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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Newly Human and Strangely Literal: Chicago Opera Theater's Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung, Now Wit

So, really, when I made the joke about my entry running substantially longer than either not!opera, I hadn't intended to be joking on the square. However, about the time I started foaming at the mouth about an author's misrepresentation of the librettist's ethnicity and how akin it is to the synopsist's misrepresentation of who's cryin' now, I realized that Erwartung was going to deserve its own space on the lunatic fringe. And that was before I reflexively started quoting Journey.

So I'll begin with the juicy details that didn't make it into yesterday's long digression on Schönberg, Bartók, and Austro-Hungarian art that's positively sticky with Freud.

Here's something that reinforces my friend A's point that it's not a small world, it's a small bourgeois clique: Schönberg knew Marie Pappenheim in her identity as Maria Heim, a poet and author (she was a good girl, though, and knew that such hippy dippy pursuits wouldn't pay the bills, so she also became a medical doctor later). Schönberg was vacationing along with Zmlinsky, Berg, Webern, and Oppenheimer (Max, not the other one). Pappenheim was also vacationing nearby (see above re: bourgeois clique), and Schönberg said to her, "Write an opera text for me, Miss!"

Now all that I remember vaguely from the music history class I had to take in college. I mean, I didn't remember the Schönberg vacation guest list or anything, but hey, I was eating bagels and doing the NYT crossword puzzle with a friend and thinking of England. (Having no art brain, I have deep art fear, so my classroom experiences were always a source of stress.) In that class, we must not have covered the speed!opera aspects of Erwartung (Pappenheim wrote the libretto while lying in the grass for 3 days, Schönberg then hammered out the music in 17 days). I know that we can't have covered it, because I know that I didn't chuckle internally and think that all Pappenheim needed was a Yoo Hoo factory and Erwartung could've been "And She Was." And I know that because I have a poorly defined boundary between internal and external chuckle, which causes public speakers to shoot me dirty looks and ask, "Yes? Did you have a comment?" Oops.

Anyway, that's still not the interesting bit. What I also did not learn in that music class is that Pappenheim's first cousin, Bertha Pappenheim, happens to have been Anna O., the woman whose trauma and treatment were a centerpiece of Freud and Breuer's (ptooey) work on hysteria. Even without this explicit connection, it would be difficult to disassociate the text of Erwartung from psychoanalysis and other Freudian gew gaws: hysteria (ya, sure, ya betcha), free association (uh huh), misogyny (well . . . that's an interesting one, innit?).

If the synopsist for Bluebeard was well over the line of summary and deep into interpretive territory (I'm waiting for someone to reveal that this was a simple typo or something), for Erwartung sie seems to have been fearful of saying anything at all. Here, I won't even make you click a link:
Erwratung reveals a woman in search of her missing lover. In his own words Schönberg sought "to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour."

"A woman in search of her missing lover," is really all that one can say objectively about the "monodrama." Even this could be qualified to hell and back to avoid interpretation. The search for the lover may be literal or metaphorical. She may be wandering in a literal forest, as the libretto states, hallucinating in her own backyard, or paralyzed in an armchair and indulging in the "talking cure." Furthermore, even the identity of the missing person is up for "bad touch" grabs, given that the onset of "Anna O's" trauma coincided with the final illness of her father and that M. Pappenheim is writing in the wake of Strauss's Elektra. After all, it's only the woman who identifies him as her lover and what does she know?

It might be tempting, then, to write the whole of Erwartung off as unknowable and head directly for the bar. But given that COT went to the trouble of staging it, the least I can do is poke at their attempts to know the text. After the Bluebeard debacle, I was eager to pick on Ken Cazan's notes some more. On the one hand, he makes it easy:

Her obsession with him has strained the relationship to the breaking point. Her fear of his abandoning her for another woman has driven her to a paranoid wandering and raving around the countryside (or is it simply around the perimeter of her garden?).

What? How do we know that it's her obsession that precipitated the end of the relationship? How do we know that it's her fear of abandonment that has driven her to paranoid wandering? And, seriously, whether she's literally wandering in the forest or literally wandering in her garden is your idea of digging deeper into the text?

On the other hand, it is at least clear that Pappenheim intended the Woman (interestingly Gilmore asserted that she is "Woman," not "a woman," or "the woman," but the copies of the libretto I've found on line each say "eine Frau") to be read as in the throes of a posttraumatic neurotic episode. She is paranoid, jealous, obsessive, even if the roots of those emotions are not explicitly addressed. (As Gilmore noted, Schönberg wasn't interested in how the woman got to the crazy party, just in who she danced with there.)

But for me, the most problematic assumption inherent in Cazan's notes is that it is the woman (or the Woman, or Woman) who has killed her lover. Certainly, I first thought to challenge that assumption because I was extremely cranky at the lack of love for the sisters in Cazan's notes. But it's something that Neil Croft also takes as given in his essay:
Did the woman murder her lover or is this a dream of "wish fulfillment"?

