Into the Woods

Raavan (2009, dir. Mani Ratnam). Aishwarya Rai’s Ragini remains too little marred by abduction, rock-scaling, near-drowning, food refusal, traumatic witnessing, being dragged from cave to pit to cave and so on. The camera still fondles her face as it might any cover-girl—confirming this face to be as fascinating as that of some infant cyborg. Abhishek Bachchan’s Raavan is a convincing maniac, however, in whom a certain fathomlessness carries forward the fantastical Ramayanan subtext. His hands chopping about his face, acting out the knives in his head: a brilliant, dramatically efficient tic.

Raavan’s forest is vitally extrajurisdictional space. The forest villagers protect him, want to be left alone—and here the bleeding heart may think: alas, the Indian state has trammeled upon these people’s bare but honest subsistence lives. But how suspiciously convenient, for any state in fact inadequate as provider, when the people do not want to be civilized—or therefore subsidized. This is the story’s social pathos: as Ragini asks her police-chief husband Dev (played by Tamil screen stalwart Vikram), “Is he Raavan or is he Robin Hood?”

Thunderous zombie-like rain-dance to the song that assaults whatever haute Delhi may think of them: the best song-dance of the film, perhaps of any popular Hindi film of the last decade. Abhishek may not have the liquid flow of Hrithik Roshan’s dance moves—e.g., all cartilage in Krrish opposite J.-Crewish Priyanka Chopra—but ever since Refugee, and even throughout Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, he has grown peerless in transmitting compressed, punctuating intensity.

However gorgeously cinematographed, Ratnam’s obsession with waterfalls, rainfall, and rotational views, and concession to gratuitous violence during climactic scenes, only venn-diagrams this film with Bollywood’s triter image-sectors. The directorial triumph lies rather in an insistence that Raavan’s attraction to Ragini stay indefinite, as a sort of inter-species gravitation: she pure wife, he bog demon, though each susceptible to the pull of another life. (He is thus a different animal from the Beast or Frog who’s actually an incarcerated prince, say, and from the altogether irredeemable Alberich lusting after Rhinemaidens.) There is a wondrous delicateness to Raavan’s seeming monstrosity; he contemplates possessing her, yet never seems merely to want to ravish her—and yet there’s also nothing chaste about his heated state. That honor-bound Dev cannot imagine forms of close encounter other than the coital, cuckolding kind—and so exacts his crude, cruel revenge—may leave the viewer rather depressed for being human.


Mughal-e-Azam again and forever, but this time on the big screen at Walter Reade, in the original version, not 2004 full colorization. As heady a myriad of beauty and sensation as ever. The full ten scintillating seconds of pearls sent scattering, pattering onto a polished patterned floor. The billet-doux secreted into the lotus flower, the flower’s shuddering yet purposive drift down the canal. Anarkali’s candle, sliding slowly downscreen and leaving her face in eclipse, only to be held in Salim’s hand when it next appears—surely their first and most furtive act of touch; her hand then rising again to cup its flame for modesty, proximity, and gentler chiaroscuro. Those drowsy flurries of giant feather across her face—brushing her eyes closed, sweeping her lips ajar, soon transporting both to blossoming grove then bed of petals—as Tansen’s raga drugs all passage of time. The hulk and chafe of the hay-lined prison cell, the iron chains that famously bruised Madhubala during filming. The robust foil, no lightweight rival, that is Bahar—her solid ambitiousness, her steady challenging gaze. And of course the infinite reflections righteously shimmering across the mirror medallions of the Sheesh Mahal—taunting Akbar as Anarkali sings love’s truth to power: “Pyar kiya tho darna kya… aaj kahenge dil kaa fasaanaa.”

Madhubala’s face—barer and barer with each ordeal yet ever dewier and more arresting in its beatific resolve—and Dilip Kumar’s most lustrous hair. Who could fight the urge to sing to him and to his hair, “Ude jab jab zulfen teri, kavaariyon ka dil machle—jind meriye”?

The imperial-scale mustering of decade-long labor across the land that produced this dense cinematic lavishness, the gratuitous war between Akbar and Salim that inadvertently dramatizes these contributions. The hallucinogenic plot loops (not twists) in the third hour, the late dabs of dialogue thickening Akbar’s pathos, the final resolution by which point satisfaction no longer depends upon any. All of it mysterious, all of it immediate.

