Walter Baunfels’s The Birds yesterday afternoon at Dorothy Chandler. The first act appropriates freely from the play by Aristophanes: the story of two men, exasperated by civilization, who search out the kingdom of the birds. They urge the birds to reclaim their lost power and glory and found a city in the sky, effectively taking control of earth and the heavens. It also mimics Aristophanes’s alternating dialog and arias and choral commentary.
But Teresus, the liaison in Aristophanes between the humans and the birds, becomes in Braunfels a generic Hoopoe. And Braunfels’s Birds is set in Never-never Land, not ancient Greece. He dispenses with all the mythological references to birds, which gives the Greek comedy resonance. And even more important, Branfels dispenses with the topical humour of Aristophanes, and attempts no analogous 1920s German topical references. He also censors out all the bawdry.
Hence Branfels ignores the contrast between coarseness and lyricism that generates the unique texture of Aristophanes. All that remains in a bit of fooling, provided by the Loyal Friend, and that amounts to nothing. There were moments when I wondered if it wasn’t going to suddenly turn into a satire, but it never did.
What it was, was a very mild romantic fantasy, with show-off vocals and opportunities for stage spectacle. I felt I was seeing and hearing a demonstration of the living pop tradition that extends from operetta, through Hollywood, and down to the Las Vegas review.
The second act completely jettisoned Aristophanes. It began with a duet between Hopeful and the Nightingale, which was musically overwhelming, and visually stunning, with giant projections of fast-motion flowers blooming all over the stage. It was spectacular, but it was hard to discern the point. Was it a love scene? Was it a scene of evil enchantment? A hallucination? All three?
This was followed by a very unwanted ballet of birds, which was thankfully interrupted by the arrival of Prometheus. Prometheus appears in Aristophanes, briefly, to rally the rebels against the gods. But here, in look and sound, Prometheus was essentially Jochanaan out of Strauss’s Salome. And instead of rallying the birds, he denounced the bird city as an impious rebellion. I kept waiting for the Wren to goose him, and the farce to begin. But instead everyone took his warning to heart, and, after a storm of flashing lights, they all humbly begged Zeus’s forgiveness and promised to be obedient in the future.
That Braunfels wrote as an appeal to humility and peacefulness while Europe was destroying itself in World War I requires no explanation. He wrote within a tradition that was not modernist: The Birds is a pop anti-Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The fact that it’s a novelty for us is a testimony to the pernicious endurance of Nazi cultural policies that banned it after it’s initial popular success. Fortunately Braunfels was able to outlive the Nazis, and perhaps his work has too.
Part 2 of L.A. Opera's Ring last night, aka The Walküre.
So long, so dense, so intense, so outrageous. The 19th century got such a head start in the Crazy Race, that nobody will ever catch up.
In addition to watching Brünnhilde (Linda Watson) with and without her Loretta Lynn wig, there was choice people-watching during the intermissions. The Ring has brought on a sharp uptick dressing up, especially in the category of fancy/strange gowns. All adding to the festivity. There was also a fan of "What's Opera Doc" in a Bugs Bunny vest.
When we first took our seats for Oedpius Rex I was happy to see Elias Simé’s masks and thrones arranged on stage: they promised a production that was seriously engaged with the implications of the work, rather than a production that treated the work as a Parisian art deco curio.
Then the chorus and cast came out, and there was no Speaker in a tux. Instead, there was Antigone, played by Viola Davis, speaking a part based on but quite different in tone and content from Cocteau’s original “Spectateurs. Vous allez entendre un version latin d’Oedipe-Roi.” Then the chorus began writhing on the stage ….
Usually in these cases the next comment to be made is how offensive all this tampering was, and regret how ill-served the work had been. But I can’t say that. For one thing, music, the singing, was tremendous. I can’t imagine a better performance. It was such a revelation of power and refinement that I don’t think I can ever listen again to that tinny Opera Society of D.C. recording which hitherto constituted my whole experience of the score.
Roderick Dixon was a fluent, brilliant Oedipus. Anne Sofie von Otter a jittery Jocasta. The parts of Creon, Tiresias and the Messenger were all deftly presented by Ryan McKinny. Even Daniel Montenegro was able to make an impression with the brief Shepherd part. And the men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale were beyond praise, writhing notwithstanding.
And the story they were telling was not some myth concerning a handful of famous Greeks, but the story of the collapse of AIG, the story of the Bush Administration, the story of every leader who gets too full of himself, and suffers a necessary correction, the inevitable slip-up. It was a pageant of the danger of power and charisma—a warning to the Obama administration? Stravinsky’s brassy blasts were the public face of these politicos, who are nothing other than their public faces.
Hence the ritualized gestures that all the principals and the chorus employed: a simplistic gesture-language for me, king, seeing, telling .... At first I thought, “This is going to drive me mad.” But actually it harmonized nicely with the repetitive-ritualistic music, and forged another path to understanding it.
Of course the contours of the work were the same as Oedipus Rex; you can’t just change the story of Oedipus. It ended with the shattering chorus that sounded like it would shake Disney Hall down.
But the show wasn't over.
