Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Oh Glowing Night (on Franz Schreker's opera, Die Gezeichneten)

Franz Schreker

From the original 1918 production, Savalgo

From Act III of the LAOpera production
(Photograph by Robert Millard)

Franz Schreker (libretto and music) Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized), presented by the LAOpera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion /the performance I attended was on Sunday, April 18, 2010

As I am writing this commentary, I am listening to a scene from the last act of Franz Schreker's little known opera, presented for the first time in this hemisphere in April 2010 by the LAOpera as part of their Recovered Voices series featuring works by composers suppressed by the Nazis. The glorious aria "Oh Glowing Night," is a literally shimmering, violins-harp-and-celesta infused aria to a magical night on the paradisiacal island of Elysium, built by the an ugly deformed hunchback who has put all of his aesthetic talent and buried desires into creating the near-perfect forum for beauty and love.

Unfortunately as this opera's curtain goes up, the local nobles of Genoa, to whom Alviano Salvago has given over his island, have turned this paradise into a nightmarish world where they have taken the kidnapped young daughters of Genoese locals and raped them. Fearful that his own ugly appearance might spoil the beauty of his creation, Salvago has not himself gone to the island since its transformation, but now that he has discovered what has become of his masterwork, he is determined to sign it over to the city and its people, thus laying open the hidden grotto where the nobles have taken their prey.

The libretto of Schreker's 1918 opera, which he first wrote at the request of his fellow opera composer Alexander Zemlinsky (whose Der Zwerg/The Dwarf was presented in the same series in 2008), is a strange mix of stories that parallel tales of inner and outer beauty by Oscar Wilde, fictions of secret sexual orgies celebrated by the rich (such as Arthur Schnitzler's later Dream Story), and other Viennese fin-de-siècle tales of decadence, Freud's pyschological theories, and including the older myth of the hidden grotto of Venusburg, the temple of Venus. What becomes immediately apparent is that Die Gezeichneten's Renaissance Genoa is a shadow portrait of turn-of-the-century Vienna.

A bit like early American film-maker D.W. Griffth, Schreker planned his opera to include an enormous chorus and a large orchestra of 120 or more, along with a complex storyline that moves in many directions. The LA Opera production, hampered by their larger production of Wagner's Ring cycle and recent financial woes, were forced to diminish these cinematic aspirations; yet the Los Angeles production, directed by the ever-popular James Conlon, did well with a smaller 72-piece orchestra, and projection designer Wendall K. Harrington, lighting designer Daniel Ordower, and director Ian Judge to effectively call up some of Schreker's filmic ideas through a series of well-lit projections in back of and upon a constantly changing scrim.
It is, however, hard to recreate the sense of manic action and grandiose proportion with such a small cast as this production was allotted. The grand orgy scene in Act III had to be represented by a single naked couple, the woman raped by the man. But I believe the audience understood the shock of the original work.

The music of The Stigmatized, influenced by Richard Straus and, obviously, Richard Wagner, simultaneously points to elements of Debussy and Puccini; yet Schreker is original in his determination to take his Wagnerian intensity into new territory where there is hardly ever a resolve and what might begin as a stirring aria, such as "Oh Glowing Night," trails off in incompleteness. Indeed, one might say, despite the over-arching abstraction of Schreker's stated ideas, there is no one possible solution or position to be taken in his work. People and things musically flow into indeterminacy in way that seems so modern that it is quite at odds to the 19th century concepts he posits.

The issues here—and they are often clumsily presented as just that, opposing ideological forces—concern the battle between the ideal and the real, between beauty and beast, between the forces of guilt, and the eternal battle between sin and retribution and love and transfiguration. Despite his self-loathing and the concurrent resistance to passion, Salvago represents desire unfulfilled. Similarly the beautiful Carlotta, daughter of the Genoese mayor, suffers from a heart condition and is, accordingly, afraid of giving herself over to love. Carlotta, like Salvago, is an artist, a painter who has watched him pass her studio and witnessed him, one day, standing straight up against the sun proudly before retreating to his crippled decrepitude, painting him as such; she needs only his face. Fearing she is toying with him and terrified of being hurt once again, he nonetheless agrees to go to her studio, where she admits her love. For a few seconds, it seems that these reluctant lovers have found themselves and might suddenly spring to life, but both avow their devotion without consummating it.

Meanwhile, the nobles, in their attempt to thwart the gift of Salvago's island to the city, seek to gain the support of the Duke, who must approve the city's accessions.
One of the nobles, Tamare has fallen in love with Carlotta as well, and admits to the Duke not only his love, but the secret grotto and the scandalous events within. The Duke now has little choice but to veto the acquisition for fear that all the nobles of Genoa will be exposed.

Tamare, rejected soon after by Carlotta, vows he will make her his whore. When Carlotta, joining the local citizens, visits Elysium, he gets his opportunity and succeeds, as she is overcome by his and the island's sensuality.