Ben & Wystan

Alan Bennett’s THE HABIT OF ART, April 22, 2010
National Theatre, London—via simulcast at NYU

Is squalid solitude prerequisite to habitual art? A case can be made, no doubt. Yet it was strange to see Auden portrayed so slobbering, forgetful, corpulent—a man in a barely buttonable cardigan, wobbling with fat and pissing into his kitchen sink. Still more dispiriting to feel, after two hours of stage talk, that whatever potential insight into the Britten-Auden relationship, or into Auden or Britten individually, or into habit or art, had been waylaid by throwaway bons mots, obligatory allusions, tweetable bits of philosophy, and well-wrung jokes about rent-boys. The mise-en-abyme was meant for art to permeate art, for the imagined scenario to stay open-ended—okay—but here the meta meddled and one was left with a sense of emptiness. (Past its artful phrasings, the play did not feel much more vivid and penetrating, say, than that other recent account of an Auden-generation pair, the far less sophisticated but earnestly sympathetic documentary Chris & Don (2007).) Giving literal voice to Auden’s wrinkled facescape: the sole brilliant fantasia.

Of course reviews have been (just about) uniformly glowing. Light bawdiness, quippy literariness: so theatre, so English.

Ice, Oceans, Earth, Mahler

Belatedly catching up on the Winter Olympics, especially the figure-skating pair upon which China has been pinning its dreams. After near-misses at three prior Olympics, Shen Xue (31) and Zhao Hongbo (36) finally took the gold Monday—with a new world record. In the flawless clinching of each most critical moment one sensed the poignant history of their determination.

Is there anything in the world more beautifying of the dyad than pairs figure-skating? Dance can express a greater range of truths, but skating dreams all the friction out of dance, out of relation, even as it exquisitely refines a sense of danger and vulnerability. There’s no scampering, no chase; one merely glides, until one crashes, either for having attempted something more or for having been unable to stop. For the dyad on ice dramas of apartness remain but never inevitably: even when the very rhyme of their routines keeps them separate, the two figures stay always linked—the diagonal corners of a flexile, collapsible parallelogram. “Earth’s the right place for love”—yes—because it’s a place of frictive pleasures, because there’s something honest and effortful in the discrete biped tread. But one could imagine others who find the peculiar beauty and brinksmanship of love on ice more irresistible.

The Royal Concertgebouw’s Mahler Third tonight at Carnegie Hall: this was oceanic feeling. This was earth as drummed immensity, whose concussions only this music, and in our time maybe only this orchestra—its sound both muscular and of measureless depth—could fully body forth. In the opening movement one could feel the very tendrils of summer shivering into life, the season’s sunny resplendence still tenuous at the edges, before full fulmination. The second-movement minuet had a gorgeous, lilting airiness, and the third movement was all expansive breath. Mezzo Jill Grove’s voice melted gracefully into the orchestral scoring during the O Mensch! and Es sungen drei Engel songs. Infinite steadfast patience: what the final movement instilled and sublimely rewarded.

CARNEGIE HALL | Of Firebirds and Nests

Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 8 PM

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. Pierre Boulez
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

BOULEZ | Livre pour cordes
BARTÓK | Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich, pianos)
STRAVINSKY | The Firebird (complete)

A privilege to hear Boulez conduct, last night for the third time in just two weeks. His friend and protégé Pierre-Laurent Aimard was present, too—my first time seeing him after years of being transfixed by his Ligeti recordings. What a stunning showcasing of the Chicago Symphony’s stunning abilities these concerts have been.

The concluding work left the deepest impression. Firebird: from supple translucence to explosive expanse. By the end the whole hall felt bursting and ablaze. On the way out afterward I ran into a lady so dazed she seemed ready to stumble. “Was that not wonderful!” she breathed. “Yes, it was amazing.” “I was crying all the way through.” “Oh! I wasn’t crying but I was sweating,” I confessed, verbs barbaric, “It knocked me out.” “Yes,” she nodded, as glad as I to blurt it out, “it completely knocked me out!” After exchanging more marvel over ageless Boulez we parted with good-night wishes and a shared thrownness.

Boulez’s own Livre pour cordes (1948-88) began with sparse stirrings that delicately explored without out-stretching astray. Bobbins of exceptionally fine, distinct threads of sound patiently spun out into fuzzy, woolen, cloud-like forms—something cotton-candy-like. Out of pleasant arrhythmias emerged sudden, decisive clusters of energy, as directional gesture or frenzy of pizzicato—utterly convincing yet somehow untraceable. Particular beauty took the form of slippery efflorescences, blooming between exacter events. The CSO strings were superbly suited to the intricate textures of this music.

