Opera 101—Città Aperta

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Quando la ciociara si marita
A chi tocca lo spago e a chi la ciocia.
(When a girl from Ciociaria is married,
Some get the strings, and some the sandal.)

—Alberto Moravia, La ciociara (Two Women)

Cesira (Anna Caterina Antonacci) and Rosetta (Sarah Shafer) help the wounded Buckley in Two Women. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Cesira (Anna Caterina Antonacci) and Rosetta (Sarah Shafer) help the wounded Buckley in Two Women. Photo by Cory Weaver.

San Francisco Opera recently held the world premiere of Two Women, a new opera composed by Marco Tutino, based on the 1957 novel La Ciociara by Alberto Moravia, better known in the U.S. as a 1960 Vittorio De Sica film starring Sophia Loren. I had never seen the film, but I had read some of the original novel by the time we saw the opera last week so I was somewhat familiar with the basic plot. However, it turned out that the libretto took a number of liberties with said novel, which was a little distracting for me. (I highly recommend Moravia’s work by the way—he also wrote Il conformista, adapted by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1970.)

Plot in 101 words or less: Italy 1943–1944. Bombs are getting teenage Rosetta down so her mother Cesira, shopkeeper and black marketer extraordinaire, decides to hightail it to the countryside. There, the two women strip down to bathe in the center of town (of course) and—totally coincidentally I’m sure—befriend local intellectual Michele, who later helps them rescue an American soldier. This will soon bite them in the culo because Fascists are bad. Also, Germans are bad. And Moroccans. Moroccans are very, very bad. But not Americans. No, Americans eventually save the day—too bad it’s a day late and a dollar short for Michele.

While I enjoyed this opera more than most critics seemed too, that was probably because the music is more accessible than many modern operas. In fact, at times, it seemed more like a film score for the 1960 classic than an opera, especially with the use of pop songs like “La strada nel bosco” (which I love, but still). This impression was reinforced by the many projections throughout. I thought they were a bit much at times, but I suppose it was very helpful to have the background and history if you didn’t know it.

All in all, I thought the opera captured the spirit of the novel, if not the exact plot. I had just seen Anna Caterina Antonacci in Les Troyens, but Cesira was a very different role and I thought she was just as effective. I’m not sure I would have even realized it was the same person. I particularly liked the song she sang to her daughter after the rape. Sarah Shafer, who played Rosetta, had a lovely tone to her voice, as did Dimitri Pittas (in his SFO debut) who played Michele. Mark Delavan was a bit over the top as Giovanni, but I suppose that’s what the role called for. In short, while I’m not sure I would seek it out again, I’m happy to have seen it.

Finally, in other opera news, a shoutout to San Francisco Opera for the wonderful dinner at Alta CA and the box seats (with champagne at intermission) that La Maratonista and I won as part of the SFO Selfie contest last fall. In addition to being La Maratonista’s birthday, seeing Le nozze di Figaro was extra special because it was the very first opera we saw with our first subscription back in the fall of 2010 and I was happy to revisit it.

The incomparable Nadine Sierra as Countess Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro.

The incomparable Nadine Sierra as Countess Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro.

Opera 101—No Second Troy

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Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

—William Butler Yeats, “No Second Troy”

A horse is a horse, of course, of course. Photo by Cory Weaver.

A horse is a horse, of course, of course. Photo by Cory Weaver.

While I can’t say I was looking forward to a five-hour opera, I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed San Francisco Opera’s production of Les Troyens (The Trojans) by Hector Berlioz (1803–1869). I have already expressed my admiration for Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique in this space, but this was an entirely different beast. Based on the first few books of Virgil’s Aeneid, Berlioz himself never saw a production of the first two acts (now known as “La Prise de Troie”/“The Capture of Troy”) although “La Prise” and “Les Troyens à Carthage”/“The Trojans in Carthage” were always intended as one epic whole.

