Stay tuned for a report on La Fleming's concert staged Sunday afternoon at Lyric. In the meantime, the photo above, taken last week at the Kennedy Center Honors, piqued my curiosity: Who is he? Is he the new man in her life? Her new publicist? He can't possibly be her stylist.


A Masked Ball@Lyric

Giuseppe Verdi's 1859 thriller/tearjerker, Un Ballo In Maschera, opened Monday night at Lyric Opera of Chicago. The score, arguably the most beautiful Verdi ever wrote, is a mesmerizing mélange of irresistible orchestral interludes and convivial choruses, punctuated with soul-baring arias and fiery duets scattered strategically throughout three magnificent acts that astonish with their melodic power and beauty. Conductor Asher Fisch led the Lyric orchestra with plenty of dramatic flair and oomph. The overture—a simple, lullaby-like melody that gradually blossoms into a rapturous love theme—was very pretty, reminding us yet again of Verdi's incurable and morbid obsession with romantic love in all its giddy first stages. The prelude that transports us into Ulrica's lair was wonderfully sinister; in sharp contrast, Amelia's prayer from the previous scene, which makes a brief reprise in Act II just before Amelia sings "Ecco l'orrido campo," was especially graceful.

An excellent performance of Ballo depends a great deal on the vocal merits of its leading lady. Amelia, one of Verdi's most inspired heroines, requires a soprano endowed with a range of seismic power to cope with the role's killer music. There are few sopranos today whose lungs are powerful enough to encompass the role's vocal challenges without straining herself. Sondra Radvanovsky (pictured above) is one of those sopranos. She brought out the inherent sadness and desperation that inflames Amelia's conflicted heart without resorting to diva antics. Her voice—mostly made up of piercing head tones with a celestial clarity several carats worth—is an ideal match for Amelia's deeply profound music. From her first tentative utterances in Ulrica's cavern, she perked up my ears. By the time she arrived at the gallows to sing the taxing aria, "Ma dall'arido stelo divulsa"—a five-minute soliloquy that unmasks and reveals the soprano's technique, stamina and everything else in her arsenal—she grabbed me by the throat. Verdi, as though testing the singer's ability, demands breathtaking legato passages, inexhaustible breath control, ample volume, and if that's not enough crowns the aria with a daring high C. Ms. Radvanovsky passed the test, though her Italian diction could use some serious coaching. She did not seem to caress Amelia's exquisite music so much as glide through them from note to note. The searing "Morrò, ma prima in grazia," in her delicate phrasing, was a heartfelt plea devoid of histrionics yet infused with just the right amount of pathos. The series of duets in Act II with Frank Lopardo's Riccardo did not disappoint—or, rather, she did not disappoint. Mr. Lopardo's frayed, rough-around-the-edges tenor fell short of Riccardo's regal and heroic music. The romantic aria "Ma se m'è forza perderti," in Mr. Lopardo's nasal timbre, failed to capture hearts, least of all mine. He had a promising start, I must say: "La rivedrà nell'estasi" was sung with ardor. But that pretty little serenade does not make Riccardo Riccardo. Further, he had no palpable chemistry with Ms. Radvanovsky's heavily cloaked Amelia, and his voice is regional-level opera at best, not meant for the major league that Lyric is. As for Ms. Radvanovsky's vocal style: it was somewhat non-committal, sounding detached during crucial moments. But it was her solid technique and strong demeanor, however, that got her through the demanding role alive, eventually thawing her performance. (She began with a Nordic, Mattila-like palette which gave way towards the end to an autumnal palette of warm, Caravaggio-esque colors.) Baritone Mark Delavan sang Renato's signature "Eri tu" with enough passion but offered none of the manly elegance that someone like Piero Cappuccilli gave to this sublime aria. Debuting mezzo Stephanie Blythe as the fortune-teller Ulrica was insanely brilliant: she stole the entire show, which is a huge accomplishment considering her character appears in one measly scene. Kathleen Kim as the pageboy Oscar was certainly a mischievous young man whose raging hormones and adolescent awkwardness are humorously reflected in his (or her) coloratura roulades, and almost all of which Ms. Kim navigated with confidence, fluttering about the stage like a titillated butterfly. The ageless Renata Scotto directed this traditional but visually arresting production. It runs until December 10.


