November 26th, 2007

Vienna weekend, part 2.

The Saturday evening Bardic coincidentally fell on the same weekend as the opening of the Florentine Opera’s season, with “The Merry Widow,” by Franz Lehar. We had a our usual tickets for the Sunday matinee, and got to the Performing Arts Center in good time after a delicious lunch at “Chez Jacques,” a newish restaurant on the South Side that specializes in light French fare: crepes, sandwiches, and charcutrie. (I have had their deluxe pate’ plate, and it was splendid.)

This production was one of the most gorgeous the Florentine has mounted recently. The sets and costumes were rented from the Utah Symphony & Opera and looked smashing. The sets were handsome and evocative, and the costumes were particularly nice. In the first act, which is the Embassy Ball celebrating the birthday of the monarch of Pontevedra, the men are all in formal dress, white tie with decorations, and all the women are in wonderfully elegant black and white ensembles, except for Hanna, the “Merry Widow,” whose outfit is entirely a glorious red. For the second act, a party in the garden of Hanna’s house, the cast wears variations of “Pontevedran national costume,” with emphasis on shades of amethyst and aquamarine. For the third act, Hanna’s engagement celebration, the men are back to formal wear, with the scene enlivened by women’s more colorful evening gowns and the Maxim’s chorus girls.

The plot is a classic operetta theme, used as well in “Czardas Princess” and others: Nobleman (“Count Danilo”, Philip Cutlip) loves commoner woman (“Hanna Glawari”, Diane Alexander) but cannot marry her due to class barriers. She goes off and has experiences that make her an acceptable mate, in Hanna’s case, marrying and then outliving Pontevedra’s richest man. Danilo would not marry her for her money, but is commanded to win her by royal decree, since allowing her fortune to go out of Pontevedra if she took a new foreign husband would bankrupt the country. Since the story is set in Paris, Danilo not only has to overcome his own reticence, but outwit the swarm of impoverished French noblemen who lack his scruples. Being France, there is also a farcical subplot involving the wives of the Embassy staff, notably the Ambassador’s spouse, Valencienne (Heather Buck), and some of these same Frenchmen.

The story works out with a lot of good humor, lush music, and (in this case) adequate dancing. There was, to our ears, flawless singing by all the cast, well supported by the orchestra under the direction of Mark D. Flint, who is a new guest conductor for the Florentine. Kudos to stage director Albert Sherman for a very enjoyable and sparkling show.

Milwaukee Symphony, Beethoven, Bernstein, Sibelius

On Saturday night the 24th, we had tickets for the Milwaukee Symphony, the program consisting of Beethoven’s 8th Symphony; Bernstein’s Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp, and Percussion (After Plato’s “Symposium,”); and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2.

The MSO was in very fine form, under the leadership of guest conductor Joseph Silverstein. Silverstein is not a very “showy” conductor: his presence on the podium is very restrained. Nevertheless, it was evident that he and the orchestra had excellent rapport, and everyone was thoroughly enjoying themselves.

The Beethoven was the first piece. The 8th is a favorite of both Georgie and myself, and we were very pleased with the reading given. Maestro Silverstein took the tempi, especially in the first movement, just a bit slower than seems fashionable, at least in recent recordings, which was a very good thing given that it allowed the listeners to appreciate how the infectious rhythms interlink and move with one another. The orchestra played beautifully, achieving a resonant, ringing tone that made one surprised the instrumentation called for only two trumpets and two horns in the winds. (The piece is unusually violin-centric, with all of the major themes beginning in that section.)

Bernstein’s Serenade is in six movements, each one related to a section of Plato’s “Symposium,” which consists of a discussion among the philosopher Socrates and his companions about the nature of love. After the precision and energy of the 8th Symphony, I found it hard to retain focus on the less structured music of the Serenade. Dating from 1954, the piece shows us an early form of a structure that later became cliché in “Modern” music: a movement consists of a very meandering, almost meditative theme, punctuated with bouts of tense percussive music. The Symphony’s Concertmaster, Frank Almond, took the soloist duties, and played with great skill and beautiful tone throughout, flawlessly as far as I could tell.

The Sibelius second symphony occupies a middle ground between the two prior pieces: more fluid than Beethoven, more florid than Bernstein. This is scored for a big, Romantic (though not Wagnerian) orchestra, and we had a rich, glorious sound washing over us from the surging beginning theme to the wondrously beautiful final movement. Particularly in the Allegro Moderato, it seemed the very rise and fall of the bows as the theme flowed from section to section evoked the surging of the sea, or a pine forest in a rushing wind. It was a very exhilarating performance, and Georgie was actually speechless for a few minutes after the conclusion.

This performance and others we have seen lately make me realize how fortunate we are here in Milwaukee. Our Opera and Orchestra are first class, and we have lots of excellent theatre and other music as well. We have a beautiful art museum, and if the permanent collection is a bit provincial, they have been getting in some very fine traveling exhibits. We have a fine Zoo, and our natural history museum is still a very nice facility if they can straighten out their funding mess. We still have beautiful safe parks, although they are threatened by out County Executive’s bullheaded approach to taxation. (He has sent a “no tax increase” budget to the County Board every year he has been in office, regardless of cost increases, in a transparent program to make the Board the “bad guys” for raising taxes however slightly.) At least from an aesthetic perspective, Milwaukee is a good place to live.

We also have tickets for the Symphony’s program next weekend, which includes Beethoven’s 9th, which we are greatly looking forward to.

