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Archive for July, 2011

Le Tour de France 2011 (version française)

Le Tour de France, comme un voyage à la lune ou une mission de la navette spatiale, est une espèce d’art performatif. Le parcours est dessinée, mais un scénario imprévisible se déroule toujours sur les routes de France. La plupart des Tours de France depuis j’ai commencé à faire attention en 1989 étaient dominés par les grands champions comme Miguel Indurain (cinq maillots jaunes) et Lance Armstrong (sept), avec les brefs interrègnes. Le Tour de 2011, possiblement le meilleur, est peut-être le Tour qui rompra cette modèle de “star-système.” C’est le premier Tour vraiment post-Armstrong, post-Armstrongiste.
Grace peut-être au dessin supérieur des routes français, le parcours du Tour n’est pas le plus difficile des trois grands tours (de la France, l’Italie et l’Espagne). Si le Giro d’Italia, incroyablement dur dans les années recentes (deux ascensions de Mt. Etna dans une journée!?) est une sorte de free jazz, le Tour de France est peut-être un big band de Glenn Miller: structuré, populaire, avec ses conventions familières et ses variations subtils entre les éditions qui se produit des énormes différences de scénario. Le parcours et les ambitions des 198 coureurs créent des histoires grands, petits et insolites, surtout cette année.

A New Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale: Sign the Petition Calling for an Open Competition (UPDATED)

The good news is that the Australia Council for the Arts has announced plans to build a new Australian pavilion in Venice, the bad news is that it plans to choose a design based on an invited competition. This is an invitation to mediocrity, which is coming out of our ears at the moment. A new biennale pavilion would seem to be the ideal excuse for a big public competition, which in my opinion should be open to artists as well as architects. As a brief, a biennale pavilion is not exactly the Large Hadron Collider. Australia was lucky to score one of the last sites left in the Giardini, and what gets built there ought to be be surprising, delightful and provocative. Australians love their sheds, and an open competition would be an opportunity to build the Ur-Shed, the mother shed, as it were. If you agree, then please sign the petition set up by OpenHAUS.






The Tour de France finishes in this French village. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Le Tour de France 2011 (English Version)

The Tour de France, like a moon landing or shuttle mission, is a kind of performance art. The route is predetermined, but the scenario which plays out on the roads of France is always unpredictable. The majority of the Tours since I started paying attention in 1989 have been dominated by the likes of five time winner Miguel Indurain and seven time winner Lance Armstrong, interspersed with brief interregnums. If we are lucky, the 2011 edition, the greatest I have seen without a doubt, will be remembered as the Tour which broke this “star-system.” It is certainly the first truly post-Armstrong, and post-Armstrongian, race.






Rembrandt van Rijn, Faust, etching, Rijksmuseum, c. 1652.

Prom 15: Liszt’s Faust Symphony, Kodály and Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1

Loved to dearth. Without remembering any legal documents I signed that had Satan written in the small print, just when I forget how tawdry and thin Liszt’s Faust Symphony is, it comes around again and I give it another chance. Too late. I hear the old guy cackle and the doors of Albert Hall clanging shut. The only way to overcome the symphony’s clattering banality is for the conductor to bash the score within an inch of its life. The thing won’t die — no fear of that — and if there is truly inspired leadership, as from Leonard Bernstein and Jascha Horenstein in their classic recordings, the music will bring genuine pleasure, like the circus.






Götterdämmerung, Act III: Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), Stacey Tappan (Woglinde), Renee Tatum (Flosshilde), Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), Melissa Citro (Gutrune) and Ian Storey (Siegfried). Photo Cory Weaver.

The San Francisco Ring, 2011 – Donald Runnicles, Conductor, Francesca Zambello, Stage Director

When any object is taken apart and reformed, does its substance remain what it was in the beginning? Nothung, Siegmund and Siegfried’s magical sword, proves stronger for having been shattered and forged anew. Does the Rhinegold itself acquire new properties through being the fatal, world-dominating ring, or when the Rhinemaidens receive it at the end of Götterdämmerung, has it the same intrinsic properties it did when Alberich stole it “twenty hours ago,” as Anna Russell clocked it?

Director Francesca Zambello, in her Americanized Ring Cycle, three-quarters of which were co-produced by Washington Opera, forged something new and wondrous from Wagner’s tremendous and often toxic masterwork. Not every bit of Wagner’s original symbolism reintegrates seamlessly into the newly fashioned work, and occasional cognitive dissonance results. Frankly, Wagner’s own sprawling cosmology—one part German myth, one part creative genius, one part tortured personal psychology—leaves many questions unanswered and any number of unresolved contradictions and loose ends. In San Francisco, the director and her designer colleagues shaped a remarkable production that transcended its occasional awkward moments and that touched the heart in ways I’ve never known this uniquely ambitious epic work to do before. The striking and varied stage pictures are the work of Michael Yeargan, the always illuminating costumes are by Catherine Zuber, the colorful, refreshing, and often exquisite lighting is by Mark McCullough. The many projections, used as backdrops and show curtain, were created by Jan Hartley. I didn’t find every element equally successful, but I left the theatre believing that this production had the mystical power to make the world a better place. The staging is that good.






A Woman Killed with Kindness at the National Theatre, reviewed by Huntley Dent

Too clever by halves. Although T.S. Eliot was describing Marlowe’s once popular, now buried play, The Jew of Malta, when he dubbed it a savage farce, the phrase is a wide paintbrush for Jacobean tragedy, whose absurd motivations, wildly outsized emotions and sheer body count tempt us to burst out laughing. One of the breeziest writers of the day, Thomas Heywood, shuffled genres like a card sharp, and there’s no reason to believe that he took his most famous tragedy, A Woman Killed With Kindness (1603) too seriously. There’s not much reason to revive it either, except as a study in stage contraptions antecedent to the great age of folderol bien fait in the Victorian theater, which gave us masterly contrivers like Scribe, Sardou, and the like.






The English National Ballet’s Tribute to Roland Petit

Stilettos, ready! To keep the audience entertained, the postwar French choreographer Roland Petit resorted to high jinks, low jinks, whatever jinks he could summon. He’s a one-man, nonstop coup de theatre. Petit’s women, long-legged and aloof, aren’t asked to be graceful so much as dangerous and strange: they slither, prance and stamp, opening and closing their knees in insectoid twitches and mechanical jerks. It’s as if they are perched on high-heeled toes. The men must earn advanced degrees in acrobatics (with post-graduate liniment for their abused muscles) to perform Petit’s Cirque de Soleil cartwheels, tumbling, and feats of strength (such as forming a human bridge for the ballerina to stretch out on — at least she doesn’t walk over it in stilettos). These antics were on display in a triple bill mounted by the ever-ebullient English National Ballet, the romping younger sibling of the Royal Ballet, which soberly covets its right of primogeniture.






Prom 13: Verdi’s Requiem

Temporary immortality. The Verdi Requiem is an event, a masterpiece, an emotional catharsis, but also an old shoe. Well worn by dozens of recordings since two great ones, by Toscanini and De Sabata, started the grooves turning, it hasn’t been saved from familiarity by being magnificent, any more than the Grand Canyon has. What do you do to breathe life back into music that has been worn down by so many feet? (I apologize to readers who feel that I’m asking the equivalent of “Caviar again? Didn’t we have that yesterday?”)