting place, I was sorry to see it end, as I am reluctant to let go of its characters. I think I will remember them for a long time.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

BOOKS: The Conservative Soul

On a business trip last week, I finally had the chance to finish The Conservative Soul. It's Andrew Sullivan's political analysis of the last couple of decades, on where he thinks the "right wing" has gone off the rails, and what he thinks true conservatism ought to be. Even though it's a couple years old now, his analysis is still very relevant and astute (in some ways even more so, as we watch the crack up of the right in the wake of their 2008 losses). Though he touches on many particular hot-button issues by way of example, his focus is more on philosophical underpinnings and the motivations for broad political trends and alignments. Starting from an assessment of the particular vacuums after the collapse of the "old left" that enabled the rise of the "new right", he diagnoses the "fundamentalist psyche" (a need for absolute truth arbitrated by central authorities and authoritative texts), the "theoconservative project" (to "recapture" the public square from the "false neutrality" of secular liberalism), and its ascendancy in the "Bush crucible". He then sets out to propose an alternative "conservatism of doubt" and a "politics of freedom". While some details of his account are anchored in the specifics of American politics in a particular time, some of his philosophical work, particularly in the chapter about natural law and in his latter positive chapters, are quite profound and less tied to this moment in history. His dissection of natural law (as it is wielded today) versus the implications of Darwin and "nature" is keenly argued and very insightful. His presentation of his preferred understanding of conservatism, as articulated in Montaigne and Oakeshott, leading to his political philosophy manifesto, extrapolating from Hobbes, is compelling. (Makes me want to work through his bibliography of those classic philosophers.) In his classic style, Sullivan writes eloquently, deftly weaving deep philosophical argument with crackling contemporary examples and personal experiences and insights. Full of thought-provoking ideas from his distinctive perspective, lucidly expressed, this book was a pleasure to read.