Plot in 101 words or less: Cassandra tries to warn the Trojans “Look a gift horse in the mouth, yo.” But she’s a woman, so no one listens. Luckily, Hector’s ghost later repeats her warning, so Aeneas can take action and escape. The women of Troy aren’t so lucky and commit suicide. Hey, ancient Troy is just like corporate America! Aeneas winds up in Carthage where he woos Dido in a cave during a royal hunt, like you do. But he can’t be tied down, man, Italy awaits! So Dido burns his sh*t and stabs herself, swearing that Hannibal Lecter will avenge her with Chianti. Or something.

Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre. Photo by Cory Weaver.

While ostensibly the story of Aeneas, it is the women who are the real heroines of Les Troyens. And on that score, San Francisco Opera certainly delivered. Anna Caterina Antonacci as prophetic Cassandre was perhaps too mannered for my tastes, but she was very effective in the role. It was also great to see a more sensual Susan Graham—last seen in trousers as Xerxes in Serse, but here playing Didon, Queen of Carthage. Her duet with last-minute replacement Corey Bix as Énee (Aeneas) was beautiful. Rounding out the divine divas was my beloved Sasha Cooke from The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, playing the secondary role of Anna, Didon’s sister. While perennial bass-baritone Christian Van Horn also made an appearance as Narbal, Dido’s minister, it was Adler Fellow Chong Wang who stood out on the wistful “Vallon sonore”—sadly not included on the recording I borrowed from the library.

Susan Graham as Didon. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Susan Graham as Didon. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The orchestra was just as impressive: Led by former SFO music director Donald Runnicles, it consisted of ninety-five musicians (four bassoons!) in the pit and backstage. My favorite orchestral moments were the clarinet solo during Act 1’s “Pantomine: Andromaque et son fils!” and the tone painting during Act IV’s “Pantomime: Chasse royale et orage,” the first of many ballet interludes choreographed by Lynne Page. The choral work was exemplary as well.

While I wasn’t particularly impressed by the costumes by Moritz Junge, the sets by Es Devlin were striking—except for the final statue done in the same style as the horse, which I didn’t quite get the point of, and was a bit of a letdown after the magnificent Trojan Horse. And I feel I should note at this point that the season also began with a gigantic horse being set on fire in Norma, so, been there, done that, in more ways than one. Still one certainly felt one got one’s money’s worth.

Les Troyens à Carthage. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Les Troyens à Carthage. Photo by Cory Weaver.

It almost makes me sad I can’t sit through a second performance (the final one) at the War Memorial Opera House on July 1 at 6:00pm. Or stand, rather, since I imagine those are the only tickets left at this point.

Inside Out: Killjoy Edition

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So, I’ve been mulling over Inside Out, the latest offering from Pixar Studios, which I saw a couple of weeks ago. The short version is: I really didn’t like it. It seems every critic has been going out of their way to praise this admittedly high-concept film and I’m just not seeing it. In fact, the more I’ve thought about it, the more problems I find. I know I can be hard to impress, but I’ve loved plenty of other Pixar films, so why not this one? Here are some of the reasons I’ve come up with.

Attention: Spoilers ahead!

1) Poor Storytelling. The world-building is all over the map. There is a lot that is not explained and/or completely falls apart when examined closely. Just one example is when Riley doesn’t just lose interest in hockey, she forgets how to play. What? That makes no sense given the parameters about core memories and emotions set out at the beginning. Some of the set pieces, such as abstract thought and how dreams are created, are very well done, but South Park already did a three-episode “Imaginationland” arc and here it would have been nice to see Pixar go for thoughtful rather than clever.

2) Disgust. While I love the basic premise of this film, I think it really fails by including Disgust as one of the five emotions in charge of Headquarters. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear—these are all primal emotions that make sense to me. I realize that there is all sorts of disagreement about how many basic emotions we have, but if you are going to include another one beyond these four, why not something more “positive”? Where is love? or surprise? Since the emotions have such clichéd reactions, it’s hard to connect with them as it is. At the very least, including something like trust, pride, or even guilt might have resulted in more balance and made Joy seem less manic.