With this somewhat ludicrous series of events and situations, Schreker sets up the battle between Tamare, the brave but cruel lover, and Salvago, who, with self-loathing, has sublimated his desires. The rich are opposed to the everyday citizens, the evil tyrants of flesh to the ideal of beauty and love. Fortunately, despite his heavy-handed thematics, Schreker, as I mentioned, neither in his music nor his libretto, takes a stance. Salvago may be a sympathetic dreamer, but he is, as Tamare insists, a man who refuses to love life, to take charge of destiny and enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. If Tamare is a fallen man, Salvago, in anger for Carlotta's statement of preference for Tamare over himself just before she dies, takes revenge, and in doing so reveals his own fallen condition. Both men have been "marked" or "drawn," words close to the German meaning of Die Gezeichneten.

The opera ends in near absurdity as the hunchback goes mad, slowly crawling through the crowd, as the orchestra, which has so artfully kept the ever-flowing joy of life in motion, comes to a crashing halt. The glowing sky, we now perceive, is an explosion, as Salvago's island is soon to be set afire. The shimmering sky that we witnessed was more like from the fires of hell itself.

Schreker, as one might expect, was labeled a degenerate artist by the Nazis, and after he was removed from his position as Director of the Musikhochschule in Berlin, died of a stroke in 1934, two days before his 56th birthday.

Los Angeles, April 19, 2010

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Six Stories from Sao Paulo: The 4th Night (Crybaby)

Horacio Costa
Upon my second trip to São Paulo in 2000 I was put up in a nicer part of town than where Michael Palmer and I stayed upon our first visit. Régis Bonvicino, our host, had warned us on that earlier visit to not leave the neighborhood, which seriously delimited our free-time activities. One day Michael and I—frustrated with the boundaries we’d been given—ventured into to the older and definitely seedier part of the city.

This time, I was given no such limitations. Indeed Régis and fellow poet Horácio Costa took me to the heart of the city for a spectacular view of the São Paulo skyline from a restaurant atop one of the older skyscrapers. Another afternoon Horácio took me to an historical museum near the old city center, and later, at sunset, we wandered the streets where hundreds of poor Indians and others who had migrated from Brazil’s provinces gathered on outlaid scarves and worn rugs displaying whatever deitrus they hoped to sell—pencils, cards, change purses and, in many cases, seemingly worthless trinkets of what can only be described as junk.

It was a terrifying and eerie experience to wander about these seated and sometimes supine street peddlers, each calling out to the two us to witness their wares. There was something horrifyingly spectacular, as if thousands of starving human beings had suddenly bowed at our feet. Régis—who works as a judge for juveniles—was angered when I told him that Horácio had taken me there. But I was appreciative of the experience of witnessing such vast poverty first hand, a humbling revelation.

Since I now had been given no limits in my perambulations of the city, I walked long distances, encountering, for the most part, the stylish and sophisticated shops of this vast metropolis.
One still sees things in wealthy São Paulo, however, that one would never witness in Rome, Paris, or New York. Near one of the swankiest shopping centers of the city, a small child, still almost a baby, had been posted to sell what seemed like sets of colored pencils. The child was crying in its evident abandonment. I watched for a few moments in a combination of horror and fascination before turning back to my hotel.

I had walked about a half hour away from the bawling boy, but could not rid myself of the image, finally determining to return to the child. After what seemed like a far longer period of time than my first journey, I reached the babe again.

I knew that they—the delinquent parents or whoever “looked after” this being—had possibly taught him to cry in order to capture the attention of just such people as I. But the tears still poured from the sobbing boy’s eyes; there clearly could be no pleasure in such an enactment.
I dropped the equivalent of $50.00 in Reals into the child’s cup, the boy hardly noting my presence.

“At least,” I whispered in self-congratulation, “the family will be fed for a few weeks.” Yet, at the same moment I knew that my action may have merely led to a perpetuation of that poor child’s position on the sidewalk, indenturing him only to more months of torture. And when I reached my hotel room, I too began to cry.

New York, May 3, 2000

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Present's Chronic Revision (on Rae Armantrout's Next Life)

Rae Armantrout Next Life (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2007)

For many years now—and I am sure this is not an original perception—I have seen the poet Rae Armantrout as a kind of American haiku writer, a writer working in small units of seemingly unrelated fragments, placed on the page next to one another, which suddenly flower into new meanings in their apposition to and their relationships with one another.

One might describe this work as a kind of collage of daily events and observations, except that in Armantrout’s poetry the fragments are left unlinked, disconnected in space—not woven together as a single whole as I might have attempted in my own poetry. Her lines, like Williams’ fragments of cut glass, each glitter in the bright sun of her intelligence, to be connected only in a reader’s mind. In Armantrout’s writing, accordingly, each line magically transforms the next, the many small units that make up a poem functioning like the luminous string of light held between the hands of the medium pictured on the cover of her new book, Next Life—a medium (named Eva C.) who, incidentally, bares a startling resemblance to the poet herself!

