November 30th, 2009

Florentine Opera: Tosca

It may seem strange to some to take in two different performances of the same opera within a month or so, but we do sometimes like to compare and contrast differences. Also, there's still something ineffable about being there live, no matter how good a broadcast performance may be.

Therefore, we took in the Florentine Opera's new production of "Tosca" on Sunday afternoon the 15th at the Marcus Center in Milwaukee. The performance was in many ways every bit as good, and in some ways better than, the recent Metropolitan Opera simulcast.

The fad this year for "Tosca" seems to be for minimal set productions. We winced when we read in the paper that the Florentine's was a "curiously bare stage" recalling the ugly sets the Met used, but were relieved that this one was not as bad. The major set piece was a huge rear-projection screen that served as Cavaradossi's painting in Act I, a map behind Scarpia's desk in Act II, and a sky view of a statue representing the battlments of Castel San't Angelo in Act III. The Florentine used a raked stage, and had much of the stage actions moving on a diagonal--for example, from up right to down left--which made the staging seem more dynamic than the Met's very rectilinear presentation.

The principal singers, Cynthia Lawrence as Tosca, Renzo Zulian as Cavaradossi, and Todd Thomas as Scarpia were all very fine and satisfying to listen to, and the orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Joseph Rescigno, supported them perfectly.

The nuances of stage direction made this a more classically styled show than the Met's naturalistic effort. There was a lot of melodramatic posing and gesturing, particularly in the second act conflicts between Tosca and Scarpia, but which work well for the piece. Tosca fought back with more spirit, which we approved, and watching Lawrence and Thomas circle, approach, menace, and withdraw, was very good. Thomas' Scarpia was a uniformed, buttoned-up villain of the old school, for whom "cruelty" seems to be the primary motivation rather than lust.

Again, a very enjoyable and gratifying outing. We have noticed that the last couple of seasons the Florentine has done minimal sets for two of the three productions, and then blown out the set budget on the third. We are hoping that that will be this spring's "Rigoletto," but we shal see.


This year, we did something we've never done before--went to a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner.

Cliche-wise, of course, this is something only sad people do: lonely singles with no friends in a new city, people who can't or don't cook, or people who can't or don't cook, or people who've been routed by a last-minute kitchen disaster.

We are none of these, but this year the family decided to scatter at the last minute. One couple off to Arizona, one deciding to stay home for a change, etc. I was just about to investigate joining the Lytheria gang (which is a pleasant and desirable experience and by no means a last resort) when an advertisement for Mader's, the famous Milwaukee German restaurant, came into my Inbox offering a Thanksgiving day buffet.

This caught my because, for a very reasonable price, not only would there be turkey and stuffing, but also roast leg of lamb, sauerbraten, kassler ripchen (smoked pork chops) and a truly impressive array of side dishes. I showed it to Georgie who agreed it looked tempting, and I called up and made the reservation for noon on the 26th.

We arrived as scheduled and found a back-up of cars getting into Mader's lot and so parked on the street. We were seated quickly, and service was cheerful and quick. The buffet was truly impressive, including a full array of breakfast selections as well. Apparently, this is Mader's normal "Sunday brunch" with turkey added!

Well, we sampled as much as we could, and it was all delicious. The restaurant was very full, with lots of cheerful and happy people. We accompanied the meal with a very nice Gewurztraminer, and finished with excellent apfelstrudel and Black Forest cake.

This was a real treat, the more so since we were going to be cooking for a dinner party on Saturday, and were frankly glad not to on this day. I would definitely do it again if things work out that way in future.

Julie & Julia

On November 26th (after Thanksgiving dinner!) we caught up with "Julie & Julia" at the Budget Cinema, figuring that if we were already full when we went to the movie, we wouldn't leave the theatre ravenously hungry, which proved to be a good strategy.

The movie interleaves depictions of Julie Powell's "Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously," which recounts her adventures in preparing every recipe in Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," in one year's time, and Child's memoire, "My Life in France," which recounts how the cookbook came to be.

Amy Adams, as Powell, and Meryl Streep, as Child, have almost equal screen time as the interestingly parallel stories play out. Adams is cute and funny in the role of Powell, who takes refuge from her literally hellish day job in cooking, and hopes to spark her stalled writing career with her blog. Streep gives us a quite believable Child, who starts out "hungry" for something to do in Paris, and promotes her love of food into cooking school, then teaching cooking, then collaborating on the cookbook, to being a TV phenomenon. (In the 1940-50's, it was not the "done thing" for wives of Foreign Service Officers to have jobs, especially in a foreign posting, even if Child's marginal French would have made that possible, so she needed a respectable hobby, not being content to be just one of the "ladies who lunch.") The one flaw I felt was in the depction of Child on TV, where I thought Streep was too tentative and didn't have the real Child's "zest,"
although they may have been reproducing one of her earlier programs.

The respective husbands are important characters as well. Stanley Tucci is given the role of Paul Child as an unsung hero, Julia's rock of support and inspiration. Chris Messina as Eric Powell, who likewise encouraged Julie's blog, is less saintly as his patience wears thin dealing with Julie's occasional meltdowns.

Full marks to those people in the production department responsible for actually making the food (or artistic substitutes) used: it looked real and delicious (and the disasters appropriately disasterous) and the methods correct. We both found the onion-chopping scene hilarious but agreed that that's the way you have to learn to do it--.

We found the movie charming, funny, and inspiring. Highly recommended, especially if you like to cook.