Monday, February 16, 2009

Two Days In New York

Our two days in New York passed by in a flash.

We stayed in Newark.

There was a method behind our madness.

My parents flew into Newark International, and their incoming flight was scheduled to arrive a few minutes before 6:00 p.m. Friday night. Consequently, we were fearful of scheduling anything for Friday night, owing to the possibility of flight delays or the likelihood of ground delays getting into Manhattan on a Friday evening.

As a result, we decided it would be more efficient for all of us simply to book a hotel in Newark, and right at the airport.

The advantage for my parents was that they could get off the plane, take the hotel’s shuttle straight to the hotel, check in and be settled into their room only minutes after landing in Newark.

The advantage for Josh and me, driving down from Boston, was that we could give a wide berth to Manhattan (avoiding the logjam of New York traffic), drive straight to the hotel, park the car and check in.

Our plan was for all of us to arrive at the hotel at roughly the same time, and our plan worked to perfection.

The airport hotel was fine. It was a Marriott, recently refurbished, and we were all happy with the hotel and happy with our rooms.

My father had planned to take us to dinner Friday night at one of the hotel’s restaurants, JW Steakhouse, the Marriott Corporation’s internal line of upscale steakhouses exclusively sited in select Marriott properties, but Josh and I convinced my parents to try something else.

A couple of weeks ago, Josh and I had dined at a Ruby Tuesday with friends, and we had tried some new Ruby Tuesday menu offerings that night and had liked them. Josh and I convinced my parents that they would be perfectly happy eating at a Ruby Tuesday, and at one-quarter the price of a JW Steakhouse.

At Ruby Tuesday, we all ordered the same things: a bowl of clam chowder for a soup, a crab cake for an appetizer, and lobster-spinach ravioli for an entrée. We skipped salad and dessert.

The food was excellent, and my parents were entirely happy with their meal. The clam chowder was cream-based, like New England Clam Chowder, but much better than the New England variety. The crab cake was lump crab, not ground crab, and of very high quality. The lobster-spinach ravioli was amazingly good. I don’t think anyone would have been happier had we dined at the hotel’s JW Steakhouse—except for Bill Marriott, of course.

Other than leaving the hotel for dinner, we did nothing on Friday night. We stayed in and talked and caught up on things.

One of the advantages of staying at a Marriott is that the breakfasts are exceptional. We ate breakfast at the hotel Saturday morning, and the substantial breakfast took care of us for lunch, too.

We did not leave for Manhattan until 11:00 a.m., which nonetheless gave us plenty of time to get to the Metropolitan Opera House for the 1:00 p.m. matinee.

The “Eugene Onegin” performance was not good.

Much of the blame must be placed upon the conductor, Jiri Belohlavek, who offered a low-energy account of the score. He appeared to be bored by the music, and bored by the singers. He merely went through the motions of leading a performance. There was no passion, no soul and no commitment to his “Onegin”, and no style and no brilliance, either. He probably should drop the work from his repertory.

The Tatiana was Karita Mattila. It must be said that Mattila is far too old for this part. She looks like the middle-aged woman she is and her voice sounds like the voice of a middle-aged woman. It was a mistake for the Metropolitan Opera to engage her for the part of a young girl who, even at opera’s end, is still only in her early twenties.

Mattila is a very enthusiastic stage performer, but she overacts horribly. Much of her performance on Saturday was laughable—all afternoon she offered, nonstop, the kind of ridiculous posturing normally seen only in Pola Negri films. Worst of all were Mattila’s preposterous body contortions in her parting scene with Onegin—they had to be seen to be believed.

Mattila must spend her off-hours studying classics from the silent screen, because every Mattila performance I have ever attended has been marred, to greater or lesser degree, by her opulent array of silent-screen gestures and poses. I honestly believe she must create and practice her ridiculous assortment of gestures and poses before a mirror, like some schoolgirl.

Thomas Hampson sang Onegin, and I think it is time for Hampson to drop this role. Hampson is getting a little long-in-the-tooth, too, and his voice no longer has the ease of production or the richness and color required for Onegin (which his voice still possessed as recently as 2002). Hampson is an intelligent and admirable artist, but I do not think that the role of Onegin displays him to advantage any longer.

Hampson, alas, also attended the “posturing” school of acting. Watching Hampson and Mattila go at it together on Saturday afternoon was not a pretty sight.

The last time I saw Hampson and Mattila on the same stage was in 2005, when the two engaged in a ludicrous posturing match on the stage of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. At the time, the singers were portraying Renato and Amelia in Verdi’s “Un Ballo In Maschera”.

That “Un Ballo In Maschera” had been a new production, with an extensive rehearsal period, but the director, Mario Martone, guiding a naturalistic production, clearly had been unable to do anything about ratcheting down Hampson’s and Mattila’s amateur theatrics (but Martone nevertheless had evoked a genuine performance from the generally-wooden Marcelo Alvarez). I still remember, fondly, four years after the fact, the hokey series of stage confrontations between Hampson and Mattila, and I still laugh when I think of what may only be described as a bull-and-matador game Hampson and Mattila enacted during the closing moments of Act II.