Yasujirō Ozu

Watch his films such as Equinox Flower, Late Spring, Early Summer, The End of Summer, An Autumn Afternoon, and countless others to witness Ozu's paean to the pastoral beauty of the ever-changing seasons. The great director's films are devoid of every imaginable cliché; he populates them with genteel people whose grace and serenity, played out against the backdrop of "modern life," shines like a beacon on a bay of daily confusion and intense globalization. If anything, Ozu's films are like an Impressionist canvas: soothing, magnificent in the subtlest of ways, profound, and exquisitely humane. His films speak of lives lived simply but triumphantly.





"Stage Magician"

Summer and Tennessee Williams were made for each other. The atmosphere required of his plays calls for all the infernal heat and seedy sultriness the season can bring, so that his characters may glisten and glow amid the squalor of their lower-class existence—well, their bodies at least. The Glass Menagerie is one of those plays. I recently caught a local (but superb) performance of the playwright's breakthrough masterpiece staged in a community theater just outside Chicago. This revival had no marquee-name actors in it, but rather felt like it did, for the acting was first-rate, anything but provincial. The girl who played Laura was a delicate damsel-in-distress, a brunette Rapunzel constantly on the brink of a nervous breakdown; so fragile in stature was this Laura that if the slightest summer breeze had blown inside the Wingfield's apartment, it could have easily finished her off. The actress who portrayed Amanda, the most overbearing of "stage mothers," had a fierce intensity that was both thrilling and hilarious: she projected her booming voice Ethel Merman-style, provoking barely suppressed giggles from the audience. The parts of Tom and Jim were played admirably by a pair of clean cut twentysomethings whose matinee idol looks had the girl sitting next to me perspire profusely from excitement (or titillation) whenever both actors uttered a word. The set design was minimal, as in hardly any effort was put into its composition: a chair there, a small table in one corner, a dining table for three was the focal point, and a record player sitting all by its lonesome in a little nook added to the dismal décor, from which the music, the audience assumed, came from. Laura's glass menagerie collection was situated in another corner, safely assembled on a tarnished silver tray, placed on top of a coffee table that had seen better days. The Caravaggio-esque lighting was a touch dark at times, shrouding facial expressions during crucial moments. The music was evocative yet subtle, seamlessly integrated to heighten and punctuate major scenes.


Extreme beauty XXVI: Bernini's St. Teresa

I saw an angel close by me. . . I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to be thrusting it into my heart, and to pierce my entrails, and when he drew it out, he seemed to draw my entire being along with it, leaving me on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great. . . it made me moan.

With those words--brazenly sexual in its implications--as inspiration, the 17th-century phenomenon that was Gianlorenzo Bernini created, to the eyes of the world, his life's crowning achievement and, undoubtedly, his most beautiful creation: the Cornaro Chapel of the Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome (1647-1652). The centerpiece of the Chapel is Bernini's immortal altar, on which the seizure-ridden Spanish saint/mystic, Saint Teresa of Avila, takes center stage, captured by Bernini moments after an angel, perched on top of her, darted an arrow or spear straight inside her heart, so she claims, thus inducing an earth-shattering sensation in her that most people today would immediately recognize as an orgasm and nothing else, for what type of pain is there that could make one faint from such overpowering ecstasy? Whatever the case may be, Bernini's St. Teresa is definitely Baroque at its most baroque. The golden rays of the sun that Bernini so masterfully integrated into the scene add luminosity to the afterglow that Saint Teresa is experiencing before our eyes and God's. Converting pain into carnal ecstasy is a feat in itself for us mere mortals, requiring practice on a regular, preferably daily, basis, but to actually depict the whole thrilling occurrence--in marble nonetheless!--is an altogether superhuman task, but of which Bernini--undisputed master of his instrument--rendered so effortlessly, as though, when he was sculpting the swooning figure, he were merely stroking its contours as he would a mass of clay.


