Art, Music, & Film: February 2006 Archives

I was not feeling well yesterday, so I stayed at home. In the course of the day I was able to see one full opera and part of another and what a tremendous contrast they were.

The Magic Flute is light, open, airy, and errant nonsense. There are dragons, and bird people, and initiates to the temple of Isis, and a magic flute carved from a thousand year old oak. The music is a Mozartian froth, even its most "chilling" moments are frothy, light, and full of a certain kind of joy. The message of the opera (if it can be said to have one) is utter lunacy, but the thrilling aria, mentioned in a previous post, and the delightful duet between Papageno and Papagena are wonderful entertainment.

Das Rheingold on the other hand is dark, brooding, doomed, and ultimately destructive. I begin to understand why those who have no acquired the taste early on do not care for Wagner. The Romantic Orchestral music is overlain with a truly bizarre variety of operatic snippets. In Rheingold, we have a plot to rival The Magic Flute, a bunch of witless Rhine maidens are guarding a lump of gold, they tease a nasty gnome, and idiotically let him know that the only way to get the gold is to renounce love forever. Well, they tease him enough so that he realizes that love ain't coming anyway, so he promptly renounces it and makes away with their gold, from which he will fashion a ring of power. Scene change--we're now outside Valhalla where we learn that Wotan has traded Freija to the Giants in return for the Giants building the fortress. The Giants come to collect their wages--enter Loge (Loki) who sets about making a real muddle of things. He sets in motion the actions that will end in the destruction of Valhalla at the end of Götterdammerung. The action so far takes place in two scenes of amazing static nature. It probably comprised about an hour and a half of amazing orchestration and truly odd operatic noise hovering above it.

Wagner, unfortunately, carries with him the onus of his own anti-semitism and that vicariously attributed to him by his adoption as the Third Reich's composer laureate. The only real good I can think of off hand is that he managed to alienate Nietzsche, perhaps the single most unlikeable philosopher of Modern Times (though Marx evidently could have given him a real run for the money). Wagner is huge, slow moving, monolithic. He is doing myth and he wants you to be aware of it. The Four Operas of the Ring Cycle approach sixteen hours in length, much of it bombastic, over-the-top tableau singing, despite the fact that toward the end there are some really interesting things going on. From the very beginning the angst is so thick you can cut it with a knife.

So why watch? I don't know--it's rather like the train-wreck of Opera, there is an incredible fascination with watching it unfold in all of its dreariness--the dire inevitability of the fall of the Gods coming at last to its final stages. There's something really satisfying about prophecy fulfilled. In addition, Wagner had an amazingly lush compositional palette, perhaps overly dramatic and ultimately what became known as German music. But the Magic Fire Music, the Ride of the Valkyries, Siegfried's Rhine journey, and other orchestral interludes begin to introduce some of the tonalities and sonorities that would drive both Schönberg and Debussy (in asymptotically opposed directions).

And it was nice to hear German sung in these two ways. In Mozart, German is like any other language, flexible, nimble, lovely in its way. In Wagner, German is like a bludgeon--it is sung so slowly and ponderously that one actually begins to realize that English is a Germanic language in large part--one can begin to understand Wagner's ponderous German. German is not just any other language--it is the language of fate, and doom, and useless gods, and war, and death, and trickery. (Of course it isn't--I'm merely relating the effect of the two operas.) So we have Champagne German and Ultimate-Destruction-of-the-Realm-of-the-Gods German. What an amazing contrast in less than 100 years. (But do keep in mind that Mozart was Austrian, not German--and there has always been a pronounced difference in music, literature, and culture between the two.)

Any way, it was most instructive and a most pleasant way to spend a not-so-pleasant day.

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L'Elisir D'Amore


It is pretentious to try to review Donizetti at this point, and largely ungrateful to try to review a given performance given how few are available to most people. So I won't try. But given that it was Samuel's first "Night at the Opera" and given that I'd asked for prayers that all go smoothly, I thought I'd report in.

First, it was a wonderful evening. It's been a very long time since I've been able to attend the Opera and I can't think when I've enjoyed something so much. I so appreciative of those who love the culture enough to keep trying despite dwindling attendance and skyrocketing costs.

L'elisir D'Amore is a frothy bit of comic opera--at one time a vehicle for the enormous success of Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti. Donizetti is a composer who bridges the gap between the Mozartian Operas and Italian Grand Opera. "L'elisir" is about a woman with two suitors, one of whom is a simple country man, the other a soldier of fortune. A quack doctor comes into town to sell his snake-oil and he is asked by the country man for an Elixir like that that wooed Queen Isolde. Of course the peddler has a supply to hand and generously sells it to the suitor. Chaos ensues and wraps up in classic fashion.

Samuel appeared to have wonderful time for the first half of the Opera and seemed to fight off sleep for the second half, which has some of the truly stirring and wonderful music in the piece. All-in-all, it was a very promising operatic debut for Samuel. I look forward to The Marriage of Figaro. The jury is still out on whether or not he will join us for Tosca. But thank you all for your prayers. Given that the little guy is only seven, he showed heroic virtue and strength in even being able to sit mostly still for it. And, he showed remarkable taste in liking it and enjoying it to some extent.

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An Evening with Donizetti


Tonight we will be able to indulge an impulse long denied and we will be attending the Opera. It's a local company with a mixed bag of singers, but it's a frothy piece of Operatic fluff called L'Elisir D'Amore.

Tonight we will be taking Samuel, so please pray for us. I don't know how he'll take to it, if at all and that may present some small problems. I don't actually anticipate it, but better to pray about it than worry about it.

If things go well, he'll be attending at least one other--The Marriage of Figaro. The jury is still out on Tosca, which despite some lovely music may be too long and too adult to have any interest for him whatsoever. But at 7 I'd be surprised if he stays awake for the evening.

Nevertheless, there is no chance to enjoy culture if we don't at least give him the opportunity, and Opera, particularly local companies is an art-form that may soon pass away entirely, and that would be a terrible blow to the richness of our culture.

So, I'll report on that and on a recent book read, possibly as early as tomorrow.

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A Shared Conversation


Shared betwixt myself and another Opera aficionado--

"Jump, Tosca! Jump! Please put us out of your misery."

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Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can't do this all my own
I'm letting go
So give me one more chance
To save me from this road I'm on

--from "Jesus Take the Wheel" Carrie Underwood

Jesus, take the wheel! Boy, if only I could bring myself to say it and mean it.

This is one of those songs that probably means a good deal more to those of us with a history of "Jesus speak," a form of communication common among evangelicals and fundamentalists, but nearly unknown outside of Catholic Charismatic circuits. Understand, it is simply a cultural things, like grits at breakfast, or rice, sugar, and butter, or turnip greens with fatback. Not better, not worse, simply a different way of saying the same thing. Utterly alien to most Catholics and "mainline" Protestants. But it feels like home to me.

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Nanny McPhee

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What a very pleasant surprise--a surprise with the likes of Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, and Angela Lansbury.

The story is adapted from a series of book by Christianna Brand. (I hadn't any idea. Ms. Brand is known to me for a number of fine mysteries including Death in High Heels and Green for Danger.) Very Mary Poppins-like, Nanny McPhee joins the beleaguered Brown family, gets it properly organized in typical Edwardian fashion and then is off again.

What is so very delightful is the way the story incorporates some of the very oldest cinematic cliches in a way that refreshes them and makes them funny once again.

Samuel loved the film as did both Samuel's mother and father. Highly recommended for those who wish to take children to see a film in which family is extolled, supported, and celebrated.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Art, Music, & Film category from February 2006.

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