Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Clearly Cleary

Recently my family has been re-decorating a set of built-in shelves in our family room. We'd thought that the topmost shelf, which is reachable only if you stand on a stool, was empty except for a few old book jackets--my father has a weird thing about removing book jackets and leaving them where they won't get torn or crumpled. We hadn't dusted this shelf, or even looked at it, in at least twelve years. So when we took down the book jackets and dusted the shelf, we were amazed to discover something else up there:

It's the program and ticket from a 1994 theatrical adaptation of Beverly Cleary's Henry Huggins...signed by Ms. Cleary herself!

I was not quite seven years old at the time. I vaguely remembered getting my program signed at intermission, calculating how many of Cleary's books I had read and proudly telling her the number--at least fifteen, I am sure. My mom was even more excited than I was, because she remembered reading Cleary's books when she herself was a little girl. But we thought we'd lost this autographed program forever. Who knew that it was up on some inaccessible shelf, all these years? (Another funny thing I discovered from this program: I ended up going to high school with the girl who played Ramona.)

Northwest Children's Theater was a new company in 1994, so it must've been a big deal for Cleary to attend Henry Huggins--then again, Cleary grew up in Portland and her beloved characters like Henry, Beezus, and Ramona are all Portland kids. She is now 92 years old and lives in Carmel, California.

As you can see, I read Cleary's books voraciously as a young girl--fifteen of them before the age of seven?! And a few years later, I just as voraciously read Cleary's two volumes of memoirs: A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet. I would recommend them to anyone who is curious about what life was like for a bright working-class girl/young woman in the 1920s, Great Depression, and World War II. Cleary's life is not full of extraordinary incidents, but her memoirs are a vivid and enjoyable way to take a trip back in time. I can even sense that these books had a hidden influence on my play The Rose of Youth, which takes place in 1934--Cleary belongs to the same generation as the girls I wrote about.

One thing I will always wonder: why is Cleary's boy-hero Henry Huggins just one letter off from Shaw's ill-tempered linguist, Henry Higgins? Click on the photo to get a high-res image and you'll see that even the person who designed the tickets for this Northwest Children's Theater production mixed up the two Henrys...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Language of Sophistication

Élan. Panache. Soigné. Chic. Debonair.

Have you ever noticed how the English language, lacking the proper words for these kinds of concepts, had to import them wholesale from French--a language oversupplied with words to refer to all the nuances of beauty, style, and fashion?

And this has been going on since the Norman invasion. Nuance, beauty, style, and fashion all derive from French roots as well. As do suave, poise, charm, urbane, elegant, sophisticated, culture. Not to mention the unmentionables (lingerie).

It is said that 1/3 to 2/3 of English words ultimately derive from French, but for words that discuss refined aesthetic qualities, the percentage seems even higher. The only Anglo-Saxon or Germanic-derived words I could find in this category are pretty and lovely.

And the Germans have the same problem that we English speakers-do. Over the years, they've imported die Eleganz, die Mode, die Kultur, schick (chic), der Charme, and der Elan.

Image: The very chic, soigné, and elegant "Zémire" ensemble by Christian Dior, 1954. Image from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Noches del verano

Just got back from strolling around my neighborhood while listening to Buena Vista Social Club. In my khaki pencil skirt and shabby ballet flats and slouchy shoulder bag, I tried to pretend that I was in Old Havana on my way to La Bodeguita del Medio--and not climbing the hills of suburban Portland!

The Buena Vista Social Club track "Pueblo Nuevo" is a piano-based instrumental in which the soloists interpolate bits of other songs--the melody of "Stormy Weather" played over the chord pattern to "Guantanamera." And this made me think of another strange musical connection involving the world's favorite Cuban song: the chorus of "Guantanamera" has the same chord progression as "Summer Nights" from Grease.

Let me explain. When I was in high school I went to Cuba with a school group (yes, it was legal), and when you're a tourist in Cuba, you hear "Guantanamera" everywhere. We took a boat trip up a river and our boat came complete with three musicians singing and playing "Guantanamera." And a few summers earlier, at musical theater camp, I had performed "Summer Nights," so I was pretty familiar with its chords and melody...and after hearing "Guantanamera" for the twentieth time, something just clicked. Try humming it: "Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera" and then "Summer lovin', had me a blast."

