January 20, 2008


Intermission at the Metropolitan Opera:


The ladies check their cell phones. From "Die Walküre" on Monday to "Jersey Boys" and "Wicked" on Friday and Saturday, I've spent the past week sitting in expensive chairs.

But Althouse, did you enjoy yourself? Review the shows!

Do I review shows? I think you'll find that I do not.

Not a shred of information? Of judgment?

I'm too afraid of being boring. I'm afraid to take those expensive seats because I'm afraid of being bored and I'm afraid to write about them because I don't want to be boring. I will say something about each show, but bear in mind that these are not reviews. These are just a few things I dare to say.

1. "Die Walküre." I never took Fricka seriously before. She seemed like the annoying wife who had to show up and sing once to make God do something he didn't want to do and set the tragedy in motion. But Stephanie Blythe made me really believe her point of view, a rock-solid ban on adultery. And isn't it fascinating to be so outraged by adultery, when there is also that brother-sister incest, which is what shocks the mortals in the audience? There are so many more adulterers in the audience than violators of the incest taboo.

2. "Jersey Boys." If you've been reading this blog from the beginning, maybe you know that back in 2004, I mourned that no one cared about The Four Seasons anymore. Less than 2 years later, a big Broadway show about them opened. But even though The Four Seasons were the first group I loved — and I loved them from the first few seconds of "Sherry" heard on the radio — I wasn't that eager to hear a singer impersonate Frankie Valli. I can't express how sublime that voice seemed to me when I was 11. Does Michael Longoria sound like him? Superficially, yes. But would I go to see a Four Seasons cover band? [ADDED: I mean tribute band.] Of course not. I love all the songs, but I'd rather play the originals. As for the story behind the songs, it's somewhat interesting and quickly told. But I'd rather play the originals and enter the deep emotional space of the past. Must I sit — contorting to see around the melon-headed man in front of me — to stare at the stage and and listen to a little man who is not Frankie Valli, who has a voice but no sex appeal?

3. "Wicked." Great set and costumes and neat, complicated story, but must every song in the show sound like those horrible, overblown pop songs they write for the finale of "American Idol"? Glinda and Elphaba got me thinking about Diana DeGarmo and Fantasia.
I'm through accepting limits
'Cuz someone says they're so
Some things I cannot change
But 'till I try, I'll never know
It's an "American Idol" song. And it goes on and on like that. Pursue your dreams! Be true to yourself! Don't let anyone stop you now! That's fine for you, but what about me?


hdhouse said...

In her honor...Fricka's that is


AllenS said...

Plunging necklines.

Squints said...

Four Seasons. Always dug the drum sound they got on the early records, especially on numbers like "Walk Like a Man." A smidge ahead of its time. Only Phil Spector's singles were in that class for drum sound.

I wonder if part of it isn't the forward-rotation of "oldies" stations from a 1955-72 focus to more 1975-1990. Lots of great stuff is slipping under the radar. Me, I tend not to care when stuff was made so long as it's good.

Irene Done said...

There was an article in Time a few months ago about how Broadway is targeting the pre-teen girl audience now. Wicked started that trend. And of course both Fantasia and Diane DeGarmo have appeared in Broadway productions.

You try to stop blogging Idol and they pull you back in!

Ron said...

I'm not sure the person who wrote the beginning of this post was Althouse. Afraid? Not a word I hear very much around these parts! Afraid of being boring? 4 years and like a bajillion posts later, the regular readership would have weighed in on that long ago. In fact, we wouldn't be here! Besides, what if you boring? So what! Even that flaw would be interesting.

You've endured far more brickbats about breasts and squirrels than you ever will about "Wicked" and Frankie Valli!

Still, I'm here reading for the whole nine yards, reviews or no...

Ann Althouse said...

Ron, I'm being vigilant. I avoid writing about many things that I do. I don't review everything I read/see. I rarely write about things I do with people. I edit things down a lot. I'm just pointing it out here.

Trooper York said...

Well Elphaba, you can continue to blightly diss the popular amusements of the plebeians, in a vaguely condescending manner that reeks of the perpetual certainty of the ivory towered academy. The Munchkins will not be amused.

ricpic said...

In plush vestibules
After having supped
Sirens check their cells
Before -- Curtain Up!

PatCA said...

I agree about Jersey Boys. It was kind of like seeing a cover band. And dropping the f-bomb every two sentences...a bit much!

Trooper York said...

Wait a minute. You went to Broadway and skinny gay guys are singing show tunes!!!!!!
THE HORROR!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Chip Ahoy said...

Intermission = signal for autodialers to clear the calls missed cache.

Because that's more immediate than one's date.

reader_iam said...

At the start of the '80s, in connection with a costume-design theatre course I took in college, we went on a field trip to the Met, where we got to spend the day watching rehearsals, wandering through the costume/wardrobe areas and--most impressively--the backstage areas. Wow! The scope and scale of everything was simply amazing. While the opera we saw that night (La Traviata) certainly wasn't the first I'd seen, as you can imagine the encounter was quite different given the context.

