Friday, November 23, 2007

La Rondine

La Rondine ("The Swallow") is a rarely-performed Puccini opera. After seeing Wednesday night's performance at the San Francisco Opera, it's hard to understand why it's not almost as popular as La Bohème or Verdi's La Traviata, operas with which it shares plot and character elements.

Perhaps those inescapable echoes of the better-known operas are part of the problem. Both La Rondine and La Traviata center on a Parisian courtesan's attempt to escape her role and sustain true love. La Rondine's second act takes place in a dance hall that bears more than a slight resemblance to La Bohème's second-act Cafe Momus. And La Rondine shares with Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus the character of a maid who borrows her mistress's clothes and then encounters her in public in a mutually embarrassing situation.

La Rondine echoes other operas musically as well as dramatically. For example, both the first and second acts end with a couple singing the final notes of a love duet as they leave the stage (just as in La Bohème's famous Act I offstage "Amor!"). And while La Rondine is appealingly melodic, some of those melodies are themselves reminiscent of Puccini's previous operas (though self-borrowing is an operatic tradition that goes back to Monteverdi).

But it would be petty to complain about the opera's derivative aspects when experiencing such a wonderful production. What made it so involving was Angela Gheorghiu's performance in the lead role of Madga, the courtesan who tries to seize a last chance at true love. Gheorghiu doesn't just have a stunningly beautiful voice--she isn't afraid to use it expressively to convey emotional extremity. We have a recording of the opera with Kiri Te Kanawa as Magda; listening to it after seeing Gheorghiu, it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between Te Kanawa's arias of joy and pain. Gheorghiu's singing, although thrillingly opulent, never sacrificed dramatic meaning for sheer beauty.

Of course, Gheorghiu is also very beautiful woman, and she looked great in Franca Squarciapino's attractive costumes. Her revealing Art Deco gown in Act I--the opera was updated slightly to the 1920s--gave her an opportunity show us why Magda has bewitched all Paris.

As the student Ruggero, whose arrival in Paris offers Madga a chance to relive the innocent love of her past, Misha Didyk made an appealing partner for Gheorghiu. His voice was especially strong and clear in the upper register; in the role's lower compass he sometimes lost some volume, and what sounds like a tiny lisp on certain vowels became more prominent. Both he and Gheorghiu required a few minutes to gauge the acoustic of the very full house, but soon both were soaring over Puccini's orchestral wall of sound without apparent difficulty. Didyk was also convincing as a naive young man who doesn't realize that in a corrupt world, love alone isn't sufficient for happiness.

Anna Christy was utterly charming as Lisette, Madga's maid--in the first act her bright soprano and spirited stage presence almost threatened to steal the show. Along with Gerard Powers' amusingly cynical poet Prunier, Lisette is half of the comedic couple whose story parallels and comments on the tragedy of Madga and Ruggero. (Just as Magda finds her past as a courtesan inescapable, so to does Lisette find herself returning to Magda's service after a brief fling at independence with Prunier.)

Of course, opera is a hugely complex undertaking, and so inevitably there were some flaws in the production. Using a video for the fire in Magda's palatial apartment in the first act was a miscalculation that should have been cut at the first rehearsal--it was too prominent, and strongly reminiscent of the yule-log Christmas TV broadcasts Mark Morris mocks in his Nutcracker parody The Hard Nut. Director Stephen Barlow's blocking was sometimes static or pointless, and lighting designer Duane Schuler's representation of dawn light filtering in through the windows of the dance hall in the second act looked instead like a glaring streetlight (he made up for it with the beautifully diffuse seaside twilight of the third act).

But these are minor problems in what was otherwise a memorable production of this unjustly overlooked gem. And most of what made it so memorable was Angela Gheorghiu's lovely and heartrending performance as Magda. Gheorghiu has made a recording of this opera with her husband Roberto Alagna; on the basis of this performance I'd give it a very strong recommendation.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Punk rock in print

Punk rock saved my life; punk rock destroyed my life, or at least one (pretty boring) possible version of it. Punk rock was a challenge to my entire view of the world and my place in it. It made me question everything--all of my assumptions about who I was and the sort of existence I had planned--and revealed possibilities of action and expression that before I encountered punk had been unimaginable.

