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March 2007

It's an Honor Just to Be Nominated

Many thanks to Michael Blowhard who, in the last item in this "Elsewhere" compilation, links to two of my recent posts before adding:

George earns himself this week's 'Mr. Eclectic' award.

Sure, "eclectic" is just the word that polite people use when referring to my being easily distracted by shiny objects, but an award is an award.  Hence my thanks, and welcome to anyone who may have been directed here for the first time by Michael B's kind linkage.

Orchestra Pit or Passion Pit?

Shocking, simply shocking.  Given the company's apparent obsession this season with, ahem, sex, we may need to change the name of Los Angeles Opera to Los Scandalous Opera.

Let's examine the evidence, shall we?

EXHIBIT A:  Last week, I reported on LAOpera's production of the Brecht-Weill Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, a work in which many of the characters are prostitutes who appear in various stages of dishabille and in the company of randy lumberjacks and such.  Worse, these are Marxist prostitutes, although perhaps they are just written that way.  I posted several video exemplars of the essential naughtiness of this work.

In preparing that post, I discovered that Los Angeles Opera is now making it a habit to post video excerpts from its productions to YouTube.  Consequently, there is now a growing trove of compromising material sufficient to prove to any doubter that this ostensibly "distinguished cultural institution" is little more than a cover for the spread of raging fleshly lusts.  And it is my sad duty to expose to you the full extent of the threat.

EXHIBIT B:   Perhaps you believe Baroque composers were good churchmen, possessed of only holy thoughts?  Not Claudio Monteverdi, whose L'incoronazione di Poppea is a hotbed of ancient Roman misbehavior.  Did Los Angeles Opera choose to share an excerpt featuring the admirable, upstanding, highly moral philosopher Seneca as he tries in vain to stem the tide of imperial sensuality?  It does not.  Consider the unseemly conduct concentrated in the final minute of this clip:

Naturally, as a defender of the law and all that is good, I was shocked by these proceedings, as I described in my blow by blow account in December.

EXHIBIT C:  As with so many sinister plots, it appears there is a Russian connection.  I refer here to Ms. Anna Netrebko, whose smoldering wiles are such as to turn even cool heads such as that of the redoubtable A. C. Douglas, whose exacting standards were so compromised by Netrebko's recent Met performance that he praised what he admitted he would otherwise dismiss as a "risible piece of typical bel canto trash."  Here in Los Angeles, this belle damoiselle Russe featured recently in a production of Massenet's Manon the theme of which LAOpera hammered home with this video treatise on [gulp] "Sex and the Opera":

EXHIBIT D:  Not yet satisfied, Los Angeles Opera will tonight launch a perfidious new attack on decency and on the towering figure of Richard Wagner.  This evening will mark the premiere of the company's new production of Tannhäuser, print ads for which warn explicitly that it comes replete with "nudity and strong sexual content."  Good gracious, what are the upright and pure to make of this?

So frightful.  So lurid.  One simply cannot look away.   

For those who cannot see this version clearly enough to look away with a proper snort of disdain, there is a larger, clearer Windows Media version on the LAOpera website, here.   As a friend, though, I advise you not to risk further exposure to the lubricious loungings of these scarlet-clad -- and often enough unclad -- debauched and decadent dancing votaries of Venus.   No no, you simply mustn't, really you mustn't.

As for myself, I will be in attendance next Saturday night, filling a seat that might otherwise fall into the hands of some unsuspecting innocent.  It is the least I can do For The Children.

"No One Will Harm You Inside This Song"

Before we move on, please allow me to indulge my fascination with Elvis Perkins one more time in order to report that the promised live recordings have been posted this morning at Daytrotter.

Sean Moeller promises that his introductory essay -- "It's A Sad, Sad World Out There -- What's Not To Like?" -- will soon be accompanied by an interview with Mr. Perkins.  The songs themselves are accessible here.  All four are very good.  Random comments on comparing these renditions to their studio versions:

  • The Daytrotter performance of "All the Night Without Love" -- a good song, but not my personal favorite -- is arguably better than the album version.  The replacement of the surprising Parisian-style violin-and-guitar break with a rollicking harmonica part works exceedingly well.
  • I have been mishearing the opening line of "Emile's Vietnam in the Sky" all this time.  It is not "Le Coq D'Or" that is covered in butter; it is "Jean Cocteau."
  • Mmmmmmm: harmonium.


UPDATE [022307]:

On a very much lighter note, my "Coq d'Or/Cocteau" admission above has spurred Cowtown Pattie to dip into that ever-filling fount of musical mirth: misheard song lyrics.

