Saturday, July 31, 2004

"It is very good for a man to talk about what he does not understand; as long as he understands that he does not understand it."
-- G.K. Chesterton

So continues the summer opera commentary. Agrippina was another excellent production. The singers were all astounding, especially the two unexpected countertenors. Especially impressive to me were Christine Goerke (soprano) as Agrippina, Kristine Jepson (mezzo-soprano, I suppose no castrati were available) as Nero, and Christophe Dumaux (countertenor) as Otho. With all the countertenors and women-substituting-for-castrati the opera was the opposite of Simon Boccanegra, at least in voicing. The orchestra was also much different from Simon Boccanegra. It was almost entirely composed of strings, including an oversized-lute-looking-thing called a theorbo, two trumpets (I think), at least one recorder, and a harpsichord.

Handel is good in that his music sounds as hard as it is, but is still delightful to hear when well done. He treats the voice as if it were a string instrument, demanding very impressive, long runs and delicate trills everywhere. The listener is impressed and delighted regardless of his knowledge of music, kind of like vocal fireworks. The obvious level of difficulty is gratifying to the singer, because those runs are hard, and everyone knows the work you put into it. On the other hand, some music (Mozart comes to mind) is extremely hard to sing well, but is written in such a way that the difficulty is not as obvious; the listener doesn't often realize the effort it has taken to master a piece unless he knows music well, or sees the score, or has tried to sing the piece. Mozart is particularly hard on sopranos in that he never lets you settle into one range of the voice, octave (and more than one octave) jumps are common, and you sing a measure or two in the low D-G range only to jump up to a high G or A for a gratuitous trill, then back down to middle C in the space of a measure. But since Mozart is a genius the listener's first reaction is not, "Wow, that was a huge jump, that's impressive," but perhaps, "This is a fun piece."

But back to Agrippina. The singing was excellent, lots of vocal fireworks, but the opera was over three hours long. It was also colder than I expected and I was wishing midway through the first act I had worn heavier clothes. Also, I was also tired, and the production didn't start until 9:00, all of which made it difficult to follow all the tedious intrigue, plots and betrayals that comprised the opera. But unlike Simon Boccanegra, none of the intrigue or betrayal mattered too much; Agrippina is a comedy and all the plotting was merely an excuse for arias, some slapstick comedy and way too much groping. I've always found that one has to be in a certain frame of mind to really enjoy comedy, and that frame of mind is not aided by being cold and tired. So probably because of the external factors, the plot and characters seemed a bit flat to me. I found it hard to care much about any of them or keep straight who was lying to whom and why. Not that we're supposed to care too much. I would agree with Odious that the second act could have been left out, but there were some real musical gems there, including Ottone's lament on his miserable fortune, and Agrippina's amazing, "My thoughts torment me," aria at the end of the act (I don't have the libretto in front of me).

Another odd thing about the opera was the cheeriness of Handel's music (think Messiah) juxtaposed with the creepiness of the situations and characters. For example, during one aria Agrippina is trying to convince her husband that she has nothing in her heart for him but love and faithfulness (she has been scheming against him throughout the whole opera). Although she is lying through her teeth the music is perfectly serious, supporting her in her earnest deception. I guess I'm too used to Mozart or later composers who would give at least a hint of her deception in the music.

But all in all, a great performance. I might even see it again if the opportunity presents itself.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Life has been extremely good lately. For starters, it's apricot season and we have more fresh apricots than we know what to do with. A tree down the street is dropping fruit and we got another bag from a co-worker. So far we've made apricot ice cream, an apricot gallette (kind of a cross between a pie and a tart) and I made apricot muffins the other day, which were a huge success at work. Dried apricots were tried today but they turned out very small and sour (kind of like one of our cats, except we don't try to eat her. . . much). And we still have a large container in the fridge and a huge basket on the counter. Maybe more muffins are in order. We might try canning or jelly-making if we get ambitious enough, but ambition has not been a buzzword in the house lately. For those of you interested in our various culinary endeavors, check out Milk and Honey, a blog recently started my roommate and fellow cook (especially Cooking with Jack, which details a wonderful dinner we fixed last weekend).

It's also been an operatic day. We're now lazily getting ready to go to a production of Handel's Agrippina, which I've heard good things about. And I like Handel, so it should be a good night all around. I finally listened to the first disc of Wagner's Parsifal this afternoon, which has, unfortunately, been in service as a paperweight on my desk for several weeks. I can't say it did much for me, especially after all the rave reviews I've heard of it. Listening to music, really listening to it, and not just using it as background noise, is hard for me to do with only me and the CD player. But I wanted to give Wagner a chance, since several people whose taste and judgment I trust like him very much. And to be fair the only exposure I've had to Wagner has been Tristan und Isolde at the end of a school year, after spending the semester analyzing Bach and Mozart. That went something like, "There's no chord structure here, it's all about sex, let's go play softball." Probably not the best approach. As an interesting observation on Wagner, however, I've noticed that, despite Nietzsche's whining about Wagner being all about emotion and therefore feminine and only for women, all the Wagner fans I've known have been men, for whatever that's worth.