I just did a little research and found out that this is a very simple chord progression, I-IV-V-IV, common to both classic rock and Afro-Cuban/salsa music. It is also used in the songs "Wild Thing" (which we sung in my sixth-grade rock musical version of "Beauty and the Beast") and "Louie Louie" (Portland's favorite rock song). Can you hear the similarities?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Paradise and Enchantment at JAW

It was just JAW time of year again (that's Portland Center Stage's new-plays festival, for those of you who don' t know), and for the first time since 2004, I was there merely as a spectator and not a festival intern. Even in 2004, I was pretty obsessed--using my birthday money to get tickets to all 4 JAW plays (this was before the festival was free). This year, however, even though a whopping 37 playwrights participated in JAW, the only events I went to were two of the mainstage play readings.

These are works in progress and the point of the festival is to help the playwrights, not to criticize them; so I've tried to keep my comments positive and not overly specific. Fortunately, I liked both plays I saw!

Saturday night I saw Paradise Street by Constance Congdon. This play had an all-female cast: six women of diverse ages and races. Four of them played multiple roles, and the other two played the main characters: Jane, a famous academic feminist, and T.J., a tough homeless woman who assaults Jane, steals her car, and later steals her identity. The post-show talkback got very serious, with Congdon and the audience discussing her play's main theme: that the current trends in the feminist movement do nothing to improve the lives of working-class and poor women. But the play itself is exceptionally funny, and dramatizes its ideas rather than preaching them. T.J. first seems like a one-dimensional criminal but becomes intriguingly complex; you even start rooting for her ambition and her no-bullshit attitude.

The all-female cast, class issues, and anger of Paradise Street make me want to compare it to Top Girls, but it's less self-important, more satirical, more accessible. Anyone who has gone to a liberal arts college in the last 30 years should get a kick out of the way Congdon kids academic theory and jargon, especially the overuse of the word "hegemony." (Currently she teaches at Amherst.) I often say that I want to write about women's lives in such a way that guys will go see my plays and not dismiss them as "chick plays," and I think Congdon succeeds at doing just that.

Although, I do have to say: I have seen/worked on three new American plays in the last year that include a theme of Wal-Mart Is Evil. OK, I agree with that, but it's starting to feel like preaching to the choir. Wal-Mart already has a stranglehold on America's retail economy--now it has to have a stranglehold on American playwrights' imaginations as well?!

Sunday night, I took a friend to see Enchantment, by Carson Kreitzer. This play takes as its starting point the life of Bruno Bettelheim: Holocaust survivor, author of a famous work on the hidden psychological value of fairy tales (The Uses of Enchantment), and creator of the pernicious theory that autism is caused by mothers who are too cold and uninvolved. Bettelheim appears as a character in the play; so does Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who works as a designer of more humane slaughterhouses for cattle. Patterns start to emerge: the slaughter of cattle, the slaughter of Jews, the violence found in the Brothers Grimm fairy tales...

Enchantment is mainly told as a series of monologues and tableaux, so it doesn't have a plot in the traditional sense, but it certainly offers a lot to think about. Humans are the only animals who tell stories to one another. Autistic children tend to be literalists and don't like stories. We think of the Nazis as animalistic, bestial, but they told stories that painted the Jews as bestial. The greatest fairy tales often deal with a human turning into a beast or vice versa. And so the connections ripple out...

Françoise et Suzanne

We have houseguests right now and when invited to choose some music to listen to from my dad's ginormous CD collection, they picked Leonard Cohen's greatest-hits album. They weren't previously familiar with Cohen (guess they missed that part of the '60s) and wanted to educate themselves. Otherwise, though I like Cohen, he's not my idea of good music to play when company is around. For me, it's rainy-day wallow-in-depression-and-in-your-unmade-bed music. You have to be alone and in the right mood.

Interestingly, earlier today (a quiet gray Portland day), I had watched a video of Françoise Hardy singing a French-language version of Cohen's song "Suzanne." Beautiful woman, beautiful voice, beautiful song. In French, the first line becomes "Suzanne takes you to hear the mermaids."

Video originally posted on frogsmoke.com--merci!

