Monday, April 23, 2012

The Dapper Irishman (on the death of Ronan O'Casey)

On April 12, 2012 our friend Ronan O'Casey (known to his close friends simply as Case) was playing poker at one of the small gambling parlors south of Los Angeles. He was, evidently, an extraordinary poker player, and that day he had just won $300, about which he called to report to his wife, Carol Tavris; "I'm on my way home," he announced. Our friend Roz Leader, through whom we had long ago met Case and Carol, reported that she could just see him proudly driving away in a bright blue blazer, perhaps a purple or dark blue handkerchief sprouting from his coat pocket; Case was, with regard to dress, somewhat of a dandy.

     A few minutes later, he called Carol again to report that he had suddenly begun to feel strange, quite awful in fact. She advised him, since he was already on the freeway, to pull over to the side. The phone went dead. She attempted to call the police, but since she didn't know his precise whereabouts, a search was near impossible. A short time later, however, the police called back. A car had been spotted on one of the freeways, half on and half on the shoulder, with a body slumped over in the front seat. Having freed Case from the car and into the hands of a local hospital, rescuers flew him by helicopter to UCLA hospital; he was pronounced dead upon arrival. So, at the age of 89 ended the life of Ronan O'Casey.

     One cannot say that his death at that age was exactly a surprise. Case had been suffering the indignities of small strokes and other ailments for some time. But, as author Murray Pomerance—to whom I'd introduced Case and Carol a few years back—observed: "He seemed in some way, for all his fragility, immortal as perhaps all Irishmen are."

     By the time Howard and I had been introduced to Case at one of Roz's numerous dinner and holiday celebrations a number of years ago, he was, in some respects, a "man of the past," lovingly retelling his numerous stories of working with Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow Up (he played the dead body, a role which I describe in detail in My Year 2007: To the Dogs). But Case could also spin dozens of other stories, new and old, regarding his rich past as an actor (on the London stage in Kiss Me, Kate, The Odd Couple, and Detective Story; on TV as the well known character of Jeff Rogers in The Larkins from 1958-1963 and in films such as Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory, with Richard Burton and Christopher Lee) as well as new events. Besides his acting career, Case had had an incredible life, was a marvelous cook, and could boast one of the most intelligent and perceptive wives, author and social psychologist Carol, anyone had ever met; she remains one of my very favorite of acquaintances.

    Beyond this, Case had "style," which many described in at his memorial service on April 22, 2012, as "grace." Case was a dynamic individual—no one can deny him that—loyal to friends, vociferously outspoken against whatever he saw as pretention—which sometimes, one must admit, could be directed at things simply outside his imagination. He was gloriously melodious of voice, charming and handsome, stubborn and, on rare occasion, plain irritating. Anything said against anything Irish—despite the fact that Case, himself, was born in Montreal—was met with a flurry of abuse. I have already reported his outburst over my dislike of the Irish Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney! Yet, when I later approached him for an interview about his experiences with Antonioni, Case came to lunch fluttering like a peacock,  sweet and appreciative of my attentions, filled with knowledge and engaging tales.

     Moreover, Case never stopped making new friends. Pomerance, who met him when he was writing a book on Antonioni, reported "I felt close to him." That was the way with Case, if one liked the man, one felt embraced.

     As Jay Perry described it at the memorial ceremony for Case at a private home on Rising Glen Road, he was for many not just a friend, but a great friend, one for whom people went out of their way, as attested to by Martha Bluming's long and charmingly written testimonial letter to Case's superb cherry pie. A lover of jazz, Case was celebrated at his memorial with a beautiful rendition of "Our Love Is Here to Stay" by the duo of Terry Trotter and Chuck Berghofer. Actor Theodore Bikel reminisced about his and Case's close friendship (more like brothers than just friends) in their early days in London and read, almost channeling Case's euphonious voice, Yeats' "Song of the Wandering Aengus." Carol read one of Case's favorite poems, ee cummings' "the great advantage of being alive," and Case's son Matt, read letters from relatives and friends unable to attend the ceremony.

     Everyone was moved to tears. And, ultimately, when we looked around the room, seeking out the ghost of the man we knew would always hover over our lives, but would no longer be a living part of them, many of us muttered to ourselves, in a language characteristic to the man, "fuck." The dapper Irishman had died.