Extreme beauty XXV: Sondheim's Passion

That sadness in your eyes
That day
When we glanced
At each other in the park. . .

All this happiness
Merely from a glance
In the park.

With those absurdly simple but ingenious lines, Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning masterpiece, Passion, begins. This has always been Sondheim's forte: deceptively simple lyrics begin a song or a scene before blossoming into larger themes of increasing complexity, the brilliance of which has never been surpassed in the entire history of the American musical theater. Actually, the show opens a few lines before the excerpt above is sung, in what has got to be the sexiest opening scene Broadway had ever seen up until that point in 1994, the year the show opened. The scene I'm referring to involves two lovers, totally naked, sweating it out in bed, singing of their love: "I'm so happy, I'm afraid I'll die in your arms." The romantic in Sondheim conveys--in the style of a haiku--both aurally and visually the orgasm(s) that had just occurred, from which the lovers, the incandescent Clara and the handsome Giorgio, are basking in its afterglow. No other opening scene since then has captured an audience's attention in such a visceral way. But the heart of the story transpires between the platonic love (at first) that Giorgio, a few scenes later after that eye-popping bed scene, shares with the almost grotesque Fosca, a woman who suffers from severe melancholy of which Giorgio can only heal through affectionate words of love. Sondheim, ever the non-traditionalist, encapsulates the nature of their relationship in six simple words: "They hear drums, we hear music." But then the composer's genius goes into overdrive with a series of heart-rending "letter scenes," a highly effective and affecting "invention" much in the style of Onegin's Tatyana but not at all like it, for the three lovers read (or sing) aloud the other's letters, often containing sentences of staggering beauty, thus reiterating the observation that people in love--truly in love--tend to know what the other is thinking or feeling even before the beloved knows it herself: You in me, me in you. . .

I wish I could forget you,
Erase you from my mind
I wish that I could love you. . .
A love that, like a knife,
Has cut into a life
I wanted left alone.
A love I may regret,
But one I can't forget.

In five succinct lines, Sondheim paints a scene that give new meaning to the martyrdom that is unrequited love:

Fosca: "Do you think my heart is good?"
Giorgio: "Yes, I do."
Fosca: "How do the good hearts beat?
Can you distinguish them from the bad?
Listen to mine. My heart says it loves you.

I was all of thirteen when I saw Passion for the first time, in its original run on Broadway. What does one know at that age? But even then, I somehow sensed an extraordinarily profound thing unfolding before my eyes and ears. This was not Cats, Les Misérables, or Phantom of the Opera, but musical theater elevated to high art, the subtle beauty and magnitude of which would take me years before I understood full well its meaning and myriad revelations: "Die for me? What kind of love is that?" "The truest love." "To die loved is to have lived." Passion in an unforgettable experience in the theater that reveals the power of a visionary's inexhaustible imagination, artistic originality, and featuring lyrics that appear to say very little--stark, devoid of embroidery--but yet says it all: "What is love unless it is unconditional?"


