Igor Stravinsky with the choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky; image: Wikimedia commons
This past Tuesday at Morse Recital Hall in New Haven, a number of artists affiliated with Yale University, including alumni and students of the Schools of Drama and Music, put on a production of The Soldier’s Tale in New Haven that sought to stay true to Stravinsky’s “fairground theatre” conception. In so doing, they have given the piece its full due, interweaving the balletic, the musical, and the theatrical without unduly emphasizing or downplaying any one of these elements. Now, the production comes to New York, where it can be seen at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on Sunday evening.
The inspiration for The Soldier’s Tale came to Igor Stravinsky at a curious moment in his career. Completed in 1918, the fantasia of musical theater and ballet was composed long after his radical Rite of Spring, but antedates his so-called “neoclassical” later period. Lesser known than Petrushka or The Rite, Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale begins with a soldier named Joe (Tom Pecinka), who strides onstage in uniform, announced by a brass flourish. The narrator (Michael Cerveris) tells us of poor Joe’s circumstances—a soldier on leave with an old fiddle and little else—while the as-yet unhampered protagonist marches on.
Moments later Joe is no longer in uniform; he is wearing underclothes, suspenders, and a worn-out pair of trousers; the hard edges and military green of his outfit have disappeared to reveal a body of touching softness and frailty.
Between these two episodes he has met the Devil (James Cusati-Moyer) and become ensnared by temptations of luxury and plenty. Giving in, he joins Satan, who strips him of his military regalia and saps him of his vitality.
For the rest of the ballet, Joe struggles to escape from the Devil’s clutches. Satan appears in various guises, all played with panache by Cusati-Moyer, who is splendidly spindly and sly, creeping about like a spider even after he takes on the shape of a woman. A balance is struck between the comic image of Satan—a cross-dressing, over-the-top deceiver—and a far more sinister one.
The role of Joe demands a similar balancing act, albeit one less extreme. For him, the struggle is not between laughable grotesqueness and pure evil—it is between vulnerability and the desperate desire to redeem himself. Pecinka’s Joe shifts between hapless innocence and seduced torpor, without over-committing to either one. The choreographer Emily Coates’s dance steps, which comfortably range through multiple modes, including jazz, classical, and Nijinskian, give the show’s performers the breadth they need to let the drama of the play ripen.
This synthesis of multiple genres—one of the work’s great advantages—surfaces in the story as well. Based on a Russian fairytale, The Soldier’s Tale also recalls Western myths, a resonance strengthened by Cerveris’s animated storybook-style narration. Joe is an amalgam of familiar characters, all of whom we know and love—the Faust figure, played more unwitting than ambitious; the hot-blooded Romantic, chasing after his beloved with rushed footsteps, knees knocking together; and finally the automaton, sucked lifeless by the hardships of industrial life (though the production deftly avoids the pitfall of drab and overdetermined industrial set design). The libretto, translated from the French by stage director Liz Diamond, redoubles the feeling of familiarity with its loose-limbed American idiom and its rhymes, which pass metrical muster without feeling forced.
Stravinsky may very well have intended these resemblances. His characters stand at the crossroads of several histories and forms, much as he himself did when he composed this musical theater–ballet fusion while living in Switzerland in 1918.
That The Soldier’s Tale is coming to Carnegie Hall this Sunday is no surprise. The music Stravinsky composed is as remarkably fresh and startling as it was in 1918, and the choreography, lighting, and costumes are all done with such attention to their mutual influence that the ballet seems to have tumbled out whole. If any one part of the production were to be removed, the loss would be self-evident, and the work would suffer. The show pulls so much together so seamlessly that it offers a respite to the viewer—and a remonstrance to opera and ballet directors who fail to do the same.
