Lang Lang and Papa Lang

Seeing Lang Lang twice this season at Carnegie Hall brought to mind a remarkable clip from his Carnegie appearance back in November 2003 — a piano-erhu duo with his father that has since become an occasional set-piece. For all the childhood-obliterating pressure Lang Guoren put his son through—recounted by the latter, corroborated by the former—their musical chemistry emerges affectingly in this performance, along with something perhaps both reconciliatory and vying — this classic for the erhu called, after all, “Racing Horses” [赛马].

Metropolitan Opera in HD | Madame Butterfly

minghella butterfly

Madame Butterfly in HD [rebroadcast of the live March 7 Met performance]
March 17, 2009, Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center
Metropolitan Opera
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Production: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio San), Marcello Giordani (Pinkerton), Maria Zifchak (Suzuki), Dwayne Croft (Sharpless)

The drama was taut, the gorgeousness detailed. The staging: imaginative, often exquisite, though always immodest enough for opera: bright scarlet blossom groves, glowing lanterns constellating unto galaxies aswirl, shimmering petals threaded onto filaments slowly descending like a seeping horizon, and of course measureless swathes of silk set unfurling. At times one almost feared it might verge on anime choreographed for wax-museum figures as directed by Zhang Yimou, but (Minghella’s English?) good taste reined things in.

Patricia Racette: powerhouse Puccinian—voice capacious, mellifluous throughout, the movement of her face and limbs in studious mimicry of girlishness. Nothing really could render her believable as an Asian child bride—the singing and emoting both were ripe too far beyond pubescence (and the ethnic makeover erred toward Morticia Addams, I thought)—but that’s the usual trouble so perhaps had to be forgiven. Marcello Giordani’s Pinkerton presented a solid amalgam of cad, brute, and dolt—nothing very complicated, though sung with soul. The whole supporting cast was surprisingly great, especially those in the roles of Suzuki, Sharpless, and Yamadori (played by an actual Asian singer—to odd yet doubly sympathetic effect somehow). Even Cio-Cio San’s mother, who barely gets any lines, lingers in this heartbreaking way on the hill upon leaving her just-married daughter—a supreme indication of the directorial care taken.

The silent puppet child, center and cipher of all this theatrical artifice, turned out to seem the most human and expressive of all—and even for this uncanny effect alone I’d recommend, and indeed repeat, the experience. Also for the thundering final act. Not one predisposed to Puccini, I left feeling dazzled and stricken. The performance will surely come out on DVD soon enough, so all is not lost to those who missed it this time.

‘Damage’ (dir. Malle, 1992)


Like Last Tango in Paris and Unfaithful, Damage is a film that explores—with punishing severity—the nightmarish consequences of lustful abandon. The acting excels within the category of tense facial tableaux: Jeremy Irons as MP Stephen Fleming, at once wooden and craven, Juliette Binoche’s Anna Barton trancey and transfixing, her gaze by turns pleading and rejecting. But all this thespian potential is confined within what turns out to be a morality tale that lunges toward fatalism (and literally into fatality) just when it’d need to grapple with complexity. The hurt son backs up over the low railing of a high staircase and falls to his death. The father grows his hair long, retreats to some inconspicuous Italianate town, subsists on sparse slices of cheese, all the while living daily with a photograph of himself, son, and their joint ex-lover wallpapering his monastic room. We learn that Anna eventually returned to her adolescent love and bore a child with him. This, reflects Stephen, reveals her to have been the same as everyone else.

What a pedestrian insight—and one nearly irrelevant to this particular story. Anna’s initial refusal to be possessed—the only semi-rigorous premise of the film—has fizzled embarrassingly. Is real life, it turns out, the only place where the human animal can stray from monogamy and be allowed, justly or not, to survive, within society still, and without retracting and contracting into yet another dyad? Has the dyad come to represent the only alternative to alienation?

Recent viewings

Fidelio at the Met. Karita Mattila sang Leonore’s role gorgeously, and she was impressively spry as Fidelio, too, scampering around the stage with boyish aplomb, scooting up and down ladders, bearing groceries. Apart from the limpid quartet in the opening act and the arpeggiated vocal mountaineering of the ‘Abscheulicher!’ duet in the final act, it can be hard to believe Beethoven really wrote this work for voices. It often feels more like a serial tone-poem. As drama, very little happens. The opening subplot flourish has often been criticized, but a naïve opera-goer might expect, might even wish for, even more subplots, or at least discernible turns in action. Unfortunately the production on my night of attendance was Heppner-less; marginally less unfortunately, it was also Levine-less (he’s out of commission this season due to a fall in Boston). Florestan’s role, respectably donned by Richard Margison, is also uncomfortably difficult. When we first hear him he is holding on for dear death — yet the singer must still capture the strength beneath. Interesting above all thematically may be the opera’s wishful solution to the dyad-vs.-collectivity quandary: here, conjugal love actually clears the way to pan-human fellowship.

Alex Ross’s review some months back in The New Yorker of some opera recordings features a phrase I’m insanely fond of: ‘a Heldentenor in heat.’

