Friday, November 27, 2009

The Sacrifice (on Handel's opera Tamerlano)

Nicola Francesco Haym (text), George Frideric Handel (music) Tamerlano / LA Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (the performance my companion Howard and I attended was on November 25, 2009)

The Tartar emperor Tamerlano, with the help of the Greek Prince Andronico has just defeated and captured the Turkish sultan Bajazet, who makes it clear he would rather die than remain in the hands of his foe. Only the love of his daughter, Asteria, also held captive, keeps him from death.

Meanwhile Tamerlano, who is betrothed to Irene, Princess of Trebizon, has fallen in love with Asteria, and hopes to marry her, offering his ally Andronico Irene if he will help in obtaining Bajazet's permission for Asteria to marry him.

The story grows quickly more complex when we discover that Andronico and Asteria are in love, and, accordingly, Andronico has been asked to help in his own ruin; yet he owes very kingdom to the Tartar.

The sultan rejects the proposal outright, insisting his daughter will never marry Tamerlano; but when Asteria hears of Andronico's plea on Tamerlano's behalf, she is heart-broken that her lover seemingly no longer cares for her, and she refuses to speak out against Tamerlano's proposal, which in turn leads the Greek Prince to doubt her love for him.

Like many a Baroque opera, the plot quickly grows even more complex; Irene, determined to thwart Asteria's and Tamerlano's relationship, arrives on the scene, encouraged by Andronico to pretend she is simply an emissary from the Princess, which will give her time discover his true feelings.

The very set of circumstances Handel has set in play. borrowed from Agostino Piovene's 1710 opera of the same name, results in a kind of standstill: to protect her father and out of anger over what she sees as Andronico's betrayal, Asteria must go forward with Tamerlano's wishes; Andronico cannot speak out for fear of destroying both Asteria and her father; Irene, out of pride, has no choice but to pretend she is not herself. In short, no one, save Bajazet, can or will speak out. As in all tyrant-controlled worlds, the truth dare not be uttered.

Placido Domingo plays the Baroque hero almost as if he were on a nineteenth stage, often dominating the action with his full and rich tenor voice. Since he is dramatically the most forceful figure, however, perhaps this is not as ineffective as it may first have seemed. In a sense, dressed, unlike most of the other modern-suited figures, in a glorious Turkish robe, he is the perfect foil for countertenor Bejun Mehta's high-pitched fascist rage. Andronico, sung by mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, is nearly perfect as the quieter lover, unable to speak out until Act III. With soprano Sarah Coburn, playing Asteria, their duet at the beginning of that act, a love song sung in a dissonant melody, is one of the best moments of the opera.

Again and again through this opera, the tyrant Tamerlano is rejected or betrayed, first by Bajazet, then by Asteria who admits she had hidden away a dagger to kill him on their wedding night and later attempts to poison him, and finally by Andronico, his supposed friend. By opera's end he has little left but to threaten to destroy them all, and the frenzy that his hate arouses is perfect for Mehta's expressive voice.

Yet the opera remains at a kind of stasis, Tamerlano outwardly plotting his revenge while being unable to destroy two of the people he has most loved and the other, who in his courageous outspokenness, he can only admire. Bajazet, moreover, threatens to haunt and hunt him down even from the grave.

The only release possible is Bajazet's suicide by poison. As he sways forward after ingesting his "hidden treasure" he moves between threats to Tamerlano and sweet goodbyes to his daughter and her lover Andronico. As conductor William Lacey appropriately writes of this scene:

The scene ends with Bajazet stuttering his final words,
gasping for breath, as the orchestra describes his fading
heartbeat with slowly receding repeated notes. It is an
amazingly vivid and inspired piece of work, which antici-
pates the later innovations of Gluck, Berlioz, and Wagner.

Although Asteria, demanding a dagger, threatens her own suicide, Bajazet's "sacrifice" is enough to soothe Tamerlano's hate. He is appeased. He will marry Irene and Andronico can be united with Asteria in Greece.

