Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Barber of Seville - A Visual Treat

As part of Opera Theatre of St. Louis' 40th anniversary season, it commissioned a new translation of Rossini's The Barber of Seville  from Kelley Rourke.  Of course the story is still the same:  Count Almaviva is still in love (from afar) with Rosina, the ward of prominent Doctor Bartolo and he still asks the local barber and busybody, Figaro, to help him win Rosina.  But the action is now specifically set in Seville during the April Fair and the time period is updated to, perhaps, the 1960's.  It's hard to tell.  The production notes tell us that during the April Fair people dress in costume - including historical costume.  Figaro wears a costume that might not look out of place during the original time period but Dr. Bartolo is in the short sleeves and tie that men wore when I was a child.   Parts of the chorus look like circus performers (including a person on stilts).  While a bit confusing from a historical perspective, it still worked well (far better than many of OTSL's attempts to update operas, especially Mozart operas).

Rosina (Emily Fons) is now the Doctor's assistant, working in his office (he is now an optometrist) and is no longer quite as passive as she has been in past productions.  Fons is making her OTSL main stage debut and has a lovely mezzo-soprano voice with pure diction.  She was a joy to listen to.  Christopher Tiesi, also making his OTSL main stage debut, started out somewhat weakly as Almaviva but as his voice warmed up he proved up to the role.  Both are good actors as well as singers and handled the comedy ably.  The true comedian turned out to be Dale Travis in the role of Dr. Bartolo, a role that I remember in the past as being nothing other than an annoyance.  Here, Bartolo, still schemes to marry his ward while at the same time being obsessed with chickens. 

Yes, that's right.  Chickens.   The production design, which is meant to evoke the films of Pedro Almodovar, is infused with images of chickens as well as chicken props.   The colors are vivid and it took me a while to notice the chicken design at the bottom of the semi-sheer curtain that is occasionally drawn across the back of the stage. 

But it is Benjamin Taylor who stands out as the self-confidant and funny Figaro.  He is unafraid to play the role broadly, which is exactly what it needs amidst all the color and confetti on stage.  And his voice was a delight.   Conductor Ryan McAdams did not let the tempos lag and some of the music is tricky to sing (much less enunciate) in the original Italian far less in the clunkier English.  But he handled it brilliantly.

In fact all of the enunciation was terrific - a far cry from some productions where they might as well be singing in Polish.  I wondered if it might have seemed better to me because we changed our season tickets and are sitting further back this year.   For the last 28 years we sat on the lower level, but on the side.  Last year we tired of regularly not being able to see.  Rather than cancel our subscription, we changed our seats.

Since Tim O'Leary took the reins as the artistic director he hasn't seemed to have made an effort to require his directors and set designers to direct and design for the 3 quarter stage at the Loretto Hilton Theater.  Regularly cast members and often scenery is put at the side of the stage blocking the view of those who sit on the side.  And in fact, this production has a large piece set on one side of the stage during the first scene, filled with sitting singers, blocking the view over there.  This is just laziness on the part of Opera Theatre - certainly the Rep, which stages many more productions in that same theater each year, never has that problem.   And OTSL never had that problem under Charles McKay.

But since O'Leary clearly isn't going to change his ways, we eventually decided to change ours and move our seats.  We also decided to sit center for the first time.  I'd like to be able to tell you it made a difference, but alas I can't.  When we arrived in our seats on Thursday we found ourselves surrounded by 20-25 small children who are part of OTSL's summer camp.  We asked for our seats to be changed and were moved to one of the sides.   After a long day at work when all I wanted to do was sit back and enjoy the music, the last thing I wanted was to be surrounded by other people's children.  Children, no matter how well behaved, are still children.   While I applaud OTSLs efforts to build a young audience, children belong at matinees, not evening performances.  And if they will insist on giving them tickets to an evening performance, season ticket holders should be warned in advance.

Other than having to change our seats, however, the evening was enjoyable and the production was a visual treat.  I can only imagine what it looks like when not looking at it from an angle. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

May Reading

 Here is what I read in May:

Image result for me and mr. macMr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud.   Real life Scottish architect Charles Rennie MacIntosh and his artist wife Margaret MacDonald have retreated to a village on the Suffolk coast to recuperate and paint.  An unlikely friendship arises between them and a local (fictional) boy named Thomas Maggs, son of an alcoholic pub keeper.  When World War I breaks out, life changes for the village and strangers are viewed with suspicion.  Even Mr. Mac.  A lovely portrait of a coastal village at war, Freud also vividly portrays the artistic process as Mr. Mac and Margaret work on their studies of local plant life.  This novel sent me to Google to look at some of their work and once again despair that I arrived in Glasgow the day after the School of Art (MacIntosh's masterpiece) burned and, thus, never had a chance to see it. 

Faithful and Virtuous Night Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Gluck.    The latest collection of poetry by Louise Gluck is concerned with death, aging and the act of dying.   Parents die in a sudden collision with a tree, leaving two children to be brought up by an Aunt.  A painter is dying and can no longer use his arm to paint - it seems the painter is one of the children all grown up.  At some point the Aunt dies.  But each poem could also stand on its own.  Is the voice female or male?   Is the voice the poet's or her creation's?  Sometimes it is hard to tell - and really, what does it matter?  Time itself seems mutable - the present and the past confused in the way that they often are for old people.  Is the poem representing reality or a dream?  Again, hard to say.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.  With the end of World War I many formerly upper middle class women found themselves in straightened circumstances.  The men in the family were dead, money was often tight and good help was hard to find.  The Wrays are just such a family of women, living in a fine old house in a genteel suburb of London - a house that they can no longer afford.  They are forced to take in lodgers, or "paying guests" as Mrs. Wray would prefer to call them.  In the first third of this novel, Sarah Waters creates the world of 1922 in great detail with appropriate atmosphere.  If you, like I, have little interest in novels about obsessive love or criminal trials you might find the last two-thirds of the novel somewhat hard going.   The twist here is that the love affair is between two women, but otherwise it reads something like an early Alfred Hitchcock thriller.  I truly love the way that Sarah Waters strings together her sentences, but the plot of this novel just did not grab me.