Full of creative vigor, Bartók’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra (1940) is less concerto than a showcase for percussion and the piano’s own percussive machinations. (That the pianists were therefore less soloists than features of the orchestra meant one couldn’t quite hear Aimard in a starring role—but let there be other opportunities.) Like so much of ceaselessly surprising Bartók, its sound-world remains to this day strange and marvelous to behold. Beginning with tight, rumbling note-clusters in the pianos that gradually expand in amplitude, the lengthy first movement shifts almost imperceptibly (because through many captivating events) from the chthonic to the celestial. The second movement opens with a simple, expectant, almost Baroque dance rhythm, then quietens into an elemental space of stippling keys, breeze-like airs sweeping through, things turning in the light. In the third movement we sense a return to the spaces of human activity—rhythms of work, of dance, of pageantry—and concludes with those sounds passing into the distance, but to keep on as they are, not to die away. The two percussionists here—Cynthia Yeh and Vadim Karpinos–were the real stars.

In the row behind me a young couple cuddled in a nest they’d made with their coats and woolens and flowing hair and sat whispering in French for much of the concert, seemingly oblivious to the extraordinary proceedings on stage, save perhaps as dramatic scenery for their ardor. One smiles upon them and vaguely worries about them—these young pairs for whom little is more interesting out there in the world than the burning circuit of their own vitality.

CARNEGIE HALL | Boulez Bluebeard

Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 8 PM

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. Pierre Boulez
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

RAVEL | Le Tombeau de Couperin
DALBAVIE | Flute Concerto (Mathieu Dufour, flute)
BARTÓK | Bluebeard’s Castle (Michelle DeYoung, mezzo; Falk Struckmann, bass-baritone)

To carry Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle to its bloodcurdling pitch without recourse to hysterics is to understand the work as tragedy rather than horror. Or to understand that its horror is the bare tragic truth of human needfulness. At its most quotidian, the Bartók-Balázs take on Perrault’s tale flings into a void two souls in a state of needful unknowing. A man craves unconditional love—“Kiss me, kiss me, ask me nothing”—yet mistrusts every expression of such love and so remains murderously unslaked. A woman loves, but her love is fraught by curiosity—jealousy’s arsenal—and so she self-annihilates precisely by asking and asking.

Why she has agreed to join him is his keynote question—a question that shifts in tone from tremulous insecurity to protective fear for her to blame of her for triggering the inevitable. That she loves him is her uniform justification. Her “I love you”s beam out like a weapon—the way too overt selflessness does—shielding herself by clutching him to her: give me the keys because I love you, she sings, let me into every door because I love you. But it’s folly, for so many reasons, to seek such a trade. When the six doors have been opened onto their bloodstained vistas and Door Seven reveals Bluebeard’s former loves, Judith is dazzled into an utterly paltry state of feeling: her antecedents, she sings, have all been fairer than she. Yet it is just as he finally utters the words she’d been aching to hear—“You are queen of all my women, / My best and fairest!”—that she quiescently enters the Seventh Door, finally knowing and accepting her fate to be the same as everyone else’s.

Bartók’s score for the emotionally stark, seething, precipitous world that happens between these two lone voices completely chills and engrosses. Falk Struckmann’s Bluebeard was just right in its melancholy and solemnity, though occasionally more subdued in volume than so large a hall, so great an accompanying orchestra, could really accommodate. Michelle DeYoung, her mettle now proven through Mahler and Wagner, effectively conveyed Judith’s eager, ample-hearted innocence and gave it the slightest tinge of obsessiveness. But more expressive than either singer was the Chicago Symphony itself—whether in the high violin tremolos behind the First Door and evocation of shivering rivulets of blood, the unrelenting trumpet behind the Second Door escalating to a clang of violence, the hypnotic shimmer and deceptive reverie behind the Third Door, or, at the Sixth, the thunderous drumming of tears.

[Postscript: Couldn’t make it to this series, unfortunately, for further Bluebeard meditations.]

METROPOLITAN OPERA | Rush-Tix Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier
Wednesday, January 6, 2010, 7:30 PM

Conductor: Edo de Waart
Production: Nathaniel Merrill
Stage Director: Robin Guarino
Main Cast: Renée Fleming (Marschallin), Susan Graham (Octavian), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Baron Ochs), Christine Schäfer (Sophie), Eric Cutler (Italian tenor).

The first twenty people or so who make it into line for the Met’s $20 Varis Rush Tickets—a precious pool of 150 $100-value orchestra seats offered the day of most weeknight performances—begin waiting beneath the opera house, against a wall, in a dim pocket of the elegantly named “concourse level.” (After that the line starts snaking past doors and into back lobbies. The tickets start selling two hours before curtain, but those lining up less than three hours before that are often already too late.) For last night’s Der Rosenkavalier I made it to the front-most ten. In this space for the earliest, steeliest of arrivals—a sort of mezzanine above the Lincoln Center subway—the air-flow in winter gets very, very cold, thanks to an open door to the garage that in turn leads to a pedestrian walkway to the outside. This drafty back-end to that most laboriously, opulently contained of Gesamtkunstwerk spaces becomes a small site where opera unexpectedly becomes quite porous to the world, not only a simulation of or sanctuary from it.

