Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fun In New York

New York was fun.

We got in late Thursday night, too late to have a normal dinner at a normal time, so we had a light supper of omelets, and went to bed not long after.

We stayed in Friday during the day, except for a couple of walks. All of us took a walk Friday morning after breakfast—even my nephew took a walk with us, although his Dad carried him most of that time—and my brothers and Josh and I took a second walk Friday afternoon while my nephew was taking his nap. Otherwise, we spent all day Friday playing with my nephew.

On Friday night, we went to see “August: Osage County”. All of us attended the play except my older brother, who has no interest at all in theater. He happily stayed home with my nephew that night.

We sort of enjoyed the play, not because it was any good, which it most certainly was not, but because it was sort of entertaining. “August: Osage County” is, fundamentally, nothing more than a Carol Burnett comedy skit about a dysfunctional family—but a comedy skit that goes terribly awry, turning incredibly nasty if not absolutely vicious a few minutes into the first act. There was an undeniable fascination in watching members of a seedy and sordid family go after each other tooth and nail, tearing at old wounds and opening new ones. However, the play itself is a formulaic commercial vehicle, created not by a genuine dramatist but by a purveyor of pre-packaged synthetic materials.

The author, Tracy Letts, has obviously spent a lifetime parked in front of his television set. Every single dramatic device, every single character, every single situation, every single line, derived purely from the swamp of present-day television. Indeed, Friday night’s audience instinctively recognized this, reacting to the play as if it were watching the tube at home. The audience chattered during the play, and laughed at inappropriate times and at inappropriate lines, and even interjected jeers and cheers when characters in the play were in discomfort or received a comeuppance.

A patina of seriousness hangs over “August: Osage County” because, lathered into this unpleasant and distasteful vat of television writing, playwright Letts has liberally inserted vast chunks of the family dramas of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, Edward Albee, Neil Simon, Paul Zindel and Sam Shepard. It is all startlingly derivative, dismaying in its lack of originality.

Ironically, these deficiencies happen to be the play’s saving grace. Because it is so derivative and so unoriginal, and because it is so heavily-beholden to television, the play is easily laughed off. If the play were more powerful and more true, and the characters more believable, it would be disturbing. As it is, it is just a contemporary commercial vehicle, very much of its time, an entertainment that theatergoers may happily forget as soon as they exit the theater door.

“August: Osage County” has been a modest commercial success during its limited Broadway run. Since it opened in November, it has played to between 50 and 70 per cent capacity, depending upon the week. It is scheduled to close in April.

On Saturday afternoon, we had four tickets for Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” at the Metropolitan Opera. Josh and I wanted to go, and so did my mother. However, we had trouble getting anyone else to use the fourth ticket. My father decided he would rather stay home and play with his grandson. My sister-in-law decided that she did not want to go—she was still soured, she said, by “August: Osage County” from the previous evening.

Josh and I and my mother were preparing to head out by ourselves, intending to give our fourth ticket to an opera-goer looking for a ticket outside the opera house, when my middle brother decided at the last minute that he would accompany us. I’m glad he did. He enjoyed the performance very much.

I like “Manon Lescaut”—I have always liked “Manon Lescaut”—and I enjoyed the performance, although it was hardly one for the ages.

The Met’s production of “Manon Lescaut” is from 1980. It is a realistic production, clunky and not handsome in the least. I had not seen it before, although my mother had seen the production many years ago. For this revival, the Met should have retired its own “Manon Lescaut” production and borrowed Bologna’s production.

Singing Manon was Karita Mattila. This was the fifth time I had heard Mattila. I first heard her in 2003, singing “Salome” at the Paris Opera. In 2005, I heard her sing Amelia in “Un Ballo In Maschera” at Covent Garden. Exactly a year ago, I heard her sing “Jenufa” at the Met. Last April, I heard her give a recital in Saint Paul.

Mattila does not have an Italianate voice, and Puccini’s music does not come naturally to her. She does not know how to shape the phrases convincingly, and she does not know how to take advantage of the emotional swells written into the vocal line. It was a game try for a singer with a white voice, but Manon is definitely not Mattila’s role.

Mattila creates a striking and compelling stage figure, but as an actress she simply goes through the motions. She is strictly a by-the-numbers stage actress. There was no depth to her Salome, Amelia or Jenufa, and there was no depth to her Manon, either, despite the fact that she was trying very, very hard. In fact, I thought that Mattila was trying TOO hard, to the point of discomfort. Her Manon did not convince me for one moment, and much of what she did onstage was simply irritating.