So I guess I don't just have Cazan to kick around on this.

However, I don't think I'm being groundlessly obstinate in asking Whodunit?, if indeed it was literally done. Once she discovers the body, she asks if "they" did this, if "they" came for him. Certainly, she could be in deep denial and thus invoking the bushy-haired stranger, but it's at least an askable question. And ooh oh ooh! Andrew Clements of The Guardian joins me in at least asking it.

As with Bluebeard, though, Cazan's production of Erwartung surpasses his notes. He's either ridiculously blessed by a rockstar casting team at COT, the beneficiary of two very lucky coincidences or a much, much better director than he is a writer or literary critic. The text of Erwartung is at once completely disjointed in terms of content and an uninterrupted deluge in terms of pace. Add to this Schönberg's "pantonal," nondirective, abstract expressionist music, and the vocalist must—absolutely must—know exactly why she is singing each line and exactly how she is going to get to the next emotional place. There are no supporting characters and no transitional motives to get either her or the audience there.

As much as I would love to give all of the credit for the nearly flawless achievement of that goal to local heroine Nancy Gustafson, I think it's practically impossible to get that performance without a strong director. It might actually be more exhausting for me to retread the 33 minutes of crazy than it was for Gustafson to create them. However, I have to pay homage to one particularly interesting set of choices.

In what Schönberg specified as the opera's second and third scenes, the Woman feels something clutching at her, then hears someone crying. She is wholly terrified by whatever may be with her in the forest. Without losing one iota of that terror, in an instant, Gustafson uncurls herself from an instinctively defensive, almost fetal posture and plays the rest of the scene as every inch the hostess, the coquette, the socialite. The socialized feminine desire—the need—to appease, to please, appear sexually and emotionally available to the thing that terrifies her . . . ugh! nauseating, resonant, and marvelous.

I chose that moment mostly because it is still creeping me the hell out (in a good, deliberately chosen way), but also because it's most emblematic of the design of the production. Most of the stage was still masked in the black tarpaper of uxoricidal doom! from Bluebeard, but just upstage of center they'd flown in a black silk-satin curtain, hung at a rakish angle, that extended about 3/4 the length of the stage from left to right and trailed all the way to the apron. Just downstage of that was a similarly rakishly hung chandelier.

The Woman first emerges through a hole in the fabric of the curtain just up and right of center (I admit, I had a "Kundry! Noooooo! Leave the navel of the Earth alone!" moment). She later crawls underneath the curtain to another hole (and I hope that baby was extremely well marked with glow tape, because as an actress, a director, a stage manager, or whatever, worrying about her not finding that opening would have kept me awake for the entire rehearsal period plus run). Later still, she gathers the fabric up as she walks, uncovering the bloodied body of her lover slumped off the front of a coverless Ikea Kippan couch (we totally have that couch in the basement, but with a denim cover and no body. usually.) Ending up where she began, she eventually covers over the stage and crawls back into the darkness.

It sounds a lot goofier when written than it was in execution. It's Gustafson's physicality that makes it work, and that works within a relatively simple but effective costume (basically a white gown with enough flow and cling to suggest both evening and night wear). The moment described above is emblematic of Gustafsons seamless shifts from schlumpy, decidedly unladylike "no one's watching" postures to dancing school woman-as-consumer-item poses. She clumps and glides, she scales the couch and perches demurely on it. And in all seriousness, Christopher Johnson, as "A Man" (aka, Herr Slumped and Bloodied) deserves considerable credit for his performance as a prop and for his resounding, unflinching tumble from the couch to the floor. OW! Stage manager falling down on the job there. I'd never have allowed it.

My subject line was motivated by a conversation I heard on the walk over to the train station after we were released from Erwartung. A couple wanted to know why the set was a ballroom when it's supposed to be a forest! Um . . .yeah, ok. However, I can't really mock them without disclosing that what really bothered me about the design was the chandelier. I mean, it's basically a plumb bob, right? It's not gonna hang at an angle, no way no how. Leaving aside overly literal criticisms, although I think the set designed worked as a physical space for what Gustafson and Cazan were doing, as a static set it just doesn't work in the post-Titanic/remake of the Poseidon Adventure era. It reads as sinking ship, and I'm pretty sure the metaphor's not for mixing.

Musically, I know Gustafson is a well-established star. (In fact, all the reviews of these two productions mention this deviation from the COT's "no stars" policy.) However, she's new to me and I'm delighted to have her in my stash of recording artists to look for. Not once in the overwrought 33 minutes did she reach into any kind of standard bag of vocal tricks. Her voice is pure and powerful and she certainly unearthed the musical connecting threads in Schönberg much as she found and illuminated the emotional backbone of Pappenheim's libretto.