Next Life, in part, is a book of just such relationships, of the relationships of things in space and people to each other. The first poem of the book, “Tease,” for example, teases us about the other selves each of us imagines for our lives.

For lack of which
we put ourselves
in a cop’s place

as he puts himself
inside the head
of a serial killer rapist

who appears to be
teasing the police.

In the second unit of this poem, we quickly recognize that Armantrout will go much farther than the first series suggests in reimaging our roles in life; for the next section of the poem suddenly moves to the natural world, reconceiving relationships not through a psychological “tease,” if you will, but through a kind of spiritual interconnection of things in space: “bare tree” to “human skeleton”; just as “the holy spirit / likens objects,” things geometrically linked in space become “provisional pairs.” The next set of actions seems to “make sense,” contrarily, in their singularity, in their one time occurrence in a life filled with such events, as opposed to the death offered up by the imagined “serial killer rapist” of the first series: "turning a corner in a black sedan, quick-stepping up a street in a knit red cap,” things so fragilely meaningless that they occur “one time only,” and in that fragility, as nearly forgotten moments of life, demand to be written down like “everything that passes.” The last short unit of this beautiful lament on time and events past turns the poem on its head, asking the reader to move forward, relating the “Red cap” to whatever may come to mind:

Red cap is to
one time only

To my way of thinking, a “Red Cap” is a baggage handler who helps relay one's bags to the train or taxi that takes one away to a new experience in life? death?

Much of the rest of Next Life ponders such interconnections, and subtly—without demanding sympathy or pity—explores a dark world of possible death. The poem “Two, Three” investigates relationships that explain, in part, some of our metaphysical conceptions. “How many traits / must a thing have / in order to be singular?” wonders the poet.

(Echo persuades us
everything we say
has been said at least once

In the following stanza, “Two plump, bald men,” dressed somewhat alike (a gay couple one presumes) walk a bulldog, which even as the narrator perceives these three in space are being watched by “an invisible third person.” So, the voice explains, was “The Trinity” born, out of the “bitter / symbiosis of couples,” the dog serving, in this case as a sort of holy child. Perhaps if we can synchronize our speech, our attempts at communication, the author suggests, we can reduce echo’s sadness; the couple can become a single, unified voice. But once again, the last stanza of this poem turns that very question on its head, as if the author were exploring her concerns from a completely different angle:

Is it the beginning or end
of real love
when we pity a person
because, in him,
we see ourselves.

Indeed, such pity is likely the end of “real” love, for the synchronization of voices destroys the echoing din, the din by which we comprehend that we are not a singular thing, not a “sad, fat boy in pirate hat.” When we see the other person as ourselves, the world is drained of all beauty—the need to seek The Trinity abolished. We are left, like that “sad, fat boy,” beside a broken vehicle of communication, a “Long, old, dented, / copper-colored Ford,” now a useless thing in space.
Armantrout, in this sense of turning language on its head, is a true wit. And throughout her work she further explores language through complex puns. “Thing,” another poem that relates humans to the beings and objects with which they surround themselves, beautifully demonstrates this kind of wit.


We love our cat
for her self
regard is assiduous
and bland,

for she sits in the small
patch of sun on our rug
and licks her claws
from all angles

and it is far
to “balanced reporting”

though, of course,
it is also
the very same thing.

Like Williams’ several brilliant observations of his feline pet, here Armantrout expresses the simple (“assiduous,” “bland”) joys of watching another being, a cat slowly licking its claws one by one, a show much more interesting than the nightly news—so desperate to balance its reporting that it demonstrates no point of view, washing over what might be described as “real” events. Clearly, the cat, in its “balance” of various angles, is far more fun and, perhaps, more informative to watch!

Armantrout’s poems nearly always enact what she describes as “The present’s chronic / revision,” the moment to moment shift of reality. Her various stanzas and what I have described as “series,” often set off by small, graphic stars in space, each pull at one another, transforming perspective and meaning. One of the final poems in this new volume, “Propensity,” reveals just how effective such a “chronic revision” can be.

Once again, the poem begins with an exploration of the self in relation to others, the idea that all beings are “eternal and identical” except for “its wobble,” and “its exact propensity / for being elsewhere.” In short, Armantrout immediately punctures a hole in the idea of synchronicity, for the wobble and “the propensity” for being “elsewhere” is what Derrida might have described as “la difference”; for it is precisely that wobble and elsewhereness that separates each being from all others, that and each of our perturbations, our desires to express ourselves “first” or “best,” as she suggests in the next series of lines.

