Monday, June 22, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Facing the Cold" (on Puccini's La Bohème)

facing the cold
by Douglas Messerli

Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto), based on Scénes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, Giacomo Puccini (music), La Bohème
Robert Dornhelm (director), La Bohème [a film] / 2008

On Sunday, September 27, 2009, Howard and I attended a movie presentation of the opera La Bohème at the Music Hall theater in Beverly Hills.
      Although my intention in this short piece is not particularly to evaluate the film or opera itself, I should mention that I found a great many of the filmic details to be quite annoying. Dornhelm's aerial flights between scenes gave the "realist" drama a kind fairy-tale like quality, as if God-in-all-his-wisdom were looking down on these poor folk, which was further enhanced by an presentation of the Latin Quarter—which in this version looked more like some Alpine village—in black and white before fading into color. 
      Continuity throughout the film was poor, with obviously false snowflakes alternating between blizzard and gentle snowfall in a matter of seconds. Mimi's eyes in some scenes looked less like a victim of consumption than that a prize-fight boxer who'd been terribly roughed up; yet a few seconds later her makeup lightened and she was relatively pale.
      Dornhelm also presented some of the operatic duets as internal dialogues rather than sung recitatives, giving the characters a strangely mute appearance, often at the most lyrical moments of the music.
      For the most part, the singing was admirable, with beautiful performances by Rolando Villazón as Rodolfo, Anna Nerebko as Mimi, and Nicole Cabell as Musetta. But why Dornhelm could not find two Baritones, Marcello and Schaunard, who could both act and sing (George von Bergen's and Adrian Eröd's performances were sung by Boaz Daniel and Stephane Degout) is beyond me. I thought every young Baritone cut his teeth on these roles? I found the lip-synching distracted.
      For all that the opera was as joyful and emotionally wrenching as any La Bohème, and most of the rather geriatric audience could be observed weeping at opera's end.
      Normally, I might not have even written on such a well-known chestnut, presuming there is little more to be said. Yet, given this year's selected "topic," "Facing the Heat," I could not but observe that the major tropes of this work are related; throughout the opera the characters seek, other than food and the money to purchase and sustain them, primarily only three things: heat, light, and love. Of course, love can also provide some spiritual heat and light, and light, in turn, often results in heat and, particularly in the Spring, emanations of love. 
     The problem for these bohemians however, one they daily face, is that they have little of the first two. Luigi Illica's and Giuseppe Giacosa's Paris has always seemed to me to be more like a Siberian settlement than the City of Light. Yes, we know it snows in Paris, and the temperature can be frigid; in January of this year, thousands of travelers were stranded at Charles DeGaulle International Airport, the Eiffel Tower was closed, and temperatures for several weeks plunged to 10 Celsius. But most would tell you that while it snows in Paris, it is not a common event. Yet the world of La Bohème is a particularly dark one, in which, so it seems, every day is a frigid challenge.
      Roldolfo and his friends begin the opera singing of their cold bodies, determining to burn either the room's only chair or Marcello's new painting; Rodolfo offers up the pages of new play, which "perform" very badly. The "play," so they jest, is not one that will last. Schaunard arrives just in time, food and wood for the fireplace in hand; he has been paid for playing the piano for a parrot.
      Soon after, with Rodolfo alone in the room, Mimi knocks, claiming her candle has gone out, and much of the rest of the scene is spent with the two of them crawling about in the dark as they look for her lost key and fall madly in love. Rodolfo's first touch of her shivering hand reveals what will remain the theme throughout the opera, how to keep Mimi warm. As their candles both dwindle, they sing of their dreams, love of the Spring and light, Mimi explaining her pleasure in roses.
      One of the first of Rodolfo's acts after meeting Mimi is to buy her a bonnet, his attempt, symbolically, to warm her. The Second Act continues the warming theme with food, drink, and the emotionally-wrought and comic song of Musetta, aimed primarily at her former lover, Marcello. Sparks fly. All in all, this is the most well-lit and warmest scene in the entire production.     For Act Three, performed entirely in the cold winter air and, symbolically, at the very gate of the City, is the coldest of the opera. The characters remain not only outside of society and at the very edge of the City, but literally outside on the street. It is here, after suffering her lover's symbolic heat of his jealousy and fury that Mimi tells Marcello of Rodolfo's behavior and determines to leave him. But, as we know, she does not return home, staying to overhear Rodolfo's woeful tale of her tuberculosis and her certain death, all made worse by the fact that he has no way of altering their fate. His own poverty provides no warmth for the frozen woman, no light, and, in this context, no proper expression of his love. In this regard Puccini and his librettists literally create a "frieze," placing their characters costumed, in this movie version, in dark coats and dresses set against the white frozen world in which they are attempting to survive. As if Rodolfo's sorrow and Mimi's shocking discovery of her own condition were not enough, Marcello and Musetta also begin to fight, the terrified foursome revealing even further that love is nearly impossible in the world they inhabit.
      Rodolfo and Mimi are too deeply in love, however, to separate in this frozen landscape; they can only wait until April, when, at least, light returns and the flowers, and with them come the warmth of Spring and Summer.
    The end of this constant struggle, the necessity of having to continually face the cold, is played out in the last act, inevitably with Mimi's death. Yet even here, as they try to symbolically warm her, Musetta and Marcello running out to buy Mimi a muff, there is little warmth and even less light. Even trying to warm Mimi's medicine is an effort, as the flame threatens to go out. Singing to his coat—the only thing he has to keep the cold away from his flesh—Colline prepares to pawn it, sharing the money with his fellow sufferers. Love, it is clear, has survived in all of these good people, but without heat or light their love cannot heal or salve the living.
Los Angeles, September 28, 2009
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (September 2009).