Misty American Memories

The cast of characters that populate the "dream world" of Tennessee Williams often find themselves wishing--in vain, so it seems--that someone, anyone, would whisk them away to some far-flung and unknown planet, the farthest from earth the better--anywhere, but "here." Laura, the heroine of the playwright's other masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, is a young woman who is constantly on the verge of self-discovery, but, due to a debilitating disability that hinders her from achieving just about anything she wants to achieve, never actually goes beyond the suffocating confines of a cramped St. Louis apartment and an overbearing mother whose idiosyncrasies (well-meaning, of course) could probably drive any sane person to the precipice. Laura, unlike Blanche, is sensible or sane enough to know her limits, but then, like Blanche, shuns the life she's been handed by retreating, without fanfare, into a world entirely of her own invention, a world in which a handful of loyal subjects, in the form of miniature unicorns made of glass, are under her watchful and loving care. When the curtain rises to reveal the living quarters of the Wingfields--seemingly enveloped at first glance in a mist of diaphanous fog--the vulnerability of the characters are laid bare. The foundation on which these lives are based hint at Williams' own colorful family, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the role of Laura, who, directly or indirectly, is modeled, too clearly, after the writer's own "troubled" and beloved sister, Rose. The beauty and pain of this line--spoken with anguish by Laura's brother, Tom, towards the end of the play--is quintessential Tennessee, in its unequivocal, rapturous use of language and his shameless love of it: "I didn't go to the moon, I went much farther--for time is the longest distance between two places. I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves. Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow."
Tennessee Williams, in almost all of his plays--in fact I'm quite certain in nearly all of them--gave us "illusion that had the appearance of truth," and, through the sheer force of his protean, once-in-a-century talent, and his voracious, unquenchable thirst to capture the human condition in brutal candor and grace, offered and gave us "truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." What a gift he has given and left the world with, a world in which illusion and truth are blurred, distorted beyond any comparable recognition that we constantly confuse and mistake the two on a daily basis. Tennessee, in Menagerie, in Streetcar, helps us to differentiate and recognize the truth and the illusion that make up the fabric of our lives a little more accurately and clearly.
Above, Odilon Redon's majestic pastel, Pegasus (c. 1900, Hiroshima Museum of Art), is a most apt image to accompany this post, don't you think? You see, Redon's a current obsession for me, and, as a matter of fact, to my eyes his strange and mystical paintings somewhat allude to the oeuvre of Tennessee Williams, or, in this case, vice versa. Like the master playwright, Redon was drawn to the mysterious and the fragile, the fleeting and the indelible. To peer into his canvases is to peer into the opulent forest of the subconscious, as we do when we watch a Tennessee Williams play. They are far removed from reality yet so utterly realistic all the same that we come away more aware of the world and ourselves than when we first came inside the theater.


Ageless Southern Belle

Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire is the most poetic play ever written by an American author. Never before has disenchantment and disillusionment seemed as ethereal or lyrical as Williams's Blanche makes it out to be, to dazzling, heartbreaking effect. No other play in the last century or so had been dissected or exhumed as much; no scene left unanalyzed by critics and aficionados alike finding in these lines some extraordinary truths about the human condition. The crumbling terrain of memory, the harsh realities of lower class existence, the squalor and stigma attached to it, and the degradation of physical abuse—all figure prominently and reverberates throughout in the play. Williams, in his most compellingly Chekhovian poetic voice, assigns Stanley, Stella, (but most of all) Blanche with some of the most memorable and powerful lines ever uttered on stage and on screen, Blanche: "I don't want realism. I want magic! I don't tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth! And if that is sinful, let me be damned for it!" These lines have become for the heroine (and for its creator as well) an artistic credo, their own "Vissi d'arte" or "Mild und leise". When Blanche first enters in her déshabille peignoir à la Lucia sans blood, one can be sure that she has the unsuspecting audience completely in her thrall. She need not utter a single word for we know instantly who and what she is. Blanche is not only a slave to a sordid past, nor to Stanley's relentless manipulation and bullying, nor to Mitch's sly deception, but, to a certain extent, she is a slave of fashion. The role is a costume designer's dream. From her first entrance on stage to her polarizing final scenes, one can chart and judge the "states of mind" she's in through mere appearance alone, as we pay close attention not to what her outfits reveal about herself and the suffocating world that conspires to ruin her but to what they conceal underneath: the prim and ladylike Della Robbia-blue woolen suit she wears upon arriving on a dark New Orleans night in the very first scene (movie version); her "luggage" containing fur stoles and an assortment of sequined pieces fit for a cabaret or burlesque star; and one can immediately spot her fragility in the signature Renoir nightgown (made in soft pastel chiffon) she changes into upon arriving at Stella and Stanley's ramshackle of an apartment; the very nightgown she parades around in when, subconsciously, she permits her "brute" of a brother-in-law to peer into her psyche, as though she were giving a private performance in which Stanley participates as voyeur. From there on, as scene after scene of increasing despair and beauty unfurls onstage, we bear witness to the said nightgown's tragic demise: at first delicately disheveled, then turning seedier as the tension between Stanley and Blanche escalates, before we finally see it torn and tattered as madness begins to weave it mesmerizing spell on our defenseless heroine; this look is topped off with a sparkling tiara, as if to crown the nightgown's riveting performance, a triumphant—and "magical"—mad scene all its own. It is hard to think of Mlle. DuBois in anything else other than in her frilly nightgown, which conjures up all kinds of erotic thoughts in me, much too erotic in nature to enumerate each one of those thoughts on here without violating OC's PG-13 rating.
One wonders: had André Previn created a more memorable opera and cast a more compelling soprano in the role, might Blanche, the operatic heroine, be deemed worthy to be spoken of in the same breath as Violetta, Butterfly, Manon, Isolde, Gioconda, and Salome? Would the immortal words of Tennessee Williams acquire more pathos had Previn concocted, say, a Puccini-style score? Just think of the beauty these lines would further acquire had they been set to great music: "Deliberate cruelty is unforgivable, and the one thing of which I have never, ever been guilty of. . . I can't stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action. . . I know I fib a good deal. After all, a woman's charm is 50% illusion. . . Straight? What's '"straight'"? A line can be straight, or a street. But the heart of a human being?"