Ash Wednesday Falls on Shrove Tuesday This Year

Did you have that strangest dream before you woke?
'Cause in your gown you had the butterfly stroke.
Did it escape you like some half-told joke
When you reached for your plume of smoke?

-- Elvis Perkins, "While You Were Sleeping"

Although tomorrow is Ash Wednesday on the liturgical calendar, today marks the release of Elvis Perkins' Ash Wednesday on XL Recordings.  Some readers may recall that, having been fortunate enough to snap up the then-hard-to-find self-released edition of this album last summer, I have already declared it a front runner for the best popular music CD of 2007.

By happenstance, I have recently been listening -- for the first time and almost 40 years late -- to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, which makes a surprisingly good companion to Ash Wednesday.  The title song on Elvis Perkins' recording, in particular, possesses much the same sad incantatory depth that is the hallmark of Morrison's song cycle.  Both collections reward repeated listening, and the songs on each gain substantially from being heard straight through in order. 

  • Note as well that both albums bear the initials "AW".  Coincidence?  Well, yes, most likely so.

Musically, the two albums are not of a piece: nobody sings in quite the way Van Morrison does and the signature sound of Astral Weeks, those improvisations anchored and led by Richard Davis and his upright bass, is unique in pop music.  Perkins works in a more straightforward guitar-strumming troubadour vein.  More to the point, despite the melancholy that underlies much of it Ash Wednesday has one thing that Van Morrison has never displayed: a sly and sneaky sense of humor that tends to pop up its head when least expected.  Only a minority of Elvis Perkins' songs do not have at least one joke secreted somewhere about their persons, either in the lyric ("Can you imagine going to/got-milk-dot-com?" he asks in "All the Night Without Love") or in an eccentric touch in the arrangement (e.g., the slightly loopy "Le Hot Club of Paris"-style guitar and violin outburst toward the end of the same song).  In "Sleep Sandwich" he promises:

I'll make the most of my time
machine, and I'll build a theremin

and, soon enough, a theremin appears, sounding not the least bit ridiculous.  [I built a theremin -- or more accurately my father did most of the real work in bringing about the building of a theremin on my behalf -- as a school project many many years ago in Michigan, so I have a sentimental attachment to the instrument.]

I have been accused at home recently of incorporating too many embedded YouTube videos into this weblog, but I cannot resist one more.  This is one of five (5) YouTube versions of Elvis Perkins and his band, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, performing "Emile's Vietnam in the Sky," a song which asserts and proves that "there's nothing quite like French blues."  All five versions were shot and posted by Joe Harvard, who sat in on lap steel guitar on this number as Perkins & Co. were touring late last year with the Pernice Brothers.  A cheap digital video camera and the microphone on Harvard's laptop account for the technical roughness.  Harvard recorded this performance, which I have selected because it was shot from the closest vantage point of the group, on December 1, 2006, at Proud Larry's, Oxford, Mississippi:

Before he released Ash Wednesday himself, and before he signed with XL, Perkins' former website hosted a generous selection of what must now be deemed demos of songs that made their way on to the final album.  I post one of them below. 

The current version of this song goes by "Moon Woman II" and is one of the highlights of Ash Wednesday.  If the tags attached to the file are reliable, the version below dates back to 2002.  "Moon Woman" is more simply produced than "Moon Woman II" -- just Perkins, his guitar and his harmonica.  It comes with an extra verse at the end and runs some two minutes longer than its descendant on Ash Wednesday.  Both versions are pretty nifty:

Thus endeth my proselytizing other than to add that, for the convenience of anyone persuaded by my endorsement, Ash Wednesday is readily available for purchase through this weblog's retail outlet, These Foolish Things.



Astral Weeks, by the way, holds up substantially better these many decades on than does the famous 1979 Astral Weeks essay of Lester Bangs.  Bangs probably would have written a heckuva weblog, though, if he were here today.

As it is not generally referred to by that name in this country, readers perplexed by the title of this post may wish to read an explanation of Shrove Tuesday, which commonly involves pancakes.


[Pancake photo by ikbenivo (Ivo Ruijters) via stock.xchng.]

~ ~ ~
UPDATE [1024 PST]: 

Abbey of the Seattle-based music weblog Sound On The Sound has as strong a reaction to E. Perkins as I do, yesterday asking the musical question: "Is My Favorite Album of 2006, Going to be the Best Album of 2007?"  In her own 2006 Best list, she said of Ash Wednesday's title song "[i]t’s going to be my generation’s 'Hallelujah…'," which makes at least as much sense as my Astral Weeks comparison.  Several other worthwhile links are included in Abbey's post, as is the splendid news that the fine fellows at Daytrotter have an EP session waiting to be posted later this week.

