Monday, October 26, 2009

The newspaper of record on Chronic City

From two reviews of Jonathan Lethem's new novel Chronic City (Doubleday, 2009) in the New York Times.

Michiko Kakutani, October 13, 2009:

"tedious, overstuffed"

"a lot of pompous hot air...the entire book...pretentiously — and clumsily — tries to create a kind of virtual-reality game version of Manhattan."


"coy ... juvenile and mannered"

"annoying and tiresome"

"an irritating bore"

"...these creatures inhabit neither a real flesh-and-blood Manhattan nor a persuasive fictional realm, and they’re so clearly plasticky puppets moved hither and thither by Mr. Lethem’s random whims that it’s of no concern to us what happens to them in this lame and unsatisfying novel."

Gregory Cowles, October 25, 2009:

"'Chronic City' owes less to Bellow (a scrupulous realist, after all) than to antic postmodern fabulists like Pynchon and Rushdie and DeLillo"

"knowing and exuberant, with beautiful drunken sentences that somehow manage to walk a straight line"

"In Lethem’s earliest work the tricks and extravagances and gymnastic prose sometimes seemed arch or mannered—merely clever—but they have grown steadily more confident, and here they serve the higher purpose of flinging Manhattan onto the page in all its manic and subject merge"



"we want it to last forever"

"'The Fortress of Solitude' was a great novel.... 'Chronic City' even better. "

"Even in an alternate reality—even in a fiction—passion and significance are everywhere if you know where to look."
(Image from the Knopf/Doubleday website.)

Update 4 December 2009: Chronic City has been chosen by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2009 (only five of which are fiction).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Francesca Caccini's La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall' Isola Alcina

This past week in the Bay Area the Baroque vocal group Magnificat (in collaboration with the Carter Family Marionettes) performed Francesca Caccini's La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall' Isola d'Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from Alcina's Island, 1625) as a puppet opera. (Images from the website of Magnificat.)

Francesca Caccini was a remarkable figure. According to scholar Suzanne Cusick's informative program notes, Francesca was the daughter of the famous singer and composer Giulio Caccini (of "Amarilli, mia bella" fame). Francesca sang at age 13 in the first opera to have survived complete, Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini's L'Euridice (1600), to which her father also contributed music. Francesca not only had a beautiful singing voice by contemporary accounts, but was a multi-instrumentalist and later a teacher and composer as well. She wrote hundreds of songs and music for at least 17 entertainments for the Medici Court in Florence. Unfortunately most of her songs are lost, and the only one of her operas that survives in performable form is La Liberazione di Ruggiero.

Ferdinando Saracinelli's libretto takes its story from the same portions of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1532) from which Handel's Alcina (1735) was drawn. The knight Ruggiero has been seduced by the beautiful (but evil) sorceress Alcina and is lingering with her on her enchanted island. Ruggiero doesn't realize the danger he's in: he's just the latest in a series of conquests that Alcina has bewitched; his predecessors have been turned into the lush plant life that covers her island. The beautiful (but good) sorceress Melissa and Ruggiero's betrothed, Bradamante, go to Alcina's island to shame Ruggiero into returning to his martial (and marital) duties. As Ruggiero dons his armor and prepares to leave, Alcina at first pleads with him to stay. But when her tears fail, she vengefully uses her magic to unleash demons and fire against Ruggiero. Ruggiero's valor and Melissa's counter-magic triumph, however: the other enchanted knights and ladies on the island are freed, the demons are overcome and Alcina is vanquished.

Cusick's program notes make the case that this story wasn't chosen at random--that it functions as a partial allegory of the complex political situation in the Medici territories, which were then co-ruled by the regent Archduchess Maria Maddalena and her mother-in-law, Christine de Lorraine. I'm not completely convinced. First, along with Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Tasso, Ariosto's chivalric romances were part of the common currency of stories that composers and librettists could be assured that their courtly audiences would be familiar with. Additionally, if the opera is an allegory the role of Alcina is highly problematic. Unlike her portrayal in Handel's opera a century later, her depiction in La Liberazione di Ruggiero--while initially sympathetic--turns unequivocally negative by the end of the opera. So we have a battle between a good witch (Melissa) and a bad witch (Alcina) over a man reluctant to assume his duties. If the good witch is seen as Maria Maddalena, the bad witch then becomes associated with Christine, and the reluctant knight with Ferdinando II de Medici, for whom Maria Maddalena and Christine were acting as regents. Such associations could not have been anything but highly offensive to Christine, a very powerful woman who was likely present at the first performance.

Magnificat's production was a pastiche of elements, many of which were deliberately anachronistic. All questions of "authenticity" dissolved, though, in the charming performances. The puppets were an ingenious solution to the problem of staging this spectacular opera, which features mermaids, sorceresses on flying dragons, singing trees, and a concluding (sea)horse ballet. There was a natural connection between the opera and the working-class Sicilian puppet theater tradition, which incorporates figures from the chivalric romances (the armored figures of Ruggiero and the rescued knight Astolfo were, we were informed, actually constructed in Sicily). The Baroque stagecraft in miniature was utterly delightful: the rolling ocean waves, flying dragons, sea monsters, magical transformations, and the highly amusing references to The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz were handled with captivating cleverness.