The success of a Puccini performance always rests with the orchestra and conductor, and Saturday’s performance would not have worked, even if a great Puccini singer like Renata Scotto in her prime had inhabited the name part, and this was because the orchestral score was so poorly handled.

For some reason, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra can no longer play Puccini. The orchestra simply cannot summon the right sound for Puccini. Puccini requires, above all, an orchestral sound of great opulence and radiance, even glamour. A luxurious orchestral fabric, streaked with melancholy, must be on hand, with transparent strings, ravishing and dark-colored winds, and golden-toned brass, weaving Puccini’s orchestral lines into sounds and moods that create nothing so much as unending rapture.

Antonio Pappano must have the aural image for Puccini in his brain, because Pappano can elicit the Puccini sound from practically any orchestra he conducts. Pappano’s Puccini in London is a miracle, the most miraculous I have ever heard. Daniele Gatti also can summon the Puccini sound at will.

However, no other conductor today is able to create the right sound for Puccini, not even the three leading Italian conductors of our day. Claudio Abbado finds Puccini’s music to be treacle, and he never performs it. Riccardo Muti DOES perform Puccini, albeit infrequently, but Muti is a rigid Puccini conductor, looking mainly for moments of power and brilliance in the scores, at the expense of tenderness and expression. The end result: Muti’s Puccini is brittle. Riccardo Chailly’s Puccini is a “work in progress”, mostly convincing, but Chailly is not an innate Puccini conductor like Pappano.

The sound James Levine summoned from the Met orchestra was a Richard Strauss sound. It was too plushly-upholstered for Puccini, heavy and thick when it should have been translucent, glowing and luminous. The strings lacked lightness and transparency and color, the winds lacked character and piquancy and bewitching timbres, and the brass . . .well, the brass sound would have been apt for a performance of Ein Heldenleben, perhaps.

Levine’s conducting was also inflexible, as it always is in Puccini. Puccini requires a firm pulse that can be stretched and contracted endlessly without ever losing the basic thread. Levine cannot do this, and he has never been able to do this. Levine’s Puccini is inelastic and aimless, always either too slow or too fast, and incapable of maintaining and carrying the grand emotional arcs of Puccini’s music. There is no ecstasy in Levine’s Puccini, no melancholy, no tension, no momentum, and no emotional payoff. Levine should remove Puccini from his repertory. Levine’s Puccini is no better today than it was in the early 1980’s, when EMI abruptly cancelled a prospective Levine Puccini series once the first unhappy results were captured on tape.

After the “Manon Lescaut” matinee, my brother took my mother home, while Josh and I remained in the area around Lincoln Center, since we had tickets for Saturday night’s performance of New York City Ballet. We killed time between the opera performance and the ballet performance by walking around the Lincoln Center area and getting coffee and a sandwich.

The New York City Ballet program we attended was devoted to three George Balanchine ballets. Specifically, the company presented three Balanchine ballets all choreographed to the music of Tchaikovsky.

My mother and my sister-in-law did not want to attend this performance because, over Memorial Day Weekend last year, they had attended a New York City Ballet performance featuring two of the same three works Josh and I saw Saturday night: “Mozartiana” and “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2”.

Back on May 29, 2007, I had written at some length about my mother’s and my sister-in-law’s visit to New York City Ballet over Memorial Day Weekend. As I wrote that day, my mother and my sister-in-law had attended the Sunday matinee performance of May 27. At the time, I knew they had enjoyed the performance very much, but I was unaware that Robert Gottlieb, America’s best active writer on dance (I believe Arlene Croce considers herself to be retired, mostly), was soon to describe that very same performance in The New York Observer as “a nearly perfect afternoon at City Ballet, certainly the best all-round program I’ve seen in years”.

Saturday night’s program was “Serenade”, “Mozartiana” and “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2”. It may or may not have been one of the best New York City Ballet performances in years, but it was definitely a great night in the theater.

I love Balanchine. For me, ballet IS Balanchine. I can hardly watch the work of any other choreographer without observing how inferior the choreography is to Balanchine. Sometimes, I actually wonder if I even like ballet—it often strikes me that I like Balanchine in particular very much, but that I like ballet in general very little.

