Friday, February 29, 2008

Peter Grimes

I've been looking forward to the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Britten's Peter Grimes ever since they announced it last year. I'm a major-league opera fan—postgraduate level, if there is such a designation—and my sub-specialty, so to speak, is the operas of Benjamin Britten, a true 20th-century genius. And Grimes is a near-perfect work of musical theater. I was fortunate to be able to prepare for Monday's performance by listening to the premiere that was webcast on both Sirius and the Met's own Web site on opening night, February 28. Listening to the webcast and following the libretto was excellent preparation. I have admired the directorial skills of John Doyle, whose highly imaginative and resourceful Sweeney Todd production I saw in London and again in New York, and whose last-season Broadway production of Company, which I also enjoyed, was just telecast on PBS last week.  It's also fortunate for audiences around the world that Grimes has been chosen to be one of the HD telecasts to be shown in movie theaters on March 15. As is customary, it will also be broadcast worldwide on radio that day. Talented as Doyle may be, what really counts is the fine conducting by Donald Runnicles and the work of his perfect cast, including Anthony Dean Griffey as Grimes, Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford, and Anthony Michaels-Moore as Capt. Balstrode. All of the numerous inhabitants of The Borough were portrayed to perfection; this opera is a wonderfully realistic depiction of life in a small English fishing village, modeled closely on Britten's own Aldeburgh. Much has been written about the sound of the sea, which pervades nearly every moment of this work. Although we never actually see it, we feel the motion of the sea and hear the storms. The excellence and economy of the libretto by Montagu Slater are also telling, depicting the small-mindedness and prejudices of the villagers.
Here are the Times and Sun reviews:

Here are some photos of the production from the Playbill Web site:

PlaybillArts: Features: Photo Journal: John Doyle Directs Peter Grimes at the Met

Professional critics have to go to so many performances that it must be hard to keep from getting one's perceptions blurred. The main criticisms of this production seemed to be of the stage set. I'm weighing in with the opinion that the set is a marvel of deceptive simplicity and ingenuity and works beautifully. Check out the picture in the links. And, more important, the performance was overwhelming. Really a shattering work. My expectations were more than realized. Doyle let the work sing and speak for itself and did not make his first assignment at the Met into an ego trip, as so many have done. The cast, all British or American with one New Zealander, could not have been better. A wonderful evening.

One marvels at the amazing talent of Britten, probably Britain's greatest musician ever. He was also prolific, working in many forms. The role of Grimes was created for his life partner and collaborator, Peter Pears, who is said to have given the role a more lyrical, poetic spin. Later interpreters have made the character harsher and gruffer. Anthony Dean Griffey, a young American tenor, had both aspects in his well-thought-out, gorgeously sung portrayal. 

Speaking of Britten, I always chuckle when I recall the bit of four-line doggerel by Jacques Barzun:

Peter Pears

Needn't give himself airs:

He has them written

By Benjamin Britten

To digress, this little form is called a clerihew. What is a clerihew? 1) It is four lines long; 2) the first and second lines rhyme, as do the third and fourth; 3) the first line names a person, and the second line ends with a rhyme for the name; 4) it should be funny. It was invented by and is named for one Edmund Clerihew Bentley. (Thank you, Wikipedia!)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Small Pleasures

