March 24th, 2015

The Newberry Consort, “Rosa das Rosas”

On Saturday, March 14th, we went to the Zelazo Center on the UWM Campus for Early Music Now’s presentation of the Newberry Consort, in “Rosa das Rosas: Cantigas de Santa Maria.”

The Newberry Consort, based in Chicago, consists of six performers, augmented for this performance by four additional choristers. The players are: David Douglass (co-director, medieval strings), Ellen Hargis (co-director, soprano), Shira Kammen (medieval strings and harp), Dan Meyers (percussion and medieval winds), Mark Rimple (gittern and psaltery), Matthew Dean (tenor and narrator), and Francy Acosta (soprano), Lucia Mier y Teran Romero (soprano), Tom Crawford (alto), Corey Shotwell (tenor).

The Cantigas de Santa Maria were written by King Alfonso X, King of Castile, Leon, and Galicia (1221-1284), known as “el Sabio,” “the wise,” due to his many writings on a wide range of topics, especially the law. He supposedly attributed his recovery from an illness or injury to healing by the Virgin Mary, and so declared himself to be her troubadour. Four hundred and twenty-seven songs, each of which mentions Mary in some way, were collected as the Cantigas de Santa Maria. These are actual songs, accompanied by musical notation of the period, not just poems that were adapted later, so, as much as possible, the music is authentic to the time of Alfonso’s writing.

The consort included fourteen pieces, in two sections, which were accompanied by projections of illuminations from two of the known manuscripts, which are richly illustrated with over twelve hundred pictures. All are fascinating. One set includes illustrations that go with the stories of the songs, and another set depicts musicians and instruments. The Consort also used the projections to provide translated “supertitles” for the songs, much appreciated since they are in 13th Century Galician-Portugese, a popular language for music at that time.

Many of the songs are notable for their portrayal of the Virgin as the intimate and loving friend of the people, a mother figure for whom no job is too big or too small if the prayer be sincere. In one, she “saves” a pregnant abbess (the victim of a seduction) by miraculously removing the child from her womb and causing it to be adopted elsewhere. In another, Mary solves the theft of a mutton chop from some of her pilgrims. In one of the most interesting stories, a young man, recently engaged, places his engagement ring on the finger of a statue of the Virgin for safekeeping while playing ball on the town common. Doing so, he declared his undying devotion solely to her. Miraculously, the statue closes its hand on the ring so it can’t be removed. The townspeople advise the man that there’s nothing for him to d now but become a monk, which suggestion he refuses, and goes on with his wedding. However, he is then haunted by dreams and visions of Mary until he leaves his wife and becomes a holy hermit. (Moral: It’s not nice to fool with Mother Mary!).

The one issue I had with the concert was that all the “fun” songs were in the first half, and the second half was made up of all Hymn tunes, which are sober and serious, which made them seem kind of dull in comparison, although all of the music was lovely, and beautifully played and sung. The range of instruments was intriguing also, including vielle, rebec, harp, flute, bagpipe, hammer dulcimer, and citole. I was particularly interested in the tuning of the vielle, which had a very “fiddle”-like sound.

Illustrations were entertaining as well, with those of the men playing ball, and the pilgrims hunting for the lost chop, being particular favorites. We also liked the depictions of the Virgin enthroned among Queens and wise women, giving a sidelong glance as though some of them weren’t trusted. The pictures of musicians were also fascinating, with their medieval instruments, including such oddities as a bagpipe with two chanters and four drones.

Quibble aside, this was a very interesting and enjoyable concert that gave us some music and stories we hadn’t been familiar with, and which was very much worth attending.

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The Met in HD: “La Donna del Lago.”

We went to see the Metropolitan Opera’s HD reprise of “La Donna del Lago” on Wednesday, March 18th, and enjoyed it very much.

Giacomo Rossini’s bel canto opera “La Donna del Lago” (“The Lady of the Lake”) has nothing to do with Arthurian legend: instead, it is based upon a poem by Sir Walter Scott, set in his beloved Scotland. The “lady” of the title, Elena, is the beautiful daughter of a Highland chieftain, Duglas d’Angus, who has promised her hand in marriage to his ally, Roderigo di Dhu. However, Elena instead loves the young and doughty Malcolm instead. Her life is further complicated when she encounters King James V of Scotland (in disguise as “Uberto”), out hunting, who also falls in love with the maiden at first sight.

(If the character names strike you as a hash, I agree. In Scott’s poem, Elena is “Ellen Douglas,” her father is “James Douglas,” the King’s alias is “James Fitz-James”, and Rodrigo is “Rodrick Dhu” (‘the black’). The only explanation that makes sense to me is that the librettist, Andrea Leone Tottola, chose names that sounded better sung as part of an Italian libretto.)

We came specifically to hear Joyce DiDonato in the role of Elena, and we were not disappointed. Di Donato is unquestionably the reigning Queen of Bel Canto, with a voice that is beautiful, powerful, and flexible enough to make the best of the ornamentations called for by Rossini’s score. We agreed that, in her own way, she is every bit the equal of past greats such as Beverly Sills or Joan Sutherland.

