Saturday, September 30, 2017

Grant Couldn't Sing

As an opera lover and history buff, I sometimes wonder what it might be like to write an opera about the American Civil War.  Now this would be very tricky, and if any of you have read my previous post on the issue, you know that I have some very strong opinions about operas based of historical characters.  Still the concept is interesting, and if treated properly you could get something amazing.  

Now one of my most favorite figures in American History (and in all of history for that matter), is Union General Ulysses S. Grant.  I've recently started wondering what if you could write him into an opera.  Would he be a tenor role or a baritone role?  Would he be the main character or a minor one?  And what would his music sound like?  Would it be martial or simple?  
       The answer to that question lies in some of Grant's own personality traits.  He was a very quiet man whom one friend described ad being "plain as an old stove".  Another thing about Grant is that he was badly tone deaf.  He once boasted that he recognized only two tunes; "One was Yankee Doodle, and the other wasn't," as he said.  Obviously you can't do much with this guy.

So then what do you do?  You make Grant a speaking role.  It's not uncommon in opera to have a character that speaks instead of sings, Njegus from The Merry Widow is one such character.  The other thing you do is make his leitmotif Yankee Doodle.  It was the only tune that Grant recognized, so there's no point in making an original leitmotif for him.  

I think that about covers it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Fast And Furious DUNKIRK Doesn't Let You Breathe

 Suddenly Downfall feels like a kids' movie.  

That sounds strange, but Downfall at least was a typical movie.  By that I mean that it paced itself in such a way that we could explore the characters and see where they're coming from.  

Well, Dunkirk is not that kind of movie. This is a very different kind of movie, one that is insanely difficult to pull off properly.  This is not a story about characters and how they tick.  The moment the film starts it cranks up the action to eleven until about the final six minutes.  It does not allow you to digest what is happening right in front of you.  
      Christopher Nolan wanted to capture the terror and desperation that was a feature of the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940.  Does he succeed with this objective?  Yes, I would say he did.  You follow the British soldiers as they face enemy bombardment, choppy seas, and dwindling time while they await rescue from Navy-commandeered civilian boats.  You feel the terror that the men felt during those tense hours, whether it's escaping a sinking ship or dodging enemy bullets.  There is not much in the way of dialogue in this film, no speeches, or passing of photos, or anything of that nature.  It's all the soldiers trying to get out of France and get back home to regroup.  It's as if someone went back in time and installed cameras everywhere in order to capture the event in real time. 
      Unfortunately the biggest drawback to this method of storytelling is the sheer amount of nightmare fuel.  War films are going to have frightening images anyway considering the very nature of war itself.  But there are at least three instances of onscreen drownings, four cases of being killed by dive-bombers at point blank range, not to mention numerous deaths by explosions due to U-Boats and mines.  Obviously this is not a movie for the faint of heart, let alone children.  

Normally I would go on about how much of it was historically accurate, but I do not know very much about Dunkirk.  I will have to back and research it again before I can make any judgments in that regard.  

So how do I rate this film?  As a well-thought-out story depicting the frantic hours of the Rescue at Dunkirk, I'd give it a 10 out 10.  However, the sheer intensity of it means that you're at the edge of your seat virtually the whole time.  So this isn't a film that I would rent for a movie night.  In fact, I think this one is best appreciated seeing it once in the cinema.  Trying to see it over and over again will most likely diminish the potency of the story. 



Sunday, July 30, 2017

H.M.S. PINAFORE: Sailors, Class, And Seafaring Shenannigans

H.M.S. PINAFORE is the satirical opera by Gilbert and Sullivan that pokes fun at the British social system of the day.  The timeless struggle between the classes is played out in the deck of the titular ship while she is in port.  This opera is one of the three most well-known of Gilbert and Sullivan's works, and like The Pirates of Penzance, the most famous tune is the baritone's patter song.  

This being a Gilbert and Sullivan farce, I can only give the most basic of plot summaries.  

Captain Corcoran of the H.M.S. Pinafore has arranged a marriage between his daughter Josephine and the prancing Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter.  But Josephine is in love with the lowly sailor Ralph Rackstraw, and while the crew and Sir Joseph's numerous female relatives are all in favor of the match, naturally the captain and Sir Joseph are not.  Of course in the end everything is solved with a Gilbert and Sullivan plot twist.  