But it seems the shower is free and we had attended to leave in ten minutes so this post will now come to an abrupt end.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Here's a site I've just stumbled upon that does the internet proud: 
You can find online copies of classic fiction, poetry, short stories and such. I took a quick look and they have everything from Dickens to Tolstoy to Mark Twain to Gogol to Yeats and T.S. Elliot. Granted, reading a classic on a computer screen isn't quite the same as having a wonderfully bound, illustrated edition you can curl up with on the couch, but still, access to a very impressive library that's never closed and no overdue fines! Check it out.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

It's summer and in Santa Fe that means it's opera season! Now, for starters, let me say I don't understand opera. I like it, but I really don't know what I'm talking about, so be warned. But nonetheless, this year's season promises to be very good, and I hope to go to at least one performance of each of the operas, and I intend to write something, no matter how ill-informed, about each of them. So there, all disclaimers aside.

The season opened with Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, which I saw last Wednesday. I knew nothing about the opera, except that there was only one female role and I had heard it described as "a bunch of baritones shouting at each other," but I enjoyed it immensely. The singing and acting were excellent. There was only one female role, a soprano (of course) but one the male side there were more than just baritones. There was at least one tenor, the young, idealistic lover (of course) at least one true bass, whose low notes were powerful enough to be heard clearly over the orchestra while facing upstage (they were miked, but still, it was impressive). The complex story defies simple synopsis (here's the SFO summary) but it's got all the elements of grand tragedy: passionate love, illegitimate children, mistaken identity, political intrigue and betrayal.  The staging and costumes were extremely well done. I was so engrossed in the performance as a whole I didn't notice much about the music itself (I'm not sure if the music is meant to be separated from the performance). 

I agree with Odious that the opera is not about power, whatever the folks at SFO want us to believe; political power and turmoil only provide the background for the real story, in this case a story about (not surprisingly) love, vengeance and forgiveness. Interestingly, one of the driving forces of the plot is a character (Maria) who dies in the first few minutes of the opera, whom we never see, and who never sings a note. Yet the rest of the opera is a reaction to her life and death. Her lover, Boccanegra, pursues political power to make himself worthy of her, and dies twenty-five years later calling her name. Her father spends those twenty-five years mourning her death and seeking vengeance on Boccanegra, whom he sees as the cause of his daughter's death and dishonor.

Watching the performance, I had some possible insights on how one is to approach opera, something which puzzles me. The way not to approach it, at any rate, is in some dry, strictly intellectual way, as if one was going to a required lecture, or, worse yet, trying to "get something" from it. Like a good many other things, such as poetry, the first step to getting anything out of it is to enjoy it. And one of the keys to enjoying it, I think, is to sit back and be willing to take it at its own pace. If an aria lasts ten minutes and doesn't really advance the plot much you have to be willing to forget about the plot, the time, and the dessert sitting in your car and for those 10 minutes go along with whatever exalted emotion the character happens to be expressing. It's similar to the soliliquies in Shakespeare; the action moves not forward, but downward, deeper. You can't enjoy Hamlet if you just want to get to the end of the story as soon as possible because Hamlet isn't really about the story, the story is just the excuse for Hamlet to meander about until the story (and his meandering) comes to an abrupt end.

One of the things about opera that seems to alienate many people is the unashamed, obvious, sustained, exaggerated emotion that seems to comprise so much of it. There's a tendency to ridicule or dismiss such overt emotional displays, or, at least, be uncomfortable with them. I have a theory that this might be because we're constantly bombarded with cheap sentimentalism via radio, T.V. and all other forms of pop culture. In trying to avoid the cheap emotion one reacts badly to any display of emotion. Perhaps opera gives voice to those important, beautiful or terrible moments in our lives that, in real life, slip by all too quickly. In real life, life keeps going, giving little time for reflection or contemplation; in opera the action pauses while a character contemplates or revels in a situation or emotion, giving articulate expression to those moments which, in real life, are often mumbled and stumbled through, tongue-tied and confused. 