It also let me know that there were people out there--articulate and pissed-off people--who were just as alienated as I was. The only difference was that they were drawing on their alienation as a source of creativity.

Given punk's importance in shaping my sensibility, I'm a pretty critical reader of books about punk. I keep hoping that some brilliant book about punk is going to appear, and I'm usually disappointed. Books about punk tend to fall into two broad categories: journalistic retrospectives (Michael Azzerad's This Band Could Be Your Life, Jon Savage's England's Dreaming) or words committed to print in the heat of the moment (the Sniffin' Glue or Slash fanzine compilations, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons' The Boy Looked at Johnny (first published 1978), Caroline Coon's 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion (first published 1977), any Lester Bangs collection). I tend to prefer the latter, but two books I've read recently have tried to combine the forms, to (as you might guess) mixed effect.

Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World was first published in 1993. (In 2005 it was reprinted in a second edition with the better but still misleading subtitle The Birth of American Punk Rock.) It's a narrative of a countertendency in American rock music beginning with the Velvet Underground, continuing through the Stooges and MC5 and New York Dolls, and then focussing on the mid-1970s scene centered on the Bowery club CBGB: groups like Television, Patti Smith, Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Heylin also writes about Cleveland bands like Rocket from the Tombs, Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys, and a little bit about Boston's Modern Lovers.

The book provides a corrective to the common idea that punk rock started in England. Even the punk look--spiky hair, leather jackets, and torn T-shirts with hand-scrawled slogans--is being modelled by Richard Hell in a 1974 photo included in the book at a time when the Clash's Mick Jones was still in his glam-rock phase of bell-bottoms and platform boots. Incidentally, Malcom McLaren, co-owner of what later became the Sex fashion boutique and future manager of the Sex Pistols, was in New York in 1974 managing the New York Dolls; he was acquainted with Richard Hell and would have been quite aware of Hell's anti-fashion statements.

Heylin didn't call his book an oral history, but he might as well have--his narrative contributions provide connecting paragraphs between extensive quotes from major and minor figures, taken mainly from other people's interviews at the time. While the interview material is fascinating, Heylin's writing is less so. He's a mainstream rock journalist who adopts what I'd call the liberal perspective on punk rock: that it was about "resuscitat[ing] rock & roll." As that mini-quote suggests, his writing too frequently falls into cliches and shorthand; he also has a weakness for lyrical allusions and puns (although weirdly he includes virtually no lyric excerpts), and can be repetitive: I stopped counting the number of times he refers to the (literal) collapse of New York's Mercer Arts Center as though he was telling us about it for the first time.

Perhaps because he wasn't a scene participant himself (I'm guessing), Heylin's perspective on the music is that of a record collector. And he's got a record collector's fascination for minutiae, documenting the most fleeting combinations of musicians (one Cleveland group he writes about lasted all of two rehearsals) and obsessively detailing demos, alternate takes and B-sides.

What he's less effective in conveying is why we should care or why any of it should matter two decades later (when written--now it's three and a half). What it might have been like to wedge yourself into a sweaty, smoky club and hear the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones or the Heartbreakers roaring through a set for the first time and sounding like nothing that you'd ever heard before is largely missing from Heylin's account.

To convey that excitement is clearly one reason why a few years after Heylin's book came out Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain published Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. Despite the overarching subtitle, it focussed on the same time period, locations and bands that Heylin's book did (that is, it excluded UK bands) and was presented in a similar format. The only difference is that McNeil and McCain contribute even less prose than Heylin does: Please Kill Me is more of a collage of quotes. As in Heylin's book, the interviews were mainly cribbed from contemporary articles in Creem, Punk, and New York Rocker. The key difference is that Legs McNeil was a major scene participant: he had co-founded Punk magazine in 1975 to document the New York bands (and get free records and entry to shows), and was a CBGB regular.