The final chorus of this nightmare opera is a gentle hymn to the slowly rising sun, a celebration of the transformation of night into daylight.

Los Angeles, Thanksgiving day, 2009

Monday, November 23, 2009

All By Myself (on Michael Jackson's This Is It and Joey Arias' Arias with a Twist)

Jackson the dancer

Joe Arias in Paradise

Embraced by tentacles
Kenny Ortega (director), with performer Michael Jackson This Is It / 2009

Joey Arias (performer), Basil Twist (director) Arias with a Twist / Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) at The Walt Disney Concert Hall, November 21, 2009

Despite the obvious outcries by viewers and critics that This Is It does not portray a performance (indeed there is no audience other than the stage workers, waiting dancers, and others involved in the show) and that it is not even a film (having been intended as a personal documentation of the rehearsals) I found the work to be extremely watchable, if only because its focus, Michael Jackson is, metaphorically speaking, so "blurred out" that he creates an even greater mystery about him than the cause of his recent death.

A boy (even at the age 50), yes, a sensational dancer (indeed, but not, necessarily, here: although many of moves are quick and lithe, the overall choreography, particularly in the robot army number, is based more on fascistic-like marches rather than the smooth glide across space we usually associate with Jackson), a singer (true, but although we get various passages from his catalogue of "greats," for the most part the performer is not singing to his full capacity in an attempt to "save his voice"; at one point when he does begun to belt out a song, he interrupts, "Don't make me sing full out.")

When he does speak, it is, for the most part, psychobabble about his caring for the earth (the worst number in the film is the unbearable "Earth Song"), a hand-joining pep talk with his talented dancers, musicians, and staff, and quiet mumblings when something goes amiss. The most insightful moments are when Jackson speaks of his art, of the necessity of waiting between beats, stepping at the right moment into the spotlight, pausing in a musical phrase, getting the precise beat of a song. If nothing else, it is clear that Jackson is a consummate showman. Yet we get little insight into the man, and only glimpses of what the final performance might have looked like. Certainly it would have been somewhat spectacular, but clearly, also, it might have revealed that the aging Michael was no longer at his top, and the directions in which his art was apparently taking him were distances from the Astaire-like perfections of "Thriller" or his famed "moon walk."

I know I will be heckled, perhaps even hated, by all those who love the "King of Pop," but I feel that Jackson's music was never his great contribution. Most of his best known songs are repetitive ditties gaffed up by inward gulps of breath and sigh. He was a great dancer, a performer who knew up until the last day of his life how to move his thin body to convey a deeply asexual sexuality that made him into something for everybody to love. But This Is It, I am afraid, is not what it/he is or was. If anything, the documentary further mystifies us in our search to find out who this "man in the mirror" was. Here he remains only a shadow of a shadow, and one wonders "Does he have any reality away from his audience?" One comes to see him, ultimately, as one of the most lonely beings in the universe, like a frightened child, demanding doctors be there every night to put him asleep. Was he afraid of death or afraid of life?

A few days after seeing This Is It, I attended a performance of the drag queen Joey Arias directed by Basil Twist. Like Jackson, Arias is an excellent performer, but here it is the voice that dominates, not the feet. Indeed for his great dance finale, Twist provides him with dozens of dancing legs and scene right out of Busby Berkeley, yet those high kicking gams are puppets, not Arias' own slim limbs.

While Jackson worked big, on a gargantuan scale, Arias does more with small, working with the stunning sets and costumes of Twist, Thierry Manfred Mugler, and Chris March.

Without any apparent logic, Arias begins his vocal narrative as a captive in a alien space ship, attentively watched over by alien men, until, evidently thrust out of this spatial Eden she falls through space into a kind of campy corduroy-covered jungle, an earthly Eden with a large python slithering through its confines.

Evidently Arias is thrown out of that heaven as well, ending up, inevitably, in Hell, sexually entrapped by Satan's slaves and soon after wrapped in the arms of a giant squid.

