Wednesday, December 30, 2015


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The view out our window, Gasthaus Borealis
Puiflijk, December 31, 2015
LONG TIME no blog; sorry: you can do, or you can write about doing; recently we've been doing a lot of doing. Nearly two weeks! Landscape; cities; languages; museums; transportation…

And I think I have been enchanted by Rovaniemi. We spent only three days there, and two nights, and we left three days ago now, but it seems more present in my mind than does Helsinki, which is not exactly short of impressions itself.

Rovaniemi is the capital city of Lapland — the northern half of Finland — with a population of about sixty thousand. About six miles south of the Arctic Circle, it's a bit of a tourist destination even in the winter: it's near Santa Claus Village, which didn't interest us; and it offers viewings of the Aurora Borealis, which did.

Or it should offer such viewings. In fact the town is very brightly lit, and our only serious attempt, walking about in -20° (Celsius: -4° Farenheit) weather for an hour or so, in relative dark, on snow and ice, turned up nothing but a frozen nose.

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But there were compensations. For one, the museum Arktikum, where this aerial photo of reindeer on the move suggested to me a completely different way of looking at, for example, cave paintings of groupings of animals. Distortion, gathering, orientation, direction — and recalling that the climate of the cave painters was very different from ours, and was undoubtedly glacial-marginal…

You can think about such things forever; there are so many things to see and to think about. The white canvas of the snow helps this, of course, bringing color out more vividly. More to the point, the snow covers all kinds of visual distractions. You can't tell the sidewalk from the street. And there is much less traffic outside; hardly anyone on the sidewalks; very few cars, and they slow.

Then there's the effect of the short day. We knew all about this, of course, intellectually, but it's another thing to experience it actually. Daylight begins to take hold at ten in the morning; by two-thirty it's definitely fading. In compensation, the twilight hours are long, and the darkness itself is bluer than black, and offset by the nearly full moon and the reflective white of all that snow.

Of course we only experienced three of those short days, though the last week had gradually got us used to the idea as we settled in Stockholm, then moved our way over two or three days toward the north end of the Gulf of Bothnia. I'd love to spend a couple of solid weeks here, preferably when the moon is dark, to get a better idea of it; and I regret that Rovaniemi is so much lit, though I understand the desire of its citizens to do so.

I'd like, too, to spend a few weeks this far north in the summer, though I imagine that would be more fatiguing for lack of sleep. The point is, I can't really begin to imagine how formative the radical swings in daylight length are among the influences on the arctic mentality. To what extent does it encourage a desire for sociability, for example; to what extent does it produce a pragmatic kind of fatalism, a sense of human vulnerability in the face of natural elements.

Arktikum is a very impressive museum, with a wide variety of material, whose curatorial presentation encourages this kind of contemplation. The main hall combined artifacts and reconstructions, two- and three-dimensional exhibits, and explanatory panels (in English, thankfully, as well as Finnish) to present a fine introduction to the Arctic life. It included nature, with stuffed bears and muskrats and these three swans flying overhead; and climatology, with clear explanations of the patterns of wind, temperature variation, and daylight; and botany; and anthropology.

The latter included what seemed to me a thorough and very sympathetic overview of the Sami, the indigenous migratory people we used to call Lapps, for centuries reindeer herders but now mostly apparently settled into residential communities of various kinds. We were told later on, in Helsinki, rather dismissively, that only perhaps ten percent of the Sami still herd reindeer, and they do that using helicopters; that there hasn't been an undomesticated reindeer for over a century; that the Sami now live mostly on the dole or by producing handicrafts. I'm sure this is all true from the perspective of the person who was explaining it all to us; but I doubt it is true from the Sami point of view, and I can only reserve my judgment.

As I say, the Arktikum presentation was sympathetic, reconstructing the Sami way of life before "civilization" began to settle the extreme North but also following them into the present. One affecting diorama, for example, showed a meeting of three or four apparently unemployed men in a rural gas station-cafe; they could have been in Nevada or Wyoming.

Another presented the life and career of an itinerant photographer, Valto Pernu (1909-1986), the last market photographer in Finland, who traveled with a wagon studio and a big camera of his own making for years before settling in Rovaniemi for his last twenty years, still photographing in the summertime in a studio tent.

We were dumbstruck confronting one portrait he'd made, I suppose in the 1930s, of an adolescent boy in a visored cap reseting on his bicycle in front of a cabin. He looked exactly like me at sixteen. I know my haplogroup (I-M253) represents peoples who migrated out of Africa eventually through Hungary to northern Europe, with a particular concentration in Scandinavia, so perhaps the proud, sober, rather grumpy teenager posing somewhat self-consciously on his bicycle really is me in an alternative universe; the light, cold, and hours here encourage this kind of thinking.

There's also a quite scientific component of exhibits in the museum, explaining winds, the earth's tilt, glaciology, and all that sort of thing — including, of course, the Northern Lights, still eluding us. But recently it's human history that's interested me the most, and I wanted to linger longer than we could afford over a temporary exhibit relating to the German occupation of Finland during World War II.

When I was a boy it seemed to me we took a dim view of Finland. World War II was on, and in Berkeley shop windows there were lots of propaganda photos and posters. On the maps, Finland was clarly a part of the Axis — I always confused "axis" and "axle," and wondered at the long stretch of black on the maps indicating the enemy, from Finland on the north south through Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Greece… All those territories were The Enemy, Finland included. It's disturbing that the prejudices formed so long ago, if not confronted and examined, tend to remain influential.

