MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Silver Apples and Cloudless Sulphur Skies

Morton Subotnick, who at 80 looks as eager as ever to experiment with his Buchla and laptop, rolled into town recently to perform a decades-spanning program at Seattle’s Town Hall. Joining him onstage was Berlin-based video artist Lillevan. The two have been collaborating on several projects in recent years, and both are obviously so well attuned to each other’s aesthetic that they can improvise with pre-existing material. It all added up to a blissed-out gesamtkunstwerk for synth geeks and video art aficionados.

The concert’s official title – “From Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY” – refers to the main sources for the prerecorded music Subotnick used to build the performance in tandem with Lillevan’s abstract imagery of fluid and fractal-like shapes in restless transformation. Subotnick describes his current process:

For each season of performances I create a new hybrid Ableton-Buchla “instrument” loaded with prepared samples from all my previous works and performances and new patches that will allow me to modify the samples while performing brand new sound gestures created especially for the new season. The work always has the same title, “From Silver Apples of the Moon to a Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY.” The “IV: LUCY” refers to the season number and the name given to the newest materials.

Subotnick in action

Subotnick and Lillevan in action

Subotnick’s gently processed whisperings and vocalizations – sent whirling about the surround-sound arrangement of speakers – launched this voyage of about an hour or so. Of course the act of musical performance itself tends to override ordinary clock time, to make it seem simultaneously speeded-up and in slow motion. But in this case, time seemed to become unmoored as if we were in a gravity-less environment.

The early atonalists used to worry about how to structure a piece without the old familiar signposts. Subotnick’s large-scale excursions can echo the craggy, mountainous landscapes of a Romantic tone poem, no matter how “alien” the sounds. Inevitably I found myself turning to metaphors, both from the natural world – that ubiquitous “watery” sound of electronics – and from acoustic instruments, imagining a troop of pizzing strings here, bleating woodwinds there.



Berlioz’s opium dreams, the psychedelic trips of the ’60s: why is it this intensely focused sense of isolation, of utter aloneness, much more than any Dionysian, “orgiastic” frenzy, that they so strikingly share? Above all I’m fascinated by Subotnick’s “art of transition” and his ability to steer toward heaving climaxes, only to dial the mood down within a short span, like a turntablist working the dance crowd – even though we were all passive listeners.

Just before the performance, Subotnick recollected how exciting it was to be a young composer in the late ’50s, when the introduction of the commercial transistor seemed to point the way toward a new utopian paradigm: music that could be made and performed by everyone, not limited to “the 1%” who had the training for classical music-making. Yet for all its influence on popular culture, and for all the revolutionary changes in daily life this technology has enabled, the type of electronic composition Subotnick pioneered still inhabits a rarefied world of its own.

Filed under: electronic music, new music, video art

Rossini’s Comic Genius in Barber

Marie-Noëlle Robert/Théâtre du Châtelet/Teatro Real

Marie-Noëlle Robert/Théâtre du Châtelet/Teatro Real

Here’s my latest essay for San Francisco Opera, which is staging a production of The Barber of Seville directed by Emilio Sagi (fresh from his enjoyable work on Seattle Opera’s Daughter of the Regiment):

If Gioachino Rossini were to revisit today’s opera scene, he’d probably have mixed feelings about the remarkable tenacity of The Barber of Seville in the repertoire. (Rossini loved to joke about the advantage of being born on February 29, which would make him a middle-aged man of 55.25 in leap year terms, not a Methuselah of 221.) Mixed because, though he certainly recognized Barber as a work di qualità—as Figaro asserts of his own profession—its popularity still distorts Rossini’s versatile legacy.

By now we’ve had the better part of a century of the Rossini renaissance to regale us with one rediscovery after another. The result has been to bring before today’s public this composer’s command of an enormous gamut of operatic genres: farce, melodrama, semi-serious drama, comedy, lyric tragedy, sacred tragedy, and grand opera. (By comparison, the cunning Figaro’s skillful multi-tasking almost seems to parody such an encyclopedic range.) Several of his once-neglected works have since reentered the repertoire, yet the mere mention of Rossini continues to immediately evoke, before anything else, the vital comic style of Barber—the opera whose premiere in 1816, when the composer was still just shy of twenty-four, marked one of the legendary disasters of his career.