Appearing like a slightly pouting, perhaps betrayed dominatrix with a long pony tail, Arias sings out in raspy voice through an equally hair-extended mic in a manner that is often more interpretive than Madonna or even Bette Middler, beginning with Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and moving quickly into Lennon and McCartney's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Her moving version of Eric Carmen's "All By Myself" and the Billie Holliday-like rendition of "You Changed" is vocally more powerful than anything Michael Jackson might have spit out.

Suddenly it's time for her to get herself down to The Great White Way, but her talent is so enormous that when she arrives in Manhattan she is the size of King Kong, swallowing up male passengers on trains and in taxis as she moves through New York's neighborhoods, ending up in a scene right out of a motion picture musical.

Like Jackson's missing person, Arias' twisted being—that is, his persona—is just that, a figure of true talent, funny and entertaining enough for anyone to enjoy, but also a kind of monster who can never quite fit into to everyday life.

Needless to say both audiences for This Is It and Arias with a Twist applauded with complete abandon.

Los Angeles, November 22, 2009

Friday, November 20, 2009

Buried Alive (on Verdi's Aida)

Antonio Ghislanzoni (libretto), based on a French scenario by Auguste Mariette, Giuseppe Verdi (composer) Aida / the production I saw was the Metropolitan Opera live HD, in encore on Thursday, November 12, 2009

One of the aspects of Aida that interviewer, singer Renée Fleming suggested several times in the intermissions of Verdi's great opera was that, despite the huge size of the cast, except for the scenes in court and the triumphal march of Act 2, Scene 2, the opera is an intimate work, centered around a love triangle of the characters Aida (Violeta Urmana), Radamès (Johan Botha), and Amneris (Dolora Zajick).

What particularly struck me this time through the opera was not only how truly intimate most of the work was, but how psychologically isolated each of these figures are from one another, despite the fact that their every action has enormous effect on the others. In few other operas do the major characters sing so many arias consisting of what we might describe as internal dialogue. In Se quel guerrier io fossi!...Celeste Aida, Radamès sings of his love and the beauty of Aida to himself, terrified that Amneris might get wind of it. Amneris sings of her need to discover the name of Aida's lover, and later describes her plots to expose her slave. Aida, who secretly is the Princess of Ethiopia, sings of numerous things she cannot share with others, her love of her country, the identity of her lover, her father, and herself. Radamès' desire to lead the Egyptian military into victory can also only be expressed in private thoughts.

Like Eugene O'Neill's 20th century drama Strange Interlude most of the characters of this 19th century opera spend a great deal of time in soliloquy. Without these private interludes, in fact, there would be no story left to tell. For the public events of the opera, Radamès' victory over the Ethiopians, his plea that the captives be saved, and his reward of marriage to Amneris, are the forces that doom them all, and speed two of them to their death by being entombed alive.

It is apparent from what I have just suggested, accordingly, that all three characters have lived buried lives long before the final scene, from the very outset of the work. Radamès must hide his love and his ambition both as he tries to balance opposing forces, for his desire to be made general will mean destroying Aida's kin and perhaps even losing Aida's love. Rebuffed by Radamès in love, Amneris hides her sorrow while, at the same time, pretending deep friendship with Aida as she attempts to expose what she senses is a growing love between her and the general. Aida must hold nearly everything inside: her love of Radamès, her hatred of Amneris, the name of her father, even her own identity. Although all sing of their deep love for one another, because of buried secrets, those loves are transformed into destruction, betrayal, and, ultimately, death.

The numerous choruses of the Egyptian priests calling for war, vengeance, and punishment, although seemingly set apart from the deep loves of this trio, are psychologically played out by the three major figures of the opera. Each of these figures, in short, sweeps up the others into a kind of vortex that draws them into the void.

By the final "real" entombment, strangely enough, Aida and Radamès are released. For the first time, hidden from all other eyes, they can openly show their love and, accordingly, are freed from the sorrows of their previously hidden lives. Amneris remains entrapped in life while feeling only death.