And of course, even in a puppet version the opera had a full share of Baroque gender-bending: Melissa, sung by a male countertenor, cross-dresses as Ruggiero's former mentor Atlante in order to confront him; meanwhile, the same male countertenor voiced one of the three damigelle who were Alcina's handmaidens.

The only element of the production that I had mixed feelings about was the puppet Pulcinella, who commented on and participated in the action intermittently throughout the opera. Pulcinella, a commedia dell'arte character associated with earthy jokes and comic misadventures, is a common figure in Sicilian puppet theater, so his presence made sense. But it's highly unlikely that comic interludes were part of the initial performance of the opera (courtly decorum would not have permitted it). And truth be told, I found it difficult to switch between Caccini's beautiful music and Pulcinella's bad puns, bawdy gestures and scatological jokes.

All in all, though, the production was a brilliant success on every level--and most especially the musical. The musicians and singers of Magnificat were uniformly excellent, and Caccini's music was simply gorgeous. I have to mention by name soprano Catherine Webster (Alcina), mezzo-soprano Jennifer Paulino (Sirena, Damigelle), alto countertenor José Lemos (Melissa/Atlante and other characters), and bass Hugh Davies (Nettuno)--their contributions in particular were superb. But every member of Magnificat and the Carter Family Marionettes should congratulate themselves on a triumph.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Sometimes the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, and that's how I felt about writer/director Rajnesh Domalpalli's film Vanaja (2007). The film has many virtues. Among them are the excellent and largely nonprofessional cast, and especially the radiant performance of Mamatha Shukya in the title role. Also striking are the beautiful images of cinematographer Milton Karn: the gorgeous saturated colors of fabrics and painted walls, and the stunning landscapes of South India. But chief among the film's pleasures are the Kuchipudi dance sequences performed by Shukya with astonishing skill.

Vanaja (Shukya) is the vivacious adolescent daughter of the struggling fisherman Somayya (Ramachandriah Marikanti). To help her father, and to learn the intricacies of Kuchipudi dance, Vanaja becomes a servant of the local Brahmin landlord, Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari). But Vanaja catches the eye of Rama Devi's son Shekhar (Karan Singh), who rapes and impregnates her. She quickly discovers that the wealthy and high-caste are immune from justice. Ultimately, Vanaja faces a choice between keeping her child (and sustaining her dreams of becoming a dancer) and escaping from the cruelties of Rama Devi's household.

The DVD extras include a delightful interview with Shukya, in which she displays her quick intelligence, mischievous charm and brilliant smile. In that interview she says that in her view Vanaja triumphs at the end of the film. For us the ending was far more ambiguous, and Vanaja's future seems highly uncertain.

Shukya's grace and assurance in the dance sequences suggest a lifetime of study, but in the interview she reveals that before the filming began she had only had a year of training. The DVD extras include all the unabridged dance sequences from the film, and they are very much worth seeing in their entirety. Even if the film's disparate elements don't quite cohere, Shukya's performance as the wronged but resilient Vanaja is unforgettable.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Il Trittico

Giacomo Puccini's Il Trittico (Triptych, 1918) is a trilogy of one-act operas: Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi. It's unusual to get a chance to see all three operas in one evening, as Puccini originally intended; of the three, only the last makes it into Operabase's list of the top 50 most frequently staged operas. This season Patricia Racette, an Exotic and Irrational favorite, assumed all three leading soprano roles in San Francisco Opera's production; we went to see the September 30 performance (photos of the SF Opera production by Cory Weaver).

To take the operas in reverse order of performance, but ascending order of rewards:

Gianni Schicchi (pronounced "Skeeky") is a story taken from Dante's Inferno, but given a comic twist by Puccini and librettist Giovacchino Forzano. The grasping extended family of the rich Buoso has gathered at his deathbed. That family includes the young Rinuccio, who wants to marry Lauretta, the daughter of the wily merchant Gianni Schicchi. Rinuccio's greedy relatives are opposed to the match because Schicchi cannot provide what they consider to be an adequate dowry. When the family discovers that Buoso has cut them out of his will and left all his wealth to a monastery, though, Schicchi proposes that he impersonate the dead man and dictate a new will to a notary. You can probably guess how Schicchi turns the situation to his (and Lauretta's, and Rinuccio's) advantage.

Gianni Schicchi's paper-thin plot succeeds or fails on the strength of the singer portraying Schicchi; Paolo Gavanelli proved to be a master of comic gesture and timing. And the eye-popping set and costume designs (by Allen Moyer and Bruno Schwengl, respectively) that update the action to a fantasy 1950s added to the comic atmosphere.

The high point of any Gianni Schicchi production, though, is Lauretta's delivery of one of Puccini's most famous arias, "O mio babbino caro" (O my dear papa). Thanks to Onegin65, here is a recording of one the greatest Laurettas ever, Victoria de los Angeles:

In English the words are, "O my dear papa/He [Rinuccio] pleases me, and is handsome/I want to go to Porta Rossa so we can buy a ring/Yes, yes, I want to go there!/And if my love were in vain,/I would go to the Ponte Vecchio/and throw myself in the River Arno!/I am aching, I am tortured!/Oh God, I want to die!/Father, have pity on me, have pity!"