H. Mailly's caricature of Rossini for Le Hanneton (1867)

H. Mailly’s caricature of Rossini for Le Hanneton (1867)

When Giuseppe Verdi was being lured out of retirement by the prospect of composing Otello in 1879, his publisher had to tread carefully and assuage bruised feelings triggered by a remark carelessly reprinted in the company’s music journal. The offending statement recalled what Rossini had declared decades earlier (in 1847): that Verdi could “never write a semi-serious opera…much less a comic opera like The Elixir of Love.” For Italy’s operatic elder statesman to crown his career by giving the world Falstaff served as a kind of vindication. On one level, Falstaff represents Verdi’s response to the anxieties he confronted about how his own legacy would be remembered in the unsettling twilight of the nineteenth century.

If Pierre Beaumarchais’s 1778 play The Marriage of Figaro was recognized as prophetic of the French Revolution—“the Revolution already put into action” in Napoleon’s famous phrase—Rossini did a good deal with his treatment of its “prequel,” Barber, to set the tone for a war-weary post-Napoleonic Europe early in that century. (Beaumarchais later published a third play about his Figaro characters—La mère coupable (“The Guilty Mother”)—but this last part of the trilogy had to wait until the twentieth century before it showed up on the opera stage.) The novelist Stendhal cleverly reversed the French leader’s metaphor of the artist as political prophet: “Napoleon is dead; but a new conqueror has already shown himself to the world,” he writes in the preface to his influential Life of Rossini of 1823.

Beaumarchais (born Pierre-Augustin Caron), c. 1755

Beaumarchais (born Pierre-Augustin Caron), c. 1755

In the composer’s verdict about Verdi’s putative unsuitability for comedy, which was hardly intended as a putdown, it’s tempting to sense an echo of the type-casting Rossini himself had faced—but with the tables turned. Legend holds that Rossini, very much a conquering musical general who had taken Vienna by storm, requested a meeting with Beethoven after arriving in the Habsburg capital in 1822 to supervise a new production. In his account decades later, Rossini recalled Beethoven’s pronouncement that serious opera was not a good fit for the Italian temperament: “You do not possess sufficient musical knowledge to deal with real drama.” On the other hand, the old master congratulated Rossini on The Barber of Seville, advising him to stick to opera buffa. “Any other style would do violence to your nature…Above all, make more Barber‘s!”

continue reading )p. 37, pdf)

Filed under: opera

Camus and the “Wild Longing for Clarity”

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

It’s a few days late to honor the official 100th birthday of Albert Camus (November 7), but the commemorations I’ve been seeing remind me how refreshingly pertinent the core of his thought remains to our everyday lives. Aspects of it are obviously dated, but – it seems to me – nowhere nearly as much as the grim, sour, mid-century theorizing so many of his Continental peers.

Probably a key underlying reason for that freshness is Camus’ literary gift. Jerry Delaney, who adapted La Chute for a stage production in Santa Fe in 1999, offers an especially discerning recent assessment for The American Scholar, reminding us of the writer’s claim that “all the great novelists are philosophical novelists.”

I retain strongly physical memories of my first time reading L’Étranger – of summer, the heat around me, which melded with Camus’ descriptions of the beach and the merciless sunlight. But even the more challenging essays offered little explosions of insight and recognition similar in kind to the fiction.

Delaney describes how Camus’ idea of the “absurd” could move us so profoundly:

It’s worth remembering that Camus meant something quite different from what the vast majority of people thought he was saying about the nature of absurdity. For him, the absurd was not something ludicrous or preposterous; the absurd was a confrontation between our deep-seated desire to know and an irrational world that defied knowing—in his words, “the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” versus “the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle.”

How astonishing it is to recall that Camus wrote the epochal Le Mythe de Sisyphe while still only in his 20s. From my teenage vantage point when I first encountered this essay, it seemed the scripture of a very wise man, of someone who had lived through more than I could begin to imagine. Delaney ponders why Camus’ essay has such staying power:

Camus’ idea is not particularly profound, but he states it with a compelling lucidity and force. Unlike most philosophical insights, which slip from our grasp even as we grip to hold on, the Camus observation sticks. What Camus did was give us a language to express what our experience in life had already prepared us to accept; he gave coherence to those inchoate ideas and unspoken assumptions that were roiling deep and unspoken in our minds.

