posted by James Reel
Here are two reviews of dance productions on video I wrote last year for Fanfare. I recommend both, but they will appeal to different tastes.
MORETTI-MONTEVERDI Caravaggio • Paul Connelly, cond; Staatsballet Berlin; Staatskapelle Berlin • ARTHAUS 101 464 (Blu-ray disc: 122:00) Live: Berlin 2008
Artist Caravaggio (real name: Michelangelo Merisi, 1571–1610) is the subject of choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti’s new two-act ballet, but the subject in only a general, even metaphorical sense. If you open the booklet and look at the section titles—things like “Journey to Rome,” “The Tooth Extraction,” “Dispute and Duel”—you’ll expect this to be a story ballet recounting the volatile artist’s sudden rise to celebrity, his various conflicts and disputes, and his sudden, early death, apparently from fever rather than violence. But then you’ll start watching the performance, and become completely lost. Nothing on stage corresponds to the section titles, and it seems that Bigonzetti is indulging in a bit of postmodern misdirection.
The central dancer does seem to correspond to Caravaggio. We first see him, Vladimir Malakhov, alone on stage: a muscular, thick-lipped, shaggy Slavic blond in his underwear, Malakhov looks more like a Spartacus than a Caravaggio. His movements are beautiful, controlled, masculine, motivated by some inner spark, or inner torture. At various times in the course of the ballet, Malakhov will be partnered with two superb female dancers, Polina Semionova and Beatrice Knop, who seem to suggest the contrasts in Caravaggio’s work and life: light and dark, purity and carnality, the private mind (or soul) and the public body. Another important partner in the second act is the commanding, beautiful young Leonard Jakovina, who embodies both tenderness and violence, and brings to the proceedings a bisexual sensuality. The first act also involves other soloists and the corps de ballet in a series of athletic Roman street scenes.
So what are all these figures up to? And what is Bigonzetti up to, for that matter? He seems to be trying to translate the sheer physicality of Caravaggio’s paintings into dance, and he certainly succeeds at this, even if identifiable allusions to actual paintings are few and far between. The lighting design of Carlo Cerri is critical to all this; it defines space and adds texture to the bodies.
Bigonzetti’s choreography is dynamic, fusing some elements of classical ballet to what is essentially modern dance. The duets are arresting and innovative, yet not quite as unusual as some of the dancers seem to think. In the accompanying interview feature, one of the ballerinas exclaims that making a dancer stand on her seated partner’s swiveling knees has never been done before; well, she’s apparently never seen Pilobolus, or acrobats, for that matter. It would have been interesting to see how she managed to slide off those knees and rejoin the floor on pointe, but unfortunately video director Andreas Morell cuts away at that point. Morell is a bit of a problem here; especially in the lively group scenes in the first act, his quick cutting, emulating the dynamics of the movement, makes the action almost unintelligible. Otherwise, though, he seems more sensible, and his choice of medium shots and closeups usually helps illuminate the dancers’ gestures, which is very important in this choreography. He also makes good occasional use of overhead shots.
Bruno Moretti assembled the score from various works by Caravaggio’s close contemporary Claudio Monteverdi. Moretti’s treatment of the originals is initially light and Beechamesque, but gradually becomes darker and always varied in texture. It’s Romanticized Monteverdi, but it fits the stage action perfectly.
The Blu-ray release delivers superb visual detail—you can tell who shaves which body parts and who does not—and two audio options: PCM stereo and dts-HD 7.1 surround. The DVD’s audio formats are PCM stereo, DD 5.1, and DTS 5.1. The DVD apparently is a gateway to some online bonus material, but because it requires a Windows operating system and I’m a Mac user, I couldn’t investigate it; I suspect it’s essentially the same collection of still photos from rehearsal and production that are included on the Blu-ray.
Bigonzetti’s Caravaggio is a puzzling work, but it’s beautifully performed; for both reasons, it invites multiple viewings. James Reel
CHOPIN La Dame aux camélias • Michael Schmidtsdorff, cond; Paris Opera Ballet & O • OPUS ARTE (2 blu-ray discs: 191:00) Live: Paris 2008
Choreographer John Neumeier’s setting of the same story that inspired La Traviata is beginning to take hold in companies beyond Neumeier’s own Hamburg Ballet, and with good reason. The choreography is challenging but graceful, and the entire presentation—at least when under Neumeier’s direct supervision—abounds in natural psychological nuance that’s more sophisticated than what Verdi could muster in his opera. The music, perfectly integrated with the story and stage action, is by Chopin, and the story itself, however familiar it may be, remains touching and has been particularly humanized in Neumeier’s treatment.