Great experience, though to this day, hard to describe. And while I had liked opera before that (which was a little weird, since that was the one genre of "serious" music my parents were not fond of), I was absolutely sold from then on.


I also did a handful of reviews of theatre and other performances in college, first as part of theatre history and theatre criticism courses and then later for the college newspaper. I even was encouraged to continue by someone who went on to be a critic for PBS, which I believe he still is (he taught the above referenced courses at the time).

But I found it to be too heartbreaking, I worried about being boring but even more being too mean, and--in short--simply didn't have the stomach for it.

reader_iam said...

(He didn't teach the costume-design course; I meant the other ones.)

reader_iam said...

I really enjoyed "Wicked," which I saw last summer, but I had the same issue with the music that you do: the endless finale thing gets old, fast.

Randy said...

Answered my questions! Thanks.

rhhardin said...

The intermission pic looks perfect for a cheese course, accompanied by Poulenc's Intermede Champetre

Maxine Weiss said...

In the old days, ladies used the full intermission to powder their nose and otherwise redo their entire makeup.

Now, intermission is used to perform transactions on their cell phones, while their smudged mascara and smeared rouge goes unrepaired.

Unknown said...

Tsk, tsk! You're not supposed to take pictures inside the Met! Going to see Tristan und Isolde in March.

Anonymous said...

Talk about musical whiplash: Die Walküre to the Jersey Boys. Having all this at hand is one of the rewards of living in a real city.  Those of us in places like Boston are jealous, except, of course, when it comes to the evil Yankees.  Go Sox!

hdhouse:  Thanks for the link, which leads to some wonderful online Wagner resources.  My boys (11 and 13) are big Lord of the Rings fans—my wife made them read every word of the book along with The Hobbit before they ever saw the movie—and I have been slowly using that to introduce them to the "other" Ring.  We've spent quite a few dinner conversations comparing the Tolkien story and characters to the Wagner ones.  My youngest one, in particular, has no problem with the idea of Leitmotiven, and is quite adept at picking them out.  The linked resource is a wonderful way to expand that knowledge.  We spent an hour or so this afternoon poking through those sites.  Thanks again.

It's interesting that the first "real" opera, Monteverdi's l'Orfeo of 1607, uses LeitmotivenThis excerpt shows the very short "overture" and the Prologue sung by the character "Musica."  The recurring theme played by the strings of the period instrument "orchestra" is the "Orfeo" motiv.  In addition to Orfeo, there are themes for Euridyce, Persephone, Pluto and the Underworld, etc.  As in Wagner, the choice of instruments is also symbolic. There are perhaps half dozen Leitmotiven as opposed to the 200 or so used by Wagner, but that's the difference 250 years can make, not to mention one opera and an hour and a half, compared to four operas and 15 hours.

reader:  It's interesting that a lot of instrumentalists don't particularly like opera.  I know I came fairly late to appreciate it.  One thing that attracts people to playing instruments is the "purity" of the musical expression—we want  the notes, only the notes. We're often first intrigued by music on an abstract level. Opera seems compromised and "dirty" in comparison.  All those out-of-tune singers screaming their guts out!  For a lot of us, appreciation of opera comes only with maturity.

rhhardin said...

Hey Orfeo!

I used to play the thing over and over as a teen, doing homework; because I liked the interludes.

Arkiv has reissued the 50s LP as a CD, from which I recently pulled all that sugar here.

Here's a more modern performance.

Here's the A-B comparison .

I actually came to like even the recitativs just through listening through them.

Modern real players will ask to download genuine ancient sipr 9 codec for these.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

rhhardin: Interesting reminiscence and interesting to hear those old performances. There's certainly a lot more caffeine in recent efforts, partly because of more musicological research, and partly because there are more competent players of ye olde instruments.  You want players of cornetts and sackbutts, not to mention a chittarone, a lyra da braccio, viole da gamba, and an harpa doppia (all in Monteverdi's score)?  I suspect you could field two or three good Monteverdi orchestras from players in New York alone.   Of course you could field two or three good performing ensembles for anything in New York.

A bit more about Monteverdi and Wagner:

It's a piece of common misinformation that Wagner invented the Leitmotiv.  In fact, identifiable themes associated with characters and places occurred in some of the very first operas, along with through-composed music and integrated action.  Wagner's very real reforms were, to a great extent, a return to the ideals of the earliest opera.

