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Saturday, November 18, 2006

My Old Friend, The Bluesmen: Filisko & Noden Live, CD Release Party

Some of you may recall that the early summer saw unprecedented commitment to music on the part of the fundamentally lazy, night-owlish staff of Telecommuniculturey. The Oakton Community College four-part series on the History of the Blues (100% guaranteed deathless prose on these available: Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV) did not disappoint, even if we did question what kind of malevolent deities would schedule this kind of thing on a Thursday morning in Skokie, well upstream of our Headquarters.

Our Blues-Fu failed us somewhat when we completely missed the performance by Joe Filisko and Eric Noden at the OTSFM's Folk and Roots Festival. We redeemed ourselves last night by making it up to Bill's Blues Bar in Evanston for the release party for their new "nonoriginals" CD Filisko & Noden: Live.

Although I've heard of Bill's Blues many times (they have a standing folk session on Sundays and a lot of OTSFM teachers end up performing there), but it's a bit of a haul from the Acres, so I'd never actually made it there. We got up there around 9, having not yet eaten. Although Bill's does offer sammiches, the emphasis is on beer. Fortunately, Evanston is a college town (and I assure you, the non-Northwestern population of it just felt a cold chill race down their collective spine as I typed that), so quick, cheap food is never far. We wound up on the corner at Gigio's for a slice and some cheese fries.

Although it had been relatively empty at 9, the not-overly-large space was packed by 9:30, when the show was scheduled to start. Bill's is a loooong, narrow venue. I suck at all things spatial, but it's probably 120 feet long and maybe 18 feet across at its widest point? The stage is at the front so the musicians set up with their backs to the window. The bar runs about 75% of the length of the whole building along the west wall. The east wall is exposed brick covered with a variety of interesting artwork. Probably 15 or so tables are with regular chairs are set up along this. Beyond the bar, there's a wall that, presumably, encloses the kitchen and cuts the narrow floor space about in half. There's a bar rail with stools that backs up into the bathrooms, and three or so high bar tables opposite them backing up into the sound board. Behind the sound board is a long, narrow walk of shame to the alley door with a last-chance cigarette machine right in front of it.

I am unsure of the current smoking status at Bill's. The lovely and talented Rita Ruby, who happens to be my Harmony teacher, has often noted that the Sunday folk sessions are nonsmoking, but everyone commences to smoking for the blues session immediately thereafter. All smokers were banished to the alley last night, and M claims that he saw a sign saying that the whole place is permanently nonsmoking, but we were unable to locate this figment of his imagination after the show.

We made our way to the very back of the bar rail where I at least found a lone chair on which to stow my duster and stuff. We wound up watching the first set from behind the sound guy where, if we bobbed and weaved a bit, we could occasionally see one of them. The opened with a Memphis Jug Band Tune, but I honestly can't remember if it was "You May Leave But This'll Bring You Back," which is on the CD, as we were still getting settled, obtaining libations and so forth.

In general, the first set was a mixture of stuff from the CD, their independent projects, and I'm sure stuff they do together regularly. The one thing missing from both sets was any of Eric's originals (I don't think Joe writes his own stuff, but I could certainly be wrong). And having just read through the liner notes for the CD, Much Becomes Clear. (And mostly what is clear is that I'm kind of dim.)

The CD, which was recorded live in front of a studio audience, is a musical history project. For each song on it, one of them provides brief notes on the person most strongly associated with it, the techniques employed, and the history of the recording. A lot of this is a more in-depth treatment of some of the things we got a taste of in the History of the Blues series, so that's gratifying for us, especially as their introductions to each number often included different information still.

But more importantly, what a fucking cool project: These aren't classic songs in the sense that the term is usually used. Many are little known, available only on obscure recordings, and not necessarily among the songs for which the artists are known. They've been chosen because they represent a breakthrough moment, for the artist, for a particular method, or for the genre. Furthermore, each represents an earnest effort to replicate those guitar and harmonica styles and techniques.

When I wrote about Joe's Blues session, I mentioned my fear for his memorabilia, as I couldn't help but imagine some kind of natural or unnatural disaster (see above re: supernatural malevolence) taking out a giant chunk of history. Having much of that codified and preserved on this CD will help my inner stage manager sleep better at night.

But as much as the CD is about committing history to polycarbonate, rather than putting their own personal styles forward, it's also a great Filisko/Noden collaboration. Naturally their vocals do a lot of work on that score. It's hard not to suspect that Eric bought a custom-designed old-timey blues voice, and their absolute comfort in and enjoyment of performing with one another comes through in every harmony. (However, I note that the CDDB lists Joe alone as the artist on all tracks. Could this be some kind of nefarious Yokoless overture to speed dissolution of the partnership?) But as a live recording, the CD also captures a lot of their banter, too, which is a large part of why they're such fun to watch.

Last night, Joe kept reminding the crowd that they were experiencing Eric Noden, the original, and they should accept no substitutes, an homage to the radiation of Sonny Boys, the Misters Johnson (way to punt on a blues legend, Lucinda), Blind incarnations of common names, and little and big versions of Walter, and so on. Eric left "Joliet Joe" as an exercise for the listener. When they introduced each song, each seemed eager that we should appreciate how amazing the other is and said so. Sure, their praise got funnier and funnier and turned into an escalating war of hyperbole, but the mutual admiration was frank and clear.

Unlike many of the girly denizens of Evanston, we stayed through the break and the entire second set. Not that leaving early entered our minds, but I'm thrilled we did. The place cleared out a great deal, and we actually got to see much more of them. We also were around for the full-crowd kazoo rendition of Happy Birthday to Eric (his birthday's actually Sunday the 19th) and the full complement of raffles.