Los Angeles, November 19, 2009

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Fire Behind Myself (on Robin Blaser's The Fire: Collected Essays)

Robin Blaser The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006)

The death on May 7, 2009 of American-Canadian poet Robin Blaser sent me to my office shelf where I keep books waiting to be read. For three years Blaser's collected essays had burned its presence into my eyes, but only now, six months after his death, have I actually found the time to read this important book.

Beginning with his famous manifesto-like essay, "The Fire," Blaser argues that the business of poetry and poetics is creating a cosmology. He means that, as he explained in 2009 interview with Paul Nelson, not so much in a "religious" sense—although he himself admits to the influence of his Catholic childhood—but in a larger system of a world view. When asked for the specific components of the cosmology that he and his friends Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer attempted to create, Blaser answers in that 2009 interview (published in Golden Handcuffs Review):

The main components are, first, that there isn't one. That was what you felt
and this was what the 20th century tried to do to us. It took us away and
Marxism didn't help at all unfortunately with that problem. Marxism is quite
a different thing, but that's when we're already social and know how to move
and then Marxism can speak to you. Otherwise, you're fucked. You've not got
a cosmos with which: Where's God? Well you're sure not going to...even an old
Catholic like me isn't going to turn into THAT. And Spicer, I mean, Spicer's
view of the Catholic Church [laughing heartily] IS ONE KICK IN THE ASS
AFTER ANOTHER! HA! and I just loved it. And Duncan, ooooh Duncan. He
was an occultist in some part and the occult tradition was a fascinating one. We
all came to know of it. But the occult was a counter Christian, counter religious
tradition that was also a religious tradition, whatever a religion means, essentially
to be tied to a world at large. So all of us were busy working around it,
sometimes at quite a loss. ....It was simply a matter of finding language as the
way with which you could walk on a piece of earth....

In short, as Nelson suggests, for Blaser the search for a cosmology, an entire system of being, was a process rather than an end. As opposed to a lyric self-expression, Blaser approached poetry as a serial-like search—what in other essays he describes a revelation of the "real"—that in its intensity metaphorically "burns up" the poet, leaving a fire behind him.

This "process," he argues, moreover, can only occur in a community, and most particularly in a community of poets. Attacks against "coterie" ignore the reality that poets band together because

Such communities tend to build a structure for men who wish to keep, hold
and record the passionate relation with the outside that the world, the
nation, need. This is the only place where such talk goes on.

Discourse, accordingly, is at the center of Blaser's poetics, even in this early essay, and most of the works in this volume resound with voices, often contrary voices that express a kind of explosion of ideas surrounding the subject at hand.

This kind of dialectical commentary can often seem an onerous task for the uninitiated reader; Blaser's essays are filled with references not only to his poet friends, Duncan, Spicer, Olson and others but to philosophers and contemporary thinkers, from Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Lacan, Alfred North Whitehead, Giorgio Agamben, Maurice Merleau-Ponty to all of Greek and Roman mythology along with writers such as Homer, Hesiod, Ovid, and Dante. Fortunately, Blaser's commentary is accompanied by an Introduction and highly informative Afterword by Miriam Nichols who expertly takes the reader by the hand through the dense thickets of Blaser's poetics.

If nothing else, what any reader comes to realize early on in Blaser's work is that his writing, both the poetry itself and the criticism, is not a historical recounting of the "other," but an immersion in both the thinking process and in the lives of the writers on whom he focuses, all creating a kind of Memory Theater, "a box with tiers, where the initiate would take the place of the stage and look out on the tiers, which in an ordinary theater would hold the audience—here there are images upon images, so that a man could hold the whole world in view."

Such an impossible undertaking, made even more difficult by the impact of differing demands upon the poet's attention, particularly the call for social and political involvement that claim little role in the poetic imagination, itself might truly "burn up" the poet. One by one, Blaser takes up some of those issues, in "The Particles" the role of the political, for example, in which he dismisses various views of what political poetry might be before going on to argue that it is the passionate particularity of poetry, its never-ending search for truth or "reality" and the commitment of the poet to this search that demonstrates most clearly poetry's relationship with the polis as opposed to statements about political positions which merely reiterate frozen thoughts, dead images of the society at large.

