Dilettante's Diary

Dec 4/12

Who Do I Think I Am?
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Head to Head
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.
The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: La Clemenza di Tito (Opera); Skyfall (Movie); Lincoln (Movie)
La Clemenza di Tito (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Caterino Tommaso Mazzolà (after Pietro Metastasio); starring Elīna Garanča, Barbara Frittoli, Giuseppe Filianoti, Kate Lindsey and Lucy Crowe; conducted by Harry Bicket; with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus. December 1st, 2012.

This year’s line-up for the Met Opera HD Live transmissions didn’t exactly thrill me. But I hated to miss the entire season. These outings are fun. It’s heartening on a Saturday afternoon to see so many fans beseiging the theatres (even if it’s not what you’d call a particularly vigorous onslaught, given that so many of the campaigners are marching forward with the aid of canes and walkers).  And the Met puts together a satisfying package for these transmissions: not just the glorious music, but the glimpses of the action backstage and the intermission interviews. 

If you want to make sure you catch at least one of these events, then, you can’t go wrong with choosing a Mozart opera, even if it’s not generally thought of as one of his best. That may be because of the libretto. It’s a pretty static affair, nothing much happening except for a lot of minds changing. Titus, the ruler of Rome, is shacked up with Berenice, daughter of the king of Judea. Vitellia, the daugther of the former Roman emperor, thinks she should be empress. So she persuades her lover, Sesto, to kill Titus, even though Sesto and Titus are friends. But then Vitellia hears that Titus has banished his paramour. That means that maybe Vitellia has a shot at the crown. So she cancels the contract on Titus. But then she hears that Titus wants to marry Servilia, Sesto’s sister. So the contract is back on. But when Servilia confesses that she’s in love with Annio, Titus magnanimously relinquishes his claim on her. Again, Vitellia has a shot at the title. The contract is off again....or is it too late? Vitellia isn’t the only one here who’s changing her mind more often than her costumes. Titus, when he finds out what’s been going on, spends about ten minutes deciding that he will...but no, wait.....he won’t...or will he?..... sign the warrant for Sesto’s execution.

This is all supposed to be taking place in the first century CE. The decor, as established back in the 1980s by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, looks like ancient Rome meets the Renaissance. The men of the chorus are garbed in splendid robes that have somewhat the look of togas, such voluminous and rich looking ones that it appears some rag merchant’s ship had just come in. I don’t know whether Roman nobles sported such luxuriant wigs but they help to add an air of opulence. The women of the chorus have headdresses – sort of like bus conductors’ caps with veils attached – that make them look like nuns or Flemish women from one of the Van Eyck paintings. But the chorus women's robes are subtle beiges and off-whites that make very beautiful groupings on the elegant set of multi-level platforms, steps and pillars. 

The opera really should be named after Sesto, who has the far bigger role than Titus. It’s one of those “trouser” roles in which a mezzo soprano plays a man. The Latvian singer, Elīna Garanča, played and sang the role splendidly. Something about her high cheek bones and her deep-set, very clear eyes made her particularly believable as the young man torn by competing loyalties. Her voice, being still relatively young by opera standards (she’s 36), is admirably clear and strong, without the slightest wobble. A mezzo who was even more convincing as a young man was Kate Lindsey, a grad of the Met’s Young Artist Development Program, in the role of Annio. With her chiselled good looks – strong jaw and nose – Ms. Lindsey made for a very handsome young man, especially in the scenes where the character was wearing a powdered wig. (Justin Bieber wishes he could project such manly perfection.) The love duet between Annio and Servilia (Lucy Crowe, a British singer making her Met debut in the role) was one of those rare moments where you actually forgot for a minute that the person playing the male lover was a woman. (I don’t know whether or not it’s just a coincidence that that duet was the first musical high point of the performance.) There’s a covered sound to Ms. Lindsey’s voice, as if it’s very much in the “mask” of the face, but it’s not an unpleasing sound and maybe it’s especially well-suited to trouser roles. In the role of Titus, tenor Giuseppe Filianoti provided the required majesty, if his acting did seem a bit stilted. He didn’t look as though he was enjoying the coloratura passages and I’m not sure that his high notes were always spot-on, but there was a beautiful silvery quality to his voice that added a refreshing ping to the blend of mostly soprano voices that we were hearing.

