Thursday, April 21, 2011

Le Comte Ory, The Help, Wolf Brother

Le Comte Ory
I saw Le Comte Ory in the cinema last weekend: the NY Metropolitan Opera production, in deferred transmission. My friend Julie from book club had seen the live broadcast a few weeks ago and she raved about it. Really, the only opera I know well is Carmen. Otherwise my knowledge and appreciation is limited to "greatest hits" arias. (Apropos, on principle I object to the three tenors singing Christmas carols and operatic muzak versions of pop tunes –there is something perverse about the whole notion.) With opera-loving friends I saw Madame Butterfly and La Traviata a few years ago. Of the two I liked La Traviata better, but both productions were dull and wooden, interspersed with moments of histrionics. I figured that opera just wasn't my thing.

The performance, however, of Rossini's Le Comte Ory, was wonderful. I think that the key to good opera is good direction to bring the performance to life. I confess that I seldom if ever listen to opera. It is the performance and the interaction between the performers that sparks the magic. No doubt people who are more knowledgeable about this art would disagree with me, but my feeling it that this is an art form that needs to be seen, and not just heard. In the same way that reading a script is not the same as seeing a performance. The direction makes a huge difference in bringing the piece to life. Opera I had seen previously tended to be either wooden, or grossly overacted. Maybe there was an awareness that this performance was being choreographed for filmed transmission, because it was both subtle and gloriously comic. Kudos to director Bartlett Sher. Juan Diego Florez was delightfully campy and lecherous as the Comte Ory. Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato had beautiful chemistry as the Countess Adele and the page Isolier. The entire production is seen as if through the eyes of a stage director, who is a presence on the stage (this is entirely an invention of the director, and it works beautifully): supervising a production set to look contemporary with Rossini's period (this piece is from 1828), orchestrating as the sets are changed, working the lights, moving props, etc. He is busy working through all of the orchestral moments, keeping this from being dead time. Le Comte Ory is a comedy and comedy depends on timing; this production nailed it. Maybe I like opera after all.

The Help
By Kathryn Stockett

Everyone seems to love this book that tells the stories of black maids working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. I have to say that, not being especially familiar with the south, it was an eye-opener to read about how thoroughly entrenched racial disparity still was, even in the 1960s. In terms of the sociology, I think that the author is telling a valuable story, in recounting the working conditions and social climate through the eyes of the maids.

That being said, the portrayal of the downtrodden and unbelievably noble maids was superficial and simplistic. Even Minnie's Terrible Awful (did anyone not figure it out through the repeated, heavy-handed foreshadowing?) is thoroughly unrealistic, although good for a chuckle while reading. But seriously folks, these women are portrayed as so noble that not only does their shit not stink, it apparently tastes good too.

The subplot of Skeeter's romance with Stuart Whitworth adds nothing. The mystery of what happened to Constantin is sad but anticlimactic.

Stockett has a great story, and story that needs to be told, but her characters need more complexity and realism. The book does not manage to get beyond superficiality and cliché. I think that this book appeals to people because it is easy to tell the bad guys from the good guys. Too bad life's not so simple.

Wolf Brother
By Michelle Paver

I read Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver is 24 hours. It is a children's book but intricately constructed in terms of the world that Paver has created for her tribes and their cosmovision. I heard her speak at the Hay Festival in Cartagena this January and I had been looking forward to reading this. I literally wolfed it down.

The story follows Torak, 12, who makes a vow to his father who lies dying after being attacked by a bear that he will go to the Mountain of the World Spirit on a quest to destroy the evil spirit that was responsible for his father's death.

Paver researched her book extensively, spending time with Native American tribes, the Inuit, and others, learning about their world view and concept of spirituality, from which she developed her triptych of the name spirit, the clan spirit, and the world spirit. Torak is 12. He has just lost his father. His education and knowledge of his world is incomplete. His journey towards maturity and an understanding of his world parallels our journey as readers venturing into this unknown world.

I highly recommend it as young person's lit, suitable for the 12-15 age group.
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