They'd been distributing free tickets as a way of collecting e-mails, and they had four throughout the course of the evening. The winner of the first got a bottle of Bay Rum, which they were expressly forbidden from drinking (what? no sterno?); the second got Eric's 55 Highway CD (the fix was in for that! The winner was Steve the sound man); the third got a thematic 2L bottle of Mountain Dew Code Red, which they both signed (another fix! One of the folks working the merchandise table was the winner, although she got hers when she realized she had to lug it home); and finally, a non-Filisko harmonica went to the guy with the beautiful rock hair and leather vest who had admired my Kwak Belgian Ale (um, that's literal: it had cool hardware) earlier in the evening.

My personal musical highlights of the evening started after the first raffle with "Bay Rum Blues." Joe had warned that the harmonica part in this was flat out weird. It is. According to the liner notes, the high-pitched, birdlike character was a style invented by Gwen Foster. The notes also note that Foster is overlooked, and I can't help wondering if this downright chipper sound has just been unfairly deemed to be un-bluesy. In any case, for me, it strongly evokes June Carter's vocals on "Time's A-Wastin'," and that's never a bad thing. (Hey, I feel strongly enough about that song that I barely quirk an eyebrow anymore when it gets to the "you're full of sugar and I think I'm the booger to melt it" part.)

You've also got to love both "Cold-Hearted Woman" and "Kind-Hearted Woman," and I did so last night, accordingly. And not that I lack for opportunities to hear talented folks sing and play the hell out of traditionals (I am also the proud owner of the Old Town School Recordings - Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook: Volume One, after all), but theirs was no Zombie "Jesus on the Mainline." Not that I am not a fan of Zombie Jesus or Zombie anyone, but their interpretation made it an entirely new song.

One of my true must-haves of the evening (and fortunately it's on this CD and another of Eric's) was "I heard the Angels Singing." It sounds like an odd title for a blues song, as odd or odder than a Greg Brown song being called Lord I Have Made You a Place in My Heart, and as surprising or surprisinger (totally a word. shut it.) as that song turns out. The guitar creeps and skulks along on line full of staccato blue notes, then stumbles up to the repetition of the title, which is a surprise each and every time. The harmonica hovers ominously above, watching, following, then gathering itself out of the chord into sharply dissonant single notes. It is the least reassuring song about interaction with supernatural beings EVAR, and I'm including all of Wagner in that statement.

There was another Howlin' Wolf song they did that I was wild about. When I saw it wasn't on the new CD, I crept up to check out Eric's other CDs, which were for sale. I didn't see it on either of them, and in the process of actually checking, the information left my brain entirely. But although Mr. Wolf may have only triiiiiiiiiiiiied to do "Baby Please Don't Go," I must thank him if he's responsible for that song, whatever it was. Also on the premature senescence front, I cannot remember the ragtime song they played in which I'm pretty sure Eric was doing the piano part on his guitar just to make me, personally, feel inadequate. It was awesome, though, and I welcome the shame.

After the show, our slices were proving inadequate to stave off the hunger permanently. It being 1 AM, our thoughts turned naturally to breakfast. I learned the ugly truth that my spouse doubts my 24-hour-diner-fu. I showed him, though, by directing him to exit the Kennedy at California, where there just happened to be an old school 24-hour IHOP with multiflavored syrup cozies. No, I didn't know it was there and was, in fact, heading for the Clark and Addison IHOP, but I think that factoid pales in the face of the realization that I have flawless 24-hour-diner sonar. Boo YAH!

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Revolving Gratuity: Il trovatore at Lyric Opera Chicago

Telecommuniculturey is no more immune to staffing problems than any other establishment, and so we report a personnel change: L, still plaid, forever tuba, is no longer a denizen of the Second City. And so our 4.4 seasons of opera going are at an end. Fear not, we really put him through his paces in the last week, hitting not one, but two operas.

Although we are not above doing opera!opera! on consecutive nights (we saw Sweeney Todd [mmmm Welsh Bass-Baritone Boyfriend-y goodness] and Die Walküre, of all things, back to back in 2002), some operatic downtime for packing seemed prudent in this instance. So we rescheduled Il Trovatore from November 4th (US Open Brass Band Championships) to Tuesday, November 7th and Salome from October 21 (last trial-run before move) to Saturday, November 11th.

I'd like to begin the inevitable cattiness about Il Trovatore's design by noting that I am not a temporal consistency whore for the purposes of opera. I mean, yes, I think it detracts from the drama if Lucia di Lammermoor does away with Artuo using a zat'n'kitel in what is, otherwise, a period-appropriate design, but I'm not going to fret over whether you're going for banana republic or Casablanca circa 1941 if the design is internally consistent and works in the context of the story. Despite my passion for tangents, you might have guessed that this has some relevance to the set (Charles Edwards) and costume (Brigitte Reiffenstuel ["It's pronounced RYE-fen-schtool"]) designs for Il trovatore. My aren't you a clever duckie?

Because, you see, if you say that it's set in 19th century Spain, I don't mind that the original is supposed to be the Spain of Catherine of Aragon. I do mind when you use a lurid goya knockoff for the curtain, and you put all your boys in kind of rag-tag Peninsular War uniforms, and then you place your heroine in something generically empire-waisted. No, I don't want to hear how "asset-enhancing" it is (and let me tell you, those assets were highly visible from the back of the first balcony, without opera glasses). I think I may have identified at least one culprit:
[Reiffenstuel] has created . . . costumes inspired by the art of Francisco de Goya. . . . [She] also studied photographs of Spain from the time of Franco to the present

So never mind the bulk of the 19th century, then.