But that participant's perspective is also distorting in a different way. It's been awhile since since I read Please Kill Me (the title is taken from a self-produced Richard Hell t-shirt), but I recall it as pretty entertaining, at least at first. Eventually, though, the endless stories of drug- and alcohol-fueled binges start to pall. Instead of feeling liberatory, "decadent," or even just fun, it all comes to seem a bit squalid and pathetic. Other people's experiences of substance or sexual excess are entertaining only to a point, and that point was reached for me with about 250 pages left to go.

The definitive punk history is unobtainable. It would have to combine Lester Bangs' brilliant word-riffing and his generosity of spirit, Jon Savage's and Clinton Heylin's appetite for detail (but adding a sense of why the detail might matter), Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain's sense of why punk was so exhilarating (but without the tedium of so many drug and groupie stories), Julie Churchill and Tony Parsons' skepticism about the whole enterprise, Greil Marcus' range of art- and music-historical reference (but without his deadening prose). It won't, and can't, happen, but--like the youth utopia punk promised and couldn't deliver--it's still a seductive dream...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Chori Chori

Chori Chori (2003) is one of those movies that seems better while you're watching it than it does in retrospect. It's the story of Khushi ("Happiness"--subtle, no?), played by Rani Mukherjee, who trades on her abundant charm to run various small-time cons on her boss and landlord (and who can blame her?). Just as her luck is running out she meets the architect Ranvir (Ajay Devgan), whose girlfriend Pooja (Sonali Bendre) has just issued him a resounding vote of no confidence. Ranvir has gotten stuck--in building his dream house for his future life with his girlfriend (which is looking less and less likely), and in his job, which involves churning out efficient designs for factories instead of the beautifully designed homes of his imagination.

Khushi dynamites Ranvir's emotional logjams. She starts making the aloof Pooja jealous, tells Ranvir's boss about his dreams (and as a result, engineers his promotion to partner in his firm), and helps Ranvir to finish the house. She also wins over his family, so that they become invested in the idea of her marriage to Ranvir. What they don't know is that Khushi is on salary--Ranvir is paying her to stick around so that Pooja, faced with a rival, will stop taking him so much for granted.

Chori Chori's failings are those of many Bollywood films. Just when it seems that the movie is heading for the denouement, it treads water for another 20 minutes and an additional musical number. The acting is uneven. Rani is terrific, but Ajay Devgan's emotional range stretches from slightly pained to slightly exasperated, and Sonali Bendre doesn't have a whole lot to do but look jealous, beautiful, and too thin. There are a couple of subplots that are abruptly truncated (probably because the movie was running long) and there's an entirely predictable final scene at the marriage altar.

So Chori Chori depends almost wholly on the charisma of the star at its center; fortunately, that star is Rani. Her performance carries the film, and allows a sympathetic viewer to ignore several glaring plot implausibilities. She looks great, manages to be both cynically mercenary and appealingly soft-hearted at the same time, and has several excellent dance numbers (one of which is about a third as long as it should be). The music is compelling, and several of the dance numbers shade into amusing fantasy sequences. The extended marriage scene at the end, with Ranvir's family reassuring Khushi of their love and support, while she refuses to come out of her room because their love for her (and her own for Ranvir) has made her unwilling to go through with a fake marriage, rates with me as some kind of classic.

And despite the limitations of Ajay and Sonali's characters, I think the film does illustrate three truths. First, that a fresh perspective is sometimes all it takes to resolve seemingly insoluble difficulties in our lives; second, that the appearance of a rival will renew our flagging romantic interest--whether that's wise or not; and third, that for good or ill we can become what we pretend to be, even when we're not entirely aware that it's happening.

So my advice is to enjoy the film for Rani's delightful performance, for the stunningly beautiful mountain landscapes of Shimla, and for some keenly observed scenes and well-staged dance numbers. And don't think about it too hard afterwards.

Update 11/15/07: MemsaabStory has written a beautifully nuanced appreciation of Chori Chori, which is much more generous (in all senses) than my post. Read it to find out why she's right and I'm too critical. Thanks to Beth Loves Bollywood for alerting me to her review.