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.

METROPOLITAN OPERA | Carmen

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.