I could watch “Serenade” every night, I sometimes think. It is one of Balanchine’s most fascinating works. It is full of event, of mystery, of emotion, of drama, of wonder. It is one of a handful of the greatest ballets ever created.

Josh loved “Serenade” from the moment the curtain rose on the breathtaking sight of seventeen ballerinas arranged in a unique diagonal formation, arms extended at the same unique angle, seemingly shading their eyes against the light. “Serenade” must have the single greatest opening tableaux in the entire ballet repertory.

Until “Serenade”, the only Balanchine work Josh had seen was “The Four Temperaments”. Exactly a year ago, we had attended a performance of New York City Ballet over Presidents’ Day Weekend 2007. As I wrote back on February 26, 2007, Josh did not like “The Four Temperaments”. At the time, I also wrote that I thought that Josh would learn to love Balanchine over time.

I think that time arrived Saturday night, when Josh saw “Serenade”. Josh gasped when the curtain rose, and I don’t think he breathed, even once, until the curtain came down. Josh said that “Serenade” was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

“Serenade” was Balanchine’s first ballet in America; “Mozartiana”, from almost fifty years later, was one of his last, and his very last major work.

Saturday night was the third time I had seen “Mozartiana”. I have never grown to love “Mozartiana” as I love “Serenade”. For me, “Mozartiana” lacks the emotional resonance and the sheer dance interest of “Serenade”. It strikes me as reticent, almost tentative, and not a major statement from the master (Balanchine was recovering from a serious illness when he created “Mozartiana”; he was to die less than two years later). Of course, I never saw Suzanne Farrell dance “Mozartiana”, and it is possible that the ballet cannot work without Farrell’s unique magical gifts. (Dance writers have noted that “Mozartiana” was Balanchine’s most deeply affecting gift to Farrell.) It is also possible that I merely need to keep seeing “Mozartiana” until I grow to love it.

“Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” is one of the grandest, most complex and most majestic of all Balanchine creations. Commentators have often asserted that the ballet was Balanchine’s personal tribute to the glory and grandeur of Imperial Russia.

Whether or not that assertion is true, “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” is a work of extraordinary richness and depth, with enough choreographic interest for a hundred stagings of “Swan Lake”. “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” is a work so great that, like the Hammerklavier Sonata, it may be well-nigh unperformanable. Just as the Beethoven work requires unimaginable intellectual depth coupled with the most demanding keyboard power and control, surely beyond the talents of mere mortals, so does “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” challenge the limits of mere human beings. It is possible that dancers will never be able to do the work justice.

However, “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” always creates an overwhelming impact in the theater, no matter how poorly it is danced, because it is such a great ballet, expertly constructed, melding moment-by-moment genius with a genius for the entirety of the whole. On Saturday night, I was in awe of the ballet all over again, just as I had been the first time I experienced it.

Josh and I found it interesting to compare, once again, the two primary theaters—as opposed to concert halls—at Lincoln Center. It is interesting, perhaps jarring, that one building is so good and one building is so bad.

Wallace Harrison’s Metropolitan Opera House is one of the great architectural horrors of the world, a vulgar, showy display of New York nouveau riche tendencies at their worst.

Although it opened in 1966, the Metropolitan Opera is a pure 1950’s building—owing to the long planning and construction schedules, all opera houses are instantly dated by ten years on the day they open—and it reeks of the fantasies of a schoolgirl. The Metropolitan Opera House would be perfect as the setting for a Ross Hunter production of a Lana Turner movie: the building is straight out of “Imitation Of Life”, and actually appears to have been decorated by the set designer for that ridiculous late-1950’s cornball weeper. Is there a more fake-ostentatious 20th-Century building anywhere?

I have always found the interiors of the Metropolitan Opera House to be especially appalling, if not offensive. Over-the-top red-and-gilded interiors have no place in a public building in a nation with a representative form of government.

Unlike me, Josh simply laughs at everything at the Metropolitan Opera. He finds the whole building to be hysterical more than offensive. The raising of the light fixtures as the lights go down, for instance, gives Josh a terminal case of the giggles.

Happily, the acoustics of the auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera are exceptional, the house’s one saving grace.

The acoustics are the worst feature of Philip Johnson’s New York State Theater, although this shortcoming cannot be attributed to Johnson himself. Erected as a dance theater, the New York State Theater had its original acoustics designed, intentionally, to muffle the sounds of footsteps on stage.