This may be about as much snow as NYC is going to get this winter, and it was mostly gone the next day, except for Central Park. Here is Damrosch Park, just to the left of Lincoln Center. I actually enjoy snow unless I have to drive in it. Having had my introduction to winter driving in upstate New York, I know how to do it, but the New York locals don't. They don't seem to have any awareness of how to adjust one's driving for ice and snow. Anyway, as a Manhattan dweller, I don't even keep a car anymore; I just rent one the occasional time I need one. Another driving grievance I have is twofold: I don't like the right-turn-permitted-on-red law. Do they have this in other states? I think it's dangerous. Furthermore, the law is not applicable within New York City limits, but out-of-towners either don't seem to know this or don't pay attention to it. An amusing sidebar to New York City driving is the fact that several generations of New Yorkers, particularly Manhattanites, have never driven, don't know how, and therefore don't have licenses, since keeping a car in the heart of town is both needless and ruinously expensive. They even speak with pride about their non-driver status, as was mentioned by a local type on my favorite guilty pleasure: the TV show Law & Order.
New York's City Center, on West 55th Street, is used for all kinds of visiting performers, including many dance companies. If you arrive on the early side, you can feast your eyes on the displays in the window of the Heather Floral Co., just a few doors east of the theater. I even try to allow a few extra minutes to do this before a show. Their orchids, amaryllis, calla lilies, hydrangeas, and all sorts of blooms are of the highest quality. They must get top dollar for their displays, but they appear to be worth it. No, they didn't pay me to write this. 

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Barre

I recently saw the remarkable Mikhail Baryshnikov in performances of three largely mimed roles in Beckett Shorts, downtown at the innovative New York Theater Workshop. This artist continues to reinvent himself, and his talent, intelligence, curiosity, and drive are always astonishing. He has left audiences with memories of him at his peak in various dance forms and moved on to other areas of his art in which he can still be effective, and usually riveting. He was quoted by Frank Rizzo, a staff writer for the Hartford Courant, in an interview published in that paper on June 26, 2007:
"My grandmother was an absolutely adorable little woman, whom I remember very well.... She was a very true peasant from a small village of the Volga River. But she wasn't at all like [a fictitious, older, dance-mad woman portrayed in a book]. But I do know grandmothers and aunts and other older women like that character, and sometimes I even take open dance class with them at the Steps studio. They're all there, and they're dance nuts."
These "older women," and some men as well, may in many cases be former professional dancers who are reluctant to give up the grace and discipline of classical ballet or other dance forms for the more mundane attractions of the gym. Some, of course, do both, and more. Others, including yours truly, have been lifelong, reasonably accomplished amateurs who were either not quite good enough or afraid to face the risks of attempting a professional career. Still others, although they may have little or no native ability—lacking even a sense of rhythm in some cases—show up in class several times a week for the sheer love of it. Thus, an open class at Steps or another studio is likely to contain a wide-ranging mélange of skill levels and ages.
You can make the case that the unnatural turnout of the hip joint can be harmful, especially if study of the classical technique begins later in life. Ideally, it should start at around age eight. But it can also be argued that proper training in ballet can shape the body as no other form of exercise can. And it certainly is addictive, especially with a good teacher and accompanist. I used to be silently contemptuous of some of the truly unsuitable ages and bodies who appeared in class, but I now realize that everyone who can try it should dance. There's nothing like it. And those of us who, like me, have mildly obsessive-compulsive tendencies, truly enjoy the codified, repetitive aspect of a genuinely classical class. In general, with some exceptions, it's also one of the last bastions of good manners in 21st-century America. You have to behave properly in class, although the days of the teacher whacking you on the calf with a stick have gone. Ballet can teach lessons in life as well as in art.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Apartment Life: Objets trouvés—et rejetés

One of the many advantages of life in a great city is the serendipitous discovery of castoff items that you can use in your own apartment. Many semi-impoverished newcomers have furnished their places with items found at curbside. But even those of us who are comfortably ensconced in our already well-furnished flats can find some mini-treasures in the rubbish closets on each floor of modern apartment houses. Or sometimes in the basement on the way to the laundry room. (And yay! We recently got new machines and dryers. About time.)
Some of my finds have been both amusing and, at times, even useful. For example: a 1933 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in two volumes, edited by the redoubtable C.T. Onions; baskets of various shapes and sizes, useful as plant cachepots and magazine holder; set of Pyrex bowls that some innocent bachelor had no idea how to use—guess he doesn't have a microwave; many florists' vases, though not lately—guess no one has been receiving flowers; empty boxes and bubble wrap—always fun to pop.
My castoffs have included items both useful and dangerous: a toaster and a lamp, both of which have caused blown fuses—I attached warning notes; a set of brand new and ridiculously expensive ink-jet printer cartridges—my new model printer uses a different size, and I hoped someone could use these; shower curtain with accidental splashes of red nail polish; worn-out Capezio ballet slippers; a still usable, but ancient, Hoover vacuum cleaner—got a new Electrolux!
Some years back, I committed my most idiotic throwaway. I had a tattered briefcase full of unbelievably pretentious college English papers, and I tossed the whole thing. What I had forgotten was that the case also contained my college diploma, in Latin and on lovely parchment-like paper. I can order a new copy for a price, but will it still be in Latin? It's still on record that I graduated, though.
Ave atque vale, diploma.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Nini (Supposed to go with photo below—goofed again)