Finland was a part of Sweden from the 12th century until 1809, when it was granted a degree of autonomy as part of the Russian Empire. During the Russian Revolution, in 1917, Finland declared her independence, then plunged into civil war between the leftist "Red" Finns and the German-supported anti-communist "Whites." The war lasted only three months, thanks to the intervention of the German army; but it was brutal, involving murders and starvations and the conscription of boys as young as fourteen.

The new Republic of Finland knew peace only until 1939, when the Soviet Union moved against its southeastern coastal and agricultural land. Three wars followed in quick succession: the Winter War, 1939-40; the Continuation War, with Germany now occupying much of the country and continuing war against the Soviets; then, from 1944 to 1945, the Lapland War, when Finland turned against its former Nazi ally. Enraged, the Germans left nearly total destruction behind their retreat.

Rovaniemi was devastated. Two large relief maps in the Arktikum museum present the city as it was before and after that destruction; the photographs and narrative panels in the temporary exhibition brought more immediate and personal insight to the fury of the betrayed Germans, who during their occupation had grown quite intimate with the Finns.

(Finland was important to the German war effort as a beachhead against the Soviet Union, a supply center for the Norwegian campaign to cut off supplied shipped around the North Cape, and for the supply of minerals and lumber.)

After the final defeat of the Axis in 1945 Finland rebounded rather quickly. Unlike western Europe she did not participate in the Marshall Plan, as she also did not join NATO: proximity to the Soviet Union dictated a prudent course. Likewise, though, apart from severe reparations paid to the USSR, she was not completely dominated by Russian authority.

The Finnish architect Alvar Aalto was commissioned to design the rebuilding of Rovaniemi, and submitted a plan based on the main existing lines: the railroad right-of-way (all rails seem to have been ripped up), the river, and the tracks of the main roads. Taken together and viewed from above these suggested the outline of the head and antlers of a reindeer, symbolically underscoring Rovaniemi's importance to the northern province.

As an administrative and cultural capital for all of Lapland, the city needed major public buildings. Of Aalto's project, three were realized — administrative center, library, and concert hall. But Aalto and his work will be described here another day…

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Bus to Luleå

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Hotel Amber, Luleå, December 14, 2015—
ON PAPER it didn't seem much could go wrong. After a long night's sleep in a comfortable bed in the home of an old friend's expatriate son and his companion, and a morning lazing about the center of town, and a delicious long lunch (described here), we had nothing to do but charge up the iPhones, write up a few notes, and hop the bus to Luleå, continuing our northward trek in search of the elusive aurora borealis.

I'd already booked the next hotel, this comfortable, inexpensive, pretty little place a couple of blocks from the bus station. True, their dinner closed down at 7:30, but it had been a fine, filling lunch; besides, there'd be a bar or café nearby for a nightcap. There was free wifi on the bus, and I have plenty of reading matter. So we joked a bit with the alternate driver — these long-distance buses apparently routinely carry two drivers — and settled into our seats, mine by the window so I could peer out for the aurora.

The bus went hardly ten minutes, then stopped by the side of the road. I was engrossed in George Packer's engrossing profile of Angela Merkel in The New Yorker and paid no attention for a fair while, but it began to seem we were sitting for an awfully long time…

Finally an announcement was made, but of course in incomprehensible Swedish. We sat and waited. No serious problem here; we aren't making a connection to another bus or train or anything; we just want to get to our hotel.

The alternate driver appeared with a can of ginger cookies and a tray containing cups of coffee — I don't know where he'd found them. We asked what was happening. Problem with the compressed-air supply, he said; when the bus is turning, or the door is opening, it needs compressed air, and there doesn't seem to be enough; he doesn't want to drive the 265 kilometers to Luleå without enough compressed air.

In that case, I suggested brightly, it might be a good idea to get another bus.

Just what we're doing, he said; when there's enough air pumped up, we return to the barn and switch buses.

And so, finally, we did; but the barn was to the south of Umeå, and we lost about an hour. I finsihed the Merkel profile. (I very much recommend it; you'll get some insights into the national mentality of her nation.) Fine, I thought; I'll just get some Internet stuff done. But the wifi did not work on this bus, apparently it does not run on compressed air. We drove through the night, stopping at a few towns and one minor city along the way.

There was a movie, but it was on a screen at the front of the bus, some distance away, and I didn't have headphones. In truth I prefer to watch movies on airplanes with the sound off, making up my own story, and I thought I'd just do that here, too — but it turned out the movie was subtitled, so it began to make some kind of narrative sense.

But the subtitles were in Swedish, and appeared only sometimes — when the cast was communicating in Sign. When they actually spoke to one another there were no subtitles. Well, yes, sometimes there were. Was the cast speaking some of the time in Swedish, so no subtitles would be needed for most of us on the bus, and at other times in some other language? French, perhaps — two of the characters were apparently named Nicolette and Quentin.

And why would a pianist be playing music to a young woman who communicates only in Sign? And why were people on a dairy farm? And why so much angst?

Ultimately we pulled into the Luleå bus station, a good hour late. The streets and sidewalks were covered with snow. We walked  v e r y    c a r e f u l l y  to our hotel, which was locked up tight. We were prepared: they'd sent us the front door code. An envelope on the desk had my name on it, and our room number and key inside. There was even a refrigerator in the lobby with free sandwiches and fruit.

Two details remained: to buy tomorrow's bus ticket to Haparanda, and the one from Tornio, across the river from Haparanda in Finland, up to Roviniema. Not much problem with the first, but the second eluded me after much trial: Finnish; then find a translated site; then discover the bus is sold out; then look for the next one; then fill out all sorts of blanks; then find our credit card rejected for lack of some code I never knew existed…

Oh well, it will all come out right tomorrow, I'm sure. We'll get up at 8 or so, have