As a musical work, well how much more modern could it be, being the first really modern opera? Whether Schönberg wanted it to be beautiful or not, it is, in parts. As a whole, I don't think even he could have wanted it to be more successful at disintegrating the brain. But even still, I can envision listening to it. I can see its erratic shape becoming familiar. But maybe later.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

The Snooty You Shall Always Have With You: Chicago Opera Theater's Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung

Although I continue to be favorably impressed with the quality of Chicago Opera Theater's productions and downright delighted that they don't shy away from the modern and the offbeat, they do pale in comparison to Lyric Opera on one important point, namely the amount and pomposity of accompanying text. But fear not. The running time of this entry will, as usual, exceed that of either opera.

When I sat down after the preshow lecture and before curtain, I realized that COT has one Pompous Program per season. As I found the entries on Bluebeard and Erwartung, I realized that I'd already skimmed them while waiting for Ulisse. Flipping to the performer/production bios, I realized I was in big trouble: (a) I already skimmed those, too; (b) there were only three anyway; (c) in COT's PP, these are really just brief forms of the person's resumés (resumé2?), rather than containing any insights on these particular works or performances as Lyric's do, for good or for ill.

I did, of course, have the lecture to contemplate, which had been given by COT's Director of Music for the Young Artist's Program, Scott Gilmore. I had dutifully brought my moleskine with me (I keep telling myself that my pomposity would be greatly enhanced by taking a note or two once in a while) and inevitably forgot a pen. This was particularly unfortunate, because Gilmore's remarks were quite interesting and enlightening, but at least one of us kept confusing Bartók (composer of Bluebeard) and Schönberg (composer of Erwartung), and I don't think it was just me, at least not every time.

Gilmore opened his talk with two "messages," one from Schönberg about the artistic experience being partly what goes on in the performance and partly what the audience member brings to that experience. The other, from Bartók, advised against billing Bluebeard as an opera (oops!), suggesting instead that the audience be prepared to "appreciate" (Gilmore was quite firm on the fact that both works were not really something one would be likely to say s/he "enjoyed") a dramatic scene. Please bear in mind that I think I've attributed the right message to each composer, but the whole lecture had a Parent Trap thing going on for me.

Although I can say with confidence that neither Béla nor Arnold looks like slightest bit like Hayley Mills or Hayley Mills, Gilmore's lecture made it clear that the two had enough in common to provide a whole slumber party's worth of conversation at least. Both were discontented citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a structure they both saw as restrictive, outmoded, and increasingly irrelevant. I suppose that by 1910ish, the Lasnerian date of both works, that pretty well characterizes the opinion of just about everyone who wasn't a Hapsburg. As the empire devolved, a new world was forming and every corner of it was infested with Freud and psychoanalysis.

Both saw a comprehensive artistic revolution on the horizon, riding alongside the political and intellectual, and both fomented that revolution through their compositions, their orchestrations, their performances, and in Schönberg's case, through visual art. In addition to the (ptooey!) Freudian influences, both composers were strongly attracted to the schools of art and architecture that were interested in doing away with embellishment and representationalism and in broadening Sullivan's architectural edict "form follows function" to include other artistic media. (This comment from Gilmore's lecture prompted me to ponder questions about the "function" of opera or, I suppose, to what functions of music opera is appropriate.)

For all the contextual they shared, though, Bartók and Schönberg pursued and realized their revolutionary goals in quite different ways. Schönberg strapped into the crazy whirligig of fun that was the grand musical tradition of Vienna in a state of flux. Bartók snubbed Vienna and headed deep into the heart of Hungary for turn as Alan Lomax (before there were Alan Lomaxes, of course, making him John, I suppose). Schönberg liberated color from representational duties in his paintings and emotion from key in his music. Bartók outed the Hungarian "folk music" of Liszt for the case of recursive mistaken identity it was (ah, urban folklore about rural folk, the eagerness of the bourgeoisie to see themselves willingly and innately reflected in the peasantry! does it get any better?) and reinvented Magyar craft as Hungarian art. Whereas Schönberg contented himself with blowing Mahler's mind, Bartók was taking liberal hits off the bongs of Strauss (Richard) and Debussy.

I believe the last question asked of Gilmore was how companies decided which piece to do first. This being one of conventions that quickly became unassailable tradition, Gilmore looked stumped for a brief moment before beginning with the slightly lame statement, "Well, the Bartók is longer . . ." (for what it's worth, that would argue for Arnie first). He then changed gears and said he thought we would be able to answer that question for ourselves as we experienced the two works. (I wouldn't count on it: The evidence of Bartók's liberal politics in Bluebeard were entirely lost on the guy behind me. I know this because he spent the entire intermission wondering, loudly, where the chewy liberal center was.) Perhaps motivated by the sea of blank stares, he further added that Bartók is challenging the audience some baby steps in dissonance (almost literally—Gilmore noted that the tension between Judith and Bluebeard is created and sustained by her vocal line being in F-major and his in the minor second, just a half step above), whereas Schönberg is completely, atonally off his nut.

