Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Happy Thanksgiving!

Wishing you all a warm and happy Thanksgiving this year. It's raw cold and damp here in southern New Hampshire. But with the wood stove in the big room and the Aga radiating heat in the kitchen it should be cozy inside.

Fritz and I send invitations out each year to friends we think might not have a place to go or someone to be with at Thanksgiving but this year everybody seems to be spoken for. So we'll have a roast turkey breast instead of a roast turkey and it will just be the two of us--OK the three of us because Starr is a very vocal member of the household. And I think I'll open a bottle of champagne to go along with dinner, and Fritz may play Etta James singing "At last!" which is "our song" and he'll dance me around the kitchen--which he's been doing for the last couple of days already anyway. Life is very happy here these days, as I hope it is for all of you, whose continued visits to the blog and interesting comments make me very thankful indeed.


A little tribute to cats everywhere and to our own special cat:

Starr on the silestone ledge behind the Aga. She loves to sack out here because the stone is always warm from the ever heat-radiant Aga stove (technically "cooker" as it's an English product). It's one of her 25 or so favorite sack-out places around the house.

A friend sent this to Fritz earlier in the week and I snagged a copy. I've never had a cat get into food that's cooking on the stove, but I did once have a kitten who made a leap from a kitchen counter right into the middle of my dinner plate just as I sat down at the table to eat. Gravy and veggies splashed everywhere. There's never been any other cat in my life quite like him (fortunately).

This image comes courtesy of a very lovely British lady who publishes an informative and extremely literate opera blog from London. I immediately dubbed it Empress Felineadora. It perfectly captures the true status of cats in the lives of those who love them.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Much to do with nature this week. Despite a couple of mornings with white frost on everything, the garden continues to produce and we still have one begonia, all the pansies, petunias, verbena and a wide variety of common weeds flourishing on the property. Our rose bushes put out a couple of flowers last week. Several varieties of insects are going strong--NOT including mosquitoes, praise be! As we're in New Hampshire, albeit only about 20 miles north of the border with Massachusetts, we qualify as northern New England--and about five weeks overdue for a major killing frost. The weather looks to remain mild well into next week.

The seed tassels of the ornamental grasses are a flat light tan color until the sun hits them and they sparkle as if made of glass beads on thin wires.

We were given a breeding house for mason bees for Christmas last year. I hadn't heard of mason bees until receiving this gift and once I'd read the directions we weren't sure if we had any in the area. I hung it on the side of the house in the summer and last week I saw that at least one mason bee had found it.

The females lay their eggs in the long narrow tubes (bamboo in this particular model) and then seal the tube with material they chew into a sticky plaster. You can see a neatly sealed tube in the lower right, up against the frame. In the spring the new insects will break through the barrier and go off to fertilize our flower and vegetable gardens.


How to decorate your house for the holidays with minimal effort, little expense and a considerable amount of reflected glory.


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From the Boston Globe:
"Sondheim tells all
Legendary composer Stephen Sondheim told a sellout crowd in Sanders Theatre Saturday night that as far as he’s concerned, Tim Burton’s 2007 “Sweeney Todd’’ is the only successful film adaptation of his work. But what about the popular movie versions of “West Side Story,’’ “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’’ and “Gypsy’’? The always-candid Sondheim said that while he enjoyed them, “I don’t think they’re very good.’’ By contrast, Sondheim said, Burton’s film starring Johnny Depp as the vengeful barber was “really conceived for what film does.’’ During an onstage conversation with New York Times columnist Frank Rich as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston, Sondheim also reminisced about crucial revisions he made to “Follies’’ and “Company’’ during their Boston tryouts in the early 1970s, and told entertaining stories about figures ranging from Elaine Stritch to Ingmar Bergman to Elizabeth Taylor."

Fritz and I were there with friends who share our admiration for Sondheim's work. Three of his stories were especially enjoyable. He spoke of the final number, "Rose's Turn," in the musical Gypsy, a capstone number written for Ethel Merman. He had originally ended it with Rose winding down and collapsing, her repeated cries of "for me . . . for me . . . for me" trailing off into sobs and silence.

There was no applause for the number at the out of town try-outs and the dialog that follows between Rose and her daughter Gypsy Rose Lee (Sondheim: "where daughter becomes mother and mother becomes the daughter") fell flat with the audience. The then-young Sondheim was advised by Broadway's legendary director George Abbot that the audience had to be able to applaud, HAD to give Merman an ovation so as to close out her breakdown and allow the transition to the newly negotiated relationship with the daughter she had formerly dominated so obsessively. Sondheim rewrote the end so that Rose trumpets out the "for me!!"s defiantly. There was huge applause--and the next audiences found the ending upbeat and the relationship resolved. Sondheim ended the story with,"I love writing nervous breakdowns--I understand them so well!"