Tender Is The Night

As though by tradition, second novels, like second children, could never seem to surpass the earth-shattering emotion one felt that came with the birth of the first. André Aciman's latest and second novel, Eight White Nights, sadly, validates this theory all too well. His début novel, Call Me by Your Name—a riveting romp through a torrid summer love by way of Proust—had critics and readers around the world reaching for superlatives rapturous enough to convey their admiration. Now, this author who is the unrivaled twenty-first century incarnation of Marcel, sets his sights on Dostoyevsky's snowy, and therefore white, Saint Petersburg, only his own tale takes place in New York during the last eight days of December, when the decay of the passing year is contrasted sharply against the cleansing promise of the coming year. The two night owls who roam NYC during unholy hours of the evening and early morning in search of paradise (disguised here in the form of Beethoven, Handel, Rohmer, among others) are Clara and the unnamed twenty-something narrator, who, at the very moment Clara "put out a hand and introduced herself," becomes instantly drawn to her, to her name, to her "voile-thin crimson shirt which she wore unbuttoned to her breastbone, the swell of skin as smooth and as forbidding as the diamond stud on her thin platinum necklace."

These two souls—lonely, detached, aloof—are both in their twenties, but live a particular lifestyle that doesn't correlate at all to their ages. For one, both live in ritzy Manhattan; have wealthy older friends for another; (possibly) know a foreign language or two; can quote Henry Vaughan if a heightened moment demands it ("Last night I saw Eternity. . ."); and have an entourage of equally sophisticated friends with "uptown" names like Gretchen, Boris, Rachel and Lauren, the types of which who have nothing better to do, so it seems, than to sit through Rohmer and throw dinner parties that stifle with their pretentiousness rather than endear. Aciman's prose remains so incurably Proustian that it takes an extremely patient reader to digest a baroque procession of extravagantly prolonged sentences crammed with as many therefores, howevers, maybes and perhapses as a sentence is legally allowed. The story revolves in the span of only eight chapters but rather feels like the span of two lifetimes had already elapsed between night one and night three, for these eight nights, no matter how stylishly rendered, are filled to the brim with over-inflected, flowery prose that dampen climactic scenes and vignettes such as the sex scene that never occurs in night six or seven: ". . . just make me make trouble, make me do something, make me hurt you, Clara, and hurt me hard, because this staying put like two boats tied to a dock is like waiting decades on death row." A microscopic attention to detail and a general sense of repetition bombard the reader, all of which easily filled up the 360 pages or so allotted to him by his publisher, and all of which one must slog through, out of a sense of duty, for Aciman is immensely gifted, and who can, at will and through sheer force of talent, weave a tapestry of spellbinding language and concoct inspired declarations such as this one: ". . . I'll say it now, not because I've lost you, but I've lost you because I loved you, because I saw eternity with you. . ."