Camus legitimizes us. We may wince to acknowledge that we are not endowed with the capacity to find an ultimate answer, that certain things are beyond our reach, but we are also reassured that our experience is universal, not a cause for despair: Quite the reverse, it is fruitful and full of passion.

We discover that being loyal to the truth means being loyal to oneself, and being loyal to oneself, the ultimate consolation in life, gives rise to an unspoken sense of pride and dignity—a hard-won self-esteem that comes unbidden from taking the more rigorous but truer path. By refusing to turn away from the absurd we are able, by a mere act of consciousness, to transmogrify the question of death into an inspiration to live.

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy” is Camus’ famous formulation – an existentialist update of Voltaire’s “il faut cultiver notre jardin”? But the context for this imagined Sisyphean contentment is far more reminiscent of Nietzsche’s version of eternal recurrence (in Zarathustra and elsewhere): the ceaseless cycle of life, repeatedly infinitely, without escape, as a “fate” to be affirmed with joy.

And what of the phantom of “engagement” that preoccupied Camus and his followers? Well, the wisdom arrived at in Sisyphus “is not a conclusion but a point of departure.” Delaney refers to L’Homme révolté, the essay which followed in 1951, as the political response to that wisdom: “Just as the absurd calls upon us to face the truth, the truth calls upon us to rebel” – in contrast to the posture of revolution. According to Delaney, for Camus the difference was that “rebellion brings to light limits, moderation, mesure. Rebellion is at odds with the excess of revolution.”

Revolution treats people as a means to an end; rebellion treats people as an end in itself. Revolution is top-down; rebellion is bottom-up. Revolution leads to terror; rebellion underscores the value of dignity in each individual, everywhere. Revolution is inspired by resentment, rebellion by love.

…More than any other writer, he enables us to expand our consciousness of freedom, to appreciate more fully the sanctity of life, and to recognize the honor of revolt in the face of cruelty and injustice.

Filed under: ethics, literature, philosophy


Tosca, Act II, from pre-1914 Met Opera staging

Tosca, Act II, from pre-1914 Met Opera staging

In honor of today’s live HD broadcast of Tosca from the Met, I decided to gather some of the critical reactions to the controversial production by Swiss director Luc Bondy when it was first introduced as the season opener in 2009.

Anthony Tomassini in The New York Times:

[T]he booing, if a little unfair, was understandable… Mr. Bondy had scoured the work, it seemed, looking for every pretense to flesh out, literally, the eroticism of the lovers and the lecherous kinkiness of Scarpia. ..Mr. Bondy seems to be after mood, intensity and emotion, not logic. And some of the acting that he draws from his cast is intricate and involving…[He] probably wanted to rid his Tosca of stock clichés, yet his heavy-handed ideas are just as hackneyed.

Anne Midgette in The Washington Post:

Bondy certainly tried to clear away the layers of encrustation from the opera, rather like a restorer trying to clear the varnish from a painting. The problem was that he didn’t always seem to have a vision of the strong underlying image he was trying to reveal. His modus operandi seemed to be to get rid of all of the Tosca traditions and start afresh, but “afresh” often involved gestures every bit as gratuitous as the ones he was trying to replace…The strongest guiding hand of the evening was James Levine in the pit, who generally offered a reminder that this opera’s music can indeed still be fresh, vital and (in a couple of solo spots in particular) absolutely ravishing.

Alex Ross in The New Yorker:

By all means, then, let’s have a new Tosca. But it needs to be good. And this is not…. [Bondy] has failed to find a clear angle on Tosca, and instead delivered an uneven, muddled, weirdly dull production that interferes fatally with the working of Puccini’s perfect contraption…The major gaffe of the night comes after Tosca kills Scarpia, when, according to the libretto, she places candles by his side and a crucifix on his chest. ..[S]omething should happen during the thirty-bar postlude that Puccini composed for the ritual. Here…Tosca murders, then dithers…While there is nobility in an ambitious failure, there is no glory in ineptitude.