Taken out of context, as it often is in recitals and on movie soundtracks, this aria sounds like an anguished plea from daughter to father (after all, she threatens suicide). As directed by James Robinson in the San Francisco production, though, Racette made clear Lauretta's playfulness and comic exaggeration. Clearly, this Lauretta is very much her roguish father's daughter.

I'd thought that the overt piety of Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) was going to be a bit hard to swallow; I should have had more faith--in Puccini's theatrical instincts. At the core of the opera is a bitter confrontation scene between Angelica and her icily imperious aunt, the Principessa (the great Ewa Podleš, making her SF Opera debut).

Years ago, Angelica was sent to the convent because she had disgraced her family by giving birth to a son out of wedlock; now, the Principessa coldly demands that Angelica sign away her inheritance to enable her younger sister to marry. In this clip from the May 2008 l'Òpera de Sabadell (Catalonia) production, the implacable judgement of the Principessa is brilliantly expressed by the almost otherworldly voice of the contralto Mariel Aguilar (thanks to lenalita2008):

The words (again by Forzano) in English: "Often, in the evening, I go to the chapel to pray. In the silence of those prayers my spirit seems to leave me and join your mother's in secret, ethereal communion. How painful it is to hear the dead mourn and weep! When the mystical trance passes, I have only one word to say to you: Atone! Atone! Offer my justice to the Blessed Virgin!"

Unfortunately, the San Francisco production undermined, rather than reinforced, the sense of menace that Podleš' spine-shivering voice created in this scene. The convent was represented as a harshly lit refectory, with overhead fluorescent lights eliminating all shadows. Lighting designer Christopher Maravich also eliminated any sense of the time of day; when the characters sing of the setting sun turning the water of their courtyard fountain golden, nothing was shown onstage.

Robinson's directorial choices also undermined the ending of the opera. There's no way to discuss this without spoiling it, so if you don't want to know what happens, skip the next two paragraphs. The Principessa reveals to Angelica that her son has died; numbed, Angelica signs away her share of her parents' estate, and then resolves to join her son in death by consuming poisonous herbs. As she's dying, she realizes that she's committed a mortal sin, and begs the Virgin for forgiveness. In her final moments, she sees a vision of a young boy, and hears a choir singing of salvation.

The SF Opera production deliberately demystifies this moment. The choir, of course, is the other nuns, and the boy is obviously one of the children who had earlier come into the refectory for dinner. He gazes through the closed door at Angelica convulsing on the floor; she dies, and the curtain falls. What's missing is what this vision in her final moments means to Angelica. I think it would have been far more effective for us to realize that she's seeing one of the children, but then for the doors to open and a golden light suffuse the scene: we know that it's just a boy from the hospital, but Angelica clearly believes that it's a vision of her son. If the director felt that he had to demystify Angelica's experience further, he could have done it in reverse: have the golden light fade, the doors close, and have Angelica's vision resolve into one of the children from the hospital. Robinson's choice, though, seemed unsatisfactory--it gave us no sense of Angelica's experience in her last moments, only our own rational and disenchanted perspective. A missed opportunity. Still, thanks to Racette and Podleš, the Angelica/Principessa confrontation was thrilling.

I feared that Il Tabarro (The Cloak) would earn the "shabby little shocker" tag that Joseph Kerman so notoriously (and unfairly) applied to Puccini's Tosca. Again, I underestimated Puccini and his librettist Giuseppe Adami. Il Tabarro is a masterwork in miniature, a brilliantly compressed tragedy that hurtles inexorably to its horrifying conclusion. The barge-master Michele suspects (rightly) that his wife Giorgetta is having an affair with one of their deck-hands, Luigi. What make Il Tabarro so great is that each character is given his or her full due. Luigi (the excellent Brandon Jovanovich) has been harshly exploited his whole life, working under grueling conditions for other men's profit. Giorgetta is clearly the best thing that's ever happened to him, and Racette's ravishing voice and womanly curves make his irresistible attraction highly convincing.

Giorgetta herself dreams of escaping the barge and returning to the excitement of Belleville, the working-class neighborhood where she grew up. But as Racette's nuanced performance tells us, Giorgetta is not just bored and frustrated: she wants to leave the barge in part to escape the memory of a child that recently died in infancy. The hulking Michele (Paolo Gavanelli) is clearly set up to be the bad guy--only, in a darkly lyrical scene, harrowingly sung by Gavanelli, he pours out his love for his wife, his anguish at losing her love, and his sorrow over the death of their child. Gavanelli's portrayal makes Michele an immensely sympathetic character, which complicates our response to the horror that follows. The first portions of the SF Opera preview give a (too brief) sense of the production:

In Il Tabarro Puccini employs the orchestra brilliantly to set the scene and mood. We hear the mournful horns of ships on the Seine and the ringing of distant church bells. The growing sense of suspense and menace is palpable. For me, Il Tabarro was the revelation of the evening, and of the three operas that make up Il Trittico, the one that I'm most eager to see again.