L'Histoire du Soldat will be performed at 7:30 PM on Sunday in Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. For information and tickets, visit carnegiehall.org
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Glenn Gould used to be my favorite interpreter of Bach. Since Simone Dinnerstein’s recordings of Bach began appearing, beginning with her Goldberg Variations in 2007, Gould has assumed the somewhat less exalted status as “one of my favorite interpreters” of Bach. My absolute favorite these past 6 or 7 years is Dinnerstein. Indeed, she is [...]
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall; photo: npr.org
A couple of weeks ago, Carnegie Hall staged a “neighborhood concert,” at a church on the Upper West Side. The concert was a voice recital, featuring Nathaniel Olson, a young baritone from Indiana University. At the piano was Kevin Murphy, a teacher of his—and the husband of the famous soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, and a good friend of mine.
Olson owns a truly beautiful voice, a voice with a glow in it. Not all beautiful voices have glows in them, but some of them do. I think of Robert Lloyd, the British bass. I once said to him, “I don’t know how that glow got in your voice, but it’s there.” He did not protest or demur or say “Aw, shucks.” Instead, he said, “I don’t know how it got there either. It’s just a gift. Has always been there.”
I liked that. I liked the man’s straightforwardness, his matter-of-factness.
The Olson-Murphy recital was free, by the way—and the church was packed. In the middle of the recital, a politician came out to make remarks. It was Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president. I’m not sure what the government—any level of it—had to do with this recital, but Brewer was there. She told people to demand of officeholders that they support the arts, so that events can be free.
By “support the arts,” of course, people mean require the taxpayer to fund them. And no event is really “free,” as you know. Someone pays.
A few days later, I was in Philadelphia, where another friend of mine, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, was giving a piano recital. It was an all-Prokofiev program, consisting of the three “war sonatas”—i.e., Nos. 6, 7, and 8. As someone remarked to me later, they are rarely played as a group. Nor are they much recorded as a group. This is surprising, because the grouping seems a natural.
Do the three sonatas, in a row, constitute too much Prokofiev? No, really—they work well.
And Solzhenitsyn played them superbly. He played them with great power: physical, mental, and emotional. You are welcome to discount my judgment, because the pianist is my friend, but it’s still true.
The recital took place in the Perelman Theater, a venue in the Kimmel Center. It is a “loud” hall, rather like Zankel, which is in the “basement” of Carnegie Hall. It is “exposed,” “live.” Every twitch seems to ring out.
In back of me, a woman was nervously and unconsciously rubbing her program. It was a paper program. It would have been so much nicer if she had rubbed a hanky or something. She could have rubbed, and been noiseless.
Off to the left of me, a man sucked on his teeth, periodically, all through the recital. He made these sucking chirps. Every minute and a half or so, there’d be a sucking chirp. Many years ago, I was at the Metropolitan Opera, and a man behind me sucked continually. I think I left early.
What did Ross Perot say, during the 1992 campaign? He spoke of a “giant sucking sound.” I know just what he means.
Audience noises—audience nuisances—are many and varied. There are cellphones, of course. But worse than the ringing of a cellphone is the clucking and scolding that follows it. The guy feels bad enough already, probably. But other audience members have to pile on, and add to the disruption.
There is heavy breathing—labored breathing. There is snoring. And there are other kinds of noisy sleeping.
There is the unwrapping of candies, lozenges, and the like. And there is the playing with those wrappers, after the unwrapping. The fondling of them.
You have coughing. And you have talking.
But now I’m getting to the big two—the two worst audience noises or nuisances. I speak of plastic bags and hearing aids. Errant, wayward, singing hearing aids.
A plastic bag is an amazingly ruinous object in a concert hall or opera house. The crinkles are absolutely deafening. One afternoon at City Opera, a woman behind me was playing with a plastic bag—non-stop. Just kneading it unconsciously, the way the woman in Philadelphia was rubbing her program.
Three or four seats over to my left, a fellow critic of mine, Robert Hilferty, was sitting. He beseeched me—commanded me—to turn around and grab the bag from the woman. He looked like he was about to leap over the seats himself. I forget what happened, in the end.