I cannot name a single moment in this performance that was not pure gold.  The whole thing from the opening chorus of sailors to the triple wedding at the end.  The only complaint I do have is that the gun that Ralph tires to use on himself was given to him by the boatswain rather the obnoxious Dick Deadeye.  Then again, perhaps there were other reason for it.  

This is my shortest review because right now I cannot access YouTube on my machine.  

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Met Summer Encores

The various Madison movie theaters have finally gotten around to doing the Met Live in HD Summer Encores. I'm not going tonight, but I may recommend that my parents do so.  It's The Pearl Fishers tonight, but as much as I love Diana Damrau and Mariusz Kwiecien, I need to take care of some stuff at home.

The Met Live in HD Summer Encores are for the benefit of people who either couldn't make it during the regular season, or else they loved a particular performance so much that they want to see it again.  I'm not too fond of Nabucco because I feel that Verdi wasted a perfectly good plot (although the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves is certainly joy and a delight to listen to).  I think I may go to either Macbeth or Carmen.  I tried to take my mother to Macbeth but there was a malfunction in the projector that meant it couldn't be shown.  Carmen I just happen to love to death, even though I have a bee in my bonnet about the amount of sex and feminist ideas people like to put in it.  

I am so glad that the Madison cinemas are doing this.  

Wednesday, June 7, 2017


A Martian goes to a car dealership.  He says to the salesman, "I want the body green, the seats green, the steering wheel green, and the windows tinted green."  "Okay," says the salesman.  The Martian takes the car home and shows his wife.  "It's lovely," she says, "But what's with the color?".  "Flesh tones," says the Martian. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Medieval Times Round 2

Last year I made a list of the pros and cons of the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament just outside of Chicago.  I went there for the second time on Sunday and here is what I have to say on it.  

The tournament itself is a lot of fun.  I am a sucker for horse shows and unfortunately I do not go to them as much as I would like.  You have a group of six guys in roles of knights performing all sorts of crazy stunts on horseback, and then later duking it out on foot.  Now it's scripted in advance which knight is going to win because you're dealing with an animal that weighs two tons and has hooves that can break your skull.  Having ridden horses myself, I know precisely how dangerous working with these animals can be (I was bitten by the same horse twice).  I really have to admire the skill and nerve that these guys have, I mean I could never pull off a spear throw on horseback!  But these knights can nail it with seemingly no effort whatsoever.  
      Also, the guys playing the knights would've needed at least two decades of training in order to do the sorts of stunts they perform in the tournament.  I'm guessing that the men cannot be any younger than twenty eight nor any older than thirty seven.  And then the knights have to fight in hand-to-hand combat, so this is certainly not something for your average 10-year-old in 4-H.  But it is something worth seeing. 
Medieval Times has a fixed menu of tomato soup, Texas Toast, half a roast chicken, corn-on-the-cob, baked potatoes, and whatever the dessert of the day is.  The food is good, although it is a little inauthentic.  Potatoes, tomatoes, and corn did not come to Europe until the rediscovery of America at the end of the 15th Century.  But then again you'd be hard pressed to get the average 21th Century American to try things like Roseye* and Roast Fowl in Cameline Sauce, so a bit of a tough break there.  Texas Toast is also not quite authentic, but it could also be a reference to the bread trenchers common to that time period.  The size of the chicken is much more manageable than last time although I still couldn't finish it.  There is a minor bit of authenticity as there is no silverware, so you have to eat with your hands.  

I still have a few complaints, in particular the noise and the paper crowns.  The announcer's loud shouting makes it hard for me to hear myself and gives me sensory overload within the span of a few minutes.  Thankfully I had earplugs this time so the noise was relatively tolerable.  Still, I was so startled when the announcer abruptly said that there would be a "knighting ceremony" that I made a dash for the other side of the building.  
       And I still don't like the paper crowns.  The color of the crowns correspond to whichever knight you will be rooting for (Red, Black and White, Yellow, Blue, Red and Yellow, or Green).  I'm not worried about whether or not the crown matches my clothes; if I'm given enough notice I can find an outfit that will match it.  But I personally feel that paper crowns are more appropriate for children than adults.  I felt very uncomfortable wearing the crown because of this.  