The human flow here keeps things interesting: workers in hard-hats going on lunch break, security guards pausing for casual monitoring and friendly chat, dancers with duffels and alert faces rushing to their auditions, Met patrons who’ve just bought their (face-value) tickets from the box office and can already get on with their day, tour groups of adorable school-kids, a few of whom will generously guess at still grander rewards for this scarf-swaddled group hardily slumped along the wall. “No, they’re not here to audition,” the tour-guide brightly answers, summing up the rush-ticket system: “They’re going to be waiting for five hours. These are dedicated opera lovers.” (Quiet wows, curious stares, good-luck waves.)

In line there’s plenty of conversation to join in or eavesdrop on. These early pros bring not only snacks and reading—not one but two books—to pass the five, six hours, but fleece blankets and astonishingly compact folding chairs. (For these latter comforts I had no such foresight.) Before long one finds oneself negotiating coffee runs for place-holding, offering insider ticketing tales of triumph and dejection, policing would-be line-cheaters (this gets to be a real problem by mid-afternoon, when the 75th in line has a sure ticket while the 76th might already be out of luck), and of course trading invective, adulatory, or still receptively undecided thoughts on singers and stagings with the newbies, gossips, and walking Grove dictionaries that populate one’s line-neighborhood. It might be nice to generalize this crowd as composed of a special, honorable demographic—diehard opera fans whose passion exceed their means—but happily in this city it’s hard to tell. Some simply want a better seat than what’s left for sale at the box-office, or can’t pass up a good bargain, or don’t at all mind waiting when friends—or strangers for that matter—are there to keep them company and talk up a marathon storm about opera (such talk being a luxury in itself). A most illustrious-looking elderly lady in the most luxuriously fuchsia of wool coats was reading, of all things, a dog-eared paperback of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row—a curious image only if one forgets the Great Depression, or the elementary and persistent appeal of communal fortitude, or Doc’s love in that novel of Monteverdi.

[Fleming’s Marschallin, Graham’s Octavian]

Der Rosenkavalier ends with a perfect dyad: Octavian and Sophie, young lovers of commensurate age, have eyes now only for each other and a self-fulfilling sense of their union as dreamiest gift, “through all time and forever.” The 17-year-old youth has been relinquished by his 32-year-old mistress the Marschallin; his 15-year-old bride has just wrested free of her arranged marriage to 35-year-old Baron Ochs. Strauss famously stated that the Marschallin, who has done the most giving up, is not a tragic figure, in part as we’re meant to know that Octavian is neither her first lover nor her last. (And during the night with Octavian she even dreamt of her husband, the much-absent Feldmarschall whom we, too, never get to meet.) Presumably we are merely seeing, then, one rich episode from her history of passions. All’s well, surely, that ends so well. Yet this opera is among the saddest I know. If the singing is at all better than competent, as it was last night, one’s bones can be left aching with misery.

I last saw Der Rosenkavalier at the Met in March 2005, starring Angela Denoke and Susan Graham, in this same Nathaniel Merrill production that’s been going for four decades. In a good way, last night’s felt sadder. There was a certain quietness to the Marschallin as played by Renée Fleming, who gave tender, supple voice to the role, her bearing all graceful restraining of self and enlightened relenting to others. Susan Graham as Octavian was a believable boy, chivalrously brash (ready to duel Sophie’s whole household) and domestically bumbling: once disguised as maid Mariandel he’s woefully incompetent at making up a simple bed—pitching pillows at the headboard like a game of ring toss. (Indeed, Octavian might be fit for little more than the socially respectable, servant-propped marriage he gets, with Sophie managing those servants.) Kristinn Sigmundsson played a Baron Ochs who, while looking rather older than the 35-year-old “rustic beau” Strauss imagined, was just obnoxious enough to dominate his scenes, jolly enough to be forgiven long before the end. The character of Sophie did not gain so much by Christine Schäfer’s clear yet slightly fragile voice, but as the Marschallin tells the character with proper condescension: “You don’t need to talk so much; you’re pretty enough.”