Actually, the whole opera was a feast for the ear, a good thing since the thin plot of the love quadrangle amid a rebellion of the Highlands against the Lowlander King, exists mainly to hang arias on. All of the singers were just splendid: Juan Diego Flores as King James, John Osborne as Roderigo, and Oren Gradus as Duglas. We were particularly pleased with mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona in the “breeches” role of Malcolm, who sang a very beautiful aria, Ah! si pera: ormai la morte! fia sollievo a’ mali miei ("Ah! Let me perish”) in the second act. (One may question, as we did, if you can properly call it a ‘breeches’ role if the character is wearing a kilt. This actually came up in the broadcast interview with the singer, in which she said she had had trouble remembering to move like a man, since the longish great kilt felt to her like wearing a skirt--.)

The opera was good to look at as well. Most of the action took place in a simple outdoor set, redressed with foliage or battlefield wrack as needed, backed by a very nice projected sky. This portrayed sunrise, sunset, storm, or a slightly stagey ‘shooting star’, without being either too bright or hyper-real. Costumes for the Highlanders had appropriately ‘ancient’ looking Tartans and what I suppose were period-appropriate baggy socks. The climactic scene in the King’s court was a gorgeous panoply of dress in ivory and gold brocade, which also hinted as to why there might be tensions between the Highlanders and their King--.

This was a very satisfying and beautiful evening at the Opera.
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What We Do In The Shadows

We have a new favorite “mockumentary”: “What We Do In The Shadows,” purportedly by the “Documentary Film Board of New Zealand.” It is a “reality TV” styled story, dealing with the interactions and misadventures of four male vampires, Viago (Taika Watiti), Vadislav (Jemaine Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who “flatshare” a crumbling house in Wellington, New Zealand. They have the usual kind of issues one might expect from four unemployed men, dealing with things such as fair division of dishwashing and cleaning. Excessive TV or video games actually aren’t issues, since, living relatively isolated lives, the most advanced entertainment machine they have is a wind-up phonograph.

Petyr, the eldest (“8,000 years old,” according to Deacon) is a Nosferatu-style monster who doesn’t talk, and exists mostly in a ‘tomb’ in the basement. Vadislav, the next oldest at a mere 800+ years, once had a fearsome reputation and power as “Vadislav the Poker,” but has lost much of his drive since having been defeated in a supposedly epic battle with his arch-foe, “The Beast.” Fastidious Viago was an 18th Century German dandy, and still dresses like it. Deacon was a peasant peddler in the 19th Century when he was turned by Petyr, whom he now considers his “best friend.”

The documentary supposedly covers six or so months of the group’s life, in which we hear the bittersweet story of Viago’s lost love, see Deacon’s exploitative relationship with his “familiar,” Jackie (Jackie van Beek) and learn how they deal with the ramifications of a certain “dinner party.”

Deacon coerces Jackie into bringing her ex-boyfriend, Nick (Cori Gonzales-Macuer) and his current girlfriend to dinner at the vampire’s house, intending that the vampires will ‘eat’ them. After excruciatingly awkward attempts at what might be called “playing with their food,” Viago, Vadislav, and Deacon attack. Nick nearly escapes, but runs into the clutches of Petyr.
A couple of days later, the vampires are nonplussed to discover that Nick is now a vampire, having been turned by Petyr instead of killed. Out of self-preservation, the vampires take Nick under their wing, trying, with poor success, to inculcate as much secrecy as they themselves manage (part of the irony, of course, is that this is all being taped by the “Documentary Board” crew, whom we never see--.) The best thing about having Nick around is his human friend, Stu (Stuart Rutherford), who’s willing to accept his friend as a vampire, and by extension becomes friends with the others, and initiates them into the mysteries of mobile phones and computers.

However, Nick is a blabbermouth, and has soon let way too many people know that he is a vampire, with some dire results. How this all works out at the climax, the annual “Unholy Masquerade” party, is the most compelling part of the film.

Laugh-out-loud funny, the film is a delirious combination of over-the-top vampire shocker and “This Is Spinal Tap,” with a healthy dollop of “Monty Python” for leavening. The vampire’s ramshackle house is a great set, and other are full of irony such as the dismal bus-station ambiance of the “vampire bar,” and the “Cathedral of Despair” where the Masquerade is held has a sign on the building saying “Victoria Bowling Club.” The costuming is a hoot, as each character tends to dress in his own idea of what a “sexy vampire” would wear. The acting is quite good for standards of broad comedy, and, for native born New Zealanders with Maori ancestry, Watiti and Clement hang on to their respective German and Transylvanian accents pretty well. Besides the pratfalls, there are some serious moments, and it is nice to see the vampires portray some emotions other than the standard “lust/hunger” we are used to. Effects, especially “flying” are surprisingly good. Of course, being a modern vampire movie, there’s a lot of blood, some of it sprayed for humorous effect—you have been warned.

Good for fans of the vampire who have a sense of humor with it, and for fans of the mockumentary genre who can stomach relatively mild horror. Although a comedy, not for the young due to the violence, gore, and coarse language.

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