Well, it's just the beginning of the season. Plenty more time (hopefully) to ponder these things as the season progresses.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

As can be imagined, living with Kate from The Little Bookroom is any bibliophile's dream. The amount of books and bookshelves in this house is astounding. The variety of books is no less astounding. Sitting on the desk in front of me now is The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, a medieval Icelandic saga, Analysis of Shaolin Chin Na (I have no idea), Pavel Florensky's The Pillar and Ground of Truth and The Wagner Operas, by Ernest Newman. And that's just a small sampling. The shelves are lined with everything from Plato to the Chronicles of Narnia to Conan and the Spider Goddess to Jane Austen to Diseases of Cattle and How to Recognize Shrubs. This extremely impressive collection by far dwarfs mine, which seems so prodigious when I have to move it. I love it. It's like being given a spoon in Whole Foods and being told, "Take what you want, don't worry about money." A summer of unbridled literary nibbling. Yummy.
For starters, I've been nibbling steadily of the above-mentioned Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. I idly picked it up while waiting on a slow internet connection and was hooked. The style is refreshingly straightforward and uncomplicated, but that's not to say uninteresting. After reading it I can see how Tolkien's style was influenced by these Northern sagas. Unfortunately, King Hrolf is much too short, but I'm pretty sure I can find a few more Icelandic sagas in the house (and how many houses can one say that about?). The juxtaposition of the no-frills, almost deadpan narration and the outrageous deeds being narrated is quite delightful. For example, an Elfin woman visits King Helgi, who is very depressed because his wife has left him because she found out she was really his daughter (he didn't know either). The woman appears to be an ugly old hag but the king gives her shelter anyway and thus breaks a curse that was laid upon her and she turns out to be, of course, indescribably beautiful:
   She said, "Now I will leave. . . " "No," said the king," there is no possibility that you may leave so soon. We will not part that way. I will arrange a quick wedding for us, because you please me well."
  She said, "You are the one to make the decision, my lord." And so that night they slept together. . . After this, she went away.
  The king was now somewhat happier than before. [I would hope so!]
And speaking of weddings, this is another great little speech, again by King Helgi, but this time to his wife/daughter's mother:
  "The situation is this: I want us to drink to our marriage this evening. There are enough people here for such a celebration and tonight we will share one bed." [Well, since we've got all the people here, why not? I mean, ladies, if that doesn't melt your heart, what will?]
And speaking of melting your heart, I've found a copy of C.S. Lewis's The Allegory of Love, one of the few books of his I have not read but have wanted to for quite a while. I've only just started this one, but it promises to be very interesting. It attempts to give an account of the emergence of the medieval European idea of courtly love. According to Lewis this new conception of love was radically different from the classical ideas of love as expressed in Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, St. Paul and the authors of earlier medieval sagas, such as Beowulf and the Song of Roland. The consequences of this revolution are still with us today, he says, serving as the "food both of modern sentimentality and modern cynicism." Haven't gotten too much further than that, but like I said, it looks very promising.   
But what am I doing writing here when there are so many books to read? Back to the nibbling!
Oh, and, according to King Hrolf, such a thing as berserkers (warriors whose name says it all)really did exist! Very cool!

Thursday, July 15, 2004

So much to write, so little time.

Well, I'm back, finally, and things appear to have returned to whatever state of normality I'm accustomed too. First, a long overdue review of a very enjoyable book: Eagle Dreams by Steve Bodio. I read the book (much) earlier this year and, like several of my fellow bloggers, was very impressed. After attending a book signing of Steve's in Albuquerque I was determined to finally get this post up.

But back to Eagle Dreams. It's a delightful cross between a kind of love affair and an adventure story that takes the author and reader literally to the other side of the world in pursuit of an elusive image that captured the imagination of the author as a boy. The other side of the world, in this case, is Mongolia and the image is a man on horseback hunting with a golden eagle perched on his arm. I can't say I'd given much thought to either Mongolia or the Kazakh nomads who hunt with eagles before reading this book, but after reading it I've also become a bit enamored with this fascinating corner of the world where camels and pick up trucks are both found in the streets, where the diet seems to consist mostly of vodka and meat and where a home remedy for pneumonia involves wearing horse meat for a day. Besides taking the reader to a land few have ever thought of, much less experienced, the book is just fun to read. The style is informal without rambling and very funny; I found myself laughing out loud more than once. Quite amusing is the resourceful use the Mongolians have found for Lenin's writings and the meaning of the author's name, "Steve" in Mongolian. But as I read the book, the thing that struck me most was that it was an account of the pursuit of a dream. Dream is not exactly the best word, especially with all it's Hallmark-greeting-card-connotations, but, hey, it's in the title so it's not too far-fetched. What I mean is a sense of wonder and adventure that sees the world as something both exciting and mysterious. The picture of the man and the eagle was the beginning of an adventure that has in part defined the author's life. The book is an account of that adventure and an invitation to the rest of us to be a part of that adventure, even if that is only the few hours vicarious pleasure of reading the book.

So, expand your horizons and go get the book. You'll probably have to special order it here, or better yet, get a small local bookstore (if you're lucky enough to have one nearby) to order it for you. More detailed reviews by my fellow bloggers are here, here, and here with links to other cool things. Happy reading!

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Still digging . . . the end might be in sight. . .much to the chagrin of my newly adopted cats, who spend their time hiding in the chaos and plotting to take over the world.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Moving is not at all a pleasant experience. More to come after I finish digging myself out from piles of random crap and chaos. . .