And hearing aids! I think they may be the worst—faulty hearing aids. The wearer can’t tell that the aid has gone haywire. The devices sing and pierce. I feel sorry for the wearer—he has done nothing wrong, but his device has.
One time, Dawn Upshaw, the soprano, stopped her recital, because of this problem. Another time, a hearing aid sang and pierced throughout an entire Metropolitan Opera Orchestra concert. As I remember, the hearing aid would not make a sound when there was silence—such as between movements of a symphony. It sang only when there was music from the stage. I think the music set off the hearing aid.
Years before that, I was at a Tristan—or was it Parsifal?—where a hearing aid sang and whistled and pierced for a full two acts. Some members of the audience were homicidal. They were semi-assaulting the ushers, who could not locate the offending instrument, or its wearer.
I have a friend, a regular concertgoer, whose ideal is this: He would like to attend live performances—because they are so much better than, or at least different from, recordings—without an audience. He loves live, but he doesn’t love audiences, and their noises and nuisances. He envisions himself alone in the hall, listening to the live performances.
That is something a very rich man might be able to arrange! Some combination of Trump and Esterházy . . .
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Sign up to receive "Critic's Notebook" in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! "Critic's Notebook" is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in culture, compiled by the critics, writers, and editors at The New Criterion.
This week: Carpeaux's sculptures, Strauss's Arabella, and Marianne Moore's family life.
Fiction: Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown and Company): Her first novel since the 2010 award-winning Room, Donoghue returns with the story of a murder in nineteenth-century San Francisco. In the middle of a heat wave and a smallpox epidemic, the outlaw Jenny Bonnet is shot dead. Her friend Blanche Beunon, a French burlesque dancer who was with her on the night of the shooting, sets out to find the killer.
Nonfiction: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf): Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, this collection of essays explores pain and what it can teach us about ourselves and others. The topics here range from ultra-marathoners running in the Tennessee hills to medical actors who get paid to perform symptoms so medical students can practice diagnostics.
Poetry: George Green and Lord Byron’s Foot win 2014 Poets’ Prize: The Poets’ Prize Committee of the West Chester University Poetry Center has selected George Green and Lord Byron’s Foot as the winner of the 2014 Poets’ Prize. The $3,000 prize is awarded annually “to the best book of verse published by an American during the preceding year.” Lord Byron’s Foot previously won the New Criterion Poetry Prize. The award will be presented at the Nicholas Roerich Museum on May 1. The ceremony will include readings by Green and the other finalists—Michael Collier, Albert Goldbarth, and Naomi Replansky.
Other: “Arbor Day—A Celebration in Art” at the National Arts Club (through May 10): Focusing on nature, the environment, and landscapes, this show pairs works from the National Arts Club’s impressive permanent collection with pieces from six contemporary guest artists: Peter Bogardus, Nancy Buivid, Amalia Piccinini, Joan Thorne, George Towne, and Albert Velasco. The opening reception for “Arbor Day” will be held at the NAC on Wednesday, April 2.
From the archive: Capote reconsidered by Brooke Allen, November 2004: In Cold Blood and the gifted and troublesome Truman Capote.
From our latest issue: All in the family by Bruce Bawer: On the life and work of the poet Marianne Moore.
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by James Bowman
Here we go again. Ezra Pound said that poetry is news that stays news. If so, the news that we don’t have to worry about our grammar anymore has got the Cantos beaten all hollow, as it has been making headlines since long before ol’ Ez kicked the bucket more than 40 years ago. The latest herald of these linguistic liberators is Tom Chivers of the Daily Telegraph, which headlined last week: “Are ‘grammar Nazis’ ruining the English language?” The answer is: not if he can help it. As the sub-head has it: “Split infinitives make them shudder and they’d never end a sentence with a preposition. But linguist Geoffrey Pullum has a message for all grammar pedants: you’re wrong.” For someone purporting to pooh-pooh ideas of grammatical correctness, linguist Geoffrey Pullum (co-author of the massive Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) is awfully quick to be telling people that they’re “wrong.”