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Two things about me:

1. Currently the most-played song on my iPod is Natalie Dessay singing "Tornami a vagheggiar," from Handel's Alcina. Her effortlessly tossed-off coloratura pyrotechnics, which perfectly express the aria's theme of being head-over-heels in love, just make me happy whenever I hear them.

2. Other than that, my favorite Handel aria is "V'adoro pupille," written for the role of Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. I don't have a favorite recorded version of this one--I love it for the delicate, sensual beauty of the music itself. And now I have a personal association with it as well, having incorporated it into my play The Rose of Youth.

I already posted this interview with Ms. Dessay about a week ago--but reading it again, she says that she is planning to star in Giulio Cesare at the end of 2009. In Paris, no less!

My favorite opera singer and my favorite Handel aria. Oh lord, somebody had better stop me before I get so excited that I start singing jubilant coloratura myself.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

In Praise of Papageno

People are talking about a new mini-trend on Broadway: writers and composers appearing in their own shows. Of course there's Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen from [title of show], but also Lin-Manuel Miranda in In the Heights, Stew in Passing Strange, and Harvey Fierstein in A Catered Affair. Miranda and Fierstein are playing original characters (tailored to suit their own personalities), while Stew and the [tos] gents play themselves, or versions thereof.

This kind of thing is relatively rare on Broadway, but even less common in the opera world, because an even higher level of skill is needed to sing opera than to sing in a musical. In fact, I can think of only one librettist who starred in an opera he wrote: Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote The Magic Flute and then played Papageno. Are there any others?

The role of Papageno is thus kind of an anomaly in the operatic repertoire. Schikaneder obviously fit the role to his own talents (he was known for playing a Papageno-like comic character named "Hanswurst") but plenty of other singers have found success in the part. In fact, Papageno can easily steal the show and make Tamino seem stiff and boring by comparison. Because Schikaneder was not a virtuoso singer, Papageno's music is simple, rhythmic, and sits in the middle of the male vocal range (lyric baritone). But that means that you're likely to leave The Magic Flute humming one of Papageno's arias (well, that or The Queen of the Night). And despite its limited vocal range, the Papageno/Papagena duet is absolutely glorious, isn't it?

Papageno is a coward, he tells lies, he fails Sarastro's tests, and yet, for all his flaws, he remains lovable. I always feel sorry for him during "Bei Mannern" because he and Pamina harmonize so beautifully in praise of love, but she's already promised to Tamino, and he hasn't found anyone yet!

Though Papageno yearns to get married, he's not a stereotypical innamorato. And though there are other comic baritone roles in the repertoire, they're not Papageno clones. For instance, the Birdcatcher is entirely sweet-natured, lacking the angry streak of Mozart's Figaro; and he's not especially clever, unlike Rossini's Figaro. Yet he's good at his job, loyal and kindhearted, and knows he'll be a great husband and father. He is Everyman, raised to the level of the sublime.

From a strict dramatic standpoint, Papageno doesn't do enough in the plot of The Magic Flute to justify the size of his role, but I can't imagine the opera without him. He keeps things lighthearted when they threaten to get ponderous, and allows Mozart to illustrate one of his favorite themes: forgiveness. At least 4 earlier Mozart operas--Abduction from the Seraglio, Così fan Tutte, Nozze di Figaro, Clemenza di Tito--end with scenes of forgiveness, and The Magic Flute continues the pattern: though Papageno fails Sarastro's trials, he still gets to live happily ever after with his dream woman. The Magic Flute ends by recognizing both the prince Tamino and the commoner Papageno as worthy men--one of the reasons it is the quintessential Enlightenment opera.

Though Papageno began as a way for Emanuel Schikaneder to entertain his fans, he ended up one of the most appealing characters in opera. I wonder what other unique roles would be in the operatic canon had more librettos been written by singers and actors?

Image is from the silhouette-animated film Papageno directed by Lotte Reiniger in 1935. Credit: tuebingen.de

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

[Title of Show], 2 Years Ago

The meta-musical [title of show] is about to open on Broadway, but I saw it Off-Broadway almost exactly 2 years ago (July 21, 2006) at the Vineyard Theater. It was a comp ticket, part of my reward for winning the Young Playwrights Contest. Who knew that this little musical would make it to Broadway and that people would still be talking about it 2 years later? In order to add to the conversation, here are some memories and some thoughts.

