March 12th, 2006

St. Peter and the Vatican, Milwaukee Public Museum

We made time to see the traveling exhibit, "St. Peter and the Vatican," which is stopping at the financially troubled Milwaukee Public Museum for its last show in the US. We hope it will help the Museum out, since it's being very popular, but it is also obviously a very expensive show to house. The exhibit consists of more than 300 pieces, including pieces of artwork and sculpture that remain from the churches and basilicas that were eventually replaced by the monumental St. Peter's, accompanied by a detailed and interesting timeline on the ups and downs of the Papacy, the Vatican, and the great basilica. There are, as you might expect, reliquaries, monstrances, and jewel-encrusted chalices that frame the mental image of holy treasures, but many other less usual things of great significance. We were most struck by items like an old, worn altar cloth, embroidered by humble nuns, in satin stitch of such fineness that to the casual eye the pattern might have been taken for woven in or printed on. We also always seem to find, in these exhibits, some odd thing you never thought might have existed. Who knew, for example, that altar vessels would include such a thing as an ecclesiastical drinking straw? Yes, a gilt metal tube with a mouth shield that makes it look rather like a mad-scientist's pipette crosses with a trombone mouthpiece. How is it used? I have no idea, but it was fun to see, as were the magnificent vestments, crooks, thrones, and other regalia.

"Daughter of the Regiment", Florentine Opera

Last Sunday, we we took in the second production in this season of the Florentine Opera of Milwaukee, "The Daughter of the Regiment," (La Fille du Regiment) by Gaetano Donizetti. This comic opera is one of Donizetti's extensive repetoire that is still regularly performed. (At one time, Donizetti had operas running at all the major Paris Opera houses simultaneously, much tot he disgust of some French composera and critics--). The very light plot of this charming story is set in the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Years ago, the members of the heroic and undefeated 21st Regiment of Grenadiers rescued an orphaned infant girl from a battlefield. They raised little Marie as their own child, such that she literally has hundreds of agressive, prtective, and heavily armed adoptive fathers. As the opera opens, Marie has grown to young womanhood and serves as one of the Regiments victuallers, which means she runs their mobile canteen. The Regiment is engaged in a campaign against the Austrians, and she and a Tyrolean lad, Tonio, have fallen in love. Tonio's encroachment is an outrage to the soldiers, who consider that no one but a Grenadier is good enough for their Marie. They are near to executing him as a "spy" when he saves his life and prospects of romance by enlisting in the regiment. However, fate intervenes when Marie, identifed by some documents she had with her when found, is claimed by her only living blood relation, the Marquise of Birkenfeld, and taken away to be "finished" as a noblewoman and have a proper marriage found for her. Tonio would follow her, but is marched off by the unhappy Grenadiers to serve out the terms of his enlistment. The second act opens two years later, with Marie still uncomfortable as a noble scion, longing for the free and merry life with the regiment, and engaged to be married into an old and inbred German ducal family. This, of course, is when the Regiment passes through, Tonio having risen to officer's rank though courage in battle--.

The singing in this production was very fine, with soprano Georgia Jarman and tenor Gran Wilson as Marie and Tonio well supported by the rest of the cast, chorus, and orchestra. The stage direction was rather uninspired in the first act, with most of the action being of the "come down front and center, stand there, and sing" type. This was almost overcompensated for in the second act, as the Marquise, her manservant, and the Duke and his family get quite a bit more frenetic. It had been a long time since we had seen this opera, and I had forgotten how demanding the part of Marie can be, since, in the first half of the second act, the singer has to shift gears from genuine sentimental singing, to a parody of "art song" to regimental ditties and back again. Jarman did it all, and very well indeed.

Night Watch

This week's movie outing was to Oriental Theater to see "Night Watch" (Nochnoi Dozor), a 2004 film out of Russia, and, reputedly, one of the highest grossing recent Russian films. It is being compared, with some justification, to both "Underworld" and "The Matrix," and to my mind is better than either. The premise, indeed, is rather similar to "Underworld," and we start off with a Medieval period battle scene--. However, instead of vampires vs. werewolves, there are only "Others"--people born of, or born as, normal humans who have powers of witchcraft, shapeshifting or vampirical nature (others are implied to exist) but whether "good" or "evil" depends on individual tendnecies, much as with normals. The battle ends in truce with terms that include that any other may freely choose to belong to the Light or Dark. Each side will have enforcers that police the treaty terms, the "Night Watch" to keep tabs on the Dark side, and a "Day Watch" to patrol the Light.

The story proper begins in 1992, when Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky) seeks out a reputed witch in order to help him regain his lost love. She convinces him of ther powers and lures him into a dark pact that will involve him taking on his soul the sin of causing his wife's illegitmate child to miscarry. She's well into the ritual when they are "busted" by the Night Watch. The power backlash causes Anton's innate "otherness" to manifest, and he is confronted with the choice they all must make, Light or Dark?

Cut then, to 2004. Anton has become a "seer" and agent of the Night Watch, and living a pretty low-down and lonely existence. Perhaps one of the best things about this movie is that not only are all the supernaturals not beautiful, they don't all live wealthy and glamorous lifestyles. Most of them are living the same poor, gritty and run-down lives as the other Russians. All of the Others can enhance powers by drinking blood: one of the differences between the Light and Dark is that the Light do it only when necessary, the Dark do it any time they can get away with it. In order to power up for a surveillance job, Anton literally has to borrow a cup of blood from his vampire neighbor across the hall. The stake-out (NPI) goes bad when he gets separated from his back-up team, and has to kill in self-defence. The Day watch alleges that he used excessive force, which sets off a complicated plot interweaving the darksider's revenge, a potentially apocalytic curse, and the forthcoming end of the truce and ultimate struggle between Light and Dark that will be played out in two sequels, to be called "Day Watch" (Dnevnoy Dozor) and "Dusk Watch."

The film is atmospherically grim, dark, gritty, and bloody, although not excessively bloody. Special effects are minimal and tasteful, with the manifestations of Anton's "seeing" ability being the most spectacular. A fight scene is more likely to be overlain with images of past battles or spiritual side-effects than "bullet-time" or flying. Khabvensky carries the film well, being realistically depressed and beaten about, which makes his few moments of elation all the more affecting. He does a good job of portraying a very ordinary man who has been dragged into a new reality.

I didn't detect any major plot holes, although the curse, which builds up to a pretty nasty and intense pitch, is ultimately disposed of rather easily, but not unreasonably so, given how we learn it started,

Good fun, of a very noir fashion. I look forward to the second and third parts. Apparently number 2 is in the can, and has been released in Europe (it may appear over here as "Night Watch 2) but ther is no US release date set as yet.