A Little Night Music was the source of two stories. Hermione Gingold was cast as old Madame Armfeld only after she had shown in an audition that her career largely as a campy comedienne was not the only side of her talent. Sondheim and the producers saw a commanding and controlled Gingold and cast her immediately. However she still knew how to work a crowd.

After the show had opened in New York--the only Sondheim musical ever to get good critical reviews (as opposed to public acclaim) in its first production--legendary film maker Ingemar Bergman whose Smiles of a Summer Night had been the source for Night Music, visited New York to discuss a joint project with the composer. Sondheim said he was awed at meeting the articulate, incredibly intelligent and elegant Bergman who saw him the morning after seeing a performance. He observed that other than the basic plot there was no similarity whatsoever between the film and the musical; then he winked and said, "But that Gingold certainly does f**k the audience, doesn't she!"

The film version of Night Music was a legendary cinematic disaster for many reasons. Two of the women in the cast, Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Rigg (Sondheim: "a VERY sharp lady") shared a trailer on location. One morning Rigg was writing a letter and asked Taylor what the date was. Taylor didn't know offhand and began looking for a calendar. Rigg suggested she just look at a newspaper that was lying on a chair. Taylor picked it up, looked at it a moment and said, "Oh, we can't tell from this--it's yesterday's paper." The audience roared.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

OK, BAD BLOGGER! Ten days between posts. It's been busy, including all of last weekend in New York City at Lincoln Center hearing Hugo Weisgall's Esther and Mozart's Don Giovanni open the New York City Opera's comeback season in reassuringly strong condition. It isn't a slam dunk in the current economy, but NYCO's chances of survival would seem to be much greater in the wake of one very good and one superb showing during the opening weekend.

Esther had premiered at City Opera in 1993 and was hailed by critics as a great score. It is written in Weisgall's personal take on the atonal or twelve-tone style. I found the orchestra writing far more interesting than the vocal writing; on the other hand, the simpler vocal line seemed to invite comprehensibility of the text, on which the cast lavished great care as I caught just about every word.

Which was a somewhat mixed blessing, given the somewhat simplistic, old-fashioned libretto. Characters introduced themselves to the audience–”Ian Haman, King Xerses’ Chief Minister. I have a wife and many sons to guarantee continuity of leadership”--a good deal of that sort of thing. But I thought the libretto much more interesting for its premise than for its language; the Persian Holocaust that never happened was an obvious stand-in for the Nazi Holocaust that did. The difference is Esther’s growth and development to the point where she's willing to give up her fantasy life as Queen of Persia into which she has been thrust, and put her life on the line to protect those marked for extermination, whereas very few in Germany stood up to try and stop the horror.

Musically Esther is Atonalism-Lite, approachable and often beautiful as in two magnificent choral episodes. However, most of it doesn't begin to have the profile of operas like Berg's Lulu to say nothing of Zimmermann's titanic Die Soldaten. It's possible that some mainstream opera lovers might just get into atonalism via Esther just because it is more gentle than those greater operas.

The production was ideally flexible and swift moving as befits an opera written with cinematic overlap of scenes. The cast sang it superbly, particularly the great Lauren Flanagan who had premiered the opera 16 years ago and seems in as strong voice as ever. But given the quality of the libretto, it might have been sung in ancient Akkadian or Chaldean rather than the English we did get.

The next day, Don Giovanni turned into one of the greatest theatrical realizations of an opera I have been fortunate to see. I watched director Christopher Alden's psychologically revelatory production intensively and found that virtually every choice was firmly based in Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto.

The much discused (in the press and on opera blogs) scene where Giovanni and Leporello each wears only the jacket or the pants of a slick designer suit clearly shows the manner in which each compliments and completes the other. Master and servant engage in at least one palindromic conversation and each shadows the other’s fears and thoughts throughout the opera–in a manner common to 18th century plays and libretti in which aristocrats and their servants are often entwined in complex relationships. The top half/bottom half suit costuming (reversed on stage when they impersonate each other for Elvira’s benefit) fits this relationship exactly.

Other ideas work thematically through the score The splash of blood left on the wall when Giovanni shockingly slammed the Commendatore’s head against it remained for the whole performance–something he had to confront for the rest of the evening. Da Ponte sets it up in a dialog with Leporello when he says that his servant can speak to him about anything, anything EXCEPT the murder of the Commendatore, something that clearly bothers him greatly in a way his serial seductions and abandonments do not.

Aldon has taken a stand on what really happened between the Don and Anna–we see the seduction, to which she initially responds positively, only eventually to realize this isn’t something she should be doing. There is a huge critical legacy of comment that consciously or unconsciously, she wants him back but in a more conflicted way than Donna Elvira does.