Octavian’s incessant, bored work at those pillows may not be without its point. It is precisely for the opening scene of the Marschallin and Octavian draped across and rolling around each other—amid that abundance of pillows in wonderful disarray—that we might soon grow nostalgic. Back then to the misery. No other lover of the Marschallin gets braided into this story, after all, for symmetry or fugal continuity. Having married the Feldmarschall at a tender age herself—presumably having missed out on consorting with her peers—she is quite justified in taking on tender Octavian, if justification is needed, but this cycle of inexorable asymmetry is just what she puts an end to when she delivers Octavian to Sophie. Here, as everywhere, (a kind of) death mars the picture: whatever Strauss’s lighter intent, there is the sense that her own life of desire has come to dusk, that her sacrifice is a too final one, and if what has dawned is a maturity able to offer to and demand from love more than possession: So what? So what if there is an art of losing and she has mastered it—losing farther, losing faster? So what if the role-shift from mistress to benefactress amounts to a moral self-surpassing? So what, even, if her sacrifice empowers her with agency, when such agency knows itself merely to be expediting the inevitable? Her renunciation is still a resignation that gains little comfort from its wisdom—the knowledge that this, too, shall pass; he will tire of her, she sings, “Today or tomorrow or the next day.” For all that wisdom avails of is a second-best way to live. The only way to rescue resignation from becoming passive and terminally inconsolable is by turning it into an act of generous, purposive orchestration—here, the timely chaperoning of Octavian to his age-appropriate fate. She cannot turn back time; this is how she refuses to be its casualty. Through the much-acknowledged tedium of the intervening comic scenes, the Marschallin as if by this sheer temporal protraction of the drama already attenuates, and in effect, true to her own fast-forwarded future-gazing, superannuates.

Given this subdued sacrifice, this adjustment of social cycles, which is also the Marschallin’s willful counteracting of her own earlier approach to time—the adjustment of the clocks in her house to standstill—Der Rosenkavalier feels like an aubade to an entire age. The Marschallin and Baron Ochs present, after all, two ways older, established powers can deploy their privileged role: ensuring the happiness of those with still the most to live, or, draining those young of their youth to maintain one’s own (admittedly undiminished) appetites. (It is fitting that everywhere he looks—Octavian, Mariandel—Ochs sees always the same face; what his all-you-can-score approach to love experiences is not addictive diversity but iterations of the same. But this precisely has kept him going as the perpetually turned-on and, when he, too, relents in Act III, the likably easy-going personality.) Indeed, when Sophie nearly loses heart in the final trio, seeing the final wistful gazes between her superior and her beloved, she wonders whether Octavian, too, had been a benefactor all along, extending nothing more than “friendship and assistance.”

The retro-Mozartian 18th-century setting offers not only a generic template, then, but also a historical alienation-effect that can more visibly recommend a stepping aside of orthodox authorities, or better yet a caring for posterity that becomes possible when those authorities accept their own imminent obsolescence. Had Adorno been more generous toward Strauss in general perhaps he could have entertained this possibility that Der Rosenkavalier, rather than an inflection point for the composer’s decline into bourgeois decadence, may also serve as a historical-generational parable. The 1911 opera was by no means prophetic, but would perhaps resonate nonetheless in a disturbing way, however inconclusively, with the old-feuds-driven, youth-scything war soon to come.

Yet one need not speculatively abstract the tale beyond its human characters to feel the vertigo of its depths. There are darker implications, too, that haunt the Marschallin’s designs. Every passionate love may carry within itself something that propels it toward thunderous and premature termination. That the culture’s most engaging dramas of such termination pose the problem in the form of other persons, be it Karenin or King Mark, and/or in the form of values, be it the sanctity of matrimony or the interdiction of incest, suggests a short-hand surrogation. The dyad in its airless mutuality would be hard-pressed, after all, to suffice as a sole sustaining life-world. And yet the faith in its self-sustenance, in its viable, even inevitable eternity, is also its lifeblood—and that lifeblood, too, must get its chance to pulse. (The Arthurian version might have clinched the problem best: what’s jeopardized is not marital fidelity but Round Table and Grail. On the other hand, of course, Guinevere has no place in that egalitarian economy potentially of holy war.) The Marschallin would rather have the killing awareness of finitude flung across the bright path before the path itself begins to fade. What Luhmann called double contingency produces for her, at her age and stage, less the stimulations of coding and gaming than a recognition of certain despair.