My only complaint about the production has to do with the role of Vitellia. Before getting into the less pleasing aspects of Barbara Frittoli’s performance, however, I need to flag one moment that did her credit. At the end of Sesto’s “Parto, parto,” probably the opera’s most celebrated aria, Ms. Frittoli was standing downstage centre, with her back to the audience, as she waved goodbye to the departing youth. She had to hold that pose – arm in the air – through what was the longest ovation in the production, given Ms. Garanča’s excellent delivery of the aria. One supposes that it must have taken some strength of character for a soprano to stand like that through the prolonged acclaim for a soprano who had left the stage.

As for her own performance, Ms. Frittoli sang the role of Vitellia well enough, although her voice shows signs of ageing and her coloratura is a bit soupy. It was the interpretation of the role that was problematic. Ms. Frittoli played the part very broadly, almost in a way that could be called hammy. She seemed to be all about her own selfish ambitions, treating Sesto as nothing but her plaything. Her performance was full of exaggerated posturing and telegraphing of her intentions. The result was that the audience tended to laugh every time she changed her mind yet again. 

I hardly think that that was the response intended by the composer and librettist. After all, this is an opera seria, not a comedy. The worst of it was that it was impossible to see how the noble and high-minded young Sesto, even if he was a bit naive, could fall for this ditz. Granting that it’s a difficult trick for a performer to pull off, I think it would have been possible for a more subtle actress/singer to convey Vitellia's concern about her status, while at the same time exuding class and charm that would have pulled in Sesto.

And me. Without some such persuasive interpretation of the key role of the opera, it was impossible to care much about what was going on – until the final scene, which makes the point of the opera’s title. Mozart always gets me with those scenes of forgiveness and reconciliation. To me, they’re some of the most memorable moments in his operas. That’s where he pours out his most exquisite feelings about the messes we humans get ourselves into. I wonder what that tells us about the private life of dear Wolfgang.

Skyfall (Movie) written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan (based on the work of Ian Flemming); directed by Sam Mendes; starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Helen McCrory

Two motorcycles in a chase across the rooftops of Istanbul – which turns into a chase on a moving train where an excavator (one of those things with along arm that we used to call a “steam shovel”) swings into action – which leads to a fistfight on the roof of the train as it races through tunnels and across bridges – which fistfight ends with a plunge of about seventy-five feet through a waterfall into a river gorge.

That’s the first ten minutes of your latest James Bond adventure. As you can see, the franchise is functioning true to form. But there’s a difference here. Questions about Bond’s age and his fitness loom significantly. So we’re seeing a Bond who’s a bit less cocky than in previous outings. Daniel Craig’s well suited to this version of the determined but not-so-glamorous Bond. You get slightly more character development than what you got in his thirty-second gig accompanying the Queen to the Olympics in London last summer. But I’m wondering if diehard fans are ready for an ending that shows a sensitive side to this paragon of male stoicism. 

The more interesting person in this escapade, however, is Judi Dench as M. Things seem to be falling apart in the British secret service. Agents are being exposed and picked off. It looks like M’s administration is at fault. She’s being hauled up on the carpet by snippy bureaucrats (like Ralph Fiennes). That gives Ms. Dench lots of opportunity to show that M’s trademark toughness is struggling to cover up vulnerability and uncertainty. 