Saturday, June 6, 2015

Douglas Messserli | "Unaltered Images of Movement" (on John Adams, Lucinda Childs and Frank O. Gehry's Available Light)

unaltered images of movement

 by Douglas Messerli

John Adams (music), Lucinda Childs (choreography), and Frank O. Gehry (stage design) Available Light / Los Angeles, Walt Disney Concert Hall, June 6, 2015  

Although often referred to as a “performance art work,” and despite the collaborative contributions of composer John Adams, architect and, here designer, Frank Gehry, Available Light is very much a modern balletic piece in which choreographer Lucinda Childs plays the major role. That this work from 1983 was first performed in the museum space of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Arts “Temporary Contemporary” venue, and was curated by art curator Julie Lazar, may have made this dance seem to be something other than is, leading some art critics such as Los Angeles Times’ William Wilson to dismiss it and others to praise it as an avant-garde, cutting edge piece. But as its revival at the Walt Disney Concert Hall last evening confirmed, it is a beautifully conceived work of contemporary dance that is different from others, perhaps, only through its venues: besides MOCA and the Concert Hall, the work was also revived at Mass MoCA and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, all rather untraditional locations for works dedicated to movement.
       To say that this work primarily functions in the dance world, however, does not take anything away from the lush musical circlings of Adams’ score nor detract from the breathtaking two-tiered platforms that Gehry has created for the dancers to perform on, the top layer held up plinths of a kind of delicately laced chain-link fence-like construction that reminded us, of course, of the architect’s early constructions. While the original MOCA audience sat on two sides of the platforms, experiencing it, accordingly, from completely different vantage points, most of the Concert Hall audience members were able to observe the patterned movements of the two layers of dancers from a shared perspective. My only presumption is that, as Deborah Meadows and I were seated on the fourth-floor level, the action of the dancers came into sharper focus, revealing the fact that the ten dancers on the lower level, moving in pairs of twos and threes in repeated spins (generally one and a half turns), skips, and leaps were determined by similar movements along a lateral bias by the two dancers above—although those patterns alternated later in the performance. In short, like two waves of movement, it appeared that the dancers of the top platform determined, for the most part, the larger image of dancers in a group on the lower level.

      While these series of “patterns and permutations, repetitions and variations,” as dance critic Anna Kisselgoff suggested in her 1983 review of the Brooklyn performance, are all signatures of Child’s minimalist esthetic, we might almost read this two-layered patterning in a different manner, particularly if we explore the metaphoric associations of the work’s title, perceiving the “available light” as having to do with photographing or imaging a reality without artificial light sources, and imagining the two layers of movement to reflect actions of two hands (the two top-positioned dancers) moving through water and chemicals to the resultant image (the ballet corps below).

     Such a reading is surely encouraged by the fact that the dancers are all dressed by costumer Kasia Ealicka Maimone in the three colors of the photographic studio, white, black and red, and that, from time to time, light designer Beverly Emmons dims her normally bright white lights into near darkness and briefly introduces red tones. And while we feel some guilt, perhaps, for reading Child’s obviously abstract movements in this more literal manner, it appears to give significant structure and depth to the whole, particularly if we believe, as Kisselgoff argued, that “the piece is not simply [an] exercise in perception, [but]… an aid to perception.” For in this work of wide-eyed availability, the observer can readily see how each movement gives direct rise to others, and transforms simple elements into waves of wider motion and expression.
      However one might “read” her dance, however, with Adams’ joyous music and Gehry’s simple but elegant designs, Childs has created in Available Light something truly profound. And the Los Angeles Philharmonic should be commended for returning this excellent work to the city of its birth. I feel fortunate to have been part of the audience rediscovering this work of art.


Los Angeles, June 6, 2015