But there's blame to spare for the set design, too. I am against giant, scene-dominating crucifixes on principle. (That bad boy in the linked photo is not the real deal. I assure you that the Jesus in the actual set goes to 11. And can I just point out that gamma-irradiated, crucified Jesus works better in a 15th century [when Spain was a little preoccupied with Catholicism] setting than in the 19th?) Call it posttraumatic pietà disorder, if you must, but I'm agin' 'em, especially when Jesus comes off looking like just one of the mounted-on-pikes boys in the background of a war.

But most stridently, I am against GSDCs when they make me qualify my previously universal love for revolve-based sets. In this case, Edwards has set Jesus and his corpsetacular back-up singers on a diagonal cutting from up-center to about center-right. Dead center is tangent to the rim of the revolve. So, you see, no matter what else is going on, no matter what other locale should be evoked by the rest of the set, the whole shebang is filmed in horribly wrong, Jesus-themed shadowrama.

At the top of the opera, the revolve contains the set for the outer wall of the palace. It has some archer's slits, but is otherwise blank, featureless, and imposing. It's fronted by an extremely steep staircase (just to abuse the inner stage manager) ascending in an upstage direction. It is probably only fair to disclose that I had a grudge against this portion of the set from minute 1, because I strongly suspected it to be recycled from the infamous monochrome (is there something less colorful than monochrome? William Rivers to the possibly white courtesy phone). Parsifal-viewed-via-the-ass-end-of-an-animal-pelvis set.

But I grew to be annoyed with this on its own merits when it was implicated in a few glaring instances of bad stage direction. (That's right, David McVicar, I'm looking at you.) In Act I, scene i, poor Andrea Silvestrelli delivers his first several lines from the top of this staircase. Or at least his disembodied, but well-turned calves do. I get that designers don't care about anyone above dress circle, so I tried not to take the interference with my profondo enjoyment personally.

However, later on, this very same wall and staircase are recycled to act as the external face of the convent that Leonora is about to join. The Count is, at long last, distracted from his torment by the sound of the nuns' singing within. He is so enraptured that he presses his ear . . . to the railing. Which is a good 6 feet from the wall. Which has convenient listening holes in it. So I think the problems go beyond the contempt for the contemporary groundlings.

In scene ii of Act I, the revolve pivots about 70° to reveal "the gardens" of the palace. I'm glad that they were identified as such in the synopsis, because otherwise I might thought that Leonora had wandered into an abandoned corner of the Costco, where she was like to slip in a puddle of pee-pee. The interior of the wall was, if possible, even starker and more monolithic. It gave Sondra Radvanovsky nothing to work off except the aforementioned assets. This . . . is a problem, which I'll revisit later.

When next the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on to the top of Act II, the gypsy camp is revealed. The wall set pieces were flush against stage left, leaving much more of the corpse-accented landscape visible. Right at about the center of it, there was a tall wooden scaffold with some more heart-attack-inducing rickety stairs that chorus members will insist on climbing. Just right of that was what, I think, was supposed to be the heart of the gypsies' forge, kind of a bank of earth heaped up, then hollowed so there was a recessed area under the curved top of the wall that contained the least impressive fires ever. (Or, I suppose, they were the most impressive. They didn't look big enough to boil tea, but they were apparently churning out churnable steel.)

In the center of the forge there was a tall pole that I originally took to be a chimney; however, it was later revealed to be the stake at which Azucena's mother was burned. But leaving aside ventilation-related OSHA violations, the cultural confusion implied in this production's gypsies being preoccupied with and venerating morbid symbols of death in a distinctly Catholic way is something of a problem. Also shouldn't it be hot in a forge? Like hot enough to discourage crazy-gypsy-with-one-foot-in-the-grave from dancing around in the center and humping the instrument of her mother's demise?

Apart from questionable acting choices, the gypsy camp set was not so bad. I don't understand why it was recycled, virtually unaltered, for the prison set in Act IV, scene ii, but I support economy of set design over long intermissions and pauses for changes. And when seeing Charles Edwards' prose, one is moved to encourage him in strictly visual endeavors:
For the famous Anvil Chorus, 'the idea is to create a landscape with iron ore seeping [Ore—iron or otherwise—does not, as a rule, seep—ed.] through the rocks, with a real sense of the gypsies using the actual elements.' [Insert relevant facial expression and head shake from the Bit of Fry & Laurie language sketch here—ed.]

Charles, I beg of you not to rationalize your set design.

After some iffy moments with the return of The Wall at the beginning of Act II, scene ii, (and the aforementioned weird "listening in from several feet away"), set crankiness levels diminished sharply when the convent was revealed. As L put it, the designer clearly sold the whole revolve idea based on the single moment when the angelic chorus of female voices is heard and the set rotates to shift focus from the Count and his men in the courtyard to the eerie calm within:
Turn to heaven, and heaven will be disclosed to you

There's a magnificent tension here. The masculine world, both natural and supernatural, has dominated up until this point—savage and literally in the shadow of Christ who notes pointedly that he didn't just die for our sins, he was tortured for them. The mania claws its way to the peak in Il balen del suo sorriso when the Count begs for the salvation from that world that only Leonora can give (one of the more convincing moments in perhaps the least convincing operatic story of all time, thanks to the fact that Verdi finally puts a little edge on things). In answer, the nuns' chorus wafts down, and it's like a loved one settling a blanket over you in the dark of night when you've just woken from a terrible nightmare—nurturing, peaceful, blessed solace.

The staging makes so much of this moment that I forgot to be annoyed by the biological determinism of the masculine–feminine dichotomy. The revolve glides at a pace so stately it probably required an army of stage hands on Quaaludes to achieve. That dratted wall rotates so that it cuts across from up-left to down-right, finally concealing most of the crucifix (if not the rest of the merry band of the executed), and the wall perpendicular to it is flown out, uncovering the latticework of the convent gate. The gate defines the sacred space of the convent, rather than confining those within, and for the space of the chorus and Leonora's O dolci amiche . . . Free Will, choice, and self-determination seem viable.