3) Negativity. Besides portraying mostly “negative” emotions, the film’s quest is a dark and negative one. They are not simply striving to get back to hearth and home; rather, for every delay or failure, there are severe negative consequences. Like, really severe. Our reward for this extreme tension? In the end, we’re right back where we started. Nothing is gained, except the knowledge that “sadness is okay” (Really? Our protagonist control freak learns that maybe some of the other emotions can contribute? Shouldn’t that be inherent in this system? See above re world-building problems.)

4) Sentimentality. The film hits the audience over the head with cheap sentimentality. Because Riley seems to be completely controlled by her emotions and the protagonist is actually Joy, the film can’t be the coming-of-age story it seems to be shooting for. And, by definition, the core emotions are very one-sided, so ironically, they provide very little emotional weight. Enter the über-sentimental Bing-Bong. Bing-Bong is a good character, and actually fleshed out far better than the core emotions, but his arc goes on for far too long and, if you’ve seen numerous other Pixar films, is extremely predictable. Pixar needs to stop going to the old-plaything nostalgia well.

4) Phobias. If the basic quest narrative isn’t darkly intense enough for you, this film may also be difficult to watch if you have a fear of heights or clowns. If you found the trailer for The Walk terrifying, as I did, this movie will have you squirming in your seat more than once. At many points, watching this movie was simply not a pleasant experience for me.

5) Sexism. There has been a lot of ballyhoo about this being the story of a young girl. However, it’s like Pixar bent over backwards to make Riley’s character as boy-friendly as possible. In addition to her unisex name and her emotions being both genders (which is not true of her parents’ emotions, or, say, the boy’s mind we see inside later in the film), one of her five personality islands is hockey. Now, there could have been a plot-related reason for this that made sense—for example, if she couldn’t play in San Francisco because the sport is not that popular in California—but there isn’t any reason this couldn’t have been soccer or any other sport or activity. I’m not saying girls can’t want to play hockey, but it seems like an odd, deliberately “masculine” choice. Furthermore, much regarding the depiction of the parents is very gendered and the “cool girl” moment of the wife loving the face-painting made me think Pixar is going backwards in this regard.

Don’t get me wrong, Inside Out is gorgeous to look at. And the voice work is top notch. The problem is with the plot, not the presentation, the execution, not the concept. Some things I really liked:

1) Sadness. A great character and a terrific performance.

2) The running gag with the newspapers. I would have liked to see more about the inner workings of Headquarters and their interactions with other divisions like Dream Productions. However, because a lot of it didn’t make much sense, maybe this would have been difficult.

3) The end credits: I wish I had seen that movie.

The premise for this film was stellar, but, by having the major storyline combine the gut-wrenching heartbreak of the opening of Up and the anxiety of the finale of Toy Story 3, Pixar failed this viewer. The film was intense and heartbreaking, but not in a good way. I can’t imagine kids liking this at all so I look forward to seeing the audience reception of this one. Myself, well, I mostly just want to rewatch the Pixar films that did it better.

Stocking the Blue-Stockings

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Mme. Recamier's salon, after the painting by Adrien Moreau. Source: Project Gutenberg

Mme. Recamier’s salon, after the painting by Adrien Moreau. Source: Project Gutenberg

Now that the book salon* is closing in on its fortieth meeting, I’m trying to come up with some new topics for the coming year. As we have exhausted many of the more obvious themes, it is hard to find books that may fit any given topic, which is where you come in, dear readers.

I try to have at least two dozen book suggestions for each topic before I propose it. So, if you have any books you would recommend (classic or contemporary fiction, but they should be on the “literary” side), please add your suggestions in the comments below. I am especially interested in adding more authors of color.

Also, if you think a book I’ve listed here doesn’t really fit a particular theme, speak up! In many cases, I’m relying on the most basic of information, and, as they say, you can’t always judge a book by its cover.