Ed Pilkington in The Guardian:

There was some egregious silliness to the Bondy version, which no doubt goes some way to explain the cat calls… In act two Scarpia is being pleasured by a courtesan kneeling between his legs, a wholly gratuitous addition to Puccini’s portrayal of an evil torturer who exudes suppressed sexuality in any case.Those incongruities aside, the puzzling thing about the audience reaction last night was that in most other regards the Bondy production is striking by how safe it is, how little risk-taking and how traditional.

Justin Davidson in New York magazine:

Bondy has stripped the piece of specificity and replaced it with a grim collection of non-locales and coarse interpolations…Though Bondy has never worked at the Met before, his fashionable Euro-minimalism has become something of a house style: dim light, blank walls, black costumes, and dour abstraction….I hope the Met’s Peter Gelb is already trying to figure out how soon he can scrap this staging.

And the dependably acerbic Martin Bernheimer in The Financial Times:

Abetted by his designer, Richard Peduzzi, Bondy has turned Puccini’s sleazy masterpiece into sterile melodrama with raunchy trimmings…A different directorial gimmick cheapens the ending of each act…Bad timing, bad ideas.

Filed under: Metropolitan Opera, opera

Fascinating Boulez, Problematic Mahler 6

It’s good to have Ludovic Morlot back in town for his first Seattle Symphony program since September’s marvelous all-Ravel feast. And there’s been a lot of interest building up for this week’s offering, since – well, that’s usually the case with a Mahler symphony (even if the over-programming of Mahler in general is tempting burnout), but all the more since Maestro Morlot has been approaching this rep with understandable caution.

But first to the program’s “hors d’oeuvre,” Nos. 1-4 of the Notations by Pierre Boulez. This is prime Morlot territory: thrillingly prismatic music, brimming with intellectual and sensual complexities that complement rather than cancel each other out. The orchestra, massively expanded and crowding the entire stage to realize Boulez’s scoring requirements, played the first four of this set of miniatures originally written as a sequence of 12 for solo piano (back in 1945). Boulez began revisiting these early works decades later and so far has completed orchestral elaborations of seven of them. In their orchestral guise, they resemble lavish plants grown from the starker seeds of the piano originals.

Morlot gave a brief, excellent introduction to their concept and design and paired each of the four with renditions of the originals by pianist Kimberly Russ. I’ve never understood why some of my fellow critics kvetch about this sort of commentary from the podium during a concert. Morlot’s manner isn’t even remotely condescending, and he’s able to home in on a few pregnant details that really do enhance listening.

And Boulez is hardly a familiar quantity in Seattle. This was the first time I’ve heard the SSO grapple with music by the French maverick; is it possible Boulez has never been programmed in its history? Quel scandale! Regarding his ongoing investigation of French musical tradition with the orchestra, Morlot remarked that to overlook Boulez would be like visiting Paris “and not going to see the Eiffel Tower.”

The pieces in Notations – all related to a shared 12-note theme – are epigrammatic and fleeting, yet so frighteningly complicated in their working out (the articulation of harmonic, rhythmic, and textural layers) that it’s like a speeded-up musical Big Bang, tracing vast consequences from simple origins. Or so it seemed in Morlot’s meticulous account. Most impressive for me was his ability to convey a graspable sense of passion and drama alongside Boulez the “researcher” of sounds.

In his “Ask the Artist” conversation after the concert, Morlot mentioned that he’d initially hoped to get Boulez to come to Seattle to conduct this program himself, thus giving the SSO a direct connection to the tradition Boulez still embodies. (Now 88, the French maestro’s health essentially precludes such travel.) Yes, irony of ironies, the firebrand revolutionary of yore is one of the last keepers of a tradition connected both to French modernism from Debussy onwards and to Schoenberg and his Vienna colleagues. (Berg was particularly fascinated by the music of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.)

Morlot and SSO rehearsing Mahler 6

Morlot and SSO rehearsing Mahler 6

I found this interpretation of the Mahler Sixth only halfway satisfying – and, oddly, in a completely unpredicted way. Long one of the most marginalized of his symphonies, the Sixth has actually received a good deal of advocacy over the past 15 years or so. Michael Tilson Thomas inaugurated his complete cycle with the San Francisco Symphony with No. 6 (on September 12, 2001, no less), winning a Grammy. Since that year the SSO’s conductor laureate Gerard Schwarz has led two Mahler Sixths (2001, 2008).