See, I think it's probably clear by now what the problem is with COT's comparative dearth of opera-adjacent literature: Sure, Gilmore gave an interesting introduction to why these composers fit well, which probably explains why these short works came to be paired as the neurotic 20th-century Cav/Pag. Certainly the 1993 essay by Neil Croft ("Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung: Tales from the Dark Side"), which is thoughtfully provided in the program, both solidified some of Gilmore's points in my mind and gave me more food for thought. But ultimately, I had to do a whole lot of my own damned thinking and research and wondering if, sweet jeebus, there is enough time for me to enslave an army that I can network them into my brain and make them read all the things I need to read before I die.

With Lyric's expanded pomposity program, I can usually confine myself to poking fun at already-extant text instead of creating my own comedy fodder. See, for example, my reference to Cav/Pag above. If this had been a Lyric production, I could have used the analogy and then pointed and laughed at the absurd opening of Lyric's Pompous Essay on Cav/Pag, which redefines the laws of kashrut and topples the food pyramid: "[These operas are] often referred to as ’bread and butter,’ but which is the meat, and which is the poultry?" Instead, with nothing to go on but an enlightening preshow lecture and a well-written, if recycled essay not specific to the production, I find myself rambling at some length and directing the whole of my fury and derision at one line in the synopsis and the brief (if totally whack) directors' notes from Ken Cazan.

Those dual barrels will probably do more damage if I launch into a production-by-production recap. However much sense it makes historically and musically to begin with Bartók, I'm only beginning with Bluebeard because it came first in the evening. I can also assure you that the Bartók ranting will be longer. Conveniently, COT provides its director's notes online, as well as its synopses so the 2 of you in 6 billion who either care enough or who have read this far can decide whether to order a white coat for me or Cazan. Two white coats would be an extravagance.

In reverse length prioritization, I'd like to ruminate on the synopsis for a moment. What is the purpose of the synposis? For some, like my pal M, I imagine, it doesn't have one as they are not there for the story and don't need anything more than a rudimentary sense of what's going on. For others, it's probably de trop in the era of supertitles. But given its ubiquity, I think there are some rules governing it. The most important of these, I'd argue, is that it should summarize and do as little else as possible. Why, yes, I am expecting the bolt of lightning any minute now, because I am the Queen of the, Unfair, Agenda-Laden Synposis Played for Maximum Humor (my idea of it, anyway), and I simply love when a synopsist plays the "There is too much. Lemme sum up." card.

Nonetheless, to the extent that it is possible, I think the synopsist should avoid any interpretive lacquer and should be careful not to state as fact something that is up for debate. This is all apropos this line in the synopsis:
Behind the sixth door Judith finds a motionless lake which Bluebeard tells her was formed by his tears.

Leaving aside the American/British death match over whether that which needs a comma, I say to you: Dude, WTF?

Having read the synopsis, I was rather on the edge of my seat during the performance, wondering how the emotional worm would turn for Bluebeard: After so much of the blood wrung from others, a lake of his tears!
But you know what? Bluebeard most certainly does not say they are his tears. He repeats, the requisite three times, "Tears, my Judith, tears, tears." Judith, for her part, rejects his entreaty to kiss him and demands the seventh key precisely because she interprets the lake as being filled with the tears of his former wives. And that, my friends, is a whole different psychic kettle of fish.

I have no idea what Balázs (the other Béla and Bartók's librettist for this, his only opera) intended the origin of those tears to be. And if I know Maurice Maeterlinck (I don't, especially, know Maeterlinck. Definitely not in the Biblical sense [ew! Necrophilia!], but even in the literary sense, although I'm not likely to ask if she's a freshman [it's a Daddy Long-Legs joke, people, just read it, will you?], we're acquaintances at best), Balász probably didn't have much to go on regarding the origin of the tears in Ariane et Barbe-Bleue. But I think it's safe to say that assuming Bluebeard as the weeper is a radical interpretation of the text, and those are best left out of synopses.

(Ok, I have a weakness for asides at the best of times and this isn't them. I just came across a review of this book about Bluebeard by Carl Leafstedt [why oh why does it have to be $72?] and I've got to quote this footnote from an otherwise quite positive review: "Leafstedt treats Balázs's ethnic origin with surprising squeamishness. . . . While in some cases one would welcome studies that underplay the relevance of ethnic origins, understating the role Balázs's Jewish ethnicity played in his cultural orientation as well as his reception in Hungary verges on misrepresentation." Sing it!)

It's not even that I object to that interpretation. In fact, I simply loved how this was played in this production. It's around door #3 that the emotional ships of Judith and Bluebeard pass in the night without so much as a heartfelt "I loved you in Wall Street!": Judith has borne the revelations of Bluebeard's torture chamber and armory with somewhat alarming aplomb. It's when she realizes that she'll never get the bloodstains out of that tiara that she begins to falter. More than simply approaching her major key more closely, Bluebeard actually borrows her text, whether in his own desperation or simply to mock her is never clear.

