Saturday, March 27, 2010

Changing My Mind

Changing My Mind coverOne may as well begin with my response to Zadie Smith's White Teeth (2000): I didn't love it as much as many others seemed to. Perhaps my expectations were too high: the novel had been showered with prizes, including the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize, among others.

I did think that for a first novel, it was a remarkable performance. Many first novels are coming of age stories with a small number of basically similar characters and a narrow time frame. Not White Teeth: Smith peopled the book with characters of many classes, ethnicities, belief systems, professions, and generations. The book opens in the mid-1970s, with the narrative following the intertwined fates of two families into the present and delving back into a shared secret from the last days of World War II. Smith clearly had a gift for limning vivid, highly individual characters, and the book touched on many contemporary issues in a lightly comic way.

But that bemused tone also seemed somewhat limiting. Everything from suicidal despair to the devastation of war to the delusions of fanaticism to the potential catastrophes of science was treated with an ironically raised eyebrow. That tone and Smith's theme of cultural displacement seemed to owe something to the example of Salman Rushdie, but White Teeth lacked the emotional and narrative range of, say, Midnight's Children (1981) or The Satanic Verses (1989). Still, few first novels even dare to invite those kinds of comparisons.

So while I enjoyed White Teeth, I wondered a bit at the extravagance of the praise that had been heaped on it. But then the somewhat less enthusiastic reviews of her next two novels scared me off. (I can't be pleased, apparently.) The Autograph Man (2002) seemed to revisit some of the same concerns of identity and belonging as White Teeth, only this time the main target seemed to be modern celebrity culture. Not only is that target excessively soft, hadn't it already been exhaustively punctured by writers like Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace? And speaking of tired subjects, then came a campus novel, On Beauty (2005). Can it be news to anyone that academics use specialized jargon as a defense mechanism, both to reaffirm their own expertise and to intellectualize their encounters with art? Not only that, but On Beauty's widely quoted first sentence was "One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father"--an allusion to the first sentence of E. M. Forster's Howard's End, "One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister." It seemed a weak joke, and perhaps a too-explicit signaling of her narrative model.

Zadie SmithSo thanks to my hesitations and doubts--admittedly based on information gleaned second-hand from reviews rather than direct experience--and a life that suddenly had a lot less time for reading for pleasure, both novels kept getting pushed down my reading list: I'm embarrassed to say that a copy of The Autograph Man has been sitting unread on a shelf in my house for five years now. In any case, for good reasons and (mostly) bad I lost touch with Zadie Smith for a while.

Until the last year or two, when I started noticing her byline on essays published in The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. There was her appreciation of the "humane and charming" BBC broadcasts of E. M. Forster, for example, and her remarkable meditation on multivocalism and Barack Obama (drawing parallels ranging from Shakespeare and Cary Grant to, well, Zadie Smith). But most impressive was her New Yorker essay "Dead Man Laughing", which affectingly describes her relationship with her father and her inherited love of British comedy (The Goon Show, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and a name new to me, Tony Hancock--"a comic wedded to despair"). As her father lies dying in a hospital,

"I did all the usual, banal things. I brought a Dictaphone to his bedside, in order to collect the narrative of his life (this perplexed him--he couldn’t see the through line). I grew furious with overworked nurses. I refused to countenance any morbidity from my father, or any despair. The funniest thing about dying is how much we, the living, ask of the dying; how we beg them to make it easy on us."

"Dead Man Laughing" is gently but keenly observed, sad, and very funny. And encountering (or re-encountering) this brilliant piece is by itself reason enough to pick up Smith's Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin, 2009), which collects not only "Dead Man Laughing" and the essays on Forster and Obama, but many more.

Given her range of subjects--Kafka, movies, David Foster Wallace, Roland Barthes--I was surprised to find that the essay after "Dead Man Laughing" that I found most involving was her appreciation of George Eliot's Middlemarch. Smith writes of the importance for Eliot of the moment "the scales fall from our eyes": how we can achieve what we think we most want, only to realize that we've mistaken our own desires--or, at least, have deceived ourselves about their objects. Perhaps the highest praise I can give this essay is that it made me urgently want to read Middlemarch.