Presenting the Boulez as an entrée results in the interesting effect of seeing the orchestra downsize a tad for the Sixth, which happens to employ the largest orchestra Mahler ever called for (in purely instrumental terms – obviously excluding the Eighth, with its ginormous choral forces). The SSO even managed to procure one of the cowbells originally used for the premiere in 1906. (I’ve got to investigate that back story.)

Yet just a few paces into the grim straitjacket march-time opening the first movement, Morlot uncharacteristically failed to achieve the sort of sonic balance you can usually count on him to effect – a tremendously challenging task in this score, to be sure. Morlot’s modus operandi in general is precisely not to go for the obvious “throughline” but to tune us in to the nuances of multiple layers and textures interacting, but too many of the accents seemed tentative, a “work in progress,” so that the players got bogged down in local details and the big picture lost focus.

Breathtaking, sensitively shaped moments awaited in the enormous development section – it’s like a dream sequence escaping from the harsh “real world” surrounding it – and, along with many admirable solos, concertmaster Alexander Velinzon’s contributions enraptured the ear. Still, as a whole the first movement lacked the persuasiveness and sheer, unrelenting terror it needs to set the symphony on course.

The Scherzo sounded even more bogged down by moment-to-moment bursts of color and emotion without a convincing larger context: all-too-careful playing that just didn’t take fire with any sense of risk. But with the Andante – Morlot chose Mahler’s original order for the inner movements – the long delay until reaching this oasis paid off. The SSO became not just thoroughly engaged, but convincing and supremely eloquent. Morlot took a relatively rapid pace, allowing the beauty of this music to breathe as simply as a song instead of relying on exaggerated distensions.

Cowbells used by Seattle Symphony (including one from 1906 premiere of No. 6)

Cowbells used by Seattle Symphony (including one from 1906 premiere of No. 6)

And then what really took me by surprise: in every live performance of the Sixth I’ve heard, it’s in the immense sound world of the finale that everyone loses steam, exhausted and struggling just to make it through. But this was the most exhilarating playing of the evening, starting with the hallucinogenic sweep of colors with which Mahler launches this enigmatic movement.

Here Morlot guided the musicians through an enthralling labyrinth of events which really did begin to cohere and connect. In the coda, the threnody of brass sustained enough mystery to hint, however slightly, at a possible hopeful outcome so that the shock of Mahler’s most tragic symphonic ending had a thrilling dramatic impact.

A quick note on the other chief musicological controversy – besides the order of the movements – which is part of the Sixth’s performance tradition. Morlot chose the version with two rather than three “hammerblows” in the finale, later explaining that withholding the third ax-like shattering intensifies the suspense. The two blows we heard were in any case both sonically and visually memorable, thanks to the impressive box and hammer percussionist Michael Werner (see video at top).

There’s one more chance to experience this program live: on Saturday, 9 November 2013, at 8.00 pm. Tickets here.

(C) 2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Mahler, review, Seattle Symphony

The Score to Ancient Greece

Statue of Homer at the Bavarian State Library in Munich; photo by J. Williams

Statue of Homer at the Bavarian State Library in Munich; photo by J. Williams

Oxford Classics scholar Armand D’Angour describes how researchers are on the verge of a breakthrough in being able to “reconstruct” the music that was known to have accompanied such seminal texts as the Homeric epics, the great tragedies, and Sappho’s lyric poetry:

The rhythms – perhaps the most important aspect of music – are preserved in the words themselves, in the patterns of long and short syllables.

The instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow us to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.

And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.

He asks what Greek music would have sounded like:

Homer tells us that bards of his period sang to a four-stringed lyre, called a “phorminx”. Those strings will probably have been tuned to the four notes that survived at the core of the later Greek scale systems.

Professor Martin West of Oxford has reconstructed the singing of Homer on that basis. The result is a fairly monotonous tune, which probably explains why the tradition of Homeric recitation without melody emerged from what was originally a sung composition.

Filed under: classical literature, musical research

Making a Living on London’s Streets

London Street Life-Nomades

Around a dozen years before the Danish photojournalist Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives, his epochal documentation of New York City’s slums, there appeared Street Life in London, which was recently put up for auction.