At the opening of the fourth and fifth doors (the garden and Bluebeard's [ahem] empire of unusual size), both vacillate. The balance of power swings wildly. The time is out of joint and it is unclear whether any given line is dialogue or soliloquy.

And then the lake is revealed. And in this production, Bluebeard collapses in on himself. Samuel Ramey was at his best at this moment, positively radiating sorrow and projecting anguish to the I-beams (what can I say? Old Louis would probably have approved of the Harris's concrete-and-iron lack of aesthetic). Musically, the audience's already taut nerves are assaulted with spine-tingling harp runs. These emanate from the pit at seemingly irregular intervals, and each is suddenly muted. It's as if tears of heartlessly silenced grief continue to fall even now. And it teeters on the edge of possible that these tears really are Bluebeard's, in whole or in part.

But damn that directive line the synopsis! Instead of being seduced by this interpretation . . . instead of wondering how, how Judith could doubt his sincerity, I was waiting for Bluebeard to work the situation by overtly claiming the tears as his own. Left to delve for subtext, I'm a softy. Bossed around by directive main text, part of me marveled that she could be such a fool.

Probably I wouldn't be so hung up on inappropriate interpretation in the synopsis if I hadn't been so slack jawed at the reversion to Perrault and the complete lack of nuance in Cazan's directors' notes. I mean, seriously, dude, you think it would've all been moonlight canoe rides through the lake of tears and making love on plastic hazmat sheeting in the blood-soaked garden if Judith could just get over her boundary issues? If I felt like giving Cazan the benefit of the doubt (and I did after seeing the production, I do less after re-reading that staggering set of notes), I'd charitably assume that he's simply channeling the mindset of any Freud-saturated member of the audience at the original staging in 1918. After all, we have Sigmund to thank for rocketing us back to 1697 with his sophisticated views of female hysteria.

I don't know. Maybe Cazan was going through a bad break-up and was projecting out the wazoo. Maybe he foolishly had a peon write his notes, a la "The Wørd." Maybe he's some kind of competitive cognitive dissonance champion, but his production really outdoes his notes. Ok, that's damning with faint praise: His production bears almost no resemblance to his notes.

In terms of the staging, the floor is painted black. In its center is a rectangle, barely discernible from the audience, divided into 6 sections of equal size and a 7th larger section. The back of the stage and the wings are masked with this tar-paper-y black fabric that is broken only upstage center by a plain set of stairs descending from a height of about 15 or 20 feet to the floor. At stage left, there was some staggering of the fabric masking the wing to allow for lighting from the sides as well, but this was not an "apparent" break in the blackness.

At first, the only lighting is from two overhead fixtures hanging high above center stage. These appeared to be simple, tubular florescent work lights shielded with ordinary black aluminum to direct the light down. This "break" in the staging (revealing ordinary work lights) might have been a nod to the spoken Prologue, which Gilmore mentioned and to which Croft refers in his essay:
The curtain, which is our eyelashes, is raised, and we ask: 'Where is the stage —within or without?'

However, the Prologue, as is common, was cut, so who knows.

When Bluebeard appears suddenly at the top of the stairs, the lighting changes so that a shaft falls at an angle across them. It is this cold, white light that is extinguished with a violent ka-chunk! when Judith passes up Bluebeard's (possibly ritual) offers to let her go and Bluebeard orders the door closed and bolted. Obviously, we're not left in total darkness. Instead, a shaft seems to come from the floor level at stage left, cutting a triangle of light across the backdrop that gets dimmer and more anemic as it grows taller at greater distances from the light source. This throws grotesque shadows that multiply and never seem to fall where they ought. The effect is disorienting without being distracting, so my hat is off to lighting designer Adam Silverman.

Judith begins with the door at stage right. The hinges for all the doors are at stage right, so that the length of the doors run up- and downstage. Each is about 2 feet wide and each remains open until the very end of the opera, meaning that we have 2-foot-high projections at about 2-foot intervals. I liked the gimmick of the doors being embedded in the floor, rather than the walls, and I liked even more that they in no way read as trap doors. It makes Bluebeard's castle simply another facet of the world, rather than an inversion of it. It invokes the inevitability of gravity and still leaves open the possibility that Judith's fate is a willingly taken step, rather than a fall. But practically, the doors sticking up did create some problems with sight lines, even from my, once again, relatively posh seats.

The lighting with regard to the doors wasn't as clear a success as the "pre-door" lighting. When the first door opens, Bluebeard and Judith are suffused with a lurid red glow. A very precise stripe of red is projected on to the backdrop, immediately behind the door. It seemed a bit on the nose, but then the next several doors were simple variations on yellow and/or white light that, perhaps, were copping a feel too far away from the nose. The garden projections were lovely and ookey at once (whatever that tar-papery material was, it lights like nothing I've ever seen before).