Of course, I had enough leftover snark from the first three scenes that I remarked to L that I appreciated dramatically cast shadows as much as the next gal (however, I was not in love with the silly shadows cast by a riot of hats covering at least 400 years of fashion history), but having a lattice-work gate is just asking for your convent walls to be breached, as it were. However, I'm a big enough person to admit that this was probably a deliberate and well-chosen element of the set. After all, as Edwards says, "The opera is basically a story of siege." The masculine Christ, the war, the wounded honor and obsession of the Count will out, no matter what lie the music tells.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of the sets exist in the shadow of that moment. The count's camp outside Castellor is yet another wall, this time with a portcullis-guarded entrance upstage left that is flanked confusingly by wooden support beams (I know that paper covers rock, but really, wooden struts are kind of perfunctory in holding up a massive stone wall). Inside Castellor is neither striking nor even convincingly the flip side of the Count's camp. (Of course, it is literally the flip side of that. Don't ask me how that works. Or doesn't work.) And, yes, this design led me to an unfortunately bloody-minded attitude toward chronology and consistency, but the fact that the gypsy forge is recycled for the prison cell does not lend urgency to things. Rather, I wonder why, exactly, the Count decided to throw the Brer Gypsies into that briar patch.

I do have a few kind words for Ms. Reiffenstuel (RYE! RYE! RYE-fen-schtool), as well. I neither know nor care if Silvestrelli's Ferrando costume (you can just glimpse him in profile behind and to the left [from your perspective] of the stabbing guy. He's got the hawt eyepatch) was period appropriate. I just know that if I were he, and had I that voice, you would have to pry me out of that costume. I'd be wearing that baby 24–7, yes I would.

On a more serious note, I thought that her approach to Manrico's costume was a good one: When acting in the guise of a rebel, he wears a military-cut coat that hides the jewel-toned embroidery and loose sleeves of his gypsy attire. Moreover, the coat seems to be a vibrant green color in a nod to his ethnicity, but under the smoke-filled night skies of the civil war, it becomes indistinguishable from the clothing of any other warrior, whether guerilla or regular army.

On to the music, performances, and sundry other artistic things to know and tell. Everyone called up on to write about this production is compelled to mention the bad rep this opera has for being ridiculous. This does seem a bit like a black hole calling the cover of Smell the Glove black: It's opera! Of course it's ridiculous. Sure, you have the shortest sighted heroine of all time who doesn't extend her true love's life long enough to listen to a coffee jingle, the ultimate gypsy panic ("But wait! Here's a crispy-fried infant I prepared earlier!"), and the usual cast of men who anticipate infidelity at every turn and have just the mix tape on hand to express their anguish. But it's certainly no more ridiculous than, say, The Midsummer Marriage (but then, is anything?).

And yet it is somehow . . . sillier. Objectively, the libretto is no more bipolar than any other ("I am not your son!? I must know who I am! OMGWTFBBQ?" pause "So, seen any good executions lately?"), and how could it be, given that only one measly librettist died bringing it into the world (Seriously, I think someone should get on the demographic stick. It's got to be second only to being a Kennedy as dangerous jobs go)? But its characters are somehow more akin to the maddeningly short attention spans of the average soap opera character.

Manrico's attempts to get a little prewedding nookie for tomorrow ye may be dead are no more desperate than the justifications of any other tenor, but I had to stop myself from snickering as my mind kept making Ah! sì, ben mio into a medley with Do It for Our Country. Leonora's poisoning herself is no more nonsensical than any other opera heroine's end, but even as she's pouring out her heart regarding plan, which is chock full o' Baldrick levels o' cunning, one is moved to quote Megon McDonough on Codependency in Wuthering Heights.

For me (and Ba'al knows I speak for no one else), I think the bogosity of plot and lyrics remained in the forefront of my mind simply because the music didn't fully engage me most of the time. It's so . . . nice. Mark Thomas Ketterson, guest pompous essayist, notes
Il trovatore apperaed in 1853, a period which found the operatic art form poised between the cumulative traditions of bel canto . . . and the rumblings of the future schools of verismo and sophisticated music drama. Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La Traviata . . . all [find] the composer working firmly within the bel canto example while taking a bold leap forward towards a goal of musical/dramatic consolidation. . . . It is ironic, then, that of the three middle-period operas, Trovatore remains the most rooted in previous convention. This is not a matter of theatrical coalescence (nothing the work jars musically with its dramatic context) but of structure.

I can't agree entirely, although I would say that nothing in the music jars, period.

Take, for example, the opening. Ferrando's Abbietta zingara tells the story of the curse laid on the Count's infant brother by gypsies. It's a campfire story for little boys fighting a Civil War; the narrative is full of jingoism and fear of the exotic, but it also establishes the degree to which the metaphysical permeates the world of these people. But the music is relentlessly light and playful. It's Disney (to be fair and more literal, it's Warner Brothers), but it's calling out for unexpurgated Brothers Grimm.

In this production, at least, that quality is augmented by the antics with dynamics. I'm by no means trying to teach Maestro Bruno Bartoletti's grandmother how to suck eggs. The man did something right 50 years ago, and it's his Golden Jubilee party, he can render the cast intermittently inaudible if he wants to, but it's downright unnerving to have a bass like Silvestrelli simply drop out of audible range for fully half of about 60 bars. Similarly, in Stride la vampa!, Dolora Zajick's Azucena sounds as though she's riding a merry-go-round with Christopher Cross and Jimmy Dale Gilmore. (Incidentally, in my wildest, most smack-inspired metaphorical moments, I would never have dreamed of referring to Zajick as possessing a "gallon-jug mezzo." My bowler-bicorn-top hat is off to you, John von Rhein.)