The only thing missing was an olive

Gaetano Donizetti's unfailingly charming, wonderfully boisterous L'elisir d'amore imported plenty of much-needed Tuscan sun to frigid Chicago Saturday night, as Giuseppe Filianoti (in his belated Lyric début), Nicole Cabell, Alessandro Corbelli, and the rest treated a hibernating, flu-ridden audience to some luscious and heartwarming Italianate singing not heard at Civic for some time; not since Aprile Millo's series of red hot Toscas here did I "hear" and "see" Italy so vividly. Filianoti—whose voice is the very sound of romantic longing—was the lovesick Nemorino. One could—and one would—listen to him toss a note in mid-air, suspend it for a moment or two, and bring it right back down to earth relatively unscathed. Most of the people in my row—if I read their minds correctly—seemed to want to bask in the splendor of his voice forever; an elderly lady sitting next to me actually said so, for to listen to it, if one can get past the oh-so-minor imperfections, is to glimpse not spring nor printemps, but primavera. "Una furtiva lagrima" throbbed with a young man's deepest yearning, eliciting rapturous first-time audience love unheard at Lyric in years. The man may hail from sun-scorched Calabria, but what I saw—through his picturesque, Ferruccio Tagliavini-esque timbre—was not that southernmost of Italian cities, but the sobering grandeur of Firenze. Why that man, clearly possessing in my opinion the most stunningly beautiful tenor heard today, does not have a recording contract, I simply cannot fathom! I think I shall have to go back for another helping of G-Fil, for this overflowing banquet of a feast celebrating every aspect of amore not only shows off the tenor's one-in-a-million voice and artistry but illuminates it sublimely.
Cabell—whose rather placid career aboard a boat marooned within the confines of a modest bay, but ambitious enough to sail over into the more shimmering port that docks the enviable yachts of Gheorghiu, Fleming and Netrebko—was the evening's poised Adina, here disguised as a sun-kissed, mannequin-like gypsy in rich-peasant outfits that screamed: Umbria. Ms. Cabell was graceful, lithe, smart, and commanding, but her voice seemed at various points tentative when attempting to caress one of Donizetti's most alluring and sensual music; her top notes were executed well enough, but left one with the sense that these money notes were survived rather than mastered. Alas, her vocal palette is pretty limited as well. Cabell might profit in this department by asking A.G. for some of hers.
Corbelli was a stout, robust, and brilliantly hilarious Dulcamara: who else could he have been?
This production—as traditional as it gets, in a lovely bucolic setting and bathed with luminous lighting meant to evoke Italy's famed hill towns—is staged like an American sitcom: everyone barging in on everyone, unannounced. Simply brilliant! An inspired farce transpired every time Corbelli entered or exited. Filianoti and Cabell have good chemistry together, which is crucial if we are to believe their ardor for each other.
Bruno Campanella conducted the orchestra as though he were a gondolier navigating his way across turbulent Adriatic waters.
Just an afterthought: How could a tortured soul (I asked myself this as Giuseppe sang the darling cavatina that introduces the simple yet impassioned hero to us, the kind we love to root for) create such a light-hearted, life-affirming opera (brimming with youthful love) so atypical to his nature? Could this possibly be the same man who turned Lucia into the most hair-raisingly demented—next to Lady Macbeth—operatic heroine ever?