The lake—ah, the emotionally crucial lake—was given its due by Silverman. Initially, the backdrop and walls of the wings are dusted with blue-white stars suggesting a night so clear and beautiful that one can see the Milky Way. Gradually, these are joined by green twinkles of light, pretty at first, but suggestive of . . . well, pond scum. Ultimately, as Judith's jealousy gets the better of her, an off-magenta shade creeps in, submerging the characters in an unwholesome, oil-slicked puddle (and I love the urban nature of that visual metaphor, however, out of period it might be).

The revelation of the previous brides strikes me as something that it's difficult to handle well. I think I can safely say that Cazan gave it up for lost and didn't overtax himself trying to find a particularly graceful way to handle it. "Dawn" emerges first, of course, and I was moved to reserve judgement on the Heat Miser hair, because her body stocking and skin paint were so reminiscent of flayed flesh. It's not that I have any particular affinity for flayed flesh (I like to think of it as professionally appropriate relaxation of aversion), but it was deliciously gruesome. But then noon was revealed in banana slug colors. Dusk was purple, even though she's specified in the text to be some shade of brown, but by then I was paralyzed by not caring very much.

The dances assigned to the wives were jerky, spasmodic, and seemed to be directed at no one in particular. I felt it a cheat and a clunky bit of stage business that poor Judith had just happened to extract the crown, jewels, and starry mantle of night when she'd been rooting around in the treasure room. Also file under clunky and too "on the nose": the wives' dressing Judith in her death raiments, badly blocked domestic violence (because an unconvincing slap across the face is going to make her wake up and smell the coffee when the torture room failed to do so), and Judith's stripping of Bluebeard to get at the final keys. But really, it was a lovely, deeply felt, well constructed production overall.

It may, unfortunately, be time for Ramey to admit that the bottom has dropped out of his voice. Particularly early on, he seemed to be dropping entire tones or at least they were being swallowed up in vibrato. They were absolutely there later, so maybe he just wasn't engaged and/or warmed up at the very top. Whatever the issue, I'm sad to say that even to my amateur and forgiving ear, his voice has degraded quite a lot from when I first heard him in Faust and even from his Scarpia two years ago (in fact, I believe I remarked to a doubting that his Scarpia really still kinda did it for me).

Krisztina Szabó was dramatically on fire as Judith. She and Ramey had the sizzle and no mistake. I really enjoyed the clean lines and color of her mezzo, as well. In those senses, she reminded me of Bayrakdarian, and that was before I saw how she filled out the luscious black evening gown and dubbed her s a Hungarian-Canadian hottie (Bayrakdarian, of course, is a Canadian-Armenian hottie). However, she was simply inaudible much of the time over Bartók's bombast once we reached the Strauss-"inspired" portions of the evening. However, I seem to recall that Bayrakdarian suffered a bit from some of the same issues back when I first heard her, so I'm willing to give her a few years.

Finally, lest I leave the impression that it was the dancers who were bad, let me stress that it was the dancing that was ill-conceived. I've no doubt whatever that Kristen E. WIlliams, Candy Lawrence, and Kimberly Dobbins are fine dancers in their own right, but their rights were not considered by the choreographer and/or director.

Do you see how I slyly started that paragraph with "finally" even though I haven't even touched on Erwartung yet? That's because I think this is long enough for anyone's tastes. I'll address Erwartung in another, (probably) shorter entry.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Manly Men and Their Manifying Ways: Spider-Man 3

So it was more than a week before we got out to see Spider-Man 3, a far cry from our fanpersonish ways with Spidey 2. The delay was largely due to the fact that some people had the discourtesy to schedule their wedding on opening weekend. The Nerve!

ETA: There are spoilers, of course, and I've edited this and elaborated a bit since I first posted it.

As with a certain other sequel, the lag in seeing Spidey was an exercise in worry-making. I heard things like "This is the Phantom Menace entry, etc." With Pirates, the worry was pretty much for nought. I may have been the only one who was happy with it, but happy with it I was, particularly when viewing it in the Empire Strikes Back mindset.

With the Spider-Man franchise . . . well, I won't be needing my nought to store my worry. Spider-Man 3 is, by far, the weakest of the trilogy, although I won't be making any mean-spirited comparisons to certain episodes < 4 or even accusing Sam Raimi of directing King Arthur.

Because, you see, it's my fault that the third movie wasn't as good as it should have been, because I failed to worry about it. Spidey 2 was so good, I foolishly assumed that a groove had been hit. I forgot that under the rule hereinafter referred to as the Hot Fuzz Principle (I'd been about to write that under this principle I will begin worrying about Run, Fatboy Run immediately, but I've just noticed that it's directed by David Schwimmer and I'm contemplating abandoning all hope), I'd been really worried about the second movie. And so I offer my apology to all concerned. Should the actors, writers, and director choose to return for more films, I will worry like I've never worried before.