[title of show] was fairly enjoyable to watch but did not really stick with me. I remember the female performers more distinctly than the men. The women are obvious "types"--Heidi the warm, nurturing blonde, Susan the tart, angular brunette--and the musical played that up. Whereas I don't recall that Hunter and Jeff succeeded in creating clear comic personae--odd, 'cause they're the authors!

Young Playwrights promised us talk-backs with the writers and performers of some of the shows we saw, but we didn't have one for [title of show]--which would have been interesting, since it's all about the creative process. Indeed, my biggest question is whether non-writers, or non-theater-people, can relate to something that seems very insular. I mean, I like musical theater and know more about it than the average American does, but I'm far from being one of those people who collects obscure cast albums and can name every show that opened on Broadway in 1954. So, while I guess a song like "Monkeys and Playbills," which rhymes the names of flop musicals, is clever, I didn't find it particularly engaging.

And I don't want the theater to become insular. I don't want to live in a world where only people who know a lot about musicals can enjoy new musical comedies. Or where artists make art that only other artists can relate to. For me, [title of show] skirts dangerously close to solipsism. It's great that the four actors/writers take pride in their art form and their theater-geekery... but perhaps they love it not wisely but too well. And it's uplifting to see these people fulfill their dream of being artists...but isn't it a little depressing that the only thing they can think to write about is themselves? They pat themselves on the back for writing "An Original Musical," but most of the classics of the genre are are adapted from plays, books, or movies--perhaps with good reason.

For these reasons, I thought the best song in the show was Heidi's ballad "A Way Back to Then." Though it's ostensibly about Heidi's struggle to become an actress and recapture the joy she found in performing when she was a little girl, the lyrics are universal enough that I think any adult can relate to their nostalgic tone. It's where [title of show] makes its greatest emotional connection, going for simple truth as opposed to meta-cleverness.

And I have to admit that "Nine People's Favorite Thing" is pretty damn rousing and catchy, even if I have trouble with the sentiment that it espouses--which again seems to promote insularity and theater-geek fanaticism, instead of finding common ground. ("I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing / Than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing.")

Photo of [title of show] cast from playbill.com

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Trittico of Arias (but no Puccini)

I'm still in an opera mood after my trip to San Francisco, and thought I'd share some of my recent favorite video clips. I tried to go for maximum variety: three singers, from three different countries, with three different voice types, singing in three different languages. (And you will note that none of them is French, or a soprano.) As always, since I come to opera from the theater, I admire these performers for their acting/stage presence as well as their voices.

Jonas Kaufmann, German tenor, sings "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" from Carmen: Kaufmann has a surprisingly dark tenor voice that sounds great throughout its range. But his acting is what really gets me--completely believable and very poignant, as a macho soldier struggling to express feelings he has never expressed before, and filled with self-loathing for allowing himself to appear so vulnerable. This fall, Kaufmann will play another self-loathing French role, Des Grieux in Manon, opposite Natalie Dessay (at Lyric Opera Chicago).

Joyce DiDonato, American mezzo, sings "Una voce poco fa," from The Barber of Seville: I watched DiDonato in this role when it was a Met broadcast last year, but I think I like her version from the Royal Opera House even better. She uses unique and expressive ornamentations, and makes specific acting choices, moment to moment, to capture Rosina's vivacious personality. DiDonato is one of the most in-demand mezzos these days for baroque and bel canto roles; and, a thoroughly modern opera star, she charts her adventures on a blog called Yankee Diva.

Bryn Terfel, Welsh baritone, sings "O du mein holder Abendstern" from Tannhäuser: I've decided I need to get more familiar with Wagner, and my friend Thane, who knows about such things, told me I should start with Tannhäuser (a more accessible, earlier opera). Thane actually does a nice rendition of "Mein holder Abendstern" himself, but since I now live across the country from him, I have to turn to YouTube and the charismatic Terfel. I tended to associate Wagner with bellowing, but this gentle piece reminds me of a folk song, and Terfel performs it sensitively.

Friday, July 11, 2008

It's not ALL about the soprano

Part II of my post on Lucia di Lammermoor.

