October 12th, 2009

"Bright Star"

Sunday, Oct. 3rd, we caught a matinee of the new movie, "Bright Star,"
based upon the life of the Romantic poet, John Keats. Or, more
accurately, based on the last three years or so of his life.

The screenplay, by director Jane Campion, shows us the story from the
viewpoint of Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), Keats' neighbor, who becomes
attracted to, and eventually falls in love with the withdrawn poet,
played with low-key dignity by Ben Wishaw. The romance is a difficult
one; marriage is pretty much out of the question. Fanny is poor herself,
and Keats' only hope of prosperity lay in his poetry, which did not
enjoy success while he lived. (It may be hard for us to picture that
such poems as "The Eve of St. Agnes," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and "La
Belle Dame Sans Merci," should have met with such savage criticism, but
the Romantic movement was highly controversial in its time--.)
Furthermore, Keats' friend and supporter, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul
Schneider) sees Fanny as a distraction from Keats' work and tries to act
as a gatekeeper between them.

Since most people who know anything at all about Keats know that he died
at age 25 of the same "consumption" that claimed his mother and brother,
we know the story isn't going to end happily, but the fictionalized
version of the doomed romance seems both realistic and satisfying. Very
nice performances by the main couple, and very well supported by the
rest of the cast. (Edie Martin, in her first picture as Fanny's young
sister, Margaret, a.k.a. "Toots," threatens to steal scenes she's in
just because she is so darned cute, but Campion's direction deals with
it. Of course, Campion, who gave us "The Piano", has good experience at
getting the best from child actors.)

Costumes and settings are interesting and well done. (Fanny's supposedly
self-done costume designs are fun--.)

Low-keyed but engrossing and literate movie, very fine if the subject
matter interests you at all.

Anniversary Dinner

October 6th was our actual wedding anniversary, and we celebrated by
going to Sanford for dinner, which is our favorite spot for special
occasions. We were very pleased to see that the restaurant had a pretty
good house going for a Tuesday night.

We got a table in the back corner that we frequently get and began
studying the current menu. After a hard decision making process, Georgie
decided to have the Wild Coho Silver Salmon, and I had the Seared Sea
Scallops and Lobster. For dessert, Georgie ordered the Tart Cherry
Clafoutis with Morello Cherry Ice Cream, and I ordered the Caramelized
Plum and White Chocolate Bread Pudding with Malt Ice Cream in Plum
Broth. We don't usually order a whole bottle of wine, but Sanford is
having a special: twenty wines priced at twenty dollars a bottle for
this, their twentieth anniversary year. We chose a Spanish sparkling
rose, which was festive and went well with both entrees.

As usual, everything we had was delicious and perfectly prepared.
Georgie's salmon was moist, rich and tender. My scallops were seared
just right, and the piece of lobster tail was not either underdone or
cooked to rubberiness, both of which I have had at restaurants that
ought to know better. Desserts were exquisite as ever. The Cherry
Clafoutis is a perennial favorite with us and stood up to past
experience. The Bread Pudding was a new entry, which I also found
excellent. The Plum Broth, in particular, was just amazing.

Service was prompt, cheerful, and competent, as we expect. If you like
fine dining, and can afford it, Sanford is THE place to go in Milwaukee.

Metropolitan Opera HD Simulcast: Tosca

Saturday, October 10th, we went to the Marcus South Shore Cinema for the
High Definition simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera's controversial new
production of Puccini's "Tosca". This replaced the twenty-five year old
Franco Zefferelli production, which, while well-loved, was getting a bit

I had read reviews in the New York Times and agreed with some criticisms
and disagreed with others. Overall, we thought the presentation
excellent and enjoyed it very much. Karita Mattila (Tosca), Marcelo
Alvarez (Cavaradossi) and George Gagnidze (Scarpia) were all excellent
singers and in marvelous voice. In particular, we thought that Gagnidze,
who was singing Scarpia for only the second time, and the first time at
the Met, was a real find. A big man, he has a presence that can be
either comforting, as when he is luring Tosca into his trap, and
menacing. Stage direction in the first act allowed him to be more gently
physical than usual in seducing Tosca, cradling her head on his shoulder
as she weeps at Cavaradossi's imagined betrayal, and tenderly assisting
her off stage at her exit. The close-ups allowed by the HD broadcast
really came into their own as Scarpia then sings his blasphemous
counterpoint to the "Te Deum," showing us his face alternately gloating
and lustful as he imagines Tosca's lover on the gallows, and Tosca in
his arms. "Tosca, you make me forget God!" Indeed.

Matilla sang Tosca flawlessly. Her "Vissi d'Arte" in the second act was
as beautiful as any we could recall. We disagreed with the acting in
this scene in some ways, since she at first seems too much the helpless
victim, which is at odds with Tosca's fiery character as described.

Alvarez was a strong and vigorous Cavaradossi, one of the best we have
seen. Georgie compared him to a young Pavarotti.

In the new production, there were some things that were strikingly good,
and some disappointing. The sets are grim, dark, and stark. The brown
brick backdrop for the first act looks more like an abandoned factory
than a cathedral, and Scarpia's supposed rooms at the Farnese Palace
looked more like a 1950's Soviet-era office. Moving the last act from
the "battlements" of Castel San't Angelo to the water's edge looked good
enough, but required some extra contrivance in Tosca's "escape" that
worked well enough on video, but by some reports, not as well live. By
contrast, the costumes, which referred to the Napoleonic period, but not
in slavish detail, were elegant and handsome.

Scarpia gets to give free rein to his cruel and brutish side in the
critical second act, thus we did not appreciate the addition of three
prostitutes hovering around him as he dines. As he sings, he prefers to
take rather than get voluntarily, and probably would not stoop to
purchase--. Other bits are good: Scarpia lounges boredly on a couch and
stares at the ceiling during "Vissi d'Arte," as if saying "Are you done
yet?" expressing his indifference to Tosca's lament. Tosca hesitates
picking up the knife, but then conceals it with intent to use at the
crucial time instead of grabbing it impulsively at the last minute. When
Scarpia doesn't expire immediately, she stabs him a second time. One of
the things that drew a lot of criticism is that after killing Scarpia,
Tosca does not set candles and cross around his corpse (in fact, there
are none in the room); instead, we liked both the realism and the irony
in that she collapses on a couch, and, near fainting, cools herself with
the same fan Scarpia used to deceive her.

Scarpia's henchman, Spoletto, regrettably uncredited in the truncated
program were given, becomes a real character in this production, leering
at Tosca and mocking her tears, a sort of Renfield to Scarpia's Dracula.
We can clearly see that he wants to be Scarpia when he "grows up."

Another bit of the HD simulcasts we enjoy is the behind-the-scenes
imagery during the intermissions. It is fascinating to see the stage
crew taking down and putting up the huge sets. Cast interviews this time
were less successful than some, due to the fact that none of the
principals are native speakers of English (Gagnidze, in particular, has
very little) and all seemed a bit flustered to be interviewed just
coming off very intense scenes.

The orchestra, under direction of Joseph Colaneri, was up to the high
standards we expect. Stage direction by Luc Bondy, Set by Richard
Peduzzi, and costumes by Milena Canonero.

We are looking forward to future HD broadcasts, with "Les Contes
d'Hoffman" and "Der Rosenkavalier" in coming months.