So what went wrong in Spider-Man 3? Although I rarely care so much, I thought the special fx were a success overall and a decided improvement over the already impressive work in the previous two movies. (For what it's worth, M concurred on that point, so I have testosterone back up.)

The work on the Venom suit was especially good, and I enjoyed the fact that the differences between Eddie Brock/Venom and Peter Parker/Venom were not just static visual differences, but entirely distinct ways in which each character interacts with the suit and the suit with the character. The clothes really do make the man.

The Sandman's fx were more mixed. Technically, they were great (again, in so far as I am able to judge such a thing). His origin scene, in particular, was done with care, attention to detail, and with concern that the technology serve the narrative. The fight in the armored car was a big hit with both the ZK and I, which makes me suspect that it's something that people are complaining about because of its "cartoony" nature (giant sledgehammer hand? Oh, talk dirty to us, baby!). But the final confrontation is pretty much "meh," technically impressive, maybe, but drawn out and tiresome.

I'm not sure I can point to any particular advances in the fx for the Webslinger himself, but they've been good from the start. We were happy to see web balls make their first appearance (um, web ball weapons, you understand). Some of the reflection shots were particularly impressive, and the mixed fx/live action with Peter emptying the sand from his "boots" (nice stirrup pants, by the way, Pete) was, I'm sure, a marvel.

The acting, for the most part, remained top notch. Tobey Maguire is less convincing as the conquering hero than he is as the boy rejecting his destiny, but I'm inclined to blame that on some over-the-top writing that was hell bent on 2-dimensionality. Kirsten Dunst has less to do in this movie than in probably any other, and again, the script has her harpy set to 11 through most of the movie. James Franco, surprisingly, gives his best performance in this movie once he's suffered his head injury. Before the bump on the noggin? PAINFUL. After he starts to recover his memory? IS IT IMPLACABLE VENGEANCE OR CHRONIC CONSTIPATION? But tabula rasa Harry Osborn? Quite charming in a dopey, Ferris-Bueller-cons-his-parents sort of way.

Like Dunst, J. K. Simmons is shamefully underused. His "big scene," which is very nearly the only scene he's in, is overly long and schticky. Furthermore, he's wasted acting up against just Ted Raimi and Elizabeth Banks in what is basically their only scene. What is it with current superhero movies and their complete lack of respect for hilarity in the newsroom?

On the flip side of supporting characters shoved in for the look of the thing, Rosemary Harris is either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, but I wouldn't try asking her which. Peter drops by to see her. She drops by to see Peter. She and Peter drop by to see the police together. And Mary Jane drops by to see Peter on Aunt May's orders, because she is too old for all this running around. In the first two movies Aunt May is home and moral bedrock. In Spidey 3, she's a channel he flips by occasionally. That may be for the best, because rather than offering Peter anything useful in the way of advice for living in this world, she spouts confusing platitudes. I might buy Uncle Ben not wanting us to live one minute with revenge in our hearts (although I don't blame Harris for not especially selling this clunky line), but a man has to be ready to put his wife before him all his life? Huh?

As for the newcomers, this movie shows the usual knack for casting. Thomas Haden Church is great as both Flint Marko and the Sandman for all 9 minutes we get to see him act before he inexplicably turns into a giant, mindless refugee from the set of The Scorpion King (seriously, just because he's giant and made of sand, must he roar wordlessly?).

I find Topher Grace irresistibly likable; however, I wasn't sure he'd make a whole lot of Eddie Brock, given that he was cast as this character with utter disregard for canon. As for Venom, although Grace is good at bringing the earnest, I didn't know how he'd do delivering the evil. In some sense, casting someone so nearly identical to Tobey Maguire in terms of slight build and a tendency to sheepish charm may have been one of the few subtle touches in a movie that sorely needed them.

If Eddie is the big dumb jock of the comics, he's a less interesting foil for Peter when it comes to the different manifestations of Venom. Eddie as Jock and Evil-er Venom can easily be read as "Quarterback bad, Wimpy Boy Next Door good" nerd writer/director wish fulfillment. But if both "before" pictures reflect different aspects of the boy next door, then the suit is merely reflecting different degrees, rather than types, of aggression and violence inherent in those boys. Of course, that choice is undermined by the fact that Eddie's character is written as such a dick, such a professional fraud, and a downright incipient stalker that it's questionable whether Peter has anything at all to learn from that reflection of himself.

As for the other newcomers, Bryce Dallas Howard was unrecognizable and appropriately perky as Gwen Stacy. She and Gwen deserve better than a slick, techno-thumping modeling shoot for . . . photocopiers. I wish I were making that up, but she's incredibly poorly integrated into the story. I'd like to comment on the addition of James Cromwell to the cast as Gwen's father and the police chief, but I think I looked down to grab a handful of popcorn and missed him.