Darker still: rather than the gift of life to this pair, the Marschallin leaves Octavian and Sophie to a shared death. In the simplest biological terms, they will share a commensurate lifespan. Theirs is a young love so pure, so pristinely fused, that it may never be available for knowing other loves. Their very symmetry, then, may be a form of death. And that death may offer the Marschallin the only advantage she can claim. She may die alone, but she will not be bound to die with another. She is one step ahead of Adam Phillips’s ruthless musing: “At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with. At its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.” Clearing up the confusion may not, of course, enable or necessitate a different existence; the terrors of aliveness are real, as are the gratifications of company. For its part, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s extraordinary libretto intimates that this best and this worst are quite interchangeable (and maybe interchangeably bad). Sophie’s love for Octavian has something desperately agoraphobic about it: “I want to hide with you and to know nothing more of this world.” (Phillips again: “We have couples because it is impossible to hide alone.”) Later Octavian gravely intones, “For yourself and for me you must stay—…” “Stay?” asks Sophie. “Stay as you are.” How bitter a mandate this loving wish must strike anyone who’s been paying attention. The opera’s very first words had been Octavian’s exalting of the Marschallin in her past and her present: “Wie Du warst! Wie Du bist!” From this mandate to Sophie, and from his dumbed-down version of the Marschallin’s wisdom when singing in Act III as Mariandel, it is clear that he has yet to learn anything about time. Strauss was attuned to and would musically fine-tune Hoffmannsthal’s nuances. In the opera’s final lines, Octavian declares that “I feel only you, just you, and the fact that we’re together. Everything else flees from my senses like a dream,” while Sophie half-asks, half-insists innocuously whether/that the resolution is a “dream; it can’t be real, that we two are together, for all time and eternity.” But all this declarative security is trailed in the score by descending woodwinds that evoke at once indeed the slipping into a dream and something still more open-ended, hesitant, contingent. One almost feels that in these notes the Marschallin’s presence lingers, as she alone absorbs and alone will endure the consequences (for now) of what time bears out. Auden was right that Hoffmannsthal’s libretto is “too near to real poetry.” Popular “Komödie für Musik” as it is, maybe this opera can also be understood—or at least experienced—as exquisitely near to real tragedy.

ALVIN AILEY | Festa Barocca


Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at NY City Center

Sunday, December 6, 2009, 7:30 PM

Festa Barocca (2008), choreographed by Mario Bigonzetti; music by G. F. Handel; costumes by Marc Happel.

This is a big, ebullient, full-ensemble piece that captures the spirit of the baroque—as its title and Handel soundtrack properly assert (and as its detractors have seemed oblivious to). Music apart, moreover, we see Baroque and baroqueness everywhere: in the wild abundance of color, in the generous undulations of silk, in spines’ swiveling slopes and limbs’ curlicues, in the mutability yet precision, extravagance yet playfulness overall. Amid the ornate, boisterous choreography here—especially lovely in the three duets—there are touches of flamenco, of courtly mannerism (at one moment a dancer’s stretch becomes a fancy curtsy), of hip-hop, of tango, of capoeira, of breaking, of voguing, of queeny righteousness. Where there’s baroque, there is exuberant attitudinal flaunting; so, too, here.

The piece begins with Hope Boykin dancing center-stage to the minuet from Rodelinda in front of a bright array of nearly still dancers, who move out little by little, step-wise and on beat, collectively like the slow-motion expansion of some impossibly colorful underwater plant. Boykin is MC-cum-sorceress, igniting the proceedings with each snap, conjuring forth movement from her still marionettish crew. When conscripted—or freed—into motion, the dancers in their larger formations soon reveal a choreography that is particularly upper-body-intensive. Arms coil, thrust out, frame the body at big angles, weave before the face in quick flourishes like a magician before the reveal, hoop around the partner’s body at great speed and varying heights—but without touching—like a game of tag for desiring adults.

Having now seen this performance, one cannot but find the two New York Times reviews of Festa Barocca’s debut this time last year wildly—perhaps willfully—out of touch. Alastair Macaulay complained of too much that is “acrobatic”—any trace of stunty mass entertainment clearly heretical—as well as “foot fetishism.” But what he deemed “foot fetishism” was Bigonzetti’s attempt to consider for feet in dance some role other than points of gravitation, tips of leg extension, deserving tangency only with the ground. Why not use the foot’s flexed firmness to hook and hang from, why not let the curves of that neglected ticklish surface between toes and heel run over and find rhyme along the partner’s body? Two of the most affecting duets in Festa Barocca—between Constance Stamatiou and Clifton Brown, and then between Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims—do just that. One gets the impression that feet—the biped’s workhorses, after all, the body parts that affirm our earthliness with every use, precisely by keeping the rest of our bodies from touching the ground—are for Macaulay, who writes so superbly on ballet, still the bloodied, bruised embarrassments to be tucked up in shapely satin.

In a less protracted dismissal, Roslyn Sulcas in her review marveled of what she deemed “no kind of refinement” that “The audience loved this, as though they were privy to some sort of insider joke.” One might marvel instead, however, that such a disdainful and uninformative sentence, along with non-descriptions such as “fake-intense, semi-sexy, semi-anguished duets,” can get by as dance criticism. That it has might even lead one to presume some telltale demographic gap between NYT readers and Alvin Ailey ticket-holders that does not in fact exist. It is Sulcas’s problem, in other words, not the audience’s. To imply that “refinement” should be dance’s sole ambition, sole criterion, is to amputate from dance’s universe a majority of its cultures and epochs. And indeed there were jokes throughout Festa Barocca. And that was the point—this transmutation and elaboration of recognizable vocabulary (recognizable from neighborhoods, from clubs, from television if nothing else) into abstracter forms, more complex formations. One need not have been any insider to revel in them, or to find splendor and take joy in the whole.