And right after Middlemarch, I've clearly got to make up for lost time and read The Autograph Man and On Beauty. Now, though, I have the opposite dilemma. Before I avoided these books for fear of disappointment; after reading her smart, insightful and beautifully written essays, I fear my expectations for her fiction may now once again be too high.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Handel's Tamerlano

From Handel's Tamerlano (1724), the aria "Par che mi nasca in seno" sung by the lovely Anna Bonitatibus:


The words are "Par che mi nasce in seno / un raggio di speranza / a consolarmi il cor. / Ma non contenta a pieno / del seno la constanza, / se l'agita il timor." (in English, "It seems to me that my breast has been pierced by a ray of hope that consoles my heart. But my heart cannot find true peace if it is still assailed by fear.") The aria is taken from a performance staged at the 2001 Händelfestspiele in Handel's birthplace, Halle an der Saale, released on Kultur DVD D4505. The production was directed by Jonathan Miller and performed by the English Concert conducted by Trevor Pinnock. The gorgeous costumes were created by Judy Levin for a production of Tamerlano at Glimmerglass Opera, and, along with Bonitatibus' performance, are one of the most striking things about this production.

Bonitatibus plays Irene, Princess of Trebizond, who discovers that her betrothed, the Tatar conqueror Tamerlano, is pursuing Asteria, the daughter of his newly defeated enemy, the Ottomon sultan Bajazet. Tamerlano has just declared that he is going to make Asteria his empress. But after he leaves, Irene learns that Asteria does not love Tamerlano in return. This is when Irene sings of her heart's consolation.

The opera is loosely based on Tamerlane's defeat and capture of the Ottoman sultan Bayezid in 1402. Bayezid died after a year as Tamerlane's prisoner, which leads to the first unusual feature of this opera: unlike most other Baroque operas, Tamerlano does not end happily. In the final act, filled with impotent rage and despair (harrowingly portrayed here by Tom Randle), Bajazet kills himself by taking poison. Tamerlano, moved by his enemy's death, then pardons Asteria for attempting to assassinate him (twice), and unites her with her lover, the Greek prince Andronico. The opera then ends with a brief final chorus in praise of love's light dispelling the darkness--only the chorus is in a minor key; the darkness lingers.

The role of Bajazet was originally written for Francesco Borosini, a tenor, which is another unusual aspect of Tamerlano. For most of opera's previous history, tenors had generally been consigned to roles as comic servants and/or lusty women of a certain age. Bajazet, though, is essentially the main character in Tamerlano (in fact, some versions of this libretto were staged under the title Bajazet instead).

Yet another unusual aspect of Tamerlano is the number of scenes that feature ensembles. There's an amazing moment midway through the second act where Asteria (Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz), unable to bear her father's reproaches, reveals to the assembled company her plan to kill Tamerlano on their wedding night. Irene, Andronico and Bajazet had all accused her of betraying them; now she turns to each of them and asks if they still consider her unworthy. As father and daughter are reconciled, the enraged Tamerlano issues dire threats and stalks off. Opera seria is a form built on the succession of solo arias, so this scene--with its rapid exchanges of recitative and arioso among five characters, and ending with a trio--is remarkable.

But it brings into focus some of the libretto's dramatic weaknesses as well. From this point in the opera until the end, Tamerlano seems to do little but appear onstage periodically, threaten Asteria and Bajazet with death by various gruesome means, and then disappear again. It doesn't help that Tamerlano is sung by the beautiful Monica Bacelli. A fake moustache does not a warrior king make, and rage arias don't really show her voice to best advantage.