After intermission, came the real coup: Antigone, Oedipus and Ismene returned to the stage. The chorus, the men now joined by the women, and changed from blue to green clothes, poured down the aisles. What was going on? Antigone explains: now we are going to see Oedipus at the end of his life, his final rest, and his transfiguration.
And so in effect we watched a concise Oedipus at Colonus, presented in mime and narration, with the three psalms of Stravinsky’s work functioning as choral commentary. Which is to say, providing something like Sophocles originally did—showing the redemption that followed the tribulation.
As the final chords reverberated, my hair was standing on end. I have heard the L.A. Phil do this work before, but never to such tremendous effect.
What we had seen was not Stravinsky’s idea. He had imagined a chorus “seating in a single row across the stage and reaching from end to end of the proscenium rainbow. I thought that the singers should seem to read from scrolls, and that only these scrolls and the outlines of their bearers’ cowled heads should be seen.”
He called for principals who didn’t act, but “should stand rigidly” and “do not turn to listen to each other’s speeches, but address themselves directly to the audience.”
For Stravinsky, “Those directors who whisk [Oedipus] offstage and then bring him back realistically staggering in an unreal, stylized, costume have understood nothing of my music.”
Stravinsky’s music makes the question of how to present his theater works inescapable. We know what he wanted, but that doesn't always suit. It was following his intentions that resulted in the unspeakable 1999 Sellars/Alvarez/Gronk Story of a Soldier. I don’t know if Oedipus Psalms was a model or just a happy accident. I’m just grateful to have seen it.
Still in shock after last night's Disney Hall Stravinsky double bill of Oedipus Rex and Symphony of the Psalms. Salonen and Sellars laid bold hands on both works and turned them into something new: a single, unified theatrical experience. The purists will be horrified, but the music was thrilling, and the drama left you stunned. I was expecting something good, but not this amazing. ... More later after I've had time to digest.
Still recovering from seeing Gomorrah Sunday.
You follow five different sets of characters through a few days. You aren’t given any explanations—just fall into their world.
On one hand, their world is extremely violent. A war has broken out between factions, and heads get blown off right and left. The movie shoves it in your face. The violence is never heroic or aestheticized. I don’t know if there is a right way to present violence, but Gomorrah succeeds in presenting it so that it does not seem glamorous, exciting or fun. It is always sordid and pointless. And there is always space for reflection on the consequences, the harm that will reverberate.
The style is aggressive and leaves you feeling beaten up. The camera shoves you into the faces of the characters. We are compelled to scrutinize their eyes and their pores, while the world outside and around them is a blur. It’s dizzying and claustrophobic. Only when there is a vista too grim to miss does the camera pause to take in a landscape.
On the other hand, even more disturbing is the culture the movie presents, in which insanity is accepted as normal.
All the usual junk associated with gangster movies is avoided. Police, the law, only exist on the fringe. There is a rivalry between two factions that destroys many lives, but what’s at issue is never mentioned. The war is simply a fact and everyone has to take sides. In one scene young Totò hesitates a moment before agreeing to help his criminal mentors kill a neighbor—and we watch as a last glimmer of decency is extinguished and he accepts his fate as servant to psychotic cretins.
The characters and stories keep intersecting at Francesco di Salvo’s megastructure housing block in the Scampia area outside Naples. Apparently no one has lived in it for years, and no wonder. The characters inhabit it like Lombard refugees camping out in a ruined Roman bath. Welcome to the new Dark Age.
We are taken on a relentless descent into an abysmally dark world, where everyone is destroying or destroyed. No one in the movie ever talks about crime or the Camorra or the System because to complain would be to imagine there is some alternative, and that is impossible.
At one point, Marco & Ciro, two teenage idiots, have robbed a drug dealer and celebrate at a beach joint. Marco is so high on the drugs and the thrill of actually having accomplished something that he does a silly dance, singing along with the jukebox to his friend. It’s the one and only moment of happiness and affection in the whole movie. And the point of it is to make what happens to them in the end even worse.
It’s revealing that the director Matteo Garrone said in an interview that he thought of Gomorrah as less a gangster movie than a war movie, and cited Paisà as a model, with its separate stories and matter-of-fact brutality. But Paisà managed to be devastating without being totally without hope. Nothing like hope is on offer here. A sermon, a polemic, a rant but no consolation.
Nothing could be easier and nothing could be harder than an effective performance of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross. The music is compellingly dramatic. It seethes with Beethoven-ian outbursts. I have a Berlin Philharmonic recording that sears. But on the other hand, the overall mood is monotonous; it’s all shades of black. And then the expressionist exclamations co-exist with elegant ruffles and lace, which disconcert modern sensibilities. It's a tricky but worthwhile thing to present.
Unfortunately the L.A. Phil’s performance last Saturday under Bernard Labadie was not all it could have been. It played at seriousness rather than being serious. And the actor brought on stage to recite the words made a botch of it, which is incredible when you think of it. He didn’t have the presence or the voice to pull it off, and it actually diminished the dramatic effect.
Too bad. And earlier that evening they had done such a fine job with Haydn's violin concerto in C, with Martin Chalifour.