My middle brother and I had attended the fifth of six Covent Garden performances of that new “Ballo” in 2005. The production had been universally laughed at in London, roundly panned and immediately written off by London critics. The production proved to be a serious disappointment at the box office as well.

When my brother and I returned to the U.S., we learned from the idiotic Anthony Tommasini, writing in The New York Times, that:

Opera buffs all over London have been abuzz about the company's new production of Verdi's “Ballo in Maschera”. Having caught the final performance in the run on Saturday night, I can understand why.

There was no one in London—least of all opera buffs—“abuzz” about that 2005 Royal Opera House “Ballo”. Despite an all-star cast, the run of only six performances did not even generate healthy ticket revenues. My brother and I bought tickets to the performance we attended at 3:00 p.m. on the day of the performance, and we had our choice of seats at the ticket window. Indeed, the cashier at The Royal Opera House who served us said that sales for the new Covent Garden “Ballo” had been extremely disappointing, having practically collapsed once the first round of reviews appeared in print.

I write about that 2005 London “Ballo” because there is something about Karita Mattila that gets under some peoples’ skins, and one of the London critics nailed what it is about Mattila that ultimately makes her so unconvincing onstage. Anna Picard, in London’s The Independent, wrote:

Though Mattila's expression of anguished ecstasy verges on self-parody, there is a compelling candour to her singing. I remain unconvinced that hers is a Verdian voice — too Nordic, too oxygenated, too heroic — but she moves it magnificently. And if in "Morrò, ma prima in grazia" she appears to be more interested in persuading her audience that she is desperate to see her son again before she dies than she is in persuading her husband, so be it. With Mattila emoting for two, Hampson is free to do what he does best: the self-contained smoulder.

Mattila’s amateur dramatics make my skin crawl—and her emoting REALLY gets under Josh’s skin.

After Saturday’s “Eugene Onegin”, Josh declared that he had seen and heard enough of Mattila, and that he had no wish ever again to attend another performance in which she appeared.

I have no problem with that.

We caught Mattila’s February 2007 “Jenufa”, her February 2008 “Manon Lescaut”, her October 2008 “Salome” and her February 2009 “Eugene Onegin”, all at the Metropolitan. None of those performances was particularly effective, and all of those performances were way over the top in one way or another.

We have never deliberately sought out Mattila in performance. Mattila has simply been on the roster in operas we wanted to hear during periods in which we happened to be in New York. I would never go out of my way to hear Mattila, but it seems to have been difficult to avoid her over the past decade, as I have seen and heard her in the theater and in the concert hall in New York, London, Paris, Vienna and Saint Paul.

Prior to our New York trip, we all had had a lengthy discussion whether to attend “Eugene Onegin” or “La Rondine” at the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday.

None of us wanted to hear two operas on the same day, so a matinee “Onegin” followed by an evening “Rondine” was never on the cards.

Ultimately, “Onegin” was chosen over “Rondine”, and this was because “Onegin” is a much richer and much more beautiful work than “Rondine”.

We probably made the right decision, but the “Eugene Onegin” performance was not one for the ages by any means. The performance has put me off the opera for a while, I believe.

After the opera, we had almost four hours to kill before Saturday night’s performance by New York City Ballet at The New York State Theater.

We remained in the Lincoln Center area, occupying our time by having a coffee, visiting Barnes And Noble, and having dinner at an Italian restaurant.

The New York City Ballet program was a very audience-friendly one. It featured three George Balanchine ballets: “Swan Lake”; “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”; and “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue”. A fourth ballet was also on the program, a setting of Prokofiev’s “Romeo And Juliet” balcony scene, choreographed by Sean Lavery, assistant to Peter Martins and a former dancer with the company.

Balanchine’s recension of “Swan Lake” is based upon Lev Ivanov’s choreography from Act II, supplemented by Balanchine’s own choreography danced to music from Act IV as well as music from Tchaikovsky’s opera, “Undine”. Balanchine’s “Swan Lake” is a 35-minute distillation of the evening-length work, using only the lakeside scenes, and it is very effective.

“The Steadfast Tin Soldier” is a pas de deux based upon the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, danced to music of Bizet (“Jeux d’Enfants”). It is a slight, charming work.

“Slaughter On Tenth Avenue” is the slightly-altered and –enlarged finale to the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical, “On Your Toes”. The musical padding is by Hershy Kay. The ballet is a popular program-closer, but I have always thought that it goes on too long.

Except for the Lavery, we had seen these ballets many, many times, but all were new for Josh. We enjoyed the program immensely—and, at the end of the evening, Josh announced that he was ready to give “The Four Temperaments” another try! (Josh has seen Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” twice, and did not like it on either occasion.)

We rose early Sunday morning, because we wanted to be finished with breakfast and checked out of our hotel by 9:15 a.m.