Another dramatic weakness is that the primo uomo (originally the great castrato Senesino) is Andronico, an ally of Tamerlano who is asked to convey his offer of marriage to Asteria--but Andronico is himself in love with Asteria. This is a situation that was handled more compellingly in Handel's earlier Flavio (1723). And while Andronico has the greatest number of arias, he doesn't have much to do besides hover on the edges of the main drama that is unfolding among Tamerlano, Asteria, and Bajazet. Not only do Andronico's many arias tend to kill the dramatic momentum, they are sung here by Graham Pushee, a countertenor whose voice I found thin and inexpressive. (Perhaps it would have been better if Bacelli and Pushee had switched roles.) And while Pushee's Andronico gets more arias than are really welcome, one of the most compelling singers in this production, Bonitatibus, doesn't even have an aria after the second act.

So taken as a whole Tamerlano doesn't quite achieve the dramatic or musical heights of the other operas that Handel produced between February 1724 and February 1725, Giulio Cesare (1724) and Rodelinda (1725). But it contains much excellent music, and its peak moments--Irene's lyrical aria, the Act II revelation scene, and Bajazet's death--are among Handel's greatest creations for the stage.

Update 24 March 2010: The Royal Opera's production of Tamerlano with Kurt Streit as Bajazet, Christianne Stotijn as Tamerlano, Sara Mingardo as Andronico, Christine Schäfer as Asteria and Renata Pokupic as Irene has just concluded its run, and the critics were not kind. In the Sunday Times Hugh Canning savaged Ivor Bolton's "limp conducting" and Schäfer's "threadbare tone and sagging pitch"; "beyond pitiful" was the kindest thing he had to say about Stotijn's singing. Canning did, however, single out Renata Pokupic for her "radiant singing." In a more measured review in the Guardian, Tim Ashley praised Kurt Streit's "intelligent, deeply felt performance" (Streit was in the difficult position of taking over the role of Bajazet from the hospitalized Plácido Domingo), and described Sara Mingardo's singing as "glorious," but wrote that otherwise this revival of Graham Vick's 2001 production was "often dispiriting in the extreme."

The reasons for the critics' dismay aren't apparent from the video preview provided by the Royal Opera House, which sounds ravishing. But while it's difficult to make judgments from recordings, it does seem that Pokupic has a big, fruity mezzo-soprano that probably carries better in a large house. Handel's theaters were only about a third the size of modern opera houses, where singers with lighter voices may sound underpowered.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Bollywood/Hollywood

In a remarkable article by Anupama Chopra in the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times this Sunday the agenda for collaborations between Indian filmmakers and American distributors was laid out. Taking Kites (2010)--produced by Rakesh Roshan, and starring his son Hrithik--as a template, here's what to expect in the future from Bollywood films with North American aspirations (all quotes are taken from Chopra's article):

Shorter run-times: Brett Ratner (the director of those timeless classics of world cinema Rush Hour 1, 2, and 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand) "offered to re-edit 'Kites' and make it more accessible for mainstream America. Working with [editor] Mark Helfrich...Mr. Ratner pared the 118-minute film to 90 minutes." That means that 25% of the film (which, at less than 2 hours, was already quite lean by Bollywood standards) was cut.

Fewer songs: The parts that ended up on the editing-room floor included "elements that 'just wouldn’t translate,' including a song sequence featuring Mr. Roshan." Yeah, American audiences just can't accept a hunky leading man who sings and dances--just ask Gene Kelly.

Dubbed dialogue: "...the dialogue for all the characters, except the two leads, [was] dubbed by American voices." There's no way to sugarcoat this: dubbing is an abomination.

Multi-national casts: "Meanwhile Mr. Ratner has already figured out his next move: 'I would love to make a movie in Bollywood,' he said. 'I would do American stars in an Indian musical. That’s my idea.'" Right. Indian cinema just doesn't have enough appealing, charismatic stars. Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee or Kajol couldn't possibly carry a movie on their own. Sticking second-rate American actors into Indian musicals will make them so much better!

So welcome to a future where everything that makes Indian cinema Indian is stripped away. You can have it if you want it; you'll find me re-watching Mughal-e-Azam (1960) instead.