With the exception of the crossroads mentioned in Act II, scene ii, the music retains the predictable consonance and superficiality no matter what is happening in the story. It's particularly at odds with the our Lord of Perpetual Time Spent Just Kickin' It and general dreariness of the set in this production, but even in another less Goya-riffic set, it does not move one to a catharsis of pity and fear. Given that I think I see Pal M skulking around my bushes with what looks very much like an Improvised Explosive Opportunity, I should hasten to add that this music is lovely for listening. In fact, I'm listening to some of it right now, despite what the Music tag says about Talking Heads. It just makes for goofy theater.

In terms of vocal performances, I was favorably impressed for the most part. I admit to my unkindness in cringing when I saw Sondra Radvanovsky's name (even more unkindly, I admit to suspecting that our American-born soprano just might have changed her name to opera it up a bit). Back in 2002, we heard her Susannah. I may be the lone apologist for 20th century opera in North American, and I've got nothin' when it comes to a strengths-based approach to that. Radvanovsky did not exactly rise above the source material then. There was a lamentable tendency to shriek and opting for vibrato over firm grasp of pitch. Happily, her Leonora marked a complete turnaround, so whether she's simply matured or has been getting better vocal direction and advice, I don't know. Whichever the case, her Per me l'ora fatale and D'amor sull'ali rosee were lovely, and I agree with the Chicago Sun-Times reviewer, who noted that she has a mezzo-colored voice, even if she keeps it in a sippee cup, not a gallon jug.

In terms of stage direction, she still needs a bit of work. Her lone technique for physically conveying . . . anything at all . . . was to take two stiff-legged steps, then make a headlong rush to hug a wall. Lest you think this is just my rampant bitchatude, I note that L commented on this as well. And you should pay no attention whatever to the fact that I then said, "Maybe she's magnetic. All that seeping iron ore, you know . . . " Because that would be mean.

Walter Fraccaro ended his run as Manrico last night and will be replaced by Vincenzo La Scola beginning on the 22nd. I'm always happy to hear new performers, and Fracccaro's Lyric debut was an impressive one. It is 100% not his fault that I was thinking about Grease 2 during Ah! sì, ben mio. His back-and-forth with Mark Delavan's Count di Luna was masterfully balanced. Although he wasn't literally outmatched by Radvanovsky's volume in Act IV, scene ii, some of his righteous manly anger is lost, possibly because she should have brought things down a notch.

Delavan wins my vote for the best nexus of vocal and dramatic talent. Count di Luna is really just such an asshole that it must be hell to breathe any kind of real life into him. Delavan certainly achieves this, somehow making one believe that his actions are motivated by more than worry about his penis size. Delavan's performance never trades on the Count as a lover. He plays him as a man suffocating under the weight of his privileged, but collapsing world. Leonora is less a trophy to this Count than she is a lifeline and a connection to whatever good may be left at world's end. He's deliciously crazy and pathetically desperate and not afraid to let some deliberately chosen ragged edges invade his vocal performance in service to that.

In his essay, Ketterson focuses on Verdi's near obsession with Azucena, noting that Verdi had intended to name the opera after her. (I think that opera may surpass paleoanthropological nomenclature for dark rituals and occult outcomes.) I'm afraid that kind of got lost in this production. The strongest reaction I had to Azucena was when Manrico and Leonora are about to get it on (before they start fighting, of course) in the prison cell, when I thought: "Because what is more on-turning than my crazy gypsy mother who is likely to awake at any moment and launch into her Hamlet's Father's Ghost schtick?" Vocally, Zajick was not nearly so hard to bear as I thought she might be from during her first number. In her blurb, Zajick notes
If you have the right voice for it, Azucena isn't difficult unless you haven't figured out what's really wrong with her. The plot was kind of like the Hitchcock of its day [um . . . no—ed.]—one of those stories where you don't have all the solutions. When Verdi said he didn't want Azucena played insane, he meant that it could be only one of two things: either she planned from Minute One that Manrico would die, or she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

I, personally, have no idea how Zajick answers that question for her Azucena, although the former is much more interesting to me. In her defense, I think in the last seconds of the opera, in her final cry, she does convey that, but she didn't build a strong case during the previous 3 hours.

There aren't many ancillary roles in this. Silvestrelli remains my main, and I forgive him for the luscious notes of which I was deprived in the name of drama. Rodell Rosel as Ruiz does another creditable job in a minor role. I think he might be working his way up to Cangelosi status, and I hope so. I'd love to see him show us what he's got. And I'll wrap up this more-epic-than-usual recap with another shout out to the grrrlz in the convent. Thank you, my brides of Scary!Lurking!Christ for those few minutes of pure beauty.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Green-Eyed Lover: The Big Easy, Days 5.2 & 6

Gentle reader, I cruelly left you on the very doorstep of heaven. Let us go around the back and through the French doors into the kitchen of my dreams.

In the kitchen, we were greeted by Judy Jurisich, who poured us each a glass of menage e trois and ushered us into the parlor. We sat and talked about the week we'd had so far. Judy, in turn, told us how they've all been able to keep on keepin' on with help, cooperation, and some new arrangements. Business has been more erratic than in the past, with big rushes followed by lulls, but so far, so good.

We were shortly joined by two other students in the class, one a Canadian food writer, the other, I think, a travel agent (and possibly friend) who'd arranged her schedule for her. The latter is a displaced local who's been in Baton Rouge since last year. The irony is that her job is in Baton Rouge. As she put it: "I used to be a commuter, and it's like over an hour to Baton Rouge. And now . . . I'd give anything to be a commuter again."

