Monday, August 09, 2004

I just finished reading a really, really weird book. I’d read a few of Iris Murdoch’s novels previously, which were good but mostly unmemorable–The Nice and the Good, Under the Net, and I think one other. The Unicorn is really not in the same category. The best genre to which I can assign it is that of the Gothic novel, only in the 1960's instead of the 1800's. I’m not sure how much I want to describe it, partly because I still have to think about the sort of symbolism and metaphor of the situation and figure out exactly what happened, but I’ll do my best. The "unicorn" is a woman imprisoned by her husband in an incredibly remote house on the Scottish (I believe) coast, who has in turn imprisoned the group of people who care for her, keeping them under a mysterious spell. They are all enchanted by her in various ways, yet at the end of the book, when at last the spell is broken, it’s as if nothing happened. The mystery is shaken off, stowed beneath layers of normality, and they return to their respective lives. I don’t know why they’re not more changed or affected by the whole affair (which lasted seven years!), or if that’s the point... Hmm. More thinking is necessary.

"I have become unreal. You have made me unreal by thinking about me so much. You made me into an object of contemplation. Just like this landscape. I have made it unreal by endlessly looking at it instead of entering it."
–Iris Murdoch, The Unicorn

Perhaps, because it was so unreal, it was easier to leave behind–but if the characters haven’t learned anything, then what has the reader learned? I don’t usually analyze books so closely, but I really am baffled by this novel. I don’t know why it was written.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

So I suppose it’s now my turn to say a word about the opera, since Odious and Jack have written extensive reviews with which I mostly disagree. Odious and I just spent a month of Wednesdays seeing Beatrice and Benedict (Berlioz), Simon Boccanegra (Verdi), Agrippina (Handel), and Don Giovanni (Mozart), which I liked in that order. I am not an opera buff, and have no desire to be one–what I enjoy most is the experience of going to the opera, dressing up and drinking champagne in the parking lot and feeling sophisticated. However, this summer I have also enjoyed the operas themselves, with the exception of, I am sorry to say, Don Giovanni. That was the only opera on the program that I had any experience with, and that was limited to listening to the CD a few times while cleaning the house. Of course I knew the basic story, but little about the music or the motivations of the characters. Unfortunately Odious for some reason was unaware of my ignorance, and thus got rather shirty with me for asking him to explain his comments about the opera (assuming I was playing devil’s advocate). Once we finally got that worked out, we were able to have several good conversations about it that helped me understand why I didn’t like the production.

While the singers were excellent, and the music of course beyond reproach (I would have to agree that it may be the best opera ever written), the producers chose an interpretation that took away nearly all of the impact and depth of the story, to the point where it stopped making sense because the music and the acting were so contradictory. It’s one of the few operas where the music actually has plot–like most Mozart, the characters are expressed through the music. For instance, Don Giovanni’s seduction takes place within the music, as the key in which he sings takes over the keys of his victims until they are completely under his sway. Because of this, it’s impossible to change the genre of the opera (from tragedy to comedy, basically) without making it ridiculous. Odious’s observation, which I thought quite apt, was that perhaps the producers felt that the story was morally unfashionable, and that Giovanni as a bad man who refuses to repent and so is sent to Hell (which, incidentally, is a bad place) would not be taken seriously. Besides having a problem with people who try to adapt morality to current social trends, I have to say the alternative failed miserably.

All the characters were acted shallowly and farcically until their conflicting emotions inherent in the music and lyrics made no sense and the story began to lose focus. Leporello was played as a clownish rascal who bumbled about the stage and grabbed large handfuls of female flesh, which was vaguely amusing until I started paying attention to the creepiness of his position. He’s a man who hangs outside of bedrooms while his master seduces women, and keeps records of each seduction in a little notebook. That’s not exactly normal! And it’s certainly not funny, at least in my opinion. Donna Elvira was disappointing, too, as a conniving bitch who stormed about screaming at everyone, so that when she began falling back in love with Giovanni it came completely out of the blue. Giovanni himself was more effective, since it would be hard for him to come across as anything but suave and persuasive, but because no one thought of him as evil, he wasn’t scary. To me, a man whose power over women is nearly absolute, and who has no compassion or sense of wrong, is terrifying, and this Giovanni was merely alarming.

I wish I could have liked it better, since Mozart is so wonderful, but frankly I got bored and irritated. At least it made Simon Boccanegra a welcome surprise, especially since Odious had implied that I probably wouldn’t like it. On the contrary, while the music wasn’t as exciting as Mozart, the story was much more fast-paced and compelling because, being Verdi, there was no other possible interpretation. Verdi defies irony, and this opera is perfectly straightforward. The singers were excellent, especially Boccanegra–he had a quiet dignity that propelled the entire production. I didn’t like some of the things Amelia did with her voice, though Jack found it effective and impressive vocal control. To me it sounded inconsistent–she would go from waveringly soft to rich and full within a single song, which reminded me too much of Jewel in her first album.