Los Angles, April 23, 2012

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Spiritual Uplift (on Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti)


Leonard Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti / performed by the Pacific Opera Project, Santa Monica, California (the production I saw was on Sunday, April 15, 2012)

In early April 2012, my companion Howard heard on the radio of a young Los Angeles opera company’s plans to revive their first operatic production, Trouble in Tahiti, in a small theater space in a Santa Monica park. He immediately called for tickets.

     On Sunday, April 15th, the day after we had watched the HD-live production of the MET’s La Traviata, Howard and I attended this amateur production of the Pacific Opera Project. The singers, all of whom had performed in small companies and in lesser roles in professional opera groups, introduced themselves, first performing—almost as a sort of bonus and promotion for their upcoming production, in Pasadena, of Cosi Fan Tutte—a medley of works from the Bernstein songbook, including numbers from Wonderful Town and West Side Story. Although their performances were certainly competent, the actors hammed-up their numbers a great deal, and their vocal ranges were not always best suited for the musical theater numbers they performed.

     Their performance of Trouble in Tahiti, however, was near perfect—at least vocally. Using a minimal set of interlinked, painted walls, the trio of the girl (Tara Alexander) and two boys (Robert Norman and Ryan Reithmeier) perfectly captured Bernstein’s jazz-inspired riffs on “the little white house” in the numerous American suburbs where they exist. Jessica Marmey and Phil Meyer expertly played the central couple, Dinah and Sam, as they fight, battle, and wander through a day in their tortured lives, each escaping into fantasy worlds—Sam into his vision of male-bonded powe-broker and Dinah into the romance of the movie she has seen, loved, and yet mocks. Her lovely aria of a dream world of “a quiet place,” was particularly well done; indeed such longing almost breaks the heart. But this is a couple, after all, who both make up excuses, when they encounter each other in the city, why they cannot share lunch, only to sit, each of them, lonely and unfulfilled.

     The remarkable thing about this small production is that, playing where it did, in a small local park in an intimate theater with about sixty audience members, both Howard and I were absolutely charmed by this theatrical experience in way that, after so many years of professional theater and opera, one begins to forget is at the heart of the art. It is a bit like attending a high school performance of a musical or opera about which one has little expectations, but is suddenly astounded by the freshness and resplendent originality of the work. While the film version I review elsewhere on this blog was brilliantly conceived and performed, this smaller production seemed somehow to get at the very heart of Bernstein’s simple two-piece operatic melodrama. And we both left the theater filled with a new kind of wonderment for both the piece and these young performers. Sometimes one simply has to go back to the roots of how one came to love theater and opera in the first place, to rediscover the simple marvel of talented individuals standing upon—in this case—a nearly empty stage and opening their mouths to sing out the pleasures and sorrows of life. Unlike all the productions of operas we have recently seen, the singers of this Trouble in Tahiti stood outside the entrance to the theater after the performance like the minister and chorus of a small town church to greet their congregation. We all shook hands and went home spiritually uplifted.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2012

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Count Down (on Verdi's La Traviata)

count down
by Douglas Messerli

Francesco Maria Piave (libretto, after the play La dame aux camellias, by Alexandre Dumas fils), Giuseppe Verdi (music) La Traviata / the production I saw was the Met Opera HD Live broadcast on April 14, 2012

In this Willy Decker / Wolfgang Gussman production of Verdi’s standard, there is no consumptive coughing, no overdressed man and women attending the red-plumaged Violetta. Bringing the story into a more contemporary period, the director and designer have established from the outset—through the presence of a gigantic, surrealist-like clock, that the consumptive courtesan’s time is short. The entire set, in fact, appears as a giant waiting room with a long, curving cement-like embankment and an elliptical mezzanine where the choruses, a bit like observing doctors, can look down upon the theater of operation, Violetta’s “apartment,” wherein she plays out the short life she has yet to live.

     In some respects, this expressionistic set overstates everything, and certainly does not allow any dramatic tension about the inevitability of the plot. But it does free up the characters to symbolically enact a ritual which, after all, is not about story in the first place, but centered on the intense musical relationships of the three major characters: Violetta (Natalie Dessay), Alfredo (Matthew Polenzani), and his father Giorgio (Dimitri Hvorostovsky).