That story originated with the younger Alexandre Dumas; it’s a fictionalized account of his affair with Marie Duplessis, a consumptive courtesan who died at age 23. Dumas called his lovers Marguerite Gautier and Armand Duval, and he drew parallels between their story and that of the ill-fated Manon Lescaut. The novel, La Dame aux camélias (The Lady of the Camelias, after the heroine’s signature flower), was an instant success and within a week of its publication had been adapted for the stage. Verdi’s simplified operatic treatment, La Traviata, was premiered about five years later, and there ensued a long series of new stage adaptations and film treatments up through our own time.
In many ways, Neumeier’s ballet is the most faithful to Dumas, despite—or perhaps because of—its absolute lack of language. Neumeier employs the author’s flashback structure, opening the story as the late Marguerite’s estate is being sold off. Daringly, he also denies his lovers a grand pas de deux as a finale; their last big moment together, during a very brief interruption in their estrangement, comes a couple of scenes before the ballet’s end. As in the book, Armand reads about Marguerite’s demise in her diary.
On this new Blu-ray and DVD of a recent Paris Opera Ballet production, Neumeier is credited as both choreographer and stage director. Most obviously, that’s because there’s almost no choreography in the opening scene; it’s a presentation of Marguerite’s friends and lovers milling around her apartment as her estate is being liquidated. In other words, the dancers here must perform as silent actors. But, importantly, they continue to do so once the choreography begins. As Marguerite, Agnès Letestu is superb at this; for example, just watch for the variety of her highly nuanced smiles in the early scenes. The rest of the cast is almost as adept at this; Letestu’s interactions with Stéphane Bullion are full of subtleties, as are the gestures and glances among the secondary characters. Video director Thomas Grimm emphasizes that this is much more than an display of bodies in motion with well-chosen, brief reaction shots intercut with the primary action. Not every moment is entirely successful; an early pas de trois that develops when Armand enters the fantasy world of Manon and Des Grieux looks awkward and effortful, but when the dancers are less entangled, the choreography is fluid and psychologically precise.
The music is by Chopin, the original pieces (not Sylphided for orchestra), almost all of them presented intact. The whole of the Piano Concerto No. 2 supports the first act; it’s mostly solo items in the second, and a mixture of solo works and compositions with orchestra in the third. The taxing keyboard duties are traded off with sensitivity and security between Emmanuel Strosser and Frédéric Vaysse-Knitter; in the concerto, support from the Paris Opera Orchestra under Michael Schmidtsdorff could occasionally be more incisive, but it serves its purpose. Jürgen Rose’s costumes are superb, suggesting the authentic garb of 1840s Paris while also lending themselves to movement (except that Letestu often has to pull her long skirts away from Bullion’s face during the lifts), and reinforcing through color and drape the emotions of each scene. Rose also does a fine job of visually distinguishing the fantasy world of Manon from the “real” world of Marguerite in their few but critical scenes together.
The main difference between the Blu-ray and DVD editions is, as usual, the audio choices; on Blu-ray it’s PCM stereo versus PCM 5.0, while on DVD it’s either LPCM stereo or dts surround. Both formats include a nearly hour-long documentary, illustrated synopsis, and cast gallery. The Blu-ray video is sharper and richer, and, in principle, a Blu-ray player really is worth your investment if you have a big enough screen to show it off.
I haven’t seen the competing DVD issued a couple of years ago by DG, derived from a 20-year-old performance at Neumeier’s home base, Hamburg Opera. A consumer review at one retail Web site complains that the transfer was made at a slightly accelerated speed, so there’s reason for caution. But Neumeier was present for this Paris production, and the dancers are models of contemporary French ballet style, so I have no qualms about adopting this as a reference version. Neumeier’s La Dame aux camélias is an exquisite unity of music, motion and emotion. James Reel
posted by James Reel
Is there anything sadder than a neglected blog? Well, yes, come to think of it, there are many sadder things. Still, it’s about time I took pity on this blog and posted something new. Except that what you’re about to read isn’t new at all. It’s an essay I wrote in the late 1990s, and I have no idea if the few statistics quoted herein are accurate. But you’ll get the idea.
Logolingus Is A Private Pleasure
These are the sounds of a book: A gentle scrape as you remove the volume from the shelf. A minute creak as you open the cover and bend back the old binding. A scratch-rustle-plop as you riffle the pages. A remote breaking of miniature waves as you turn a single page. A sharp thop as you slam the book against a desktop mosquito.
A book does not speak. Though crammed with words, a book can be no more than vaguely susurrant. The words find their sounds only in the reader's head.
A “talking book” may be a valuable compromise for people with impaired vision, but for the rest of us it is a brain-rotting malignancy. It imposes the imagination of some other reader—often a poor reader—on our own. It cuts us off from the important clues and contexts of the printed page, leaving us to drift gently in a stream of poorly distinguished words.