But nobody goes to James Bond movies for acting. You go for the action, the excitement, the technology, the gadgets. I may not be the best judge of this sort of thing, given that I usually avoid action and adventure movies, but it seems to me that, as long as the movie concentrates on delivering those high voltage jolts, it does it well. The first hour is a panoply of amazing sights and stunts. Especially stunning is one fracas that takes place in a glass-walled office building in Shanghai at night, with the city’s dazzling neon lights flickering, flowing and flashing as a backdrop. Against this spectacle, Bond and his opponent are seen as black silhouettes, duke-ing it out like figures in a comic book panel, but one that’s turned out with great artistic panache. In fact, this sequence could, on its own merits, be considered a piece of installation art.

Where the movie doesn’t do so well, to my way of thinking, is when it quiets down and tries to get dramatic. There’s a sequence at a posh casino in Macau that stalls the movie with a lot of portentous attitudinizing. Even more deadly is the subsequent visit to the arch enemy’s lair, a deserted island of crumbling old buildings, where there’s talk about starving rats eating each other. Not to deny that the setting does provide a showcase for Javier Bardem (in a ratty blonde wig) to serve up one of his especially creepy bad guys. He does it with great flair, but the shtick is too flaky and bizarre to prompt even a frisson of horror.

After those dull spots around mid-point, the movie had a hard time winning me back. Yes, the action and the special effects do return in full force. There’s a lot of computer-related and other techno wizzardry. And amazing calamities involving the London underground system. But the nearly two-and-a-half hours began to seem very long. I don’t know whether or not Bond afficionados are supposed to follow everything but it seemed to me that much remained to be explained. How did the villain get so rich and powerful? How did somebody escape from a glass cage watched over by armed guards? Was there actually any logical connection between some of the scenes? Much of the time, I was wondering how they would have played without the bone-rattling music torturing us. 

When it was all over, I felt a profound craving for a movie that told us something about real people, a yearning for a script in which actors said something meaningful instead of firing off lines like blanks that made a lot of noise but didn’t hit anything. 

Capsule comment (instead of a "rating"): Too loud and too long.

Lincoln (Movie) written by Tony Kushner; based, in part, on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Peter McRobbie, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris, Chase Edmunds, S. Epatha Merkerson

This movie could hardly have a worse beginning. 

We open in a flooded field where soldiers are bashing each other to death in a morass of water and mud. Then we cut to two black soldiers who are proclaiming their loyalty to the union cause. The camera pulls back and we see that they’re addressing none other than good ole Abe Lincoln himself. As any two hearty soldiers would naturally do, they start spouting the Gettysburg address, beaming like a couple of school boys as they eagerly show the Chief that they have memorized his famous words.

Yikes! Are we going to be subjected to two-and-a-half hours of such pretentious nonsense?

Thankfully, the movie soon settles into a more realistic mode. It’s early 1865 and the main issue is whether or not President Lincoln’s 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the Abolition of Slavery Act, can be passed before there’s an end to the Civil War. Everyone wants the war to end. But there’s a suspicion that the South may feel that, if the war ends first, then it won’t be necessary to pass the amendment. And it seems that the south may be ready to make peace overtures. 

So Lincoln is anxious to get the act passed as soon as possible. But he doesn’t have the required number of supporters for the necessary two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives. (The act has already passed in the Senate.) Under the direction of his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), emissaries are sent out to persuade uncertain representatives to vote in favour of the act. Whether or not the movie-makers intended this, we can’t help thinking of contemporary resonances in terms of a president entering his second term and scrambling to come up with enough votes to pass important legislation. 

What the movie wants to show us, then, is not so much the Lincoln who is the great idealist and orator but the man who is a canny politician, the man who, in spite of his lofty principles, can do the necessary politicking. In this respect, I believe, the movie is taking its cue from the 2005 book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals. This Lincoln isn’t the towering Mount Rushmore figure that we might have been expecting. We see him usually in backrooms, in clandestine meetings, in personal encounters. The most telling moments are the ones where he's alone in the White House, waiting to see what’s going to happen as his flunkeys are out there trying to make his great hopes become reality.