Weill Bodies:
Mahagonny, but No Ecstasy

Nothing you can do will help a dead man.


Nothing will help him or us or you now.

Those are the bleak twinned messages of the massed chorus that ends The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.  Several of the principal characters do not join in that chorus, because they are dead and, it follows as the night the day, nothing can be done to help them.

The Los Angeles Opera has mounted a new production of Mahagonny, running through March 4, and I was in the audience on Saturday night.  LA Opera audiences tend to be prodigal in the handing out of standing ovations, but Saturday night was an exception.  A lone patron two rows in front of us stood during the curtain call, but it turned out she was simply cajoling her companion to head for the door, as a number of attendees did even before the house lights came back up.  The downbeat ending is probably not to blame.  (As a critic famous for his sharp ear observed 50 years ago, "What do you expect from an opera?  A happy ending?")  Instead, the fault has to lie with the production, which is not actively bad but which contains an array of false steps that prevent it from gelling into a satisfactory whole.

Mahagonny is the collaboration between composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht that followed on the heels of their success with The Threepenny Opera.  A short version -- the "Mahagonny songspiel" -- premiered in 1927, the full opera was first performed in 1930, and by 1933 the work had been banned by the Nazis.  "Alabama Song" from Mahagonny is reasonably well known, having been included on the 1967 debut album of The Doors.

Begbick As with Threepenny Opera, Mahagonny has one foot firmly set in the world of Weimar era political  cabaret, but Weill's score is so much more ambitious and sophisticated Mahagonny that it legitimately qualifies as an opera.  Brecht's text is a true-to-form Brecht text: mordant wit, a dash of decadence, a view of humanity that is profoundly cynical if not outright nihilistic, all washed down with hefty doses of Marxist didacticism.  At this point, the reader may wish to meditate upon the contradictions inherent in putting on such a vigorously anti-capitalist work in a spare-no-expense production with admission prices beyond the reach of all but the scurviest of . . . capitalists.

The plot and characters?  Here goes:  Fugitive criminals Leocadia "the Widow" Begbick, Trinity Moses and Fatty the Bookkeeper found the city of Mahagonny on the spot where their getaway car breaks down. Their plan is to fleece travelers of their money, because "it is easier to mine gold from men than from rivers."  We are somewhere in America, but the geography is decidedly odd: Mahagonny is in the plains or desert, but is near enough to Alaska to attract goldminers and lumberjacks while at the same time being near enough to Pensacola to be threatened by hurricanes.  Lumberjack Jimmy MacIntyre and three friends arrive from Alaska.  Jimmy takes up with the prostitute Jenny Smith.  The city is threatened by a hurricane, which veers safely away in the first moments of Act 2.  Tableau of eating, sex, fighting and drinking follow.  Two of Jimmy's friends die, Jack O'Brien of overeating and Alaska Wolf Joe in a prizefight with Trinity Moses.  Jimmy runs out of money and is unable to pay his bar tab.  This is as great a crime as is possible in Mahagonny, and Jimmy is sentenced to death.  Without money, he is abandoned by his remaining friend and by his lover Jenny.  Unlike MacHeath in Threepenny Opera, Jimmy receives no last minute reprieve.  He is executed.  God arrives and condemns the city and citizens; the city and citizens declare that the feeling is mutual.  Mahagonny devolves to its final chaos ending with the cheerful parting sentiments with which we began.

This production must have looked good on paper.  Director John Doyle  recently mounted  the very well received revival of Sweeney Todd in New York.  That production featured Patti Lupone, and she was recruited to appear here as the Widow Begbick.  Audra McDonald took the role of Jenny.  So with the cream of the New York stage on hand, nothing can possibly go wrong, right? 

Jenny_jimmySadly, this is an opera house production peopled principally with operatic voices.  Audra McDonald has the gift of being able to sing, and act, at a high level in both musical theater and operatic contexts, and made the most of what she was given to do as Jenny.  She spent much of the performance in lingerie and embraced the essential sexual self-interest of the part. 

Anthony Dean Griffey as Jimmy brought a fine expressive tenor to the table, and exuded bluff bravado and such sympathy as could be generated for the nearest thing to a hero in the piece.  He and Ms. McDonald -- and the orchestra under James Conlon -- were the evening's musical standouts.

The aid of amplification notwithstanding, Patti Lupone was sadly out of her element.  I imagine that in a more reasonably sized house, and possibly in the more compact setting and smaller instrumental ensemble of the songspiel, she would make an excellent Begbick.  Here, she flounced and sneered heroically, all for naught.