So, as is unfortunately typical in comic book movies, the problem with Spider-Man 3 seems to come down to the script. In some ways it feels like Raimi was trying to wrangle a movie and a half down into a single capstone. In others, the characters and relationships are given such short shrift that I wonder if the brothers Raimi ought never to have taken up the pen. I don't want to place too much stock in the fact that it's Sam and Ivan who appear "above the cut" as writers in the IMDB entry for 3, whereas Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, appropriately, get the honor for the first two, but it's not an inappropriate symbol of the difference in script quality.

I'm sympathetic to the fact that Raimi was less eager to include Venom in the story than Sony and the fans were. I'm also sympathetic to fan and Sony enthusiasm for Venom. (Really, how far can you go in Peter's story without getting to Venom.) Doing a 2-villain film is always tricky (in fact, I'd forgotten until I skimmed my entry about 2 how pasted on Harry was in that), and 3 is really a 3-villain film if we take into account Harry's desultory stalking. Sadly, I'm not even sure that the script adds up to a single respectably fleshed out villain if we add them all together.

I noticed the split attention early on as we moved from Peter on top of the world to Mary Jane about to tumble off to Harry's regrettable intestinal problems to a quite well done prologue and origin story for the Sand Man. But then oh! We totally have to tell you about Eddie's great love for Gwen, with whom he's had coffee exactly once! And remember Jonah? Audiences love J. Jonah! And Aunt May! Gotta remind people that Peter's a real regular guy! With quirky, strange-looking neighbors! Oh, and why should Peter really really care about the Sand Man, other than the fact that he's terrorizing the city Spidey has sworn to protect? I know! The Sand Man is the one who really killed Uncle Ben!

There simply is no center, chewy, creamy, or rock solid, to the story. Even when the characters are on ground that should be familiar (e.g., the brief reprise of Peter and Harry's boyish games in the mansion), their interactions are completely alien. It's not just Aunt May who's dropping by. Much of the film's nearly 2.5 hours are spent on missed phone calls and aborted meetings. Major plot threads get yanked on, forming unsightly holes.

Does Mary Jane know everything about the Osborn/Goblin connection? It seems like she should, given that Peter's confessed his "killing" of Uncle Ben's not!killer to her, yet she's baffled by the strained relationship between Pete and Harry. So if she doesn't know about that, why is she not completely freaked the fuck out by Harry/New Goblin's forcing her to break up with Pete? Does she or anyone else remember that she was about to marry someone else in the last movie? When did she remember that she had, at best, a borderline abusive childhood and how on earth are we supposed to buy that Peter completely blows it off when she remembers that?

And, seriously, what is the Sand Man's particular beef with Spider-Man? Is Venom just that persuasive that Marko doesn't think to question it when Venom assures him that he wants Spider-Man dead? And at what point does Marko stop caring that his daughter is dying and decide to let himself be dust in the wind?

Most importantly, why should I care about any of this? Mary Jane's falling star could have been moving if she didn't go to Relationship Defcon 1 at her earliest convenience and at every opportunity. Peter's stint as Venom could have been genuinely challenging if they'd capitalized on the points I mentioned above with regard to Eddie's Venom, but also if they'd followed through on some of the less slapstick notions in his "Venom montage." Notably, when he first hits the streets with his new "fuck it" evil attitude, women who would have walked into him as Peter Park are suddenly giving him an interested second glance. Initially it looks as if this might be a deliberate mislead, as if this is only Peter's venmous perception of how women are reacting to him. This could have been contrasted with the women's perspective as they back away from him and give him wide berth later in the montage (i.e., Peter/Venom sees women as universally wanting a piece of him, women are universally running far and fast from his aggressive vibe). Instead, the backing away is motivated by his bizarre Disco Stu moves, and a tired, gratuitous accidental smack of Mary Jane is the extent to which misogyny and violence against women is explored.

In terms of emotional failures, though the worst crime is on the forgiveness front. There is little grace or value in Harry's ultimate forgiveness of and reconciliation with Peter, motivated as it is by a totally pasted on corroboration of Peter's version of Norman's death from the freaking butler. And although Maguire does his best with Peter's version of this scene with Marko, it doesn't feel like a major point of personal growth that he's able to forgive the death of the most important man in his life because it was an accident.

Lest I end on too harsh a note, I reiterate that there's a lot to enjoy. The fight scenes are excellent, the best of the three. The defeat of Venom, at least is worlds better than quenching a nuclear reaction in the Hudson. Tobey Maguire is professionally cute. Bruce Campbell is professionally funny. Topher Grace has literal and figurative acting chops. Thomas Haden Church is the saddest experimental particle physics mutant evar. Flawed as the story is, it does hit some lovely bittersweet notes about success and destiny, hard work and coincidence, earning and taking.

But boy, could the Raimis have used a script doctor.

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