LA SCALA Opening Night in HD | Carmen

[Anita Rachvelishvili before her admirers]

If I were to reduce to a single word Anita Rachvelishvili’s La Scala debut yesterday as Carmen (the HD simulcast of which I saw at Symphony Space), it might be “sovereignty.” She reigned supreme. This Carmen was the center around which all else could only hope to hold and the sole circumference of her own self. Men in heat fanned themselves and fell aside. Women melted toward her like heliotropes to the sun. During the Habanera, elevated atop a mere water trough outside her factory, she was a radiant and pungent Venus, rising out of the blander foam of humanity. That is, even if one would want from the Carmencita of one’s dreams more slithery a seduction dance during the “Je vais danser en votre honneur” bit—done here without castanets, freeing her hands for much skirt-play—than Rachvelishvili’s potently self-possessed rendition.

Too many ideas can spoil an opera, and this may have been the case with Emma Dante’s staging, wherein cloth and fiber figured prominently as the materials of inspiration. Act III opened to a shifting formation of trees played by actors completely cloaked in heavily pleated cloth and topped with thickets of fir—definitely not a bad way to spike a Pleats Please runway with a gothic touch, but distracting here as a visual demographic once joined onstage by smugglers and black-veiled, death-messaging wraiths. A translucent white cloth spanning the entire middle of the stage, slowly stretched over Micaela during her first visit to Don José, made a point well-taken—she in her pale cocoon of love and purity, oblivious that Don José is already lost to another—but one felt a bit sorry for Adriana Damato, who had to push her arms about and sing on in that gauze (too like a mosquito net?). Micaela endures another illusionistic gag in Act III when, returning to beg Don José to leave his wicked life, a giant pillow and giant billowing bed-sheet (supplied by “invisible” stage-hands) suddenly render her an apparition of Don José’s dying mother and no less helpless. Her head and upper torso swimming in this sea of white, the effect had the scale-jolting strangeness of Alice in Wonderland—an interesting idea but wasted in this opera. More effective creativity with fiber gave us two long, thick ropes tied to Carmen’s wrists during the Seguidilla, each rope hanging from each upper corner of the set. The rope tenses and slackens as she sways and leans, such that the precise position of her incarcerated body, all extremities stretched, understandably makes Don José lose his wits at just this moment. All these outstretchings of cloth—including also a brilliantly choreographed bit with banderillos spinning in and out of taut swathes of red silk that are by turns banners and cummerbunds—had a way of activating the stage as highly tensile and flexile space.

In addition to some heavy-handed Catholic iconography—e.g., a giant swinging thurible bisecting the upper stage in Act IV, lots of big tilted crosses, and assorted uses of chiaroscuro and vanishing-point symmetries straight out of Dan Brown’s film adaptations (the author was in attendance)—Dante’s staging also offered commentary on the effects of the adult world on children. In the “Avec la garde montante” scene, the children who mimic the soldiers really march about in uniform—a troubling sight. When Don José gets out of prison, Carmen welcomes him with an indoor picnic setup that “Papi” Presidente might call “the big bed.” Around the edge of this blanket several young girls from the gypsy band sit watching as their default role-model dances her “Je vais danser en votre honneur” aria, at once seducing Don José and educating her prepubescent audience.

[Jonas Kaufmann as Don José]

There’s lots to say about the interpretive liberty in the final scene—rape—and the downright bestial band of teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling gypsy women as Dante chose to depict them, but probably not much that hasn’t already been said.

Jonas Kaufmann captured Don José’s earnest ardor as well as desperate infantilism with pathos and a beautiful voice he certainly knows how to sculpt. I’d be especially eager to hear his recording of Schubert Lieder, and to see his Lohengrin, which premiered in Munich this summer, as that seems a great role for him. Erwin Schrott, not only lovely to look at (as Anna Netrebko knows), made for an irresistible Escamillo—his voice rich and commanding, his expressions and gestures full of heartbreaker antics. Frasquita and Mercédès were honey-voiced and acted with care by Michele Losier and Adriana Kučerová.

Among the peculiarities of the HD presentation is a frontal view of the conductor during the overtures. Barenboim, fidgeting with what did seem a precariously diminutive high-chair, produced some endearingly comical expressions. More importantly, of course, the La Scala orchestra under his leadership made the proceedings musically exciting all the way through, too, especially the woodwinds and strings so crucial for this score.