The words “grammar Nazis” also appear in the article itself, also in quotation marks, though no attribution is given. But whether or not the phrase is Professor Pullum’s, he is obviously not the man to be bothered by metaphorical overkill and is otherwise belligerent towards the sort of people — me included — who think it worthwhile to try to observe the old-fashioned rules mentioned in the sub-head, or to recommend that others might want to observe them. Tellingly, he compares himself to “American bigots” who say of America’s critics, “ if you don’t like it, you can leave. So,” he adds, “I want to say, if you don’t like Standard English the way it is, talk sump’in else. Don’t mess with our language. If you don’t like it, sod off. Talk French.”
This is just one of the ways in which the learned prof shows that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Another is in setting against the “daft” or “ignorant” prescriptions of the grammatical Grundies what he regards as the unquestionable authority of “the real findings of scientific linguistics.” That is an example of scientism, or making exaggerated truth-claims in the name of science in areas where science is of little or no relevance. For an excellent recent dismantling of scientism, see “Scientism in the Arts and Humanities” by my colleague Roger Scruton in the Fall, 2013 number of The New Atlantis.
Writing, that is, is not a science but an art, and its “rules” are not the same kinds of things as the grammatical rules that Professor Pullum has spent his life trying to catalogue. The “rules” that tradition has distilled from the works of careful writers are not like the rules of agreement or conjugation that you have to learn about a language if you are not a native speaker. The rules about split infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions exist not because people don’t ordinarily do such things but because they do. They and many others less easily ridiculed are recommendations for elegance, subtlety and clarity in writing, which are qualities science has no means of measuring.
Professor Pullum is no stranger to the concepts of writerly decorum, noting, for instance, that the clause-initial use of whom, as in “Whom do you mean?” is “unbearably pompous.” But he can hardly be justified in invoking the authority of science for that artistic judgment, which appears to be directed not so much against the construction itself as against kind of people who would be mindful of the old rules about sticking to the objective usage in such a context. “Pompous” is always a useful pejorative against people who cling to old ideas about “better” and “worse” or “educated” and “uneducated” usages. Such people, to the neo-Marxists of today’s academia, represent an oppressive class whose hegemony over our intellectual life has to be overthrown and obliterated by “science”-empowered would-be proletarians like themselves.
Like other revolutionaries, they pretend to champion producers (in this case, writers) over consumers (or readers) without recognizing that most of us are both. Writers should be free of the bonds wrought for them by the kind of pedant who demands a greater consideration for readers. Thus, if liberated writers want to use “literally” as a mere intensifier, for example, as so many people do nowadays, instead of meaning “not figuratively,” Professor Pullum, seconded by the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, thinks they should be free to do so, and readers left to guess at their meaning. If they want to use literally literally they should fear no infinite regress in simply saying so. How they are to know that literally has any other meaning than the now popular and all but universally accepted one he does not say. Because language is often ambiguous, we should celebrate ambiguities rather than trying to obliterate them.
A year and a half ago I wrote in The New Criterion (see “Lexicographic Lies” in the number of October, 2012) of the moral and intellectual dishonesty and chaos that have accompanied the permissive use of the word “lie,” also validated by numerous dictionaries (though not, yet, by the OED), to mean “mistake.” The emotional force of the word has outlived its meaning, with no end of mischievous consequences among those liberated from their scruples, linguistic, moral and political, by the likes of Professor Pullum and his willing stooges in the media who are always suckers for whatever newly new liberationist enthusiasm comes along. But more careful writers and readers may see how, once again, the promises of liberation made by the politically and “scientifically” adept are only the prelude to a new and far more irksome form of bondage.