Featuring the work of the muckraking journalist Adolphe Smith and the photographer John Thomson, this slice-of-life series of articles paired text and images to chronicle the motley jobs of impoverished men and women struggling to survive on London’s streets: from Covent Garden flower peddlers to buskers, public disinfectors, shoe-shines, clowns, and ginger beer makers.

Here are the texts that accompanied the photograph above, a group of “street nomades”:

The class of Nomades with which I propose to deal makes some show of industry. These people attend fairs, markets, and hawk cheap ornaments or useful wares from door to door. At certain seasons this class ‘works’ regular wards, or sections of the city and suburbs. At other seasons its members migrate to the provinces, to engage in harvesting, hop-picking, or to attend fairs, where they figure as owners of ‘Puff and Darts’, ‘Spin ’em rounds’, and other games.


The accompanying photograph, taken on a piece of vacant land at Battersea, represents a friendly group gathered around the caravan of William Hampton, a man who enjoys the reputation among his fellows, of being ‘a fair-spoken, honest gentleman’. Nor has subsequent intercourse with the gentleman in question led me to suppose that his character has been unduly overrated.


He honestly owned his restless love of a roving life, and his inability to settle in any fixed spot. He also held that the progress of education was one of the most dangerous symptoms of the times, and spoke in a tone of deep regret of the manner in which decent children were forced now-a-days to go to school. ‘Edication, sir! Why what do I want with edication? Edication to them what has it makes them wusser. They knows tricks what don’t b’long to the nat’ral gent. That’s my ‘pinion. They knows a sight too much, they do! No offence, sir. There’s good gents and kind ‘arted scholards, no doubt. But when a man is bad, and God knows most of us aint wery good, it makes him wuss. Any chaps of my acquaintance what knows how to write and count proper aint much to be trusted at a bargain.’


The dealer in hawkers’ wares in Kent Street, tells me that when in the country the wanderers ‘live wonderful hard, almost starve, unless food comes cheap. Their women carrying about baskets of cheap and tempting things, get along of the servants at gentry’s houses, and come in for wonderful scraps. But most of them, when they get flush of money, have a regular go, and drink for weeks; then after that they are all for saving… They have suffered severely lately from colds, small pox, and other diseases, but in spite of bad times, they still continue buying cheap, selling dear, and gambling fiercely.’


Declining an invitation to ‘come and see them at dominoes in a public over the way’, I hastened to note down as fast as possible the information received word for word in the original language in which it was delivered, believing that this unvarnished story would at least be more characteristic and true to life.

Filed under: history, photography, social criticism

What Fire in the Ears: Much Ado c. 1953

Jennifer Lee Taylor as Beatrice and Matt Shimkus as Benedick; photo by John Ulman

Jennifer Lee Taylor as Beatrice and Matt Shimkus as Benedick; photo by John Ulman

Linguists like David Crystal are fond of pointing out that shifts in pronunciation over the centuries cause modern audiences to miss out on some of the key puns and subtexts in Shakespeare’s plays. The claim that “nothing” and “noting” were all but indistinguishable in Elizabethan English is a case in point. I don’t know who first observed that “Much Ado About Noting” might be a far apter title for Shakespeare’s perennially popular comedy of misalignments realigned, but it’s become a widespread idea by now.

Certainly the play’s momentum is driven by acts of noting, of hearing or seeing things that cause perceptions to be changed dramatically. Most of these eavesdroppings are intentionally stage-managed by other characters – for benevolent if somewhat mischievous purposes (Benedick and Beatrice being led to believe they are the object of each other’s affection) and for nefarious ones (the framing of Hero as unfaithful).

What I find most striking about Seattle Shakespeare’s current production of Much Ado About Nothing is how gullible the main characters prove to be. A good portion of the comedy in the Beatrice-Benedick stand-off arises from the exaggerated language both use to express their mutual disdain – with Beatrice scoring more stinging zingers in Jennifer Lee Taylor’s arch, glib-as-a-movie-starlet delivery. Yet it doesn’t take much trickery to soften them up and make the pair willing to thrust their necks “into a yoke” same as all the rest.