Blaser cites the wonderful example of the Spanish writer, Miguel de Unamuno, Rector of the University of Salamanca. After a rabid speech by General Millan Astray, "thin, emaciated, one eye and one arm," in which he called for the extermination of all who stood against Franco, Unamuno rose and gave a speech beginning:

"All of you are hanging on my words. You all know me, and are aware
that I am unable to remain silent. I have not learnt to do so in seventy-
three years of my life. and I do not wish to learn it any more. At times,
to be silent is to lie. For silence can be interpreted as acquiescence. I
could not survive a divorce between my conscience and my world, always
well-mated partners."

Describing the General as a "symbol of death," Unamuno closes: "Unfortunately there are all too many cripples in Spain now. And soon, there will be even more of them, if God does not come to our aid. It pains me to think that General Millan Astray should dictate the patter of mass-pyschology. ...You will win, but you will not convince. You will win, because you possess more than enough brute force, but you will not convince, because to convince means to persuade. And in order to persuade you need what you lack—reason and right in the struggle."

The crowd might have killed the Rector right there had not a Professor of Law taken Unamuno by one arm and Madame Franco by the other and quietly left the dais. Unamuno remained a prisoner in his house, Blaser tells us, until his death at the end of that year.

For Blaser it is the persuasion, through particularities, the "particles" of reality, that matter and are at the heart of any truthful political act.

That argument continues in "The Stadium of the Mirror," in which Blaser explores the relationship of poetry to the public in terms of aesthetics and psychology rather than the political. Here Blaser argues against the imaginary stage of poetry which the child mistakes as an "image of psychic wholeness," and argues instead for another version of the Memory Theater in which the mirrored stadium incorporates "as much of otherness as the poet can see and hear," internalizing, in short, a great part of the world inside of the poet's self.

Blaser's vision of the poet and his roles, accordingly, demand enormous undertakings, a knowledge of history, literature, language, politics, and much else that transforms the poet's role into a near Herculean act. It is, obviously, something that might indeed burn the poet up, actually destroy the living man. And in his beautiful testament to his beloved poet-friend Jack Spicer, we see precisely this self-immolation. Although the story has been told many times, it is worth repeating.

One of two Spicer essays in this book, "The Practice of Outside," describes some of Spicer's methods, the creation of the serial poem beginning with not having any idea where one is going. Spicer, as Blaser claims, used a simple language that resembled his own way of speaking so to be able to live in that language and, as he wrote in his book, Language, to "have the ground cut from under us." Blaser argues:

Just here, poetry may become a necessary function of the real, not
something added to it.

This living through poetry came, however, at a "remarkable cost." As Spicer once declared: "Neither baseball nor poetry are for amusement." Spicer's life, filled with contrariness and complexity, along with a deep dependence on alcohol, demanded a price.

At the end of this long essay, Blaser returns to a scene in which he had previously left us, at Spicer's beside in the San Francisco General Hospital, where he is soon to die.

I have already said his speech was a garble. He could manage a name
once in a while. Otherwise there were long-runs of nonsense sounds. No
words, no sentences. That afternoon, there was something like a dozen
friends around his bed, when it became clear that he wished to say
something to me. By some magic I can't explain, everyone left to let
it be between us. It was odd because I didn't ask them to leave and
Jack couldn't be understood. Their affection simply accounted for
something inexplicable. Jack struggled to tie his speech to words. I
leaned over and asked him to repeat a word at a time. I would, I said
discover the pattern. Suddenly, he wrenched his body up from the
pillow and said,

My vocabulary did this to me. Your love will let you go on.

The strain was so great that he shat into the plastic bag they'd wrapped
him in. He blushed and I saw the shock on his face. That funny apology
he always made for his body.

Along with Blaser's observations in short and long essays on Olson, Louis Dudek, George Bowering, Mary Butts, the artist Jess and others, The Fire encapsulates the immense demands he puts upon the role of poet, a figure, like Joan of Arc, destined to be burned up in the glory of his or her faith.

Los Angeles, November 1, 2009