The fair outside the dining area/arena is so-so.  I love shopping and buying souvenirs, but unfortunately most of the stuff being sold tends to be either thirty-dollar knick knacks that I have no place to put, expensive-yet-obligatory T-Shirts, shot glasses that no one ever really uses, or stuff aimed at children under the age of ten.  That's not to say I can't find something I like.  Snow-globes are fun every now and then.  Last year the shopping stalls were selling peacock feather fans (a perfect addition to my diva outfit).  And there is always some kind of jewelry that I can get for my sister.  
    And then there is a booth for getting swords and daggers.  This is the most expensive souvenir anyone can get and you would outright have to plan months in advance to get one of these.  And you also have to have a place to put such a thing.  Considering that these are weapons we're talking about, it is certainly an adults-only booth.  Not that I'm complaining or anything, if I had some place in my house to put one of those swords or daggers, I'd get one.  I remember when I was thirteen I wanted a replica of Legolas' longbow from the film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings novels.  I just want to be able to get one of those swords without busting my bank.

Other things worth noting are as follows:

1. There is a falconer who lets a Peregrine Falcon fly over the heads of the audience.  This is something that would appeal to my ornithology-loving older brother.  

2. The king character looks like he could be either Ar-Pharazôn from Tolkien's The Silmarillion or else Denethor.  While not necessarily bad, I still can't help noting the similarity in appearance. 

3. You get called either "my lord" if you're a man or "my lady" if you're a woman.  This can either be cute, amusing, or irritating depending on your perspective.  I personally found it annoying.   

4. There is a story in the tournament involving the herald of a northern king.  This particular rider looks like the offspring of an Uruk and an Easterling and is about as scrupulous.  

5. The knights' colors are all based off of real-life heraldry symbols.  For example, the Blue Knight gets his colors from the Fench Fleur de Lis.  The Red and Yellow Knight is inspired by old Germanic symbols.  And the Red Knight is modeled off of what appears to be a combination of the heraldry symbols of Castilla and León.  

On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm giving Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament a 7.  The tournament is the best part on account of being a superbly executed display of agility and guts.  And the food is good even if it is on the inauthentic side.  But the noise levels are way too overpowering for my liking and require earplugs in order to be tolerable.  And I still find the paper crowns very kiddish.  The fair is okay depending on what you're looking for, although I still have a difficult time finding something that I like amidst the collectables and kids' toys.  The place is still fun, but it's not going to be on my own personal destinations list.  Although if my boyfriend asks me to come with him again, then I'll do so.  

Oh, and for anyone reading this who was at the 4:30 performance on Sunday, June 4th, if you heard some weirdo shouting "Fredericksburg!" and "Chickamauga!", that was me.  Don't ask me why I did that.  
*Fried Fish with Roses and Almonds.  You can find the recipe in the cookbook Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

High Society, Marriage, And Mayhem In Vienna

 If you've never heard of Richard Strauss' opera Der Rosenkavalier, where have you been?  This opera could be considered the early 20th Century counterpart to Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro.  And it's not hard to see why; you've got a lonely noblewoman, a teenage boy with the hots for said noblewoman, you have the pretty teenage girl whom the boy ends up with in the end, and you've got the lascivious baritone character.  And there are all sorts of crazy deceptions and shenanigans before it gets cleared at the end.  
    Despite their parallels Rosenkavalier and Fiagro are two entirely different pieces.  Besides the obvious musical differences, Figaro is a wacky and lighthearted rom com with the lascivious Count recognizing that he messed up and reconciling with his wife.  Rosenkavalier by contrast is a more sophisticated piece with a lot of bittersweet elements relating to the Marschallin and the passing of time.  

Today's performance of Der Rosenkavalier featured soprano Renee Flemming and mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča in their final performances of their signature roles or the
Marschallin and her teenage lover the Count Octavian.  Soprano Erin Morley was the Fraulein Sophie von Faninal, the sixteen-year-old girl who falls in love with Octavian.  And baritone Günther Groissböck was licentious and overbearing Baron Ochs (with a name like that, what do you expect?).

The plot has many twists and turns so I'm going to give a very basic synopsis.  The thirty two-year-old Marschallin has been carrying on an affair with the seventeen-year-old Count Octavian for some time.  However, the Marschallin knows the affair will not last much longer because she is already married and fifteen years older than Octavian.  When the boorish Baron Ochs comes to talk about his engagement to the young and pretty Sophie von Faninal, the Marschallin sends Octavian to deliver the traditional gift of a silver rose to the bride-to-be.  Octavian does this willingly, but when he sees Sophie for the first time, he falls instantly in love with her.  Horrified at the prospect of Sophie marrying a creep like Ochs, Octavian becomes determined to protect her at all costs.  And a lot of wild and crazy hijinks ensue before the final trio.  