Otherwise, the auditorium itself is one of the 20th Century’s great theaters. It is handsome, even elegant, and yet simple and restrained, with clean lines and minimal decoration. Every time I visit the New York State Theater, I am impressed anew at Johnson’s work. It is a timeless theater auditorium.

The auditorium of the New York State Theater is modeled, in part, after the 1955 auditorium of the Hamburg State Opera, the first major new opera house to be built in Germany after the war and another timeless theater auditorium.

The New York State Theater shares with the Hamburg Opera the clean lines and clean angles that are themselves the distinguishing decorative features. Like Hamburg, the New York State Theater also eliminates theater aisles on the main floor—in both houses, audience members flood in from all sides, not down one or two central aisles originating at the rears of the auditoriums. In both theaters, it is amazing how quickly the auditoriums fill and empty.

We did nothing at all on Sunday. We stayed in all day, and ate lots of food, and played with my nephew.

He understands virtually everything everyone says now. Nothing puzzles him any more.

He also has become a virtual little chatterbox, talking to us nonstop as we play with him.

Now, when he is done playing with his toys, he puts them away himself. Of course, this is no big thing, because it simply involves putting his toys back in the toy box in the living room. Nevertheless, he has been taught to do this since Christmas.

He also enjoys storybooks now, much more than just a few months ago, especially storybooks with bright pictures of animals. He can easily sit through an entire children’s story now, which was not necessarily true as recently as Christmas. Like all children, he has his own particular favorites, which he likes to enjoy over and over and over.

He’s a very good eater. He gets a full breakfast every day now—cereal and fruit are no longer enough for him. He gets scrambled eggs and potatoes and toast for breakfast now, in addition to his cereal and fruit. He’s perfectly capable of feeding himself now, although he often uses his hands instead of a spoon or a fork.

He also watches now to make sure that others are not receiving foods he is not given, too. Other than tomatoes, which he does not like, he expects to be served the same foods everyone else eats. If he sees other foods on the table, he will always ask why he has not been given some, too. Generally, his mother will tell him that he will not like the other foods, and invariably she is proven right. When he asks, she will give him a small sample of such food, like cauliflower, and he will try it and make a face and spit it out. He is very funny.

This weekend my mother made all sorts of things he especially likes. She made her homemade chicken noodle soup, which is one of his favorites. She also made her homemade tomato cream soup, which he loves. She baked a pork loin, and she made creamed chicken and dumplings, two of his favorite meat dishes. She made tapioca, his favorite pudding. She also baked a seven-layer chocolate cake on Sunday afternoon. My nephew had gone berserk over this cake when my mother made one for Josh’s birthday last November, so she made one again on Sunday.

On Monday morning, we all went out to take a long walk, and we had lunch out. On Monday afternoon, we stayed in, and had an early dinner before we had to head for the airport.

As always, the weekend ended too soon.

Easter comes early this year, happily, so it will not be long before we get to see everyone again. We are looking forward to that. This year will be the first year my nephew is old enough to enjoy an Easter egg hunt. That should be lots of fun.


  1. Re: The Metropolitan Opera

    Not only are the aesthetics poor, but the materials are cheap. The structure looks low-budget. Even the veneers look low-budget. This is so inside and out.

    The auditorium is far too large. It is impossible to offer anything worthwhile there. It gets lost in the vastness.

    I was shocked the first time I went to the Met (2001). Everything about the performance was provincial. The stage design was provincial. The stage direction was provincial. The musical performance was provincial. The audience was provincial.

    What's this about Nagano getting the shove at Munich? I heard that Munich got a signed contract with Gatti first and notified Nagano second. That's a very clear insult.

    Never heard of "August: Osage County".

    I'm glad you fellows had a good visit in New York.


  2. Calvin:

    I was told last summer that Nagano's contract would not be renewed.

    To no one's surprise, Nagano is not working out in Munich.

    However, there's a long story there.

    Peter Jonas appointed Nagano before Jonas left, and Jonas should not have been allowed to appoint Nagano or anyone else as the incoming music director. That appointment should have been left to the new Intendant.

    Everyone in Munich says that Jonas did that on purpose, to insure that his successor would have his tenure hampered right off the bat.

    Munich was unable to find a good replacement for Jonas because no one good would take the job, knowing that he or she would be saddled with Nagano as music director.

    Munich wanted the Intendant from Zurich above all, but he flat out said "No" unless Nagano's appointment was rescinded.