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by James Panero
In the Winter issue of City Journal, I take a look at the rebirth of what's known as New York's "Silicon Alley." I didn't have to go far to see the rise of this urban tech sector. The Flatiron-district offices of The New Criterion happen to be right in the middle of it, something I discuss in my podcast with CJ's Matthew Hennessey. The culture of New York is known for nurturing many things, but, up until now, tech entrepreneurialism hasn't been one of them. In "Net Gains," I look at why this might have changed.
You can catch my entire look at New York's Net Gains here.
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Javier Camarena and Diana Damrau in Vincenzo Bellini's La Sonnambula at the Metropolitan Opera; photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
La sonnambula, Bellini’s opera, is known as a soprano vehicle: Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and others have ridden it to great success. But there is a lot of tenor singing in it, and the Metropolitan Opera had a very good tenor working on Friday night.
He was Javier Camarena, a Mexican. He owns a beautiful voice, and knows what to do with it. He was nimble, fresh, and winning. We could always use such bel canto tenors: Man cannot live on Juan Diego Flórez alone.
And this brings up a question that has been on my mind: What is it about Latin America and tenors? If it were not for this one region of the world, we would have been very short on tenors these last fifteen, twenty years.
In addition to his vocal gifts, Javier Camarena is very polite. I noted this in a review three years ago. He was singing in the Met’s Barber of Seville, which has the relevant character (Almaviva) enter through the house itself. As he was striding down the aisle, Camarena brushed against my crossed leg. He whispered, “Excuse me,” then sang his opening notes.
La sonnambula is not only a tenor vehicle and a soprano vehicle, it is also a choral vehicle: The chorus has a big part to play in this opera, and the Met’s played it very, very well. I can use the same words I used about the tenor: nimble, fresh, and winning. (And it is harder for a chorus to be nimble than it is for an individual.)
You may not call Sonnambula a “conductor’s vehicle,” but the conductor is key here. It may not be obvious. The conductor is obviously key in Wagner, or Strauss. But bel canto? Doesn’t he just have to keep the motor running? There is a lot more to it than that. The conductor can make the difference between a lively, bracing, enjoyable evening of bel canto and a bland one.
For the Met, Marco Armiliato performed superbly. He brought out everything La sonnambula has, including tension, energy, and beauty. All through it, he showed excellent judgment. He gave us the gift of being able to forget about him. You didn’t have to worry about the conducting, knowing that all would be well.
The orchestra did a very fine job for him, with even the horns behaving.
Now to the soprano, at last—our sonnambula, our sleepwalker. She was Diana Damrau, the German star. In the early going, she was perfectly adequate. But she sounded slightly frayed and effortful. She is well into mid-career, I suppose. Has some of that miraculous suppleness gone? Has she become more human?
Not really. She is still superhuman, as she proved later in the evening. She hit her stride, putting on the kind of display that made her famous. The voice and technique are basically intact, and the adorability definitely is. Has anyone ever done adorability better than Damrau? At the end of the show, she turned two cartwheels—not vocal ones, literal ones.
Damrau does not come across as a diva, but rather as the lovable, adorable girl-next-door. She is Darling Diana Damrau. I wonder if this causes the world to underappreciate her, just a bit. I wonder whether people realize what they’ve got in her. Just because she’s not a jerk, doesn’t mean she’s not first-rate.
Also, I had this thought, sitting in the seats: “A German soprano and a Mexican tenor are delivering a clinic in bel canto.” This says something about the universality of music, and musical performance. I might add, however, that the two did not look especially comfortable with each other, physically—I mean in the lovey-dovey parts. But this is opera, not theater. Lyric theater, not theater theater.
There is a second soprano in La sonnambula, and that part was taken by Rachelle Durkin, an Australian—who was spunky, capable, and fun. There is a bass, too, and he was Michele Pertusi, an Italian veteran. His singing was somewhat tight. But he had self-possession in spades.