On our morning agenda was a visit to The Newark Museum, which none of us had ever visited.

We arrived as the museum opened for the day, and we spent two hours viewing the American Art Galleries—seventeen rooms displaying 300 American paintings, sculptures and decorative arts, from the Colonial Period to the present. The artworks and the displays were very fine, and well worth a visit.

We ate a light lunch at the museum café before we headed back to Lincoln Center, where we had tickets for the matinee performance of “South Pacific” at The Vivian Beaumont Theater.

“South Pacific” has been running for almost a year, and the show continues to sell out. I’m not sure why, because we thought it was a very long and very painful afternoon.

The book is gruesome—between musical numbers, we sat, comatose, waiting, even praying, for the next song to arrive as soon as possible—and the overriding theme of the show is insufferably preachy.

I suspect that the production has deteriorated since the show opened, because the performances were ossified. “South Pacific” received glowing notices from the New York press on opening night, but it must be impossible for actors to keep their performances fresh over a long run, because I thought that the performances of the lead actors were deadly.

I have seen the film version of “South Pacific” and, bad as that movie is, it is far superior to the current Broadway revival. This revival has put me off “South Pacific” for life. I never want to see the show again.

As soon as “South Pacific” ended, we left for Newark, where we had to drop my parents at the airport.

It’s too bad that Josh has class today, because we all might have enjoyed a third day in New York. Two days did not seem to be enough. It seemed that my parents flew in, and immediately had to fly out again. Nevertheless, I think they enjoyed their weekend. They got to see a few things, even though we made no effort to run ourselves ragged for 48 hours, and I believe they found their weekend to be rewarding.

Staying in Newark actually worked out well. The daily drive into Manhattan was not bad on Saturday or Sunday, and we had as good a time as we would have had by staying in Manhattan, with the added benefit that staying at the airport was very efficient for my parents.

This weekend was the final weekend at my parents’ house for my older brother and his family. They are scheduled to settle on their new house this week, and they plan to move into their new home over the coming weekend, more or less.

Their furniture and household effects remain in storage, and they will not make arrangement to have their household effects delivered until settlement has been effectuated (in case settlement falls through for some reason).

As soon as settlement has occurred, they will instantly buy a few items of furniture they have already selected and which may be delivered the very next day. This will enable them to move into their new house without delay, and without having to wait for their things in storage to be delivered.

My parents and my brother will be of great assistance to them, not only next weekend but over the six months or so it will take them to arrange their new home to their liking.

It will be a big adjustment for them, going from a New York-size apartment to a full-size family house.

They are going to furnish their new house very slowly. Once the new furniture and the New York furniture is in place, they will take their time supplementing that furniture with spare furniture from my parents’ house and furniture from my grandmother’s house, which has been unused since 2001.

Ultimately, my brother wants the furniture Josh and I now have in our living room in Boston. He wants the furniture for his new den. He likes our desk-computer unit, he likes our bookcases, and he likes our sofa and end tables and lamps—he says they will all be perfect for the room he has selected to make into a home office.

If he still wants those things in two years, they are his.

Josh and I will get to see the new house before long, because we have decided to go home for a long weekend in March. We picked the first of two weekends coinciding with Josh’s Spring Break. We shall be in Minneapolis from Friday night until Monday night of that weekend, and I very much look forward to it.

My niece is doing very well. She is now two months old. She smiles now, and looks at things and people, and responds to sounds very acutely. She’s a little charmer, and I can’t wait to see her again.

Her brother is happy as a lark, what with parents, grandparents, an uncle and a dog to keep him entertained. He runs around the house and yard all day, at speeds of up to one-hundred miles an hour, with one or more people and animals trying to keep up with him as he goes. He’s quite a little guy.

I fear that my parents’ dog will not know what to do once my brother and his family move into their new home. For the last three months, he has had my nephew as his constant playmate, and extra people in the house to monitor, and a baby to keep watch over. He’s going to lose all that in the next few days.

My mother says he will be fine. She says that he gets so tuckered out, trying to keep up with my nephew, that he now takes his own long afternoon nap while my nephew takes his afternoon nap. Further, there will be so much back-and-forth between my parents and my brother’s family that the dog will probably not experience a significant change in routine. Instead, he will simply have a second household over which to assert authority and in which to insist that everything be arranged to his satisfaction and pleasure.

Routine is the watchword for Josh and me for the next five weeks. We hope to catch a performance of Boston Ballet’s upcoming production of Balanchine’s full-length “Jewels” early next month, but otherwise we have nothing on our schedules until we go home.


  1. Sorry to hear that the Onegin performance was not up to your liking. I saw Matilla in the HD broadcast of Salome earlier this year and had the same concern about casting her as a very young woman. She overacted with relish and had lots of fun getting the severed head's fake blood all over herself towards the end, but I did feel that a younger Salome might have been in order.

  2. Mattila should be singing Wagner. The music of Wagner is the perfect match for her gifts. She really is not suited to anything else.