Thoughts on the production:

As you can see from the pictures, this was a fairly traditional Lucia, with 17th-century Scottish costumes that used the convenient device of tartan plaids to distinguish the rival families: Enrico is blue, Edgardo red. Though it's implausible that every guest at Enrico's wedding would be wearing blue-toned clothing, it made for a nice contrast when Edgardo burst in! Despite the fact that he was wearing a really terrible wig that looked like it cost $5 at a Halloween-costume store.

Sets were minimalist, and probably looked worse from my balcony vantage point than from the orchestra section--I could see how the floor panels making up the "moor" interlocked, for instance. As I said in my earlier post, the big pairs of sliding walls seemed inexplicable until I saw them do that wonderful iris effect at the top of the Mad Scene. I was surprised that they used real water onstage in the "fountain" (more like a spring) where "Regnava nel silenzio" takes place. Natalie Dessay, in a girlish moment, splashed it around.

The lead male roles were taken by Italian singers--Giuseppe Filianoti as Edgardo and Gabriele Viviani as Enrico. I'm still trying to learn what opera fans mean when they describe singing as "Italianate", but judging from these two men, it means "declamatory." Filianoti did not always succeed in coloring and shading his voice. At the end of the opera, after he stabbed himself in the gut, he delivered his next line in a strained falsetto voice that almost made me want to laugh; fortunately, he didn't keep it up. Still, compare the way that Natalie Dessay could sing a whole aria while cutting her arms with a sword, and color her voice to suggest the pain of that, yet avoid overdoing it the way that Filianoti did with his falsetto moment.

I did think it was touching, at the end, when Edgardo took off his signet ring and placed it on Lucia's finger before dying beside her. Even if it was a little implausible that the dead Lucia would be such a vision of purity and loveliness, considering the way that she had mutilated herself with that sword.

I liked the bass Oren Gradus as Raimondo, who seemed to be the most sensitive of the male singers.

The Financial Times review described the Enrico/Lucia dynamic as weirdly incestuous, and I think it's because the opera and the performers conveyed something about the way that abusers work. I don't remember any overt sexuality between the brother and sister (except when Lucia goes mad and mistakes Enrico for Edgardo) but the way that Enrico lies to Lucia, bullies and demoralizes her, and then claims that he is the only person who really cares for her, is exactly the way that an abusive husband would treat his wife. It was nice to see this kind of psychological acuteness from a 170-year-old opera.

We also laughed at Enrico's hypocrisy when he leads a weeping Lucia to her wedding ceremony and explains "She is crying for her dead mother." Not a laugh of mirth, of course--more akin to hissing the villain in an old melodrama--which is what Lucia is, I guess.

Thoughts on the opera itself:

Going in, I knew the plot of Lucia di Lammermoor, could hum the Mad Scene and "Verrano a te sull'aure", had heard the Sextet a few times, but couldn't remember ever listening to the opera as a whole. Hearing it, I was surprised at how jaunty many of Donizetti's tunes sound, despite the tragic subject matter. Apart from the mad scene, I think my favorite musical passage was the bit right before Lucia signs the marriage contract--the music wonderfully builds up the tension. The Sextet that follows is justly famous, of course.

I had thought about the kinship of Lucia di Lammermoor to Macbeth (Scottish tragedy, woman kills man under cover of night, gets all bloody, loses her mind), but seeing it, it actually reminds me of Wuthering Heights. The thing that scares me the most about Wuthering Heights, whenever I read it, is how isolated the characters are, on that lonely moor--how insular their world is, and how nothing around them can check their passions. The female characters are trapped and their doomed love affairs feel foreordained. The same goes for Lucia.

My mother noticed another connection, to La traviata: she thought the scene where Raimondo urges Lucia to make a sacrifice, do her duty, "and God will reward you in heaven," is just like the Traviata scene where Germont uses similar logic to convince Violetta to give up Alfredo.

But this also got me thinking about the role of religion in Lucia di Lammermoor...I don't quite know what to make of it. Religion (Raimondo's misguided advice, the "Christian virtue" of self-sacrifice) is partly to blame for the tragedy that occurs. And the opera also raises the perennial question of how a benevolent God could allow such a terrible fate to happen to an innocent young woman. Yet Lucia and Edgardo are both convinced of God's goodness till the end, singing that they will reunite in Heaven. I feel like a 19th-century audience would find bittersweet and romantic the idea that Lucia and Edgardo are united in the afterlife--but a 21st-century agnostic such as myself can read it as just another tragic delusion. After all, when Lucia sings about heaven, she is deep in the throes of her madness.