Shortly after 5:30, we ventured into the kitchen and started the class, although we were still waiting for the pair of locals who would round out our class. Of course the four of us cleverly took up stations around the island that required the local couple to sit on opposite sides of the kitchen when they did arrive. They were very gregarious and friendly, though, and didn't seem to hold it against us.

Our chef was Poppy Tooker, a food historian, a cooking teacher, leader of the New Orleans Slow Food Convivium, a chef in her own right (though she spurned that label), and a warrior for the preservation of the most delicious elements of New Orleans culture. She is also officially A Hoot, a Spitfire, and quite possibly a Pistol. You understand that I, as an 21st urban grrrl, do not use these terms lightly, and yet they are the only ones that suit.

The contrast between Poppy and Frank couldn't be greater, and the two styles couldn't have complemented one another better from our perspective. All of Frank's tricks and techniques involved precision: Each was designed to give more control over every step of the process. Poppy made M and KJ cry just a little bit every time she eyeballed, guesstimated, or tossed in a pinch of this or that. Sorry, gentleman: no guts, no glory. And as much as I learned from Frank, I did a little happy dance to have my improvisational approach validated by Poppy (and, of course, I learned a ton from her too).

I think our collective highlight on the cooking style front occurred when Poppy suggested that you can tell when your frying oil has reached the proper temperature (about 365˚ F) by tossing a match into it. When you hear the hiss of the match igniting, then immediately going out, the oil is ready. AMB and I were oohing and ahhing over this when she turned to KJ and asked if he'd use the trick. In his inimitable, mild-mannered way, he replied: "No. I'll measure."

Poppy's storytelling was also a great complement to Frank's. Where Frank's stories were an inside look at the legendary New Orleans kitchens (Commander's Palace, K-Paul's, Antoine, etc.), Poppy's stories were about the roots and subcultures of New Orleans foods. Throughout she had a running commentary about the factors influencing the differences between Creole and Cajun approaches, and she was just as informative about the cultural differences between Creoles in the Quarter and conspicuously consuming Americans in the Garden District. We got insight into the etymology of everything from netural ground to the shallot/scallion confusion and the wacky misunderstanding that gives étouffée its name. She emphasized again and again that New Orleanians are culturally Catholic, whatever their faith may be. And she explored the happy infiltration of New Orleans cuisine by African influences by way of street vendors who used their time off to raise money against their purchase price.

Oh, she talked about other chefs, too. She poked good-natured fun at Frank, who had the audacity to question her pronunciation of "calas" when he was consulting for Vicky and Bryan Krantz before they opened Calas Bistro.

Frank: But Paul pronounces it "Cal-AY" . . .
Poppy: And what would Paul know about it? Of course he'd pronounce it that way: He's CAJUN!

Poppy also cleverly slipped in hilarious stories about Leah Chase whenever possible. Each was more hilarious than the last: "That Poppy Tooker, she's as Catholic as they come, but she sure loves that kosher salt!"; the harrowing tale of turtle processing and the subsequent hell of turtle parts stranded on a sun-baked curb; and Leah's sly references to how times change, what with a white girl doing clean-up for her.

But I was on to Poppy the whole time. She was just trying enlist us all in her crusade to get Leah to reopen Dooky Chase's. Her diabolical plan worked. I must eat there, and I ain't too proud to beg.

But on to the food. Our evening began with one of those rare moments that represent a true food epiphany. I've only had a few of these: my first samosa; discovering chorizo; realizing that I had no analogy for the taste of lucuma ice cream. Not only do calas definitely make the "food epiphany" list, I feel that I also achieved a more enlightened understanding of remoulade sauce before the first course was over.

Poppy started by having us make good friends with the tasso that would eventually go into the calas. Although AMB had already bonded with the spicy meat product at breakfast, she was not above getting reacquainted. While she chopped what we grudgingly left her, Poppy talked about the cutting and curing of tasso and why it's such a staple of Cajun cuisine (the short answer is the usual: It's a fatty cut that's considered undesirable; it can be cured in a short time; and the spices cover up any iffy flavors that result from lack of preservation methods).

She then got us started on the remoulade, which is totally easy peasy to make. So easy peasy, in fact, that if I could find any stinking Zatarain's (accept no substitutes, even though the original company was bought out by McCormick-Schilling, which still maintains a strong community presence, so that's ok then) Creole Mustard in this backwater town, I'd be putting that stuff on my pop tarts. Not that I eat pop tarts. But I will consider them and any other potential remoulade vehicles. Louisiana remoulade departs from the white, mayonnaise tradition by omitting the egg. That leaves just Italian parsley leaves, olive oil, hot sauce (Crystal, not Tabasco, for a deeper, peppery flavor with more moderate heat), green onions, cayenne, a butt load of paprika (which is what gives remoulade its color), salt, and lemon juice. And it's my favorite kind of sauce: Throw it all in the food process and process away, no supervision necessary.

The calas looked simple. Poppy billed them as being simple. But I totally choked when I went up to make one. The main ingredient is rice bound with flour and egg, a dash of baking powder to lighten things up, and then whatever ingredients one wants to add for a savory (or sweet, if one chooses to deal in such abominations) treat.

The hard part is forming the calas from the mixture. Poppy demonstrated with two large spoons, warning us not to manhandle them with a lot of pressing and molding. The idea is to shape them by scraping lightly from one spoon to another. This is easy enough to say when you have a black belt in spoons. I do not have a black belt in spoons. In fact, from the way I handled them, you'd think I was a three-fingered Martian who'd just come across an autoharp. Of course, M was a natural. Bastard.