     Dessay, a trained actress, begins the opera as a performer about to go on stage, the way many have described Judy Garland offstage just before her entry, her small frame suddenly rising into a figure slightly larger than life. Violetta, having recovered from a recent consumptive attack, is weak, not at all sure she might be able to attend the party she is throwing that night. But bit by bit she pulls together, transforming herself into the party girl in short red dress her guests—men and women all dressed in black and white suits—have come to expect. This “bacchanal,” however, is closer to a mined performance of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge than it is to Verdi’s original salon party. The champagne they drink is from empty glasses, the camellia obviously a silk flower. Dessay has not only to sing of “Sempre libera degg’io,” but, raised and lowered, on a red couch, must balance herself and dance upon the prop. She is, in short, less a consumptive woman confined to a couch than a jumping, singing acrobat. And any joys she may have in her party-life seem those that come from a successful theatrical performance than a lust for life. If Dessay was contrite, during the intermission, for having missed one of her high notes, it was easy for her appreciative audience to forgive her given her otherwise beautiful singing during her energetic apologia to the “good life.”

     It is little wonder that we find her, in the second act, having capitulated, escaping with Alfredo to the country. In the flower laden landscape of Alfredo’s world, Violetta becomes almost young again, wrapped in a flower-laden housecoat, playing hide-and-seek among the flower-covered couches. Indeed, she becomes one with the couches, becomes herself something and someone other than her former self. In this production it is immediately apparent why Violetta has given up her Parisian life; even the dreadful clock, ticking down the hours left to her, is half-covered in the same pattern, and the elliptical has become a kind of garden. The snake creeps into this paradisiacal world with her servant’s revelation that Violetta is selling her Paris belongings to support her country life. Alfred is determined to rectify the situation, rushing off to Paris, allowing the more horrific Satan, Alfredo’s bourgeois father Giorgio, time to destroy her momentary joy in life.

    For Giorgio, Violetta is, at first, nothing more than a selfish courtesan out to steal his son’s money and affections. Gradually, however, when that vision proves difficult to sustain, he employs the usual tricks of men who cannot escape the petty limitations of a societally controlled life: his beautiful daughter will lose her fiancĂ© if Alberto does not return home. Crueler yet, Giorgio tells Violetta of her own destiny, her loss of beauty and betrayal, perhaps, by Alfredo himself. As Violetta notes, the punishment for her libertine lifestyle comes not from God but from man. Even Giorgio, however, finally comes to recognize Violetta’s sacrifice, singing in a beautiful aria (Hvorostovsky at the top of his form) of her love and generosity.

     So pure is Violetta’s love that she agrees, most reluctantly, to give up Alfredo and return to Paris, knowing now that her fate will be an early death. Accepting an invitation to her friend Flora’s costume ball, she pretends to take up once more with her former protector Baron Bouphol.

     While in Verdi’s original, the costume ball was replete with gypsies and bullfighters, the new Met version has mixed these with costumed performers from the partygoers, along with a male dressed as Violetta in mockery of her return to their world. If the whole scene is a kind of confusing mish-mash at times, it still makes more sense than the presence of these “types” at the grand ball, and their taunting tales only reiterate what we know, Violetta’s life as a grand courtesan is over. The clock itself is now transformed into a gambling table where Alfredo, who in revenge has rushed back to Paris, wins, tossing his winnings at and stuffing them into Violetta’s orifices in what is clearly a kind of capitalist rape. Even Giorgio, having followed his son to the party, is shocked by Alfredo’s behavior, but then propriety is at the heart of his torturous demands.

     The party-goers, now carnival celebrants, reenter this cold waiting room once again, this time with another women, clad in red dress, strapped to the clock. Violetta is no longer the life of the party; she has almost been drained of life.

     Sick and suffering, with just a few hours to live, she awaits the return of Alfredo who, having survived his duel with the Baron, has discovered the truth of Violetta’s abandonment and has written of her determination to see her once again. As in any grand opera, the lovers reunite to imagine the possibility of life as they once lived it, a reunification that the audience has known is impossible from the start. For a second, just before her death, the courtesan is relieved of all pain and age, until she faints away, both Alfredo and Giorgio left to face their own failures of faith in her love.

     Some of the subtlety of this opera may have been lost in the symbolic posturings of Decker’s and Gussman’s vision, but the overall dramatic impact, particularly in Dessay’s powerful performance, remains, and La Traviata seldom wavers in its musical splendor as this grand courtesan had in her past.

Los Angeles, March 15, 2012