Opera began as efforts in the late 16th century to revive the ancient chanted or sung Greek drama.  The earliest opera experiments from the 1580's and 90's are tediously dry affairs, with long stretches of arid recitative accompanied by a lute or one of its relatives.  Monteverdi's genius was that he incorporated all the devices of the theater of his day, along with a vastly richer musical texture, while retaining the classical unities, integrated action, and, yes, themes associated with characters and places.  The familiar so-called "numbers opera," where all the action grinds to a halt while a character sings an aria, is actually a later development, and a very unsatisfactory one that people griped about for 200 years.  Monteverdi nicely sidestepped the "aria trap" with clever and beautifully-written music that advances the action, allows the singers scope for their talents, and keeps the audience's attention, just as Wagner did all those years later.

l'Orfeo is a little gem, and I can hardly listen to it with a dry eye.  Among other things, it's thrilling to hear a very satisfying opera written nearly at the time of Shakespeare.  It's also thrilling to know that the heights that Wagner reached were achieved, whether or not he knew or acknowledged it, by standing on the shoulders of the giants who invented the European musical theater 250 years before.

reader_iam said...

Fascinating, this latest insight from and into rhhardin, given the Leitmotif with which he's been hammering us all, across so many subjects and within so many threads, for so quite awhile now.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

reader_iam:  It's true that a lot of us have stuck with the same Leitmotiven we've had for years.  It appears, though, that once the lovely and wistful Althouses Brooklynreise ends, and we finish the current performance of Trollendämmerung, it soon will be time to start rehearsals for il ritorno d'Althouse in Madison.

You know Baroque opera has a more stylized, formal presentation, combined with many visual and ornamental elements, so it may be that we should abandon Germanic Angst, not to mention the far too common Sturm und Drang, for a more reserved yet decorative approach.  I know Althouse has said she wants to enhance the artistic character here, so why not combine that with some polite 17th century manners and modern wit?  We need more like Sir Archy, Bissage and Trooper York (in alphabetical order), not to mention you, dear reader_iam, and less of...well, you can fill in your own names.

We should throw off the heavy, Germanic Leitmotiven we've been burdened with all these years, and like characters in any good Baroque opera, adopt the affetto proper to our roles.  As the Trolls will have been consumed in the Bloghalla conflagration, there should be little scope for that particular type in our new production, save for the unusual rôle of Human Frailty, or perhaps one or two among the chorus of sailors, who, I believe, are to be shipwrecked.

I hope everyone will be practicing their scales and arpeggios and learning to pronounce their vowels more clearly, not to mention carrying themselves with a bit more Italianate brio, getting ready for next season.

tjl said...

Theo, don't be too quick to dismiss the Germanic Leitmotiven. Consider the possibility that the results of the upcoming election cycle are not to your taste (quite likely, considering the candidates we have to choose from). I predict four years of Sturm und Drang.

Trooper York said...

Now a cynical and obnoxious commenter might mock the interest and enjoyment of the enthusiasts of mind numbingly boring opera since they are generally limited to the elderly, pretentious and constipated. But that would be wrong.

Instead we wish you well. Let’s hope there are many more threads devoted to the latest output of the 19th century. We can even set up a panel of judges with the dyspeptic hd house, a bored former girl cub reporter and Theo in blackface. I’m am sure that the assembled congregation will be supportive of such a meme as it would of course be one of the most watched television programs in history. Ya think?

God save American Idol.

Anonymous said...

Now an equally obnoxious commenter might say that knowing less than nothing about a subject should disqualify a person from saying anything about it.  But that would be wrong.  We live in an age when ignorance is valued.  Everyone is his own Rousseauian Noble Savage.

The elderly, the constipated and the pretentions form a cohort about as large as those who attend NFL games. All those elitist cranks are spending their money on mind-numbingly boring opera for some reason or other.  Maybe it's because a lot of people are not cartoons in someone's pop culture imagination, and actually know something about opera and enjoy it.

Yes, a lot of opera comes from the 19th century, but much of it dates from earlier centuries as well.  Ya know, who can understand Shakespeare these days??  That stuff's mind-numbingly boring, too.  And they started writing operas around that time.  Figures.  I mean, why can't we all just watch Survivor?  Who needs that old crap?  Borrrring!

But some of us are cursed with musical educations, and some of us actually derive a bit of income from those dead white people.  I designed and largely made one of the instruments used in the Met orchestra, probably in the performance Althouse attended.  Not a huge amount of money, but the goodwill of the player helps us quite a bit.  And, you see, there is an entire musical culture out there—NOT consisting of the elderly, the constipated, etc.—that supports me and pays my bills, at least, and about which most people on these threads have no idea.

When American Idol stars start buying $12,000 instruments that I work on, I might shift my attentions to sequins and plastic keyboards.  In the mean time, I've got to go and work on an instrument that's been ordered by...uh...an opera company.  Funny how that works.

Trooper York said...

Sorry if I upset you Theo, I know everyone has their own rice bowl. But the fans of Idol and Opera combined are much less than that of the fanatics who collect hummels. Now it would be easy to mock the simple enjoyments of housewives who collect miniature figurines of distorted dwarfs, but that would be wrong.

So let's just agree to disagree. Just don't resign your position again, after the Giants overtime win, my heart would not be able to stand the emotional impact of another farewell address. All the best.

PS. I am in the market for a new ukulele. Let's talk.