That desire or “wish” to be elsewhere, she argues in the next stanza, is also an impatience with time, a desire “for time to pass"; for any action, any movement in space, demands the flow and flux of time itself. The wish to be “elsewhere” and the concept of time, accordingly, are one and the same: a profound philosophical insight Armantrout expresses quite lucidly yet simply. This conflating of time and desire strangely enmeshes us, however, interconnects us somehow with our fellow human beings in their “wobbles,” each from our millions of different perspectives, a concept she stunningly presents through the image of the last stanza of this poem:

Having enveloped a utility pole,
the morning glory gapes
in all directions.

Despite our seemingly universal desire to be elsewhere, we are linked in our singular views of life.

Such a poetry is not without its momentary stumbles or temporary pretensions: as Armantrout writes in Make It New, “Each poem says, ‘I’m desperate’ / then, ‘Everything / must go!’” And in this sense, the poet allows herself very little safe ground, each work demanding a new set of interrelationships and interconnections. It is perhaps Armantrout’s utter honesty that saves her risk-taking tightrope walk of language from appearing as mere showmanship. One has the sense in Next Life, as in nearly all her books, of a stolid Western woman, ready at the start of each new poem to pound out a new frontier—with the reader’s help—that will create a momentary settlement, a temporary truce between the world and the self that inevitably results in a new way of perceiving her adventurous tale/trail.

Forio, Ischia, July 6, 2007
Reprinted from
Shadowtrain [England], no. 18 (August 2007).
Reprinted from
Sibila [Brazil] (September 20, 2007).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Six Stories of Sao Paulo: The 3rd Night (The Raw and the Cooked)

On my first trip to São Paulo, Brazil, in 1997, when Michael Palmer and I celebrated the publication of the Sun & Moon edition of Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain: 16 Contemporary Brazilian Poets, not only were we corralled into a particular neighborhood, but were kept on a regimen of what we then perceived might be Brazilian cuisine: day after day, our hosts Régis Bonvicino and Nelson Ascher, would pick us up and take us to a restaurant where we were served nothing but bife or churrasco: Churrasco Brochet, Churrasco de Fraudinha, Churrasco a Moda, Bife Amazonas, Bife ou Frango a Milanesco, Bife Abebolado, Bife a Calvo—accompanied always with rice, beans or fried plantains.

One day, to our surprise, our friends actually introduced a new-sounding concoction to our diet—Picanha na Chapa—which turned out to be grilled sirloin!

While I certainly enjoy a good steak once in a while, dining every night for two weeks on chewy and stringy grilled steaks does tend to separate those who prefer the raw (Michael and me) from those who eat only the cooked (Régis and Nelson). One day while touring the vast region of São Paulo’s “Little Japan,” Régis turned to us to inquire: “Do you like Japanese food?” I could see Michael’s head suddenly snap into gastronomic attention, his eyes growing large with anticipation. I licked my lips. In unison, we replied “Yes, we do!” Equally in unison Régis and Nelson rejoined, “We don’t.”

The next night we were told we were being taken out for a very special dinner. Our treat turned out to be—how might we have imagined anything else—a steak house, the difference being that the meat was slightly more tender and succulent.

So desperate had we become, that Michael and I snuck out to an Italian restaurant for lunch. The menu, however, was primarily in Portuguese, with even the Italian words being somewhat “Portuguesized.” We both closed our eyes and pointed at our choices, dreaming of fish or chicken at the very least. Beef was served—although in a tomato sauce, with pasta instead of rice.

I must admit that one day early in our stay the head of one of our reading venues took us to a Portuguese restaurant, where we dined on a wonderfully spicy shredded cod. For our very last night in São Paulo, moreover, The Professor of Everything and The Professor Nothing (as Régis jokingly defined the differences between Nelson and himself) took us to a traditional Brazilian restaurant where he dined on various versions of Frijoada. But otherwise, there were no exceptions. Beef was king.

When some months later Régis visited me with his wife Darly and daughter Bruna in the United States, I took them out to several trendy Los Angeles restaurants and held a catered event in my own house before I perceived that Régis had not been eating much. Was he all right, I asked with some consternation. He meekly answered, “Could you take us to a place where they serve beans and rice?”

“And beef?” I added.

“Oh, that would be nice,” Darly cried out.

When I returned to Brazil in 2000, I refused to be intimidated by Régis’ narrow culinary tastes. One day I dined with him at a local fast food eatery, ordering a cutlet of dry, breaded pork. The next night I announced that I was going to the neighborhood Japanese restaurant.

“I don’t like Japanese,” he predictably replied.

“That’s okay,” I blithely responded. “Come along with me. You’ll eat the rice!”

He laughed and joined me in an absolutely pleasant night.

New York, Brazil Grill, May 5, 2003
Reprinted from
Sibila (November 2009) in Portuguese as "O cru e o cozido"