"Beowulf", the movie

On Sunday afternoon the 25th, we went out the Ridge cinema in New Berlin to see “Beowulf,” because it was being shown there in Digital 3-D. I am pleased to report that the process actually works really well. The glasses you are given seem to be a variant of the old-style red-blue 3D system, and I wasn’t sure how that would work with color, but it seems to be just fine. The depth of field effects are quite effective although seldom startling. Now if they would just 1) not assume everyone has either normal vision or contact lenses: modern 3D glasses have stiff plastic frames that are not quite big enough to fit over eyeglasses with real comfort. The old-time cardboard ones I could actually wear under my regular glasses. And, 2) forget they have the 3D process and just shoot the movie using “normal” angles instead of ones intended to make the 3D “pop”, which are frequently just odd, distracting, or obviously using forced perspective, which more distract from than enhance the experience. Fortunately only a few are really ludicrous—the Beowulf’s-eye-view of a Danish spear pointed at his nose comes to mind. The motion-capture animation also works very well, particularly for the main male characters like Beowulf and his men, where we get down to craggy detail. The process does tend to integrate the monsters like Grendel and the dragon more seamlessly into the milieu, although they are still somewhat less real than the humans and the landscape. Grendel’s very grotesquery may work against the effect: he is a gigantic troll, at once slimy, scaly, and apparently rotting: compared with The Lord of the Ring’s “Gollum” he seems a generation or two less refined, effects wise. Surprisingly, the women come off worst. Robin Wright Penn as Queen Wealthow ends up looking like “Queen Lillian” from the “Shrek” movies, and the other women are not any more detailed (except for Angelina Jolie, of whom more later--). In the opening sequence in the hall of Heorot, she looks like a 2-D cutout standing in the 3-D hall. She seems to have been given short-shrift in the motion-capture department as well. In a couple of scenes she plays a lap harp to entertain Beowulf and his men. The fingers of her hand only strike the strings randomly, like a “cartoon” harper, instead of plucking them properly. Part of the problem, I think, is that it is surprisingly hard to draw beautiful women showing anything but the most obvious expression, since adding “character lines” and shading tends to make them look either aged or sinister. It CAN be done, but requires very skillful use of shade and shape, and either the process or the animators were not quite up to the challenge. Frankly, we liked what was done with the story. I’ve been very interested to note that some sources one might have expected to be censorious, have greeted the new adaptation with pleasure, notably a Classics professor from Marquette University cited in the local paper, and the reviewer for “Mallorn”, a Tolkien studies journal. The professor noted that the story was undoubtedly changed when it was first set down in writing hundreds of years after the tale was first told, and translations from the Old English always change it somewhat, so further evolution did not bother him. (Seamus Haney’s well-regarded recent poetic translation is quite “free’--) The enthusiastic review by Henry Gee for “Mallorn” can be found here (warning: contains spoilers): We thought the script did nice things with the portrayal of the Danes and the Geats (Beowulf and his men): they are rowdy, raucous, and rough. Beowulf, for all that he is a ‘genuine’ hero, does not mind embellishing his feats, or allowing them to be embellished for him, a character flaw that comes back to haunt him later. An example: In the battle with Grendel, Beowulf severs the monster’s arm by smashing it between the mead-hall’s massive door and the stone frame; a mighty feat enough, but when his surviving men gleefully recount to the Danes that he tore the arm off with his “bare hands” (as in the story that has come down to us), Beowulf does not contradict them, and that becomes the version he tells himself. Very nice portrayals overall by Ray Winstone as a very human Beowulf, Anthony Hopkins as the gross and decadent King Hrothgar, John Malkovich as his creepy and sarcastic advisor Unferth, and Robin Wright Penn as Wealthow. Grendel is so grotesque it’s hard to appreciate that there’s a man (Crispin Glover) animating him, but the monster is both terrifying and touching. (The creature's heavy brows and protruding lower jaw appear to be a homange to the late Rondo Hatton--.) The sound of human merriment hurts him, triggering murderous rampages during which he is a force of nature. Talking with his mother, it appears he has a child-like mentality, explaining his actions to her as “the men harmed me.” (Grendel speaks Old English, so it may be a bit hard to tell what he is saying--). When Beowulf calls him “demon”, he replies, “No demon I, I has a soul.” Mortally wounded and weeping he drags himself back to his mother’s arms and names Beowulf as his killer (which may be a word to the wise—boast your own boasts, but when you tell the monster who is killing him, do like Ulysses and say “Noman”--.) Angelina Jolie as the monster’s mother, talks a mixture of Old and Modern English to her son, and Modern (albeit with an unplaceable accent) to Beowulf when he comes to call in response to her revenge raid on his men. Jolie’s distinctive features are rendered lovingly in her animated incarnation. This seems to have been within the animator’s skill level since, when we do see her, her expressions range mostly from serene, to seductive, to mildly mocking which her built-in lip quirk seems made for. Given the intense violence of the monster battle scenes, there’s surprisingly little gore, although it would be a mistake to say the movie is suitable for children. The effect of Grendel or the dragon is somewhat enhanced by disorienting camera angles intended to get the most of the 3D process. You don’t just have the cliché arrows and axes coming out of the screen at you, you get to follow the trajectory of a flying body as it gets batted from the floor and comes to rest hanging from the chandelier, for example. As I said, we liked it. The changes in the plot add some depth to the characters that is lacking in the original straight monster-slaying epic and does give that feeling of “the way things might have really been.” Recommended. Well, the lj-cut doesn't seem to be working right now, so I'll try adding the juicy bits to anothe entry when it comes back online--.