    The Intendant from Dresden almost took the job, on condition that Nagano be allowed to conduct only one or two modernist works a season, and nothing more. However, Nagano let it be known that he wanted to conduct serious repertory, and the Intendant from Dresden backed out, too.

    Klaus Bachler comes from Vienna's Burg Theater. His only previous experience at an opera house was three years at Vienna's Volksoper. However, even Bachler knew that Nagano was not good enough for Munich and had to be ditched as soon as possible.

    It's news to me that Gatti is Nagano's successor. That would be a splendid appointment, but I had not heard that. That would be a very pleasant surprise.

    Munich has gone through a very bad period ever since Sawallisch stepped down. It would be nice to see that house restored to its former eminence. Jonas's thirteen years there verged on the disastrous.

    I suspect that "August: Osage County" will get a production in London.

    Just yesterday, it was announced that the show will change theaters in April and begin an open-ended run.

    The play was actually sort of enjoyable, in a very cheesy sort of way. However, I would never want to see it again. It is very peculiarly "of its time", stuffed with interminable cliches, a virtual catalog of every single dogma of our day.


  3. I am genuinely glad that you and Joshua and your entire family enjoyed fully what New York has to offer.


    P.S. I thought Levine was pretty good. But then again, I do not know a thing about conducting.

  4. As you probably know, J.R., I have never been much of a James Levine fan.

    Giuseppe Sinopoli always conducted "Manon Lescaut" very well, by the way, as does Danielle Gatti.

    "Manon Lescaut" was the Puccini opera Sinopoli did best. He almost owned that score.

    I miss him.

  5. It's funny, I'm listening to a 1983recording of Nabucco with Ghena D. and Placido D., conducted by Sinopoli.

    It is thrilling.

  6. Can you believe, J.R., that I have that "Nabucco" recording?

    I believe it is generally considered to be the best "Nabucco" by far.

    Have a good weekend.


  7. You, too, Andrew.

    Have a restful, fun-filled, wonderful weekend!

    I am beginning to fall in love with that recording, big time.

    Track nos. 9 and 17 give me the chills. That trio is superb. Dimitrova is beyond words.


  8. I think that "Nabucco" recording was the recording that established Sinopoli's reputation (and Dimitrova's, too). It was the beginning of what was to become a very distinguished recording career.

    Have you heard the Sinopoli "Rigoletto"? I have not heard it, but I am curious, because some have praised that recording to the skies.

    I think it is available on a Philips two-fer (without libretto), but it is hard for me to keep up, given the constant state of flux in the recording industry.

    I would be curious if you have any thoughts about it.

  9. No, Andrew, I haven't heard that recording.

    Am curious, too.

    I shall check it out.

  10. By the way, J.R., I almost bought that particular "Rigoletto" recording, for a ridiculous price, when the local Tower outlet was having its final clearance sale in December 2006.

    However, Josh would not let me buy it. He told me that I was getting carried away, trying to buy too much stuff, and he said that I could only buy five discs, and no more.

    I started to cry, right there in the store. Josh must have felt sorry for me, because he said that I could buy eight discs, but no more than eight in all.

    So I was able to buy eight double-disc opera recordings that cost something like 46 dollars in all, if I recall correctly.

    It was the greatest sale ever.

    Sinopoli's "Rigoletto" did not make the final cut.

  11. Lol.

    I also have the tendency to be an impulsive shopper when it comes to buying CDs.

    Sometimes, I find myself obsessed and consumed with a particular disc that I would buy a second one.
    You know, just in case the first one gets scratches. Scratches from incessant playing.

    My latest purchase is this Nabucco. On sale, too. 30% off, or something like that.

  12. Well, I truly wasn't crying, but apparently I WAS getting carried away.

    I had assembled a stack of discs almost two feet high when Josh said to me "Now, get serious. Pick out the five you want the most, and get those."

    I was only able to get the stack down to eight, but Josh kindly allowed me to get eight instead of five. Otherwise we would have been in the store all night while I hemmed and hawed, trying to make my final decision.

  13. I would skip the Sinopoli "Rigoletto" recording if I were you. He does all kinds of odd things with tempos. Some tempos are far too fast. Some tempos are far too slow. The Bonynge and Giulini sets are better.

    My wife and I saw the Met "Manon Lescaut" production back in 1986. The production looked old even then. Leona Mitchell was the Manon. She was very fine. I forget who the conductor was. Whoever it was, I recall the conductor being tepid.