Sunday, October 5, 2008

Short stories, short dresses (Opera - Salome with Karita Mattila)

The short story seems to be poking its head up everywhere these days. First C.B.'s challenge this past month. Then Kate's post on Friday, featured an essay by Steven Millhauser that I assumed was in some book of his essays.

The short story concentrates on its grain of sand, in the fierce belief that there — right there, in the palm of its hand — lies the universe.

It turns out it is in today's New York Times Book Review and is a clever appreciation. Kate links to the entire essay.

Mark Thwaite posted on Friday from an address by the late David Foster Wallace about the humor of Kafka, but much of what I took away was about the story form in general.
...great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common. Both depend on what communication theorists sometimes call "exformation," which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient. This is probably why the effect of both short stories and jokes often feels sudden and percussive, like the venting of a long-stuck valve....

Mark links to the entire piece. The way Wallace puts together words is fierce and incisive, I love the high standards he has for readers as well as writers.

Yesterday The Ragazzo and I saw the Met's fairly recent production of Richard Strauss's Salome. I always appreciate the Met's orchestra's playing of early 20th century music. Conductor Patrick Summers and the orchestra made gorgeously lush dissonnance. The contemporary production by Jurgen Flimms thankfully spared us from the awful quasi-1950s
-bad bibilical-hollywood-epic aesthetic that usually graces more "traditional" productions of this opera. This production is the first I have ever seen that gets that the famous Dance of the Seven Veils is not a balletic interlude in which good dance and choreography are necessary to entertain us until we can get back to the singing, it is part of the drama in which Salome baldly mocks Herod's lust for her by doing a striptease. But this production belongs to Karita Mattila, the Finnish-born soprano and consummate stage-creature whose impressive feat is not the literal stripping of her clothes but the emotional full monty she is willing to do. Most of the rest of the cast are simply not at her level and either Flimm or the Met's staff directors remounting the production are unable or unwilling to see when the cast members are not even pretending to do what the text and the drama say they are doing. That or they don't have enough time to find good solutions. For example, Herod sings about the coldness and heat he feels and the sounds he hears when he begins to panic after Salome asks for the prophet Johanaan's head. But Kim Begley merely sings the words. Nothing happens to him as it would to any human being being frightened by the fact that he is having an unfamiliar experience and no one else around him seems to be also be having it. Even the simplest stage-craft types problems seem to be ignored. When Salome climbs down from a scaffold (in a white satin dress and heels) a couple of members of the court stand by the ladder to assist her in her descent (sensibly). However, they appear to know that she needs help only by telepathy, nothing was communicated to them by Salome or anyone else on stage. It is this sheer laziness of stage craft that I see time and again at the Met, that peppers their fanciest and even most astute productions with needless moments of amateurness. This pulls any audience member attentive to story or to the logical progression of human behavior right out of the action. Opera does not have to be unbelievable, but lack of attentiveness to detail will assure you that it will be.

Back to the highlight of this production - Karita Mattila, she plays Salome as an entitled brat, a sort-of 1930s Hollywood babydoll who, when she gets into her head that she wants Johanaan simply will not have it any other way. She is simpering, she is willful, but most of all she is bereft of love and is deeply sick because she can never have enough. Never mind the bare necessities of this role from a sheer vocal standpoint - octave plus intervals to jump, lush orchestrations to soar above on high sustained notes - Matilla has the technical chops, but a good performance asks for way more than that. She climbs that scaffolding like a gymnast, does a full split, she bumps and grinds, she stamps her feet like a child throwing a tantrum, she yells her head off in frustration, she lies on her back with her head hanging off the edge of the stage singing parts of the last scene and she does it all looking and sounding like a goddess and making her music sound inevitable. It is interesting to me that so much emphasis is placed on Salome being attractive. I suppose superficial beauty is desirable to make Herod's lust for her believable, but really Salome is alone and her desperation over that makes her horrific and unattractive. Mattila is willing to go there and it is that kind of nakedness on stage that I prize and that makes this performance such an intense and memorable one. This production is going to be simulcast HD to many movie theatres across the country next Saturday. If you are a little wary of twentieth century opera, Salome is a good introduction because it is short - under two hours, here is a link to the Met's website with information about the simulcast.

Now on from necrophilia to an unbelievable amount of reading on protein synthesis and, if I get the time, I'm going to make some middle eastern tomato soup with cumin, lemon and cilantro.

1 comment:

Anne Camille said...

I knew you wrote about Salome, but didn't want to read the review before I saw the HD simulcast. One of the problems with the simulcast is that you don't necessarily notice those stage-craft issues. The viewer is at the mercy of the camera. I was surprised by Begley's lack of terror at Salome's request. I thought that he was okay with the lasciviousness during the dance, but his reactions to her request afterwards showed little emotion to support what he was singing. Matilla, on the other hand, was so physical in this role, that there was no denying her presence and one didn't really care about the others on the stage. I was unimpressed with Johannan too.
This was the first time that I've seen Salome. I wish it was playing when I'm in NYC next month -- I'd see it again in a heartbeat.