Justin Huertas as Balthasar, Jim Gall as Don Pedro, Jay Myers as Claudio, and Peter A. Jacobs as Leonato; photo by John Ulman.

Justin Huertas as Balthasar, Jim Gall as Don Pedro, Jay Myers as Claudio, and Peter A. Jacobs as Leonato; photo by John Ulman

More tellingly still, Claudio reverses his Prince Charming poses even more readily than he’d pressed his lightning-fast courtship of Hero. She, in turn, is just as content to have the hot-head back after he’s been compelled to “note” her fake funeral.

All this manipulation and puppet-like flexibility can make Much Ado seem pretty arbitrary. The fundamental problem Shakespeare’s comedy poses for the performers is that it nestles a potential tragedy at its core. The notions of love that the two main couples hold on to, imagining they represent the real thing, must be put to the test; they have to enter crisis mode before any genuine change can take place.

Merely “noting” appearances or trying to preempt disappointment is a passive stance, and it can’t substitute for experience. It’s one thing for this testing to take the form of obstacles – standard procedure in comedy – but to be presented as the nightmare which erupts at the play’s center is deeply unsettling.

Hero (Brenda Joyner) rejected; photo by John Ulman

Hero (Brenda Joyner) rejected; photo by John Ulman

Or…maybe that’s just making much ado about nothing after all. Maybe the play really should be enjoyed for its witty slant on romance and friendship triumphant, served up with abundant linguistic virtuosity (and a virtuosic reversal of all that when it comes to the malapropic snares in which Dogberry gets entangled). As directed by George Mount, artistic director of Seattle Shakes, this production doesn’t show much interest in digging beyond that, but it still adds up to a pleasurable performance for the most part.

The production’s design elements are a particular attraction. They effectively translate the cheerful Mediterranean clime of Shakespeare’s Renaissance Messina to a tony seaside resort in 1953, with sailors coming home from the (presumably Korean) war, now ready to relax and get back to the pleasures of life. Craig B. Wollam’s elegantly evocative set, Roberta Russell’s sun-kissed lighting scheme, and the delightful period details of Doris Black’s costumes work together to reinforce this background.

Seattle Shakes is also embarking here on the first of two collaborations this season with Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra: Michael Brockman composed music for the songs Shakespeare embeds in the play. The jazz ensemble pre-recorded this incidental score. Justin Huertas (Balthasar) does double duty as the resort’s Sinatra-smooth entertainer and also sings a lovely threnody at the tomb of Hero before her “resurrection.”

Dogberry (David Quicksall) and crew; photo by  John Ulman

Dogberry (David Quicksall) and crew; photo by John Ulman

These elements so successfully evoke a concrete sense of place that it seems to encourage some of the cast to adopt a looser, more-relaxed style vis-a-vis Shakespeare’s language – as if to match the “realism” of the setting. Taylor’s Beatrice and Matt Shimkus as Benedick stand out not only for their engaging interactions, spinning off each other’s whip-snap repartee, but for their attention to the textures and rhythms of their words. And Peter A. Jacobs brings a suave edge to Leonato as the entitled party-giver while remaining authoritative in his speech.

As Hero and Claudio, on the other hand, Brenda Joyner and Jay Myers tend toward blandness, failing to voice the different registers of their language. Myers also remains too much the nice guy who’s been duped to give his final transformation its full effect. Especially flat is the one-note resentment displayed by Nick Rempel as the scheming villain Don John.

Noah Greene layers a Fonzie-ish attitude on the rascal-for-hire Borachio, who is the first in the play to set off its chain-reaction of conversations overheard. Most of these are staged, but he chances on Claudio’s spontaneous confession of his love for Hero. And by the play’s symmetry, it’s when Borachio is overheard by chance bragging about his nasty deed that the solution to the crisis is introduced. But before everything can be untangled, the night watch set up by Constable Dogberry (David Quicksall) – who do that bit of overhearing – restore the comic tone that’s so suddenly been sucked out of the play with Hero’s slander. This layer was, to my taste, the least successful, too reliant on extraneous gimmicks at the expense of the hilarity already there in the language.

When all is restored in the finale (the captured Don John notably awaiting his punishment offstage, to be dealt with later), this production infuses an infectious joie de vivre that makes this Much Ado about something after all.

Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by George Mount, continues through November 17, 2013, at the Center Theatre at Seattle Center. Tickets online.

(c) 2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: review, Shakespeare, theater

The Art of Gregory Maqoma

Gregory Maqoma in Exit/Exist; photo: John Hogg

Gregory Maqoma in Exit/Exist; photo: John Hogg

This is why I love Seattle’s On the Boards: recently OtB presented Exit/Exist, the moving production by Gregory Maqoma and his
Vuyani Dance Theatre that’s currently on tour in the U.S.

A dancer, choreographer, and director from Johannesburg, Maqoma turns his attention in this piece to his heritage as a descendant of the 19th-century Xhosa chief Jongum-sobomvu Maqoma. Exit/Exist traces the wrenching story of Chief Maqoma’s heroic but doomed struggle against the British colonizers who ruthlessly dispossessed the Xhosa, destroying their ancestral way of life.

The piece itself unfolds as a spellbinding narrative fabric. Each thread enhances the others: Maqoma’s restlessly inventive dance steps, the score performed live by the brilliant Italian guitarist Giuliano Modarelli, with vocal harmonies by the ensemble Complete, and visuals that symbolically evoke the Xhosa’s cultural traditions and the crisis forced on them by the colonialist interlopers, ending with Chief Maqoma’s tragic defeat.

In the opening sequence, Maqoma – his back to the audience, clad in a silver jacket – weightlessly dances an extended solo suggesting perhaps a contemporary incarnation of the Chief – the situation faced by the survivors. From this the story then leaps across generations and geographies, effortlessly blending traditional, urban griot, folk, and popular idioms into a compelling whole that has the texture of a multi-faceted myth – and that haunts the imagination long after. It’s the same sorrowful pattern of conquest and loss once again, but rendered painfully real and present.

In an interview about his piece Beautiful Me, Maqoma describes the immediately recognizable emotional and personal connection his performances achieve:

I break the fourth wall, I get as close to my audience as possible and it is not space closeness but its by feeling, I want to be one with my audience, I invite them by opening all doors and scrapping away all conventions for them to feel safe with me. When they are safe with me, I’m safe with them, therefore we can begin to negotiate on all levels.

Filed under: dance, performance

Azeotrope’s City-Country Double Bill

 Richard Nguyen Sloniker, Tim Gouran and Mariel Neto in Red Light Winter; photo: Benito Vasquez

Richard Nguyen Sloniker, Tim Gouran and Mariel Neto in Red Light Winter; photo: Benito Vasquez

My recent profile of Seattle’s remarkable Azeotrope Theatre is up on Crosscut:

What makes people want to attend live theater? Sure, it’s an art that dates back to the origins of human culture, but why put up with the hassle when it’s become so easy to find entertainment from the comforts of home? Even the allure of films is no longer enough to guarantee the future of movie theaters.

But Azeotrope has a way of making you remember what’s so unique about theater in the first place. No amount of digitalized special effects can trump the raw, gritty emotional power or the gripping depictions of desperate characters who populate Azeotrope’s latest project.

 Richard Nguyen Sloniker in Red Light Winter; photo: Sebastien Scanduzzi

Richard Nguyen Sloniker in Red Light Winter; photo: Sebastien Scanduzzi

Over the next month the company is presenting a double bill of plays in rotating repertory at the Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space, a tiny black box theater located downstairs at ACT. Both plays are less than a decade old: Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter (2005), which was a Pulitzer finalist, and the Seattle premiere of the recent 25 Saints by Joshua Rollins (who will be on hand for post-play discussions on Nov. 2 and 3).

“When I when I first read Red Light Winter, it just kicked me in the balls,” says Richard Nguyen Sloniker, an actor, writer, teacher and co-founder of Azeotrope. “It hit me in a way I couldn’t quite grasp, and I had to try to parse out why.”

Rapp’s scenario is a bleak examination of the need for intimacy. It explores the consequences of a night two former college friends spend with a beautiful young prostitute in Amsterdam. “Sure, it’s not a very cheery play,” Sloniker explains, “but I identified with these lost, broken, human characters. A good play doesn’t necessarily have to give you a catharsis.”

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Filed under: review, theater

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