This new production updated the setting from the mid-18th Century to the year 1910 (the year the opera first premiered).  The idea behind the production was the theme of time passing.  In 1910 the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in its final days, and political tensions throughout Europe were sowing the seeds of World War I.  It's as if the production is saying that the world of Marschallin and Octavian is going to get blown away by bloody carnage in four short years (yikes!). 
    Act 1 is in the Marschallin's spacious bedchamber with it's various antechambers and mid-19th Century architecture.  Footmen open and close each of the double doors in almost perfect unison whenever someone enters or leaves.  At one point the Marschallin recieves guests in the room, including an Italian tenor (performed in this production by Matthew Polenzani channeling Enrico Caruso). 
     Act 2 takes place in Herr von Faninal's much more spartan house with grey walls and an ancient Greek battle scene adorning the upper wall.  And von Faninal somehow has enough money and egotism to have two massive anti-aircraft guns in his living room.  Patient servants struggle to put the finishing touches on Sophie's wedding dress while she's fidgeting excitedly waiting for her bridegroom.  The baron's soldiers drink and brawl while von Faninal's majordomo tired to stop their rowdy behavior. 
     And then Act 3 is set in an overly decorated brothel, complete with slightly dim lighting and borderline nauseating 19th Century erotic pictures.  Prostitutes in little more than bodices and stockings revel with soldiers in full uniform.  A proprietor who looks like the great-grandfather of Dr. Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (and is just as creepy I might add), assists Octavian who wants to teach Ochs a lesson.  "Apparitions" in the form of half naked men randomly walking in and out of the room and nightmare fuel/brain bleach images of dancing harlots frighten the Baron (and me). 

Renee Flemming fits the role of the Marschallin like a glove.  This is the only time I will ever see her perform the role, but she was superb.  And while the Marschallin doesn't appear much (she dominates Act 1, but is absent in Act 2 and only appears toward the end of Act 3), her character is very rich and layered.  And Flemming knows how to bring out the range of emotions very well.  In Act 1 in particular, the Marschallin's mood shifts between happy, sad, annoyed, nervous,amused, delighted, it's no wonder that Flemming calls the role demanding.  The Marschallin is married, but her husband is away at war much of the time, and so she's desperately lonely.  This may explain her consuming obsession with time and fear of growing old.  But she also knows that Octavian will leave her for a girl closer in age to him, and that it will be better for both of them if their love affair ends.  And it does in a glorious trio
    This is the third time I have seen Elīna Garanča Live in HD.  This is also her last performance as Octavian.  This role is a very demanding role for mezzo because there is a lot of music, and Richard Strauss' music isn't the easiest to sing.  But Garanča nailed this role.  She is very convincing as a boy, although it was easier to believe she was a boy playing a girl in Act 1 than in act 3.  While Octavian has frequently been compared to the page boy Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro, his character is vastly different.  Unlike Cherubino, Octavian is a nobleman.  While he is a hormonal seventeen-year-old boy who wants to live in the now, he now has more responsibilities and needs to grow up.  From the looks of it, Octavian's father must have died because otherwise he wouldn't have the title of Count already.  
     Erin Morley is a relatively new performer whom I have only just heard recently.  She was very good as Sophie, although I am getting tired of the popular trope of making heroines feisty.  But that minor annoyance didn't mean that I hated Morley's performance.  In fact, she was splendid.  Even if Sophie is not as big a role as Octavian, it's still demanding and requires someone like Morley to handle the music and acting.  Sophie sticks up for herself when she says that she won't marry a man who doesn't love her.  It should be worth noting that Sophie is initially enthusiastic about the marriage until Ochs himself shows up.  And when he starts examining her like a prize mare instead of properly kissing her hand when he meets her, that's when she protests.  
      And now we come to Günther Groissböck as the Baron Ochs.  Along with Octavian, this role is a very demanding one.  Not only does the baron have a huge range (low E flat to high G sharp), but this production really amped up the physical action.  Ochs is a boor, a creep, and treats everyone around him like dirt, even those he considers his equals.  Devoid of empathy and  tenderness, he brags about his engagement to the Marschallin while harassing the disguised Octavian, only wants Sophie because of her father's bank account, and acts like he's been mortally injured when he receives a very minor flesh wound.  And Groissböck nailed this role.  

This performance was a success, and a good way for two of opera's greatest stars to say good bye to signature roles.