I found the directing very true to the psychology of the characters. La ci darem la mano, normally a stylized seduction, turned into a passionate make-out session and the audience got the joke later when Zerlina told her fiance Masetto that the Don hadn’t even touched her fingertip. Again there’s a long critical tradition that Zerlina is, as music reviewer Conrad L. Osborne once put it, a much sharper little cookie than she’s generally given credit for.

The main thing that rang true was the finale, where Alden shows that being dragged down to hell supernaturally isn’t what the Don really fears most–it is his own death. For a man without a soul, that would be the big fear and I think Alden nailed it.

He and the company also assembled a cast of mostly young singers, six of the seven making their company debuts. They not only made a close and well-balanced ensemble but were good Mozartians and excellent actors.

As to the renovated New york State Theater's acoustics, I sat for both Esther and Don Giovanni in the third ring dead center. The sets for the two operas were polar opposites: Esther’s soft curtains and gauzes versus Don Giovanni’s tall, solid walls. In Esther, there seemed to be a point about halfway upstage where sound definitely began to be swallowed up. Boston-based baritone James Maddelena was clearly and at times forcefully audible downstage, but his other appearances upstage, while not INaudible, were definitely less present and vivid.

The Don Giovanni set with sounding boards all over the place supported voices better on every part of the stage. Actually, in both operas, I felt that vocal sound had more vibrance and impact than formerly. Given the way theaters and acousticians work, my sense is that there will be some adjustments and that designers may be encouraged to include some solid surfaces in everything they put on stage as the company works out the kinks. NYCO's general manager has stated publicly, after all, that what has just been completed is only Phase One. On the whole, though, I think the changes are all in the right direction and that we may have both a company and a theater back.


Back in the 1960 when Senator John F. Kennedy was running for office, he included this enlightened statement on the separation of church and state in a speech he gave to reassure America that if he were elected president he would not be a pawn of the Vatican:

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote. . . . I believe in an America . . . where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials. . . . That is the kind of America in which I believe. . . . Whatever issue may come before me as president - on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject - I will make my decision in accordance with . . . what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates."

Now, almost 50 years later, radically conservative protestant denominations and the catholic church are uniting to strong arm politicians and voters to vote according to their particular dogmatic teachings. JFK's nephew Patrick is under intense pressure from the Rhode Island catholic bishop to oppose the health care proposal because, as it stands, it will fund abortion.

I fully expect Patrick Kennedy to stand fast as his late father did many years ago when the Boston archdiocease attempted to influence one of his campaigns for re-election to the Senate. Boston's neighborhoods were flooded with scurrilous broadsides ordering Catholics to vote Teddy out of office on the grounds he was a bad Catholic for supporting a woman's right to choose. He won in a landslide, of course.

It is long past time that this idiocy ended.


I was back to the opera in Boston last night for Boston Lyric Opera's production of Georges Bizet's Carmen. I have heard critics claim that Carmen is such a strong and resilient work that it can survive virtually anything that's done to it. And I do think that Carmen did manage to survive last night but it was no thanks to whomever on the production and musical teams decided to hack away parts of the score in every act, eliminating several numbers entirely (including one of Carmen's big ones in act 2 and a superb chorus in act 3) and disfiguring many others throughout the opera in a way that destroyed the shape and structure of scenes, acts, and eventually the whole opera.

Despite a rather good cast, an effective unit set, fine costumes and an intelligent enough directing job by Nicholas Muni (who may, however, have been deeply involved in the slashing), decent conducting by Keith Lockhart (who was most definitely involved), the 75 to 80% of mangled score that was left showed no honor to Bizet or his work. Boston Lyric clearly should have advertised this offering to the public as Extended Excerpts from Bizet's Carmen.

The cuts were as follows:

Act 1
-the entire children's chorus scene
-the chorus of men waiting for Carmen and the girls in the plaza
-the middle of the La fumée chorus
-the middle of the Jose/Michaela duet
-the middle of the chorus of rioting women
-a snipet of Carmen's Habanera reprise at the end of the act

Act 2
-Carmen's Chanson Boheme (!), all of it. Unbelievable.
-the middle section of the quintet
-a chunk of the Carmen/Jose duet
-three chunks out of the finale

Act 3
-Frasquita and Mercedes telling their fortunes (which sets up Carmen telling her's)
-the entire "Quant au douanier" chorus

Act 4
-the first half of the opening chorus
-Frasquita and Mercedes' warning to Carmen about Don José

It got to the point that I was more shocked when they performed a number WITHOUT cuts than with them.