The guiding principle of the production was to pass through time: beginning in the Dust Bowl 30's, moving to swingin' 50s Vegas, and ending in something close to the present.  None of it really mattered much except to give the designers something to do.

And then there is the odd matter of the flag: When Begbick & Co. found the city, they raise the Widow's [enormous] shawl on a fishing pole as the flag of Mahagonny.  We never actually see it flying as a flag, but it reappears as a prop throughout the performance, often dragged or draped in the vicinity of one or the other of the female leads.  Over time, it changes: mostly red to begin with, it becomes red and black later in the first act.  At this point, there is a clunky bit of staging in which a bit of step-point choreography for the entire cast slides into a Rockettes high kick that morphs in to . . . a goose step.  And then -- oh dear, we're not going there, are we?-- the hands and arms start to rise in a quasi-Nazi salute and -- because audiences are dim and we might not have caught on yet -- the theater is filled with a looped and echoed recording of a German crowd sieg heiling. 

And then we just move on in to intermission and the idea, which made no particular sense to begin with, is never revisited.

Ah, but the flag returns in Act 2 and continues to transform.  A white stripe appears, and a star or three, blue on white, and -- no no, wait for it, don't run too far ahead of me -- by the time we reach the final curtain, the surviving citizens of Mahagonny are lined up heading out of town and Jenny stands before them with the flag of Mahagonny in a tight triangular fold, as at a military funeral, and it looks like this:


Make of it what you will.  I don't actually think that there is some "America = Nazi Germany" argument being advanced here, given that (1) there is no basis in the work itself for that argument, (2) the argument itself ranks fairly high on the Deeply Lame scale, and (3) if that is what the production wanted to say it could have said it more forthrightly so that we in the audience might actually have known that the message was there to be received and you would not have to receive it from a weblog such as this.

To sum up: a worthy work, with some very fine performances, but sabotaged by fuzzy thinking on the production end and a sad case of miscasting.



Always good to run one last Google search before posting.  I see that the LA Opera has posted some dress rehearsal video of the production on YouTube.  Sound is decidedly iffy, but there are two good Audra McDonald excerpts included and a look at Patti Lupone's laudable effort in a losing cause:



I am a Mahagonny enthusiast, to the extent that this is the third production I have made the point of seeing in person.  All three have been performed at the Los Angeles Music Center.

Back in 1973, the Mark Taper Forum produced the songspiel as part of a double bill with The Measures Taken, a collaboration between Brecht and composer Hans Eissler.  If I recall right, Shani Wallis -- Nancy in the film version of Oliver! -- appeared as Jenny.  Although it was a long time ago, I think that version is still the best I've seen.  Someone needs to revisit the songspiel and give Patti Lupone the opportunity to be all the Begbick that I suspect she can be.

Jonathan Miller directed an earlier production for Los Angeles Opera in 1989, the company's third season.  The Los Angeles Times is stingy with its archives, but you can readily read the so-so New York Times review of that version, set in 1920s Hollywood.  I liked it better than the NYT did.  My sister's presence in the cast has nothing to do with that judgment.

I also caught the long-ago PBS broadcast of the Met's 1979 production with Teresa Stratas as Jenny and -- wouldn't you know it? -- YouTube again provides an excerpt.  Naturally, it is the "Alabama Song."  The clip shows its age and the sound mix does poorly by the orchestra, but Ms. Stratas amply demonstrates the operatic nature of the writing in this smoking performance:

As a bonus, here is Catherine Malfitano performing the song in the 1997 Salzburg Festival production (available on DVD).  Note that even when the opera is performed in the original German, the "Alabama Song" is written to be performed in English, or a reasonable facsimile thereof:



We need to put him in a separate Appendix so as to separate him from those talented sopranos, ladies and gentlemen, but here to take us well and truly back into the cabaret roots of Brecht and Weill, welcome if you will, performing the "Alabama Song" in Berlin in 2002,

"You Keep Using That Word . . . .
I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means"

Quotable.  From Peter Nicholson, writing at 3quarksdaily:

Misuse of the word 'poetic' is so common as to be beyond repair.  Proper poetry dives into the world, takes in its multifariousness, its roughnesses and tragedies, its joy at beauty, even as the poet grabs on to the broken glass shards of the Muse's patchy visitations.  'Poetic' is not another word for nice, kind, sedate, palatable.

~ ~ ~

[1449 PST]:

Secreted at his post in the library of Brown University, Providence, poet and HG Poetics blogger Henry Gould is at work on a longish poem relating in some fashion to the city-state of Siena.  A recent installment, however, ventured to Vienna and invoked Klimt's painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer:

Those large, pensive eyes. . .  that gaze

goes back to Byzantium (ripple of pebbles

on a curving dome).