The homeless, a few years ago a common sight in much of Manhattan, seem to have been shunted to the edges of the city. Recently, though, a classic homeless woman has appeared in my moderately upscale East Side neighborhood. As one would expect, she is small, frail, and white-haired. I noticed her shortly before Christmas, crouched on the curb in front of a Rite-Aid drugstore on Second Avenue. A few days later, I saw her again, this time in front of a nearby Walgreen's. After passing her that time, I felt guilty and regretted not giving her something. Christmas Eve was a few nights later, and I was meeting friends for dinner at a fairly posh restaurant not far from my apartment. Well aware of my own comfortable situation, I decided that if I saw the woman I would give her money; I even had some at the ready to hand her. But she wasn't there. A few weeks passed. Then about a week ago, on a very cold evening, I was coming home from the ballet, comfortable in a warm coat. There she was once again, in front of the Rite-Aid.
I started to take out some bills, as did a young woman nearby. We both gave the homeless woman money and discussed calling some city service about her since it was going to be a very cold night for anyone to spend on the street. I agreed to make the call as soon as I got home, just a couple of blocks away. I telephoned 311, the number for services other than 911 emergencies, and fairly soon reached someone from homeless services. A sympathetic-sounding woman asked me the person's location, saying that it was probably Nini, someone with whom she was quite familiar. She said that she would call me back to tell me what happened. The service has a few vans that patrol the city in order to deal with such situations as this. Not too much later, she called back. Yes, it was Nini, who, as was often the case, did not want to go with them. (They often receive calls about her.) The caseworker said that they were quite familiar with Nini's ways and that "if it gets too much for her, she'll go to Peter's place."   She assumed that I knew what Peter's place was. I thanked her and said, "We tried."
I thought that "Peter's place" might be just some friend's apartment. But I googled it and found that it was a drop-in shelter in the basement of a church in Chelsea, all the way across town. I never found out if Nini made it over there. She wasn't even wearing a coat but was wrapped in a thin blanket on that frigid evening. Well, we tried.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Essential Web Site Viewing

I'm still writing "Web site," as decreed by the New York Times Manual of Style, not that I agree with all of their requirements. So here's a great Web site/website for anyone planning to visit or relocate to London. Yes, that London: 

The fact that Abby is my sister has absolutely no bearing on this suggestion, you understand! The site can stand on its own without my shilling for it. However....

Sunday, February 10, 2008

At Last—A Movie of Substance

Yesterday saw a film that’s not for the fainthearted. But it is for those who want a revelation of political, ethical, and moral issues of real substance. It’s from Romania, a country that’s just beginning to make itself known on the international cinema scene. The film is 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile in Romanian—by a young director, Cristian Mungiu. Presented mostly in real time, it covers a 24-hour span during which Otilia, a university student, helps her roommate, Gabriela, to obtain an abortion. The time is 1987, when the repressive Ceausescu regime had declared the procedure illegal. Gabriela, the weaker character, appears to have no clue about anything and relies on others to help her out of trouble. She isn’t even capable of making the necessary hotel reservation herself. Otilia has to do everything, including borrowing the necessary money; meeting up with the sinister abortionist, Bebe; and directing him to Gabriela. Meanwhile, she has to deal with her straight-arrow, mama’s-boy boyfriend and his irritating family without revealing what she’s up to. We are also reminded that the state controlled everyone’s life at this time: what you would study, where you would work, and so forth. We also get a glimpse of class snobbery, including urban versus rural. We come away with studies of human nature and society as a whole on many levels. Otilia learns much about men, both “solid citizens” and criminals; her strength of character and her sacrifices for her friend are the backbone of this remarkable movie. She does what has to be done, no matter the consequences. And we also are introduced to one of the most terrifying of villains, soft-spoken as he is most of the time. See it. Here’s the Internet Movie Base link:

If you’re not familiar with the great imdb, you’ll find almost everything you need to know about a movie, including large selections of external reviews and filming locations. There’s also the Broadway database, ibdb, where you can recall whom you saw play what part and when they did it:

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

"Crossroads of a Million Private Lives"

I couldn't quite believe seeing this headline in the Times yesterday. It was for a review of a PBS show in the American Experience series. I didn't think that anyone would remember the beloved old Saturday morning radio show Grand Central Station, with its memorable opening. Later, watching the program on my DVR, I waited for some reference to the "crossroads" line, but none was forthcoming. The headline writer, though, knew something! He or she must have been "of a certain age." The program was informative about the origins and building of wonderful Grand Central Station (or Terminal), but thoroughly unromantic. Here's the Times review:

Nowadays, as much an Internet fan as I was a radio drama fan in my childhood, I Googled the great old show Grand Central Station, and, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, immediately found it with its fabulous "Day and night, great trains rush..." opening. Here it is. You don't have to listen to the whole rather simplistic and soppy story, but do take in that prologue:

As the informative Web site states, the stories often owed a lot to O. Henry, though not as good as many of his. 

The Canadian radio station CHML in Hamilton, Ontario, which, for some reason comes in—not always too clearly—at 900 on the AM dial right here in midtown Manhattan, broadcasts "those old radio shows" later in the evening (when they've finished with hockey or baseball—go, Toronto Blue Jays!). They're available on the Web, if need be. Also, iTunes has a selection.

Television, even in HD, does not stimulate the imagination the way old radio did, even if the programming was mostly quite unsophisticated by today's standards. NPR recently paid tribute to The Lone Ranger, who had a long life in comic strips, movies, radio, and television. They even corralled octogenarian announcer Fred Foy, still sounding pretty chipper, to do the famous "fiery horse." opening. You can probably find this on the Web, too.

Incidentally, if you listen to the entire Grand Central Station episode, you'll get some very amusing Pillsbury flour commercials. They sound almost like parodies. Pillsbury tried to find a rival for General Mills's Betty Crocker in the equally fictitious character (I guess) of Ann Pillsbury. The pie crust does sound good, though.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

East River View

Whoops! Technical skill not up to snuff. Here's the whole East River shot. What a day!

Gotham Gems

For part of the year, the American Museum of Natural History installs its Butterfly Garden, a delicious find among the canyons of Manhattan. Other locales have similar installations; I've seen a wonderful one in Costa Rica. In this smallish, orchid-laden space, you can walk among the butterflies and moths, many of which will perch on you or your camera for quite a while. It's almost a shame to have to brush them off, gently.

Labor Day 2007 was one of those ultra-clear, apparently pollution-free days that are all too rare in NYC. It is sad to think that 9/11 was such a day, and I can't enjoy one like it without remembering. Perhaps that makes it all the more precious. This East River shot was taken last Labor Day.

Detmold Park is a small, narrow riverside park extending from Beekman Place south to just above the U.N. There are benches, tables, and an enclosed dog run. One must walk down a couple of flights of stairs to reach it. It's a reasonably peaceful retreat except for the traffic along the FDR Drive that separates it from the East River. The Queensboro Bridge, more familiarly known as the 59th Street Bridge, immortalized in Woody Allen's Manhattan, is visible here.

The New York Aquarium at Coney Island will be undergoing renovation along with rest of the famous recreational area. One bright day in the fall of 2007, Bernie was out enjoying the sunshine along with his trainer.