And in bringing such a Lincoln believably to the screen, full credit must go to Daniel Day-Lewis in the role. I’ve been critical of Mr. Day-Lewis’s acting up a storm in some of his recent movies, the impression he gives of putting too much showy craft into his performances. But here the actor disappears into the character. It’s a very interior take on Lincoln. In many of the first scenes, he seems withdrawn. We hardly ever see his eyes. Mind you, that’s partly the effect of lighting that makes dark caves under his prominent brows. And when he does finally look at people, we see that his eyes are small and wary, as though peering out at us from the depths of great skepticism about the human race. (Reminds me of the saying that pessimists make the best leaders.)

Which is not to suggest that this Lincoln is a morose man. He breaks into private chuckles in the midst of speeches, often at some humorous implication that seems lost on other people. When somebody piously comments that God will solve everything, Lincoln quips: “I don’t envy him his task.” And there’s at least one example of his penchant for earthy humour. We also get his tendency to wistful philosophizing when, in a nighttime visit with telegraphers, he muses: “Do you think we choose to be born?” Most importantly, we see that, although the man’s nature is genial, kindly and forbearing for the most part, he can be steely and demanding when necessary.

With Mr. Day-Lewis giving us such a genuine person, it’s unfortunate that the script tends so often towards bloated, grandiose statement. You begin to wonder if scriptwriter Tony Kushner can’t leave behind his glory days as the author of such theatrical achievements as Angels in America. Characters in this movie are constantly launching grand, biblical-sounding perorations with rolling cadences. I’m willing to grant that people in those days generally talked in a way that sounds somewhat formal to us. But in bedrooms and on porches? 

In their private chambers one night, Lincoln and his spouse, Mary Todd Lincoln, fly into flights of rhetoric that look like nothing so much as audition pieces for theatre school. A black woman (S. Epatha Merkerson, I think), who acts as a sort of lady-in-waiting to Mrs. Lincoln, stops on the front porch of the White House one night, after accompanying the Lincoln’s to the opera, and delivers a grandiloquent declaration of her belief in the importance of what Lincoln is trying to do.

Of course, John Williams’ score can be relied upon to stress how noble this all is, should we have failed to notice. When an elected representative in the House works himself up to delivering a speech that comes close to expressing something like the equality of all peoples, the music surges as if you were watching the successful completion of an Apollo mission. But the actor who gives that speech, Tommy Lee Jones, generally helps, in other scenes, to bring matters back down to earth. With his rumpled face and his grumpy personality, he introduces a note of humanity among all the pompous stuffed shirts around him in the House. Also, Hal Holbrook can be relied upon, as always, to provide some folksy feeling. 

As for the other most interesting role, Sally Field makes an intense, determined and grim Mrs. Lincoln. But I find the writing of the role somewhat problematic. At times, this Mrs. Lincoln, with her headaches and her various neuroses, seems to feel that this nasty war business is “all about me.” Granted, as we see things today, we may consider that her husband hadn't treated her fairly when he had her confined to a mental hospital because of her grief over the death of their child some years earlier. And you can see how that loss might make her balk at the thought of their oldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) signing up for the war. Maybe the movie’s meant to raise the question: are her apparent bouts of madness the result of her not being understood? 

In any case, you can appreciate how tough it was for a woman in what was, without question, a man’s world. These guys were complaining that if you emancipated the blacks and gave them the vote, then you might have to face such a ridiculous prospect as giving the vote to women!  In the conferences and the clubby gatherings, you can practically smell the testosterone. Cigars and spittoons galore. But there's one aspect of that world that I’d like to bring back: guys wearing shawls. Lincoln’s often sporting one inside the White House. It’s as if he’s sending a signal to contemporary Americans as to how they can help wean themselves off the dependency on oil. (Which would be mighty prescient of him, given that America at that time was barely on the brink of the oil economy!) But I wouldn’t want to go back to one feature of those days: sitting around waiting for the election results to come through by Morse Code. Even the CBC’s lousy coverage of the recent US election was better than that.

Capsule comment (instead of a “rating”): Very good, if too theatrical at times. 
You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com