Some of the themes I’d like to develop, but for which I have almost no particular books in mind, are:

1) heists (think The Getaway by Jim Thompson)
2) immigrants and emigrants (think Honour by Elif Shafak)
3) lighthouses (think The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Steadman)
4) national parks (think San Miguel by T. C. Boyle, really anything that mostly takes place in one of the fifty-nine U.S. national parks, from the Everglades to the Smoky Mountains to the Grand Canyon)

The following lists are more developed, but I’d still like to add a dozen books or so to them:

A Christmas Story
Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
Christmas at High Rising (Angela Thirkell)
A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)
“A Christmas Memory” (Truman Capote)
Christmas Pudding (Nancy Mitford)
The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen)
Hogfather (Terry Pratchett)
A Holiday for Murder (Agatha Christie)
Professor Andersens Natt (Dag Solstad)
The Shepherd (Frederick Forsyth)
Some Kind of Fairy Tale (Graham Joyce)
The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror (Christopher Moore)

The Classics Club (good books about great books)
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie) [multiple novels]
The Dante Club (Matthew Pearl) [Inferno]
The Club Dumas (Arturo Pérez-Reverte) [The Three Musketeers]
Dublinesque (Enrique Vila-Matas) [Ulysses/The Odyssey]
Flaubert’s Parrot (Julian Barnes) [Madame Bovary]
The Hours (Michael Cunningham) [Mrs. Dalloway]
The Jane Austen Book Club (Karen Joy Fowler) [multiple novels]
Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) [Pilgrim’s Progress]
Mister Pip (Lloyd Jones) [Great Expectations]
S. (John Updike) [The Scarlet Letter]
Treasure Island!!! (Sara Levine) [Treasure Island]
When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead) [A Wrinkle in Time]

Fine Wine or Fine Lines? (books about aging)
The Confessions of Max Tivoli (Andrew Sean Greer)
The Hearing Trumpet (Leonora Carrington)
The Hundred Year Old Man Who… (Jonas Jonasson)
Logan’s Run (Nolan & Johnston)
Memento Mori (Muriel Spark)
Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (Rebecca Miller)
Quartet in Autumn (Barbara Pym)
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (Tennessee Williams)
The Sea, the Sea (Iris Murdoch)
The Spectator Bird (Wallace Stegner)
The Summer before the Dark (Doris Lessing)

Sex, Spies, and Videotape (sexy books about spies or books about sexy spies, with or without videotape)
Black Roses (Jane Thynne)
Charlotte Gray (Sebastian Faulks)
Code Name Verity (Elizabeth Wein)
Enigma (Robert Harris)
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (Simon Mawer)
Journey into Fear (Eric Ambler)
N or M? (Agatha Christie)
Restless (William Boyd)
Six Days of the Condor (James Grady)
Sweet Tooth (Ian McEwan)
The 39 Steps (John Buchan)
Waiting for Sunrise (William Boyd)

Help me, O readers! Please add suggestions for any of these topics below. Thanks!

*For those not familiar with this unusual book club concept, instead of reading and dissecting one book, as in a traditional book club, everyone selects whatever book they want that fits the theme of that session. We vote on topics, each of which is proposed with a list of 20-25 suggested books to give people an idea of what they might read for any given theme. No one forces anyone to read a particular book and, even if you don’t finish your book, you can participate in the discussion of the general theme and no one has to worry about spoiling a book for someone else. Finally, you hear about books that you might never have chosen for yourself, and often learning more about them in a specific context piques your curiosity.

The Voice, or, Despite the Title This Post Is Not About Opera

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We interrupt our series on opera plots to bring you a special news bulletin: For the first time ever, my favorite from The Voice blind auditions has actually won!

Of course, I would have preferred to see Mia and Kimberly in the finale (along with Sawyer and Meghan) instead of Koryn and Joshua, but I’m beyond thrilled that the wise-beyond-his-years teenager came out on top.

While Sawyer’s performance of Neil Young’s “Old Man” might have epitomized his style, my favorite performance of his is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” from the Top 6 show:

Congratulations, Sawyer!

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