ChimneySweepers The Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley.  Flavia de Luce has been shipped off to boarding school in Toronto, Canada, a foreign land that uses dimes and nickels rather than good old English money.  Of course the first night she arrives a body is discovered in the bedroom to which she has been assigned.  In addition, the school is not all that it seems.  More strange is the fact that she misses Feely and Daffy back at home.  This particular mystery suffered from the need to introduce a new country, a new school and an entirely new cast of characters.   This is a story that seems meant to take Flavia to the next level.  Flavia is as enjoyable as ever but I hope she can return to Buckshaw and her friends in England.

stlrisingcoverSt. Louis Rising:  The French Regime of Louis de St. Ange de Bellerive, by Carl J. Ekberg and Sharon K. Person.   A book about the founding of St. Louis that focuses on the first Commandant of Upper Louisiana to live here.  Louis de St. Ange de Bellerive lived a fascinating life.  Born in Canada, he came from a military family and followed his father and brother to the new colony of Louisiana.  They were the first French to try to permanently settle the Missouri River Valley.  After the death of his brother, Louis was put in charge of the post at Vincennes.  After the end of the French and Indian War he was moved to Fort de Chartres and made Commandant of Upper Louisiana where one of his principal jobs was to hand over the fort to the British.  After the handover he moved his command to the west side of the river to the new settlement of St. Louis.  I reviewed this book here.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

St. Louis Rising: The French Regime of Louis St. Ange de Bellerive

When the history of St. Louis is written, historians inevitably begin with the "journal" of Auguste Chouteau.  Not really a journal but a memoir written many years after the event, Chouteau gives a version of the founding of St. Louis in which he and Pierre LaClede are the major players.  And why not?   Chouteau would become one of the most important businessmen in the young town of St. Louis, his family becoming very rich in the fur trade.  The Chouteau family were definite "winners" in the economic race run by the first founders of the City.   And, as we know, history is written by the winners.

But there are always, of course, others who were important in history.  Perhaps those who do not have descendents to write about them.  Or those for whom the written records is scattered.  If those records can be gathered they often document lives of great interest.

Carl J. Ekburg and Sharon K. Person have written about such a life in this book. Louis St. Ange de Bellerive led one of the most interesting lives in French colonial history - and possibly in all North American colonial history.  The Groston de St. Ange family came from Canada where the father, Robert, had immigrated in 1685.  Robert was a member of the French Marines.  (Despite most of the French North American colony being landlocked, the area was under the jurisdiction of the Marines.   This probably made sense as supplies needed to be sent by ship.)  He would spend his entire career in service to the French crown and his career would take him and his family all over what is today the American midwest.

In 1720, Robert, his second wife and two adult male children, Pierre and Louis, were at Post St. Joseph at the bottom of Lake Michigan near present-day Niles Michigan.  From that posting, Robert (and presumably his sons) accompanied the Jesuit Father Charles Charlevoix down the Mississippi to Kaskaskia and Fort de Chartres.   The St. Ange family were now a part of the colony of Louisiana.  In 1723, Robert and his son Pierre were ordered to accompany a man named Bourgmont who was tasked with setting up a post on the Missouri River  - Fort d'Orleans.   Louis St. Ange eventually joined the family there and remained as commandant of Fort d'Orleans in the 1730's while his father returned to Fort de Chartres and became commander there. 

When Louis' brother Pierre was killed in action against the Chickasaw, his now retired father requested that Louis be given command of the post at Vincennes.  Louis St. Ange remained as the commandant at Vincennes from 1736-1764 when the end of the Seven Years War resulted in the transition of all the land east of the Mississippi to the English.  St. Ange was then moved from Vincennes to Fort de Chartres and was made commandant of all of Upper Louisiana.  It was he who eventually handed over the fort to the English and moved his troops across the river to the new settlement established on the west bank where he remained commandant of "Spanish Illinois" until an actual Spaniard could show up to take over.  An old man, he died a few years later in St. Louis in the home of Madame Chouteau.

As a genealogical researcher with family living in Upper Louisiana during that time, including in Vincennes, I've been well aware of St. Ange's history.  Ekburg and Person are to be commended in putting the history of the St. Ange family into one place where it can be easily accessed by the general public and where Louis de St. Ange might finally get his due. 

In addition to the history of the St. Ange family, Eckburg and Person have also spent time researching the written records of the village of St. Louis in the years leading up to 1770 when Pedro Piernas finally arrived in St. Louis to institute Spanish governance.  They write a fascinating social history of the village, examing births, deaths and marriages.   They discuss the architecture of the village and include a creditable discussion of the law of the land:  the Coutume de Paris.  They include a full chapter on slavery in early St. Louis and describe the foundations of the fur trade. 

For anyone interested in the founding of St. Louis this book is a must-read.  My only complaint is that, in their zeal to show that the story of Laclede and Chouteau are not the only important, or even the most important, story to know about the founding of St. Louis, they sometimes get a little petty. Every book has a point of view - even history books.  But far better to show that St. Ange was more important than Laclede by writing about St. Ange than by editorial comments about Laclede.  If you can ignore that editorializing, this is a book well worth reading.