Once the calas have been slid into the oil, they're nearly as no-maintenance as the remoulade. They very kindly turn their deliciously browning selves over so that they don't even need flipping. And when they do come out, they are heavenly. Much, much lighter and more flavorful than you'd think a deep-fried rice ball ever could be. In fact, even though I tend to think of rice as something that you put other things on, in calas form, both the taste and texture are more than just a backdrop for the other ingredients. In this case, the salty, spicy bites of tasso were all the better for the silky texture of the rice, and the green onions were a crisp, sharp-tasting overtone. And dipped in the remoulade? Well, there's that I'm-going-to-hell-and-I-couldn't-be-happier feeling again.

Next on the duty roster was the yeoman's work of making the roux, both for the gumbo and for the chicken piquant. As we got schooled in the methodology, she also gave us a little history. Cajun food uses filé powder to thicken because sassafras leaves were ubiquitous, but flour was an expensive luxury item, taking roux of the table for the poor. When Cajun food does incorporate a roux (as Frank's gumbo does, but combined with filé), it's always added to the boiling liquid, presumably because it racks up the technical difficulty points. Creole food, in contrast, builds from the roux upward.

Poppy's roux was decidedly Creole. In making it, she gave us many useful tips along the way, usually just before she violated them. For example, she sternly informed us that using a wire whisk to stir was just asking for Cajun napalm burns, then promptly turned around to grab the wire whisk insisting that she was making the world's biggest roux. But she also gave us an incredibly liberating tip: The roux functions to add color, add flavor, and thicken. The first two are more important than the last, so a roux the consistency of thin mayonnaise is not cause for panic. I will, no doubt, continue in my quest to make the beautifully thick, rich roux that Frank achieved in two nanoseconds, but along the way, I will give myself permission NOT to stand there for 45 minutes stirring until it happens or my arm falls off. Instead, I will tell my roux that it is a good roux and a pretty roux and a flavorful roux.

Frank was big on the flavor of the roux, too, but in a completely different way. In his recipe, the incredibly precise amount of oil is harvested from the pan in which you've just fried the chicken, so it's gaining relatively subtle flavor. Poppy waited for the bittersweet chocolate color in the roux before adding the onions directly to it, followed by the bell pepper and celery. This, obviously, is going to add a much bigger and more direct flavor to the roux (and boy did that pay, particularly in the chicken piquant).

While whipping up the mother of all roux, Poppy also talked a bit about the so-called "holy trinity" of Creole and Cajun food: Onion, bell pepper, celery. Unfortunately, I went to the bathroom during the first part of this, so I missed some. However, I gather that she thinks it started out with the "mir fois" of traditional French cooking: Onion, celery, and carrots. In Louisiana, though, carrots were hard to come by and peppers were thick on the ground; and thus the new and improved trinity was born.

After dealing with these diverse approaches to roux, Poppy turned attention to the religious issue of okra. She didn't sugar coat it (because I think lovers and haters of okra can agree: That's just gross), saying that stories that slaves brought okra seeds with them across the Atlantic so that they'd have something to remind them of home were so much bunk. Okra is cheap and grows abundantly and easily, end of subject. However, she did argue for its fundamental place in a gumbo, pointing out that the very name comes from the Bantu word for okra: kingumbo.

The most important tactic on the okra side appears to be never, ever to allow it to steam. Rather, it should fried quickly and at high heat and watched carefully so that it is removed from the pan before it starts to give up liquid. I admit that I'm an okra agnostic and don't much care whether it's in our out of what I eat, but AMB, who is antiokra, seemed skeptical. However, we took turns watching each other's backs while we licked every plate clean later, so I don't think there were any adverse okra outcomes.

For the chicken piquant, once the roux is made, the hard part is over. However, it's worth noting that if you're a crazy person who doesn't want a gumbo, too, you should fry the chicken first and use the oil for the roux, a la Frank's gumbo. To continue backing up into the piquant, the chicken is marinated in hot sauce (remember: Crystal!) and cayenne. After browning, it's simmered in the roux plus trinity plus tomatoes, vinegar, bay leaves, and thyme. In the last few minutes, green onions and parsley are added. Un. Believably. Good.

In case you're getting whiplash as I move between the chicken and the gumbo, I assure you the fault is mine. I'm just unable to convey how smoothly Poppy kept both going and kept up a running commentary. I won't say she made it look easy, but it was natural, comfortable, and casual. And she did make it seem like something a a mere human like me could pull off.

So getting back to the gumbo, we got a lecture on making shrimp stock (shrimp detritus plus celery and onion, but positively no green pepper) folded into the state of the post-Katrina seafood industry: "Gumbo" crabs (which are designated as such based primarily on size) aren't really available because of the missed season. As a result, we got to watch Poppy pull apart Louisiana blue crabs with Marfan Syndrome as if they were tissue-paper flowers.

In contrast, the oysters are tiny, which made the job of chopping them for the oyster jambalaya relatively simple. They oysters were also the impetus for a sort of back-room conversation. Poppy was disappointed that the oysters had come from P&J washed. Judy said, in significant tones, that all oysters must be washed before sale. There was some amusing silent communication between them that seemed to imply that there were channels through which unwashed oysters, with sweet, sweet oyster liquor could be obtained. Judy, in turn, revealed that she was once the Oyster Heiress before both the Ps and the Js got out of the business.

For the oyster jambalaya, Poppy got to show us her perfect rice recipe, which involved filling the pot with rice up to the level of her first knuckle, then filling the pot with water (and in this case, oyster liquor and worcestershire sauce, too) to the second knuckle. Although they disagree on the degree of precision in measurements, both Poppy and Frank advise leaving the damned rice alone until it's done. In Poppy's case, she insisted that lifting the lid was not a particularly problem except for the fact that no human being has ever lifted a lid without a spoon in the other hand, hell-bent on making a glutinous mess. I repeat: Leave the rice alone.