METROPOLITAN OPERA | From the House of the Dead

[the trash collectors]

Leoš Janáček, From the House of the Dead
[Z mrtvého domu]
Wednesday, December 2, 2009, 8PM

Production: Patrice Chéreau
Associate Director: Thierry Thieu Niang
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Main Cast: Willard White (Alexandr Gorjančikov), Eric Stoklossa (Aljeja)
Stefan Margita (Filka Morozov)

How to make a narrative of so relentless yet monotonous, time-ravaging and exitless an experience as life in this Siberian prison camp? Janàček’s oneiric, episodic opera—a very selective adaptation of Dostoevsky’s memoir-novel Notes from the House of the Dead [Записки из мертвого дома]—does not err that way. What does happen here: a death, an education, an unredemptive recognition, an evanescent collaboration. Only one of the men has a definite future outside. Other prisoners sing songs that refer invariably to their lives before, what landed them in the hope-shorn present. That one of them falls dead during this lean duration, hardly 100 minutes and sans intermission, gives us but an accidental glimpse into the men’s collectively terminal prospects. (And when Filka/Luka dies while Shishkov insistently, obliviously keeps singing, story-song takes on a Scheherazade effect.) Save the sparse chance encounter, enmity or complicity with one another from the outside—we’re never sure just how long ago—they are joined only by their common condition. Save sympathy for and sublimation through a winged animal they tend back to flight, they seem barely related in feeling. These are men who have wronged and are wronged. Dostoevsky’s stand-in, political prisoner Gorjančikov—whose entrance launches the drama but whose own past stays unknown—is the only character who attempts meaningful action within the prison, but his attempt to give young Aljeja a future (by teaching him to read) occurs only at the very margins.

Patrice Chéreau’s set of minimalist but hulking geometries and gunmetal grays in the prison yard, sparse thin-frame beds in the barracks, lends an industrial air to the premises. Over the course of the overture, materializing one by one from darkness, thirty-some prisoners slowly tread onto stage—lifeless, lumbering figures in search of space. We see the joyless swinging of buckets, hear the cold crackling of ankle shackles. One man in a corner lights a cigarette—retrieving something like personal experience thereby—and in the darkness, by default, the spark and smoke mark him as almost individual. A brawl suddenly erupts between two men for no apparent reason, because in this place there’s every reason, and the way their peers immediately converge at that wrestling knot to break it up reveals at once this group’s self-regulation and, such bare and by now habitual restoration of equilibrium apart, disaggregation as its default. In this meticulous opening scene Chéreau shows two other circumstances under which these men will readily self-assemble: the rough but swift lining up for sop ladled from buckets; the game to be had of kicking around a shoe as a ball.

The eagle, about which there’s been much discussion, soon suggests another, more poignant and more promising coming together. Upon discovering this wounded bird fallen into their midst, one prisoner starts running around with a blanket cape and stew-pot helmet in wishful mimicry. But other prisoners try raising the bird into the air. This image of arms raised aloft, the bird the high vertex of their bodies and their longings, was absolutely unforgettable. Having now seen this in person—from the nearness of the tenth row in orchestra—one can judge as moot the controversy surrounding the intended verisimilitude of this bird. Whatever Janàček’s vision, I’m not sure Chéreau intended this moment to constitute an event any more singular than the characters’ cycling through of twice-told tales. Indeed, when eventually freed into flight—to cries of “The eagle is czar!”—the bird is furtively tucked back, wings folded, into the old man’s coat.

My favorite directorial moment in this staging comes during the transition between the First and Second Acts: an avalanche of paper rubbish crashing in from above onto the vacated stage, leaving the entire set smoking with dust and debris like some aftermath of war. Not manna from heaven but an injunction to useless labor, this mess draws the men back to slowly repopulate the stage with clean-up baskets and a heavy work-song. In an affecting use of real time, the stage by the end of the scene has been entirely cleared.

In the libretto, between personal histories and two pantomimes, some solitary lines cut through. “A prisoner owns nothing.” “My dear children—I’ll never see you again.” “You’re my father!” cries Aljeja when bidding his mentor and friend farewell, while Gorjančikov can only reply, “My child! I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.” But of all the heartbreaking truths surely this is the most tragic: “My eyes will never again see the land where I was born.”

There is much to be written on opera’s treatment of prison life. The pertinent scenes in Fidelio and Don Carlo would be richest next to From the House of the Dead, although in both of those works the inevitable individuations of romantic love get in the way of more radically exploring the possibility of populous camaraderie, while here the possibility proves precarious even when no other relation can suffice to surrogate.

On the issue of the supertitles: shifting placement helped them to melt into the set, and these projections could even have implied a quiet acknowledgment of the drama’s textual origins. I’d love to see the Met incorporate this method into other productions.