About the production, I will say little. It is Mary Zimmerman’s from 2009. The concept, I believe, is that the people onstage are actually in rehearsal for La sonnambula. Their lives in some way become entwined with the story of the opera. A few years ago, there was a similar production in Salzburg of Die Frau ohne Schatten (Strauss): The people onstage were making a recording, life was imitating art, or art was imitating life, or something . . .
One of the great putdowns employed by today’s critics is “chocolate box”—productions they hate are as pretty as the chocolate boxes of yore (I guess). Say what you will about the Zimmerman Sonnambula, it does not suffer from this problem.
I have no doubt Mary Zimmerman is a smart and skillful director. None. (For one thing, I have seen and admired other productions of hers.) But I often suspect that opera-world people are bored with their work. They have seen everything, over and over. This may not apply to Zimmerman, but it surely applies to others. They want to spice up their lives—and in so doing alter the natures of the operas they are supposed to serve.
There are always newcomers to opera. If a person’s first Sonnambula is the Met’s, has he really seen Sonnambula?
At any rate, Friday night was wonderful. I was not looking forward to it, for several reasons, but it proved wonderful. Much of the credit, frankly, goes to the composer, Bellini. He was good enough for Chopin and Wagner, both of whom esteemed him highly, and he’s more than good enough for us.
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This week: A new biography of war poet Wilfred Owen, J. D. McClatchy's favorite American poetry & a last chance to view The Fulbright Triptych.
Fiction: Falling Out of Time by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen (Knopf): A blend of theater, poetry, and prose, the latest from Grossman (To the End of the Land) tells the story of a family trying to cope with the loss of their son. Announcing that he is going to find his dead child, a father begins walking in circles around his village, and is soon joined by other townspeople. As the number of walkers grows, they discuss mortality and grief, recollecting their memories in a collective search for closure.
Nonfiction: Wilfred Owen by Guy Cuthbertson (Yale): World War I produced more than a few laudable poets, but even among these, Wilfred Owen, who was killed on one of the last days of the war, stands out. Despite his early death, his poems like “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est” endure to this day. This new biography pays close attention to Owen’s early life to explain his artistic growth and body of work. Look for a review in a forthcoming issue of The New Criterion.
Poetry: J. D. McClatchy in The Wall Street Journal: In Sunday’s Wall Street Journal, the poet J. D. McClatchy gives a rundown of his favorite collections of American poetry, choosing books from Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Elizabeth Bishop. McClatchey’s own books include Mercury Dressing, Division of Spoils, and Hazmat. His latest volume, Plundered Hearts: New and Selected Poems, is available from Knopf on Tuesday.
Other: Jennifer Egan, Siri Hustvedt, and Margot Livesey discuss To The Lighthouse and Virginia Woolf at Symphony Space (March 26): This Wednesday, the novelists Siris Hustvedt, Jennifer Egan, and Margot Livesey will discuss Woolf and her work at Thalia Book Club, an ongoing series of literary events hosted by Symphony Space. The actress Gaby Hoffmann will read an excerpt of To the Lighthouse.
From the archive: Reporting Nuremberg by Carl Rollyson, September 1998: On the war-crimes-trial reporting of Martha Gellhorn, Janet Flanner & Rebecca West.
From our latest issue: On style & order by Michael Knox Beran: Lessons from Camillo Sitte's City-Building According to Artistic Principles.
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The University of Chicago has just published a new edition of Richard Weaver’s quirky classic Ideas Have Consequences, which was first published in 1948. Probably, Dear Reader, you have heard of but not read the book. Now is your chance. Let me mention a few of the book’s many attractions: 1. It is, as I [...]
David Goldman, aka Spengler, has published a thoughtful piece about Putin, Ukraine, and the future of Russia. I say “published,” but “republished” is more accurate. It first appeared nearly six years ago, in August 2008. But “Americans Play Monopoly, Russians Chess” is as pertinent today as it was when it was first published. Some scene [...]
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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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