Claire Denis’ L’Intrus (France, 2004) at the Brattle. Find me a review that does not proclaim this film’s ‘enigmatic’ qualities, or call for an uncritical, non-interpretive, pleasure-taking stance. (Stephen Holden somewhat dissatisfyingly asserts that ‘The best way to enjoy The Intruder is surrender to its poetry without demanding cut-and-dried explanations.’ Zizek is right again that there’s something conscriptive and commanding in the very notion of enjoyment.) Or, they resort to the other poor overtasked critical lifeboat: cinematic intertextuality. The film seems more concerned with ownership — of one’s body, one’s progeny, and of land (and vice versa — land’s ownership of you, i.e., citizenship). Claire Denis, the director, knows and speaks of this as the reviewers do not (though Lim in the Voice does a decent job).

Peter Watkins’ The War Game (UK, 1966) at the Harvard Film Archive.

Zizek! (USA, 2005) at the Brattle. The film follows Slavoj from a talk at the University of Buenos Aires to a talk at Columbia to a talk at Deitch Projects to a talk at the Brattle Theatre — but would have done well to give more room to his run-on sentences and less to cameos by its own director, Astra Taylor. The best part may be at the beginning, where Zizek points out the violence of love — of romantic selection, to the exclusion of the world — the point that love is not love of the world but of the particular torn out from the world. There’s also the nice moment when he describes himself as a monster, in opposition to academics eager to portray themselves as all too human beneath the skin. Robespierre’s desire for a revolution without a revolution gets compared to leftist academics’ reluctance to give up their bourgeois comforts. Sounds familiar. But ticklish subjects all.


Carmen was the first opera I knew and loved, before its tunes became too familiar and the eager young self dismissed it as unsophisticated. Last night, in the Zeffirelli production first staged at the Met in 1996, I began to rediscover its musical as well as dramatic intelligence. My memory of Don Jose, formed upon the Migenes-Domingo film version many years ago, before I could read its English subtitles, had been as the hot-blooded paramour Carmen ultimately loved just as much. But Bizet’s opera offers no such certainty: Don Jose seems all but marginal to the tale, in fact, albeit constantly pushing himself back into it, sacrificing everything for the centrality in Carmen’s life he will never have—precisely because he has sacrificed and thereby compromised his role—whereas Escamillo the toreador (superbly sung by Ildar Abdrazakov!) is all role and no compromise. Mistaking a life in shambles for persistence of love, Don Jose can assert his existence only through the decisive act of murder—a childish pointing of the finger, a tantrum that could not go the extra step of sublimation. Carmen does prize freedom above all, not from men but to love, even as audiences might wish to believe she sings against her own heart—that somehow this time it’s different, that we’re wiser to her emotions than she can be. Love is easy, she sings: as soon as you think you’ve lost it, there it is again. This openness—radically vital and for her vitally sustainable—is a serious stance, as haunting as Isolde’s monomaniacal steadfastness, and puts the audience to shame for daring less.

Cigarette girls: fascinating; a whole song praising the pleasures of the cigarette! (Richard Klein of course notes this.) Carmen is part of the underground economy even as she has worked, too, in a legitimate factory….

Irina Mishura as Carmen could have used more sass and sauciness. Her voice was almost too rich to suggest impetuosity. But sets were stunning, switching between civic spaces—the Seville square with its corner café, market, spare yet gorgeous Cezanne-esque backdrop of rooftops—and the mountain clearing and grotto of Carmen and her company—criminal hideout, palatially wild. Lots of pageantry, especially in the final Act, with assorted potentates striding and sometimes horseback-riding across stage.

Yet: one feels that French is a sub-optimal language for opera.

Anno Anna

A few very recent, admissibly notable events:

Anna Karenina bolts to No. 1 in bestselling paperback fiction. On her May 27 show, still days before the official announcement, Oprah whispered a few hints to guest Sharon Stone about her next Book Club selection. For any alert lit-critter, Stone’s remarks in response were a dead giveaway: a timeless story, a long novel that isn’t as intimidating as it seems, about a woman of yore, her passions, her todestrieb. This is an event impervious to high-brow snickering: for better if also for (i.e., symptomatic of) worse, Oprah will have done more for this classic than many a literature professor. Just think: across the beaches of North America thousands of women will be reading Tolstoy for the first time! Will there ever have been more copies of a single novel open at the same time under the sun? WGBH Boston seems clued in: this weekend it begins re-airing the 2000 UK/Masterpiece Theatre adaptation, starring Helen McCrory (Anna), Kevin McKidd (Vronsky), Douglas Henshall (Levin), Amanda Root (Dolly; excellent as Anne in Persuasion), and Paul Rhys (Nikolai; excellent in Gallowglass). Ophah’s Book Club proceedings can be found here.

Listening to Furtngler again and more, thanks to the wonderful Wilhelm Furtwängler Orgy on wonderful WHRB. What other conductor, apart from Knappertsbusch, can make Bruckner’s plodding transitions sound so convincing, inevitable even? The EMI remastered 1952 Tristan & Isolde is a fulgent force of nature.

Entre nous

“Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known.” — Henry Green, Pack My Bags.