March 18th, 2013

Oz, the Great and Powerful

On Saturday the 16th, we went to see "Oz, the Great and Powerful," and found it quite enjoyable. There was enough homage to the 1939 "Wizard of Oz" movie to be appropriate, and enough new material to be interesting.

The movie gives us the back story of how the "Wizard" (James Franco) came to Oz. "Oz" is a magician in a traveling carnival, as well as a shameless womanizer. It's this last attribute that gets him into trouble, as using the carnival balloon to flee a sticky situation puts him into the path of a Kansas "twister" that carries him to the Land of Oz.

This version of the Land of Oz is a phantasmagoric landscape of the type beloved by 3-D effects people. After overflying dizzying and impossible chimneys of rock, Oz's balloon crash-lands in a torrential river, which then carries him over a waterfall far higher than any on earth. After he washes up at the feet of witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) their route back to the Emerald City reveals that they are STILL thousands of feet above the general landscape. (Later long shots of the city don't reveal any mountain range in the near distance, either--.) There are other bits of illogic as well, not explained by the Oz dream-time. Why is Oz working in a cheap carnival, when he has a levitation trick far more advanced than his time should have had? Why is the inside of his wagon bigger than the outside (Is Oz a Time Lord?--now THERE's a crossover for you--)? Why does witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz) have a faintly British accent when no one else in Oz does? Why doesn't the China Girl (Joey King) have a name?

Costuming is another area that's wildly uneven. Most are interesting to look at, but one wonders why the designer seems to hate Mila Kunis. Her first outfit consists of a peculiarly huge velour hat with matching jacket over skin-tight PVC britches and high-heeled boots--highly un-Oz-like. Her "at home" dress is a strapless "prom bomb," which makes no sense either and doesn't match he sister's slinky gowns in any way.

Ultimately, these are shruggable,although annoying, since there's much other that's carefully done. When Oz is exploring the devastated China Country, the sounds the shifting shards make is that of china on china, and not glass. I'm pretty sure the statue of Glinda's father is an image of Frank Morgan, who played the Wizard in 1939, but you can't really see it clearly.

The story of how Oz, Glinda (Michelle Williams), and the free people of Oz liberate the Emerald City and bring about the state of affairs that exists until Dorothy Gale arrives is entertaining and fun, with a few actual surprises.

All the principal actors give good performances, and they are well supported by an interesting cast of secondary characters.

Despite its flaws, we enjoyed the movie and would recommend it to fans of Oz and of fantasy generally.

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UW Opera; "L'Amico Fritz"

We've enjoyed performances by the UW-Madison opera before, so, when we saw they were doing a very rare opera, "L'Amico Fritz" ("The Friend Fritz") by Pietro Mascagni, we decided to drive over and take it in.

Mascagni is chiefly known for his verisimo one-act opera, "Cavalleria Rusticana." It would be hard to imagine anything more different from the scandalous and sensational "Cavalleria" than "L'Amico Fritz," which is a sweetly sentimental romantic comedy.

The opera is set in the 19th century, in a mildly fantastical Alsace-Lorraine. Fritz Kobus is a wealthy bachelor landowner who is celebrating his 40th birthday. As the first act opens, Fritz (Alex Gemeinder) is sitting in his cherry orchard, talking with Rabbi David (Jordan Wilson). The Rabbi, who is also the local matchmaker, asks Fritz to gift a young couple to be married with a dowry. After some teasing, Fritz agrees. We see that this is one of his many charities, since he is also the support of several orphans. They are joined by Fritz's friends from town, then by Suzel(Shannon Prickett), daughter of Fritz's farm manager, who has come to present him a bouquet of flowers for his birthday. Eventually they are also joined by the gypsy, Beppe (Lindsay Metzger), whom Fritz rescued from a storm and made a friend. Beppe sings a birthday song lauding Fritz's many good deeds. After Suzel departs to see to her aged father, Rabbi David comments that she would make a good wife, which touches off a heated discussion on love and marriage, with Fritz repeating that love is nonsense and that he will never marry. When the Rabbi declares that the light of love will yet dawn in Fritz's heart, Fritz wagers one of his vineyards that it will never happen.

The second act begins with Suzel singing as she picks cherries in the morning. Fritz enters complimenting her voice, saying that he was awakened by a beautiful nightingale singing. He assists her in picking cherries and they sing the "cherry duet." Fritz leaves to take his friends on a tour of his estate, but the Rabbi remains behind to talk with Suzel, He leads her into a discussion of the Bibilical story of Rebecca, wife of Isaac, and says that he feels like Elezear, who found her, thus planting the seed that she might one day marry Fritz. When Fritz returns, the Rabbi tests Fritz by saying he has found an (unnamed) husband for Suzel. Realizing he has feelings for Suzel, Fritz is thrown into confusion, but says nothing until the others leave. then, panicked, he decides to get way by going back to town with his friends, leaving Suzel desolate.

The third act opens weeks later, with Fritz returning, unable to get thoughts of Suzel out of his head. When the Rabbi enters saying he has made an arranged match for Suzel, Fritz reacts with fury declaring he will never allow it. When Fritz talks with Suzel, she admits that she does not love her prospective bridegroom, but cannot bear to go against her father's wishes. When Fritz asks if she loves another, she reluctantly admits that she does, bu she would rather be killed than say who. When Fritz asks, "What if I take you in my arms?" she realizes that her feelings for him are reciprocated, and they kiss joyously. The Rabbi enters on this scene, and triumphantly declares that he has won the wager, and that he will gift the vineyard to Suzel as dowry. When Fritz's town friends wonder what they will do now, the Rabbi tells them not to worry--he will work on them next!

While the plot is simple and almost totally lacking in dramatic tension, the music is not, and is very listenable although without memorable tunes. The singers rose to the challenge successfully, and showed off promising voices, especially Ms. Prickett and Ms.Metzger. Mr. Wilson as the Rabbi has an interesting character voice, and Mr. Geminder a very competent and pleasant tenor.

The UW Symphony provided the orchestra, under the direction of James Smith, and handled the music very well. The musical structure of the opera is interesting. The overture is very simple and bucolic, with a lot of solo woodwind parts. The entr'acte to act two adds strings and complexity, and the entr'acte for three is lushly orchestrated, underscoring the growing complexity of the characters' emotions.

Costuming was basic but adequate, but I did wonder why the Rabbi didn't have a yarmulke. Fritz and friends I could see, they're obviously mostly secular Jews, but I don't picture a 19th century rabbi going around with his head uncovered, be he ever so Reform--. The set was a pretty Impressionistic fantasy, that worked well for the story.

All in all, we had a pleasant afternoon at the Opera, if not a terribly exciting one.

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