'Cause I'm a musical-theater geek at heart: The scene where Lucia and Edgardo secretly exchange wedding vows = "One Hand, One Heart" from West Side Story.

I spoof because I love: There needs to be a parody version of Lucia di Lammermoor where Lucia sings her cadenza accompanied by bagpipes!

And to finish up, here is a very recent interview with Natalie Dessay by Norman Lebrecht. It paints her as slightly nuts, but in a good way--thinking seriously about her art form and arriving at unorthodox answers. She says that she does not like playing the same role too often and just turned down an offer to play Lucia in London. Hmm...since I was at the last of the San Francisco shows, I wonder if that will be her last performance ever of Lucia?

All photos by Terrence McCarthy, San Francisco Opera

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The "Dolce Suono" of Natalie Dessay

I'm back from seeing Natalie Dessay in Lucia di Lammermoor at San Francisco Opera. Lots to say about this, so I'm splitting it into two posts: one about Dessay's performance and the other with my remaining thoughts about the opera.

I viewed Lucia di Lammermoor from the Balcony Circle, in kind of a multitasking fashion. I rented opera glasses to get a better view of the singers' expressions, plus, if I craned my neck, I could see the high-definition "OperaVision" screens that hung from the balcony ceiling to provide close-up views to the people seated far in the back. I tried to avoid looking at the screens much, though--it was too reminiscent of watching the Met opera broadcasts on TV. I wanted the kind of experience you can only get in the opera house.

People have claimed that Dessay's voice is on the decline, especially after her surgeries to remove vocal nodes--and, for instance, she has some problems on her latest album, Italian Opera Arias (an ugly high E at the end of "Merce diletti amici"). Still, I was reserving judgment till I heard her in person. And I have to say, I'm no expert on the intricacies of bel canto style, but I had only one problem with her voice: in the aria "Quando rapito in estasi," which has several quick upward runs, Dessay seemed to consistently miss the first note or two of each phrase. I don't mean they were off-key, just inaudible. But other than that, I am still completely bowled over by the way that Dessay can sing a soft legato line and still be heard. As well as her musical and theatrical intelligence in general.

Dessay first appeared roaming around the heather and rocks, awaiting her secret lover Edgardo. When Alisa (Lucia's friend) tries to dissuade her, Lucia says something to the effect of "No, I must warn Edgardo of the terrible danger!" On the word peligro (danger), Dessay made a big gesture demonstrating that Lucia was actually excited by the risk involved. This same mood carried over to her singing of the ghost-story aria "Regnava nel silenzio," which I doubt has ever been performed so playfully.

Dessay displayed this same spiritedness at the beginning of Act Two: when Enrico asked her to "come closer," she instead turned away and sat pertly on a chair. But then the following scene depicts the systematic wearing-away of poor Lucia's self-confidence; by the end, Dessay huddled in her chair or clung to Raimondo for dear life. And I loved that after reading the forged letter claiming that Edgardo is unfaithful, her voice seemed to come out in little sobs.

For the wedding scene, Dessay changed from her soft floral-printed cotton dress into a stiff satin gown--hemmed in by duty, no longer the girl who freely romped around the moors. By this point, Lucia is so depressed and powerless that she can barely react even when Edgardo crashes her wedding. As the curtain fell, Dessay was crumpled on the ground while Arturo strode arrogantly to claim her. She made a belated attempt to scramble away, but got tangled in her skirts. This image reinforced the specifically sexual horror of Lucia's story--forced to go to bed with a man she does not love.

The scenery in this production was dominated by two big pairs of walls, one that slid open horizontally, the other vertically. Though they didn't do much for me the rest of the opera, they stunningly introduced the Mad Scene. Like an "iris" effect in cinema, all 4 walls slid open at the same speed to reveal Lucia in her bloody wedding dress, standing in a field of red flowers, in front of a full moon. Very cool.

The chorus drew to the shadows at the sides of the stage, giving Dessay free rein to "do her thing." Early on she tore off her wedding dress and performed the rest of the scene in a plain white bodice and petticoat. She pulled out Edgardo's red tartan shawl from behind a rock, wrapped herself in it, and used it as an altar when envisioning her marriage to him (which recalled the blocking from the earlier Lucia/Edgardo scene). The Mad Scene had haunting glass harmonica accompaniment, including an original cadenza, which Dessay performed sitting on the edge of the stage. This is the ultimate example of her ability to make coloratura meaningful. The impression I got was that Lucia wanted to sing joyful roulades as she pictures her life with Edgardo, but the glass harmonica pulled her in a different direction--minor-key, blue-note melancholy. At the end, the tension between Lucia's imagined happiness, and her dawning awareness (represented by the glass harmonica) that something was amiss, became too much for her, and she ended the cadenza laughing nervously.

Lucia's delusion became even more eerie when she mistook Enrico for Edgardo--clinging to him and earnestly insisting that she always loved him. But when she realized her error, she completely lost her mind. She let out a scream so bloodcurdling that it was amazing she could sing in her pretty lyric voice just a few seconds later.

For "Spargi d'amaro pianto" she picked up a sword and began cutting deliberately at her arms, face, and shoulders while singing the coloratura. This was a great choice on many levels. For one, we know Dessay's top register has lost some of its richness and fullness, but would anyone's voice sound rich when they are slicing their arms open? Fuller-voiced Lucias often perform this aria as a mournful lament, but Dessay's more piercing voice communicates searing pain, alienation, and true insanity. She thus used her vocal limitations to dramatic effect. Furthermore, the swordplay fit this Lucia's personality--the young girl from Act 1 who was attracted to danger, who lived on the edge.

Also, Lucia's self-mutilation justifies her sudden death after this scene. It's always rather cheesy when opera heroines die of "a broken heart"; and though Lucia has lost her mind, many people go insane and still live. (Donizetti himself got dementia, caused by syphilis, in 1843 but didn't die till 1848.) But considering the wounds that Dessay's Lucia gave herself, no wonder she died.

I had my opera-glasses tightly focused on Dessay's face as she finished this aria--because she's the opposite of someone who merely opens her mouth and sings. Moments before she was to sing her final "ah-ah" phrase, you could see her get the idea to do it. She widened her already large eyes to a full-on raving stare, slowly spread a creepy smile on her face, raised her sword-arm, and only then sang the "ah-ah-ah!" while cutting into her shoulder or her collarbone. Then she fell down and writhed on the floor, laughing hysterically, toying with the sword, as we gave her a huge ovation.

In short, this was a fierce performance. The first thing my dad said to me as we left the opera was "That woman is amazing! She still had energy at the end!" (Yep, I think he's Natalie's newest fan.) And I overheard this conversation between two other men as we walked to the BART station:
MAN 1: "I'm just saying, you would've thought someone would've tried to take the sword away from her."

MAN 2 (a big broad-shouldered fellow with a shaved head): "I wouldn't have wanted to get NEAR her!"
Though the sets, costumes, and staging of the production I saw are over 10 years old, every soprano still gets a chance to make Lucia her own. By way of comparison, I've embedded a video of June Anderson singing "Spargi d'amaro pianto" in this same production, and you can go to the SFO website for some brief clips of Dessay. I like Anderson's interpretation, but she's much more of a traditionally gentle, lost, heartbroken Lucia. With her, you're really likely to wonder why no one takes the sword away--she wouldn't fight back. Whereas Natalie Dessay wielded that sword with masochistic glee, and wielded her voice fearlessly throughout--she's tiny, but made of steel.

All photos by Terrence McCarthy, San Francisco Opera.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Upcoming: vocal fireworks!

Fireworks over the Sydney Opera House. Photo from whitehouse.gov, of all places.

Exciting news that I have been dying to share: there won't be any new posts for several days, because I will be in San Francisco celebrating my 21st birthday at a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor--starring the one and only Natalie Dessay!

This plan has been a long time in the making. Longtime readers will recall that I got into an opera phase last fall, kick-started by some YouTube videos of Dessay. Prior to that, I'd mostly thought of opera as beautiful music that conveyed a generalized wash of emotion. I had never seen anyone like Dessay, who makes specific, pointed acting choices on every line she sings. I revised all my ideas about what to look for in opera--and because singer/actors like Dessay make opera into truly compelling theater, I found myself liking it more and more.

Then I saw that Dessay would be performing in San Francisco this summer, and started developing one of my Crazy Marissa Schemes. (I get these fairly often, having an overactive imagination and all.) See, I was born in San Francisco, and Dessay's final performance there coincides with my 21st birthday--and if I was there, that would be just too perfect and memorable, wouldn't it? I doubted that my parents would go along with the idea, or maybe I just didn't want to get my hopes up--but they love the Bay Area, and the arts, and they consented!

And after watching the PBS broadcast of La Fille du Régiment starring Natalie Dessay, my parents might be even more excited than I am. I mean, they liked her voice when I played some of her CDs for them, but seeing her in action takes things to a new level. I think my father, especially, had never seen such a physical and funny and un-pretentious opera singer. "I can't believe they let her peel potatoes onstage--with a knife!" he kept saying.

Of course, in Lucia she'll be using a knife in a much different context, and avoiding comedy antics. But her performance of "Il faut partir" on the broadcast was very sincere and touching, so if she can do that in the middle of a silly comedy, imagine what she can do in a real tragedy!

I got an idea for an opera spoof, though, while watching La Fille du Régiment and anticipating Lucia. Both are Donizetti operas where the coloratura heroine despairs of being forced to marry a man she does not love. So, what if Tonio didn't arrive in time to save Marie at the end of La Fille? Well, I imagine her marrying the Duchesse de Krakenthorp's nephew, stabbing him in his bed (with military precision, naturally), and singing a mad scene. Then Tonio, unlike the wimpy Edgardo in Lucia, avenges Marie by killing the Marquise de Berkenfeld, who forced her into this marriage. After all, he's learned courage and marksmanship since joining the Army.

Links to amuse, in my absence: check out the blog of Sarah Noble, a fellow Dessay fan who just saw the San Francisco Lucia; learn the connection between Hitchcock and Lucia di Lammermoor; and, if you haven't already, search for Natalie Dessay on YouTube. May I recommend "Tornami a vagheggiar" to put a smile on your face, and for something more moving, "Adieu notre petite table".

And of course, happy 4th of July!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


A few addenda to my post on Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales. I forgot to mention that, although most of the prose is dense and allusive (i.e. good, but not flashy), it does include at least one stop-you-in-your-tracks brilliant quote. It comes from the story The Deluge at Norderney:
"And now abideth liberty, equality, fraternity, these three, but the greatest of these is fraternity."
Of course, my love of this is enhanced by the fact that I'm a total francophile who finds herself stirred by the words liberté, égalité, fraternité...and that I had to memorize 1 Corinthians 13 ("And now abideth faith, hope, charity") in high school. Still. Great quote. I love writers who can put an unexpected twist on old clichés--and it does seem to me that "fraternity" is the greatest of the three qualities, because if you feel fraternity with all human beings you will surely grant them their fundamental rights to liberty and equality.

Also, having just finished Seven Gothic Tales, I decided I should watch Out of Africa. Very interesting to compare the impressions of Dinesen/Blixen given by these two works of art. The author of Seven Gothic Tales is refined, aesthetic, a Baroness from a vanished era. The movie character is intrepid, hard-working, steadily becoming more independent and modern. Though there's some overlap between the two. Dinesen's heroines are often intrepid, and the movie portrays Karen as a lover of art.

I seem to be one of the few people who don't find Out of Africa boring or overrated. Meryl Streep is terrific as always, and though Robert Redford isn't up to her level, he didn't ruin the movie for me. If it had been only about their love story, he would have gotten on my nerves, but because the movie is about Karen's love for Kenya and its people as well as for Denys, it's not so bad. And it must be one of the most visually intoxicating movies I've seen in a long time--now I've got cravings for a new summer wardrobe of safari linen and khaki, and a home filled with dark wood furniture and leather-bound books. (This is probably the wrong response though, since the movie promotes a kind of African Zen, learning to be less materialistic and possessive.)

Image of Meryl Streep from dvdreview.com