Adele is known as a sometime favorite on this weblog and the subject of a rather more facetious bit of versification on my part this past June. 

Another recent remark or two at HG Poetics led me to the novel that is currently engrossing my evenings' reading time, of which more when I finally finish it.

The non-Klimt drawing accompanying Henry's Adele post, and those accompanying several of his other recent posts, are the work of Martín Ramírez, subject of a current retrospective at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, which failed to impress CultureGrrl Lee Rosenbaum; TIME's Richard Lacayo liked it a bit better.

* * *

[The original portion of this post was edited when it was supplemented.  More detail in the continuation.]

Continue reading ""You Keep Using That Word . . . .
I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means"" »

"il complotto dei complotti"

Boys keep swinging
Boys always work it out

    -- David Bowie, "Boys Keep Swinging" (1979)

The Elegant Variation posts a quotation from Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco's second novel (after The Name of the Rose), and cheers that the book has now been attractively reissued in this country.  TEV also points to a laudatory and erudite Anthony Burgess review from 1989.

FP is a pinnacle of Conspiracy Lit, and a known favorite of my pal Rick of the Futurballa Blog.  Everyone comes to Rick's, right?  Especially to learn about the recent theft of the Maltese Falcon.  I suspect the Knights Templar of Malta are somehow implicated, which would feed us right back to Eco.

Here we see The Pendulum Itself in its natural habitat, the Museé des Arts et Metiérs in Paris:

Here, a brief animation illustrating the physics behind Foucault's vivid demonstration of the earth's rotation:

And here, for fanciers of postmodern French philosophy and contemporary performance art,"Michel Foucault's Pendulum," an odd little piece involving a grand piano, an electromagnet, and a pendulum bob that most resembles a bathtub ducky :

Brevity is Soul, O Whitney

Often enough, you may hear it claimed that "science proves" that the bumblebee is physically incapable of flight, no matter what actual bumblebees may be doing, in temperate climes, at this very moment.   This flightlessness thing is, of course, a bit of a myth.  On the face of it, one might equally claim that my beloved and I are provably incompatible, and yet nearly twenty-one years on in our marriage we seem to maintain our altitude with the best of the bees.  That said, I will not be singling out today -- St. Valentine's -- as one on which I am any more devoted than usual to the lady in question than I am on any other day.   Devoted I am, devoted I shall remain.   And -- a fortunate thing for me, as it was for Roger Rabbit -- I make her laugh.

All of which is merely prelude to this:

The sole redeeming feature of Whitney Houston's galactically successful recording of "I Will Always Love You " is that it produced a slew of songwriting royalties for Dolly Parton (seen here in 1974 -- introduced by the late, great Buck Owens -- performing her song on CBS Television's Hee Haw):

Personally, I loathe the Whitney Houston version: she presses the drama past the breaking point and compounds her sins by creating the model for innumerable painfully-emotive-and-filigreed-but-empty American Idol performances.  *shudder* 

Dolly Parton's own renditions are more straightforward, more in keeping with the simple sincerity of the tune and lyric, and altogether superior to the hysterical conniptions on display in the bigger-selling Houston version.  And then there's this:

Alan McGee, manager of the Jesus and Mary Chain, discoverer of Oasis, founder of Creation Records, sometime Guardian music blogger, and now the mind behind the Poptones label in the UK -- home to Fool favorite The Singleman Affair [note if you will the January 2, 2007, entry under 'Latest News' quoting this weblog at length] -- is a vocal supporter of one Brendon Massei, an American who performs and records (on Poptones) as Viking Moses.  McGee proclaims him "[t]he most uniquely talented American musician since Kurt Cobain."  I am thus far unconvinced.  However, I do approve of VM's very spare, audio verité version of Dolly Parton's song, released as a limited 7" vinyl single in the UK and noted last month by Sean at Said the Gramophone.  I like it very much; I suspect my beloved would not, if I were to play it for her.  Nevertheless, the bumblebee can fly.

A Happy Valentine's to all.  Can you feel the Viking love tonight?


    ~ ~ ~

[later that same day]:  While we are on the subject, Robin Varghese at 3quarksdaily offers up Wystan Hugh Auden's "O Tell Me the Truth About Love," in which the crafty centenarian poses the musical question:   

Does it's odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?

To which might be added TIME magazine arts writer/blogger Richard Lacayo's comment, in his Valentine's meditation on the color red, that

Love being what it is sometimes, maybe it's just appropriate that cadmium red, the richest variety, is a toxic heavy metal.