Assuming there was any consistent reason for what was done, two strains seemed to be working in the cuts--the "we don't have enough chorus for both young men AND soldiers waiting for Carmen" strain, and the "we want to get rid of as many of the lighter, brighter, fun moments in Carmen as we can" strain. Spanish life is filled with chiaroscuro (contrasts of light and dark); Bizet's Carmen is filled with chiaroscuro--Boston Lyric totally got rid of the chiaro. Carmen and Bizet deserve much better than the mauling they received.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


All about design

I've been gathering photo material on some recent design that's related to theater, and certainly very theatrical.

The new Winspear Opera house recently opened in Dallas; it has gotten very good reviews for its acoustics and seems to be loved by the city for its architectural design.

In this economic crisis, with arts organizations going under and many projects on hold, it's refreshing to see a new theater opening. Of course,
thanks to a major philanthropic gift by Margot and Bill Winspear, the funding was in place before the crash, bank failures, housing slide, bailouts and the rest of the disaster--but psychologically, it feels good to see this kind of project come to fruition now. Sadly Bill Winspear died during the construction and never lived to see the result of his generosity.

Chief Architect Spencer de Gray of Foster & Partners covered the plaza in front of the glass-walled grand lobby with a louvered canopy that shades the interior from the burning Texas sun, and also allows the exterior space to be used for various public activities whether generated by the theater or not.

I was a little concerned when I first saw the architectural rendering of the auditorium. It bears a a striking--and worrisome--resemblance to the New York State Theater in New York's Lincoln Center, a theater notorious for its bad acoustics and poor backstage spaces. But when the Winspear opened, its sound was praised and comment was made that the acoustic favored voices coming from the stage slightly over the orchestra. The exact opposite was true in New York, where the State Theater has just been torn apart inside with the hope of finally correcting its acoustic problems (I'll find out if they succeeded this weekend when I attend the first two productions of the New York City Opera's new season).

The front curtain was designed by artist Guillermo Kuitca who's been working in patterns created out of fragmenting and restructuring theater seating plans. The design on the Winspear's new curtain is an abstract of its own seating plan.

An apparently very good but not incandescent performance of Verdi's Otello (from Shakespeare's play--there's no th sound in Italian) opened the new theater and allowed the building itself to be the star of the occasion.


Those who've been reading me for a while know I like to revisit the work of fashion, and sometimes interior designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana occasionally to see what they're up to. Their work, especially their advertising, is controversial and sometimes well over the top. They're Italian!

Italians for centuries--for millenia--have known how to use the arts and spectacle in particular to make their major social, religious and political statements. Given the scale of the arts in Italy, culminating in Italian opera that is a synthesis of all the visual and performing arts, matters of taste play a secondary role, or may even be irrelevant, in the face of the size and passion of the gesture. I'm Italian, by the way. Well, Italian on my father's side, English on my mother's side. It is an odd mix and I wonder sometimes if I'm reserved and polite about my passions or passionate about my manners and reserve. In actual fact, I'm pretty sure the ratio is at least 2/3 Italian and 1/3 English in my personality.

Anyway, the other day I discovered in my studio some pages from an issue of Vogue dating to about a year ago that I feared I had lost. They contained an article not on Dolce & Gabbana fashion but their lifestyle (long partners in business and private life, they have split romantically but still share a great deal of their daily lives). Vogue focused on their palatial home on the island of Portofino. I had wanted to show the photos before but couldn't locate the pages and internet pictures that did exist were of very poor fidelity to the impact of the spaces. The Vogue pages appear below after some of their recent advertising spreads, a couple of which were met with serious protest:

Combining the imagery of the Crucifixion, the lethal injection couches of modern prison execution, and some serious homoeroticism.

The ads above and, especially, below were both criticised as suggesting that rape is fashionable and aceptable. I'm not certain I think the scenario of either picture is to be interpreted only in terms of hostility and non-consensual sex. D&G ads frequently play with viewer perception and invite a number of interpretations, eroticism of one sort or another being the one constant. Domination and voyeurism can definitely be seen, but the final "meaning" of these images seems to me to be in the eye of the beholder.

The most spectacular room in the Portofino mansion is a guest room where everything is plated in gold. D&G's interiors are fully theatrical in scale and they'd work splendidly on stage (click the following three pictures to enlarge for detail).
Filtered through gold wire mesh curtains, the effect of natural light is significant enough here, but lighting this with theater lighting instruments would be an incredibly plum assignment.

The caption reads: "Dolce and Gabbana's visual education was honed watching episodes of the disco era's kitch, opulent soap operas Dallas, Dynasty, and their favorite, Falcon Crest." Of course.

The opposite wall of the golden guest room.

This little area with its oversized pattern reminds me strongly of a 1968 English movie starring Shirley MacLaine, Richard Attenborough, Barry Humphries (on his way to becoming Dame Edna Everage), Patricia Routledge, and John Cleese (not a bad cast). The movie's art directior exploited to the max the liberated, uninhibited scale of design typical of London in the late 60s and early 70s.

I really love these guys.

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