Yet talking books assault readers at every turn. Most bookstores stock them in shelves near the entrance, so tape-zombies may find them without having to be distracted by any demanding printed matter. Talking books have infiltrated video stores. And the 18-branch library system in my city owns nearly 3,300 book-on-tape titles, fully half of which are in circulation at any given time. Librarians report that the average talking book circulates twice as much as the average print book.
What is the appeal? People making long automobile commutes, or taking cross-country trips, feel that they’re making better use of what would otherwise be intellectual down time. But how well do they attend to the tapes while contending with traffic and gawking at scenery? And what about people who put on a spoken-word recording at home, then go about their household routines? Do they really stop scrubbing the toilet long enough to follow Ian McKellen through one of the serpentine similes in The Odyssey?
I admit that part of my antagonism toward talking books is my own dislike of being read to. Surely at some point in my slobbery toddlerhood somebody narrated to me the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. But I don’t remember such a thing. My earliest literary memory is of reading Little Golden Books myself as a pre-schooler, being traumatized by the way the jungle animals mocked the Saggy Baggy Elephant, and thereby learning at a tender age never to put myself at the mercy of my peers. I could weep over these stories without embarrassment, because I was reading them myself, in privacy, forming my own understanding of the narrative, hearing the characters’ voices in my head.
I never developed a tolerance for readers who brought less color to a sentence than I could without opening my mouth. And face it: Most people are poor readers. They go too fast. They adopt a sing-song rhythm. They gloss over periods and get lost in dependent clauses. Or, most commonly, they simply drone. Consider the somewhat twangy but otherwise uninflected delivery of public radio’s Dick Estell. Or the monotone of professional news readers, which is supposed to convey impartiality but really only implies that anchors never glance at a script before going on air.
People don’t seem to care, and I think it’s because these people themselves don’t read aloud with any skill. In college, I once took a course in the oral interpretation of literature. I did so well that the instructor tried to recruit me as a major. Not because I was a budding Olivier, but because I instinctively knew how to read with the oral equivalent of a cocked eyebrow, and my classmates couldn’t get beyond spluttering out phonemes.
Poets are no better. In 1996 Rhino Records issued a four-CD set titled In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. It gets off to a promising start, with Walt Whitman offering a measured, confident reading of “America”—exactly the presentation you’d expect from Whitman, unless you feared he would indulge in 19th-century melodrama. But then comes the incantatory monotony of William Butler Yeats, the merely dull monotony of Robert Frost, the nerdy nasalism of Steven Vincent Benet, Ezra Pound menacingly intoning his own words with no concession to meaning. Things improve somewhat with the living poets, although they are still too often subject to affectation or indifference.
The brightest track in the set is Allen Ginsberg riffing his way carelessly through a bit of his own America. Somehow this reminded me of a book I once saw in the Charles Dickens House in London; it was one of the texts from which Dickens did his celebrated public readings, and it was full of underlinings, cross-outs, and such stage directions as “slap the table!” Today’s readers must by comparison be bland, inoffensive, uninvolving.
Even good readers fail to engage me. I sampled a bit of the New Testament delivered by the late Alexander Scourby, my favorite narrator of TV documentaries; he was the bearded fellow who introduced art films on the Bravo channel in the 1980s. But on the Bible tape, Scourby’s voice made gentle bedtime stories of everything—parables and scenes of temptation alike.
Why should I listen to someone else read when my own sub-vocalization is so much richer? Yours may be, too, even if you speak with the finesse of a fan belt about to snap. For as you read silently, you absorb not only the author’s words, but the punctuation and layout. Roddy McDowall does a fine job with Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train, except that he loses us in passages of dialogue involving insufficiently differentiated minor characters—passages we could sort out simply by looking at the arrangement of quotation marks. And there’s no way McDowall can smoothly convey the paragraph breaks that guide us into and out of interior monologues or quick changes of scene. Without seeing the text, we cannot grasp its full substance or its nuance.
It’s true that some passages insist on being read aloud. Whisper to yourself the following line from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven: “And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain...” The early succession of four gently rocking sibilants—the Ss—perfectly conveys the very sound Poe describes. But then intrudes the affricate ch in “each,” followed ballistically by the four rapid aspirated stops in “purple curtain.” Poe jerks us awake with these little explosions, setting us up neatly for the mood of the following line: “Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before...”
Yet we’ve seen that neither poets nor actors can be relied upon to linger over such sounds to produce their full effect. Perhaps wrapping one’s lips and tongue with sufficient decadence around a word seems too sexual an act, a sort of logolingus, inappropriate for public display. So we are best off practicing this ourselves in private moments, alone with a book we love, a book representing an author with whom we develop understandings that remain unspoken.