The Casual Blog

Tag: Donizetti

Visiting New York friends, and some new (to me) art and opera

I got up to New York City last week for the IP Counsel conference where I did a presentation on open source software legal issues. After the conference, I spent a long weekend in the city. It was great to see my sweet Jocelyn and some old friends, and to take in some new art and opera.

Jocelyn got a promotion at Macmillan this week, and was very excited. That’s three promotions in a year! She’s now a manager, titled Ebook Production Manager. She likes the company, likes the work, and is looking forward to the new role. We talked about the being a manager, among other things, as we tried some fun bars and restaurants.

Although opera is not Jocelyn’s most favorite thing, she agreed to come with me to the Met to see L’elisir d’amore (The Elixor of Love) on Saturday, and we both loved it. It’s a delightful confection of melody and feeling. The subject — romantic love — is forever young, and in Donizetti’s deft hands funny, painful, and touching. In this production, the bel canto style was alive and well, with astonishing vocal agility and sweet subtlety. Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak was a saucy and savvy Adina, very musical, and tenor Vittorio Grilolo was ardent, goofy, and then transcendent. As the doctor, Adam Plachetka was sublimely funny. Kudos to maestro Enrique Mazzola, who had great rhythmic flexibility and propulsive drive, and of course, to the fabulous Met orchestra.

Another night Jocelyn and I had a lovely dinner with my old friend Ben Brantley at Niu Noodle House in the Village. Ben and I met in junior high school and started out in NYC together, and with a happy combination of brilliance and hard work became head theater critic of the New York Times. It was good to catch up and hear his views on current shows, being a vegetarian, and other matters.

As to art, I saw several things worth mentioning. I recommend the exhibit at the Whitney by Laura Poitras, the filmmaker who made Citizen Four and other interesting works questioning the War on Terror. This exhibit is political in the sense that it puts in issue the programs of invasion, imprisonment, interrogation, assassination, and mass surveillance that grew out of the great panic following 9/11. It consists mostly of video clips, many of which must be viewed through slits in the wall that remind us of slits through prison doors. It invites us to engage with some disturbing issues, including the possibility of our being monitored at all times.

I also found enriching, if not exactly enjoyable, the exhibit at the Neue Gallery of the works of Edward Munch and German Expressionists. Munch appears to have been a tortured soul, and his works powerfully express alienation, melancholy, and angst. These are feelings that we generally try to avoid or suppress, and seldom discuss with anything but disapproval. But there’s truth in these works that we could benefit from facing. There were strong paintings of several other Expressionists who built on Munch’s bold early works, including Beckmann, Kirschner, Nolde, Kokoschka and Schiele, who were themselves iconoclasts, with energetic new psychological insights into some of our darker recesses.
At the Edwynn Houk Gallery I saw a photography exhibit by Nick Brandt. On display were ten enormous (6-8 feet wide) black-and-white images of Africa, each with a billboard size photo of an African animal, such as a lion, elephant, or rhinoceros. The billboards were positioned where the animals used to roam, but have been replaced by human activity– factories, roads, and waste dumps. There are people in the images trying to make a living, including by picking through the waste dumps. I found the pictures very powerful, and tragic.

At the Brooklyn Museum, Jocelyn, Pam Tinnen, and I saw This Place, an exhibit of photographs about Israel and the West Bank. It included work of twelve photographers, some of whom did very large images of the people, cities, and stark landscapes. There was little direct reference to anger and armed struggle, but instead humanitarian efforts to comprehend the multiple facets of this complex situation. We also looked at the Assyrian and Egyptian art.

Finally, I checked out the new Met Breuer, which is what the Met has done with the former Whitney museum. The main current exhibit is about unfinished works of famous artists starting in the Renaissance and coming up to now. It was interesting from a process perspective (seeing how paintings of various periods were assembled). I was surprised to learn that there were few answers on why artists chose not to finish particular works, or even how they determined what was a point of completion. But I enjoyed a lot of the art, particularly works of Rembrandt, Cezanne, and Turner.

Accessing a delightful comic opera

On Saturday I went to my first live opera in a movie theatre: Don Pasquale, transmitted live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center to Raleigh’s North Hills Shopping Center (among hundreds of other theatres around the globe). When I lived in New York, I sometimes bought the best tickets I could afford for the Met, which were for standing room. There were always people who left after act one, so it was usually possible to get a good orchestra seat for the rest of the show. And so I learned that the Met is a magical place, with some of the most incredible singing on the planet, and also some of the most astonishing stagecraft. It was great to be back.

I put my interest in opera on the back burner after leaving New York for law school, and with the normal pressures of career and parenthood it fell off the priority list. I’ve come back to it recently with fresh enthusiasm. Part of the reason was my passion for the piano music of Chopin. He enjoyed what we know as the bel canto repertory (Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini), and I started listening to that music to better understand his musical thinking. It’s a kind of time travel, a visit to another culture that’s both submerged and still alive. A lot of bel canto music is not particularly deep, but it is charming and at times brilliant.

Sally took her tennis team to the state finals in Winston-Salem this week, and so was not able to go to Don Pasquale. Diane, Sally’s mom, is a big opera buff, and we went to the show together. I sent an email to the Red Hat local employees’ list offering her ticket for free, and Roger H. accepted. I had not reckoned on how difficult it would be to find parking at North Hills, and we ended up running late. Roger came to the rescue. As we circled the parking lot, he called my cell, and said he was saving good seats for us.

James Levine conducted. The camera faced him as he did the overture. He was very expressive, at times smiling, at times heroic, and full of enthusiasm. He’s had many health problems recently, and I felt privileged to see him, especially in this revealing aspect. He’s a national treasure.

Don Pasquale, which was new to me and to others I talked to, is the 64th of Donizetti’s 66 operas, first produced in 1843 (when Chopin was 33). It’s a comedy that concerns young lovers’ efforts to overcome the aged don, who fancies himself a young lover, and unite. The plot is not especially intricate or elegant, but the main characters are funny and lively, and the music is a masterpiece of the tuneful bel canto genre. Anna Netrebko was fabulous as Norina — flirtatious and sexy, even if she had put on a few pounds, and with an amazingly powerful and flexible voice. Barry Banks was Ernesto, her lover, and though his character was less interesting, his singing was very musical. John Del Carlo was hilarious as the Don. The photography was skillful, with varied angles and close-ups, and the sound quality was good. There were English subtitles. The music was delightful throughout.

Between scenes, the broadcast showed the work backstage on scene changes. I love backstage views, and getting a close up of how the magic works at this state-of-the-art theatre was fascinating. There were also good-natured interviews by Susan Graham with the principals. We also had a chance to get to know Roger, who grew up in Hong Kong, and briefed us on the music scene there. He said he really enjoyed the show.

Opera is an acquired taste. Once acquired, it’s incredibly enjoyable, but initially, it can seem mannered, strange, or boring. The audience for opera has always been limited, partly because it’s been so difficult to try it out and get accustomed to its conventions. It’s wonderful that the Met is using HD simulcasts of high quality to multiply by orders of magnitude the opportunities to experience this great art. I expect there will be many who try it and like it. I’m looking forward to seeing many more.