Well, I hate to spend so little time on an opera I enjoyed, after writing paragraphs on one I disliked, but it was simply an excellent opera that I found completely entertaining and have very few criticisms of! I have more to criticize in the opera we saw next–Beatrice and Benedict–but I also enjoyed it even more. It was not at all what I expected, being more like a musical than an opera (probably why I liked it!), with the songs interspersed with the Shakespearean dialogue. Fortunately this worked very well, thanks to terrific actors as well as singers. The gentleman who played Benedict, while not able to rival Kenneth Branagh, was a wonderful comic actor with a perfect sense of timing, and he had a beautiful rich voice, so that watching him was pure delight. In particular, the scene at the beginning with him and Claudio and Don Pedro, where they talk about marriage, was highly amusing and very well sung–they managed to stay steady while running about the stage and getting into mock fights. Beatrice, on the night we attended, was sung by an apprentice rather than the regular singer, and it was unfortunately obvious. She sang well, though too softly, but was clearly not comfortable in the role and didn’t quite understand Beatrice’s motivations. To be fair, however, Berlioz’s adaptation sets her up as a more tragic character–one who is still bitter about being jilted by Benedict. As the opera program noted, much of the "ado" is left out of the opera, focusing instead on the relationship between Beatrice and Benedict, so I would have liked to see the regular singer for a fuller experience of the opera.

Don Pedro tried to take over the antic role that is rightly Benedict’s, instead of maintaining a certain amount of dignity that sets him apart from the other characters, but his fine voice almost made up for it. Claudio was just what a Claudio should be–mildly handsome, earnest, and nondescript, and Hero was about the same. Berlioz’s made-up character, Somarone, who takes the place of Dogberry, was very funny, although a half-hearted striptease during the party scene fell flat as a pancake.

I nearly forgot to mention the set, which sported a rippling yellow floor, slanting purple trees that I at first mistook for large quill pens, and, in the entire first act, several rows of red-clad dormitory beds (we were relieved when these finally disappeared for the second act). Odious liked the antic, Dr. Seuss-like quality it lent the opera, but I found it distracting and unnecessary.

Another pleasant thing about Beatrice and Benedict was that it was quite short–only 2 ½ hours with intermission. The next opera, Agrippina, lacked that appealing feature–3 acts, 2 intermissions, 3 ½ hours. Thank goodness it was Handel! Even so, the second act could have been cut almost entirely, as the plot lagged dreadfully and few of the songs were, in my opinion, terrifically interesting. However, I realized as we left that I liked it as much as Boccanegra, to Odious’s surprise. It was the only opera where the music engaged me more than the story (which was good, because the story was pretty silly)–even if Handel recycled all his music, it’s still Handel! Anyway, he wrote this opera at age 24, so it’s actually the original of more familiar pieces (when the overture started, I thought automatically, "oh, the Messiah!"), and I enjoyed every note.

It was also a treat to hear two fantastic countertenors–one was so good it took the whole first act for me to determine whether a man or a woman was singing. In fact, one of the male roles was sung by a woman, as is traditional now because of the lack of castrati. In Handel’s time, the oddity of castrati was what drew audiences to opera–more like a freak show than anything else. Still, I have to admit that the countertenors really made this opera worthwhile–it’s such an unearthly, androgynous sound that somehow suits Handel’s music perfectly.

I do, however, have to agree with Jack that it was somewhat disconcerting to hear such beautiful music and voices attached to such scheming, disloyal characters! The story and the music were so disconnected, especially, as Odious says, for those of us spoiled by Mozart. And yet at the same time it was effective, as an illustration of how easily people can be deceived (not, obviously, by 10-decibel asides, but by sweet voices and flattering words) and how often we don’t want to see what’s right under our noses.

The last opera on the program is La Sonambula, by Bellini, which is coming up in a few weeks. It’s already sold-out, so it should be good–we’ll see how it ranks with the rest!

Monday, August 02, 2004

Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me... Odious is sitting on the bed, all dressed up to go out for my birthday dinner, while I lounge at the computer in shorts and t-shirt. It's too hot to get fancy yet! Anyway, I wanted to post briefly, since I've read several good books in the past week or so but haven't had time to write anything about them.

After a long time of believing Wallace Stegner to be a writer of westerns (don't ask me why), I finally picked up Crossing to Safety a year or so ago and absolutely loved it right off. I had Angle of Repose sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time before an acquaintance urged me to read it, but I didn't get into it as immediately as I did the other. That's partly because I was reading it in little bits and never got a good bite to savor, but also it started out a little slow. After a while, though, I became thoroughly engrossed, and greatly enjoyed the story. It's about Lyman Ward, a disabled 60-year-old man in 1970 who's writing a novel about his grandparents. His grandfather was a mining engineer and his grandmother an elegant society girl, so their marriage was quite a struggle in the rough West of the 1800's, detailed in a vast series of letters and other documents to be sorted through. The book switches back and forth between Lyman's life and excerpts from the novel, which is more or less historically accurate and a study of the marriage. I found it really interesting, though it was hard not to be irritated with the marital mistakes so clear from my omniscient view as a reader. Oliver and Susan Ward were astoundingly different people, and had a very difficult time relating to each other; yet even in its tragedy it's a beautiful story. However, I was most disappointed by the end of the book. I won't give anything away, since other than that it was a terrific novel, one to really sink your teeth into, but I hate cop-out endings like that.