The rice on its way, we were ready to tackle dessert. But before we could do that, we had a lot to learn about bread in New Orleans. First up, my proletarian heart was gladdened to learn the history of the Po Boy: During a streetcar strike, the proprietors of Martin's grocery was determined that until the strike was over, those "Poor Boys" would be welcome to a sandwich there. This led to collaboration with Gendusa's bakery to determine how much bread was needed to make a whole meal into a sandwich. Poppy claims that the brown paper that served as a ruler is still intact and on display.

As the bread pudding process progressed, my head began to spin. You know the "Big Wedge of Cheese Day" episode of The West Wing? Well, even if you don't, there's a part where Josh and CJ are listening to a presentation from Dr. Phlox (who is disguised as a passionate cartographer) about the fundamental flaws in Mercator Projection Maps. They're sucked into the issue against her will:

Josh: You mean Germany isn't where we think it is?
Phlox: Nothing is where you think it is.

And later when CJ sees the "upside-down" map (southern hemisphere on top):
Phlox: The map is flipped over.
CJ: Yeah, but you can't do that
Phlox: Why not?
CJ: 'Cause it's freaking me out!

Yeah, this kind of went like that. See, you may be among the benighted segment of humanity who thinks that Po Boys are served on any old French Bread. They are not. They are served on Po Boy loaves, which can only be made in New Orleans. Literally. Po Boy loaves made outside New Orleans, it seems, stubbornly refuse to get crusty enough on the outside or light enough on the inside. The Gendusas (I think) found this out the hard way when they tried to move their business elsewhere in Louisiana, only to find the that critical elements of their bread were standing at the edge of the Big Easy, waving placards that urged them to come home, all was forgiven.

Another rookie mistake one might make is to think that bread pudding involves using any old day old bread. WRONG. If one is in New Orleans, then a day-old Po Boy loaf is acceptable. Outside of New Orleans, you might as well just be using an old sofa pillow. If you must make bread pudding outside the Holy Land, Poppy recommends Vietnamese baguettes with milk added until just a bit of milk breaks out between your fingers when you squeeze. In a final act to win our hearts (as if she even needed to try), Poppy then made the hard sauce for the bread pudding and did not cook off one. single. drop. of the bourbon.

As much as I am naturally lazy and gluttonous, I can still say that there was a kind of perverse regret in my heart when we left Poppy and her clairvoyant assistant in the kitchen. In 2004, it was pissing down rain the day we did our class, so we didn't get to tour the grounds of the House at all. It was a beautiful night, this time, and Judy gave us the tour. The food writer asked questions about how the School got its start, so AMB and KJ no longer had to rely on my flawed memory of it. She was also obviously quite impressed with the experience and admitted that she rather dreaded cooking classes usually, because they all followed the same format, which didn't really allow for much other than mastering some minor kitchen task. This opened up an opportunity for all and sundry to praise the school to high heaven.

Dinner was, of course, delicious, congenial, and relaxing. Judy sat at our table and we talked about weddings (she and Tommy never got to eat a crumb of the food at their own and wound up at a fast-food drive through), Katrina (they were teaching their last class as the House was being boarded up, then Judy got in her car and drove to Atlanta where Tommy was on duty at the time), and Chris Rose (although that essay [with thanks to AJ for pointing it out] hadn't yet been published at the time). Poppy came out later to chat and answer any questions we might had, but she was understandably tired and wanted to call it a night. We did, too, not long after, and Tommy was gracious enough to drive us back to our hotel, where we bid a nearly tearful farewell to AMB and KJ.

The next morning, we had enough time to brave Cafe DuMonde and its Darwinian approach to getting a table. We prevailed before long and even managed (eventually) to flag down some service. Og merely had coffee, but M had the beignets. We were really on a mission for pralines, though, and would accept no substitutes for Aunt Sally's. This resulted in a kind of Marx Brothers routine where M tried the Decatur Street door and declared it closed. I saw someone inside and tried the door nearest Dutch Alley, which opened. Of course, it turned out that we were assaulting the proprietor the very first minute that she got in, but we secured our pralines.

If you think I got that close to Dutch Alley and didn't go in, your willing suspension of disbelief is marvelous. If you think I went into Dutch Alley and didn't get anything, I'm flattered by your confidence in my fiscal responsibility. I very nearly wound up with the glamour trash gojira earrings, but ultimately decided what I'd known to be true from the beginning: The Sapient Hair was not going to play nice with them.

I did, however, wind up with two pieces of Sabine Chadborn's jewelry. One is cord necklace has a beautiful oval agate pendant suspended from a silver semi-oval, the other is cord necklace with a a treble clef of twisted silver with a silver guitar welded on to it. That one makes me feel like a bit of a poseur, but it was just too cool for me to pass up. (Actually, I've just looked at it and realized that it's a bass, so I'm an uberposeur. Now I definitely have to buy the Bad Badtz-Maru Bass at the OTSFM members' sale tomorrow.) I also proved unable to resist Dan Fuller's art a second time. I picked up two smaller prints from his treehouse series: the firehouse and the circus.

While the earring lady was ringing us up, she noticed my shirt. Unfortunately, she tragically misread the boobies as ducks and periodically quacked at us as she wrote up our order.

So, as you can see, days 5.2 and 6 were a well-spent end to a pretty kick-ass trip. But it's a trip that has made me afraid. I'm really preoccupied with getting back there. That's not too surprising, because I feel like I've left a little more of me there with each visit and taken a little bit more of it back to Chicago. But what if, as CB says, I go in July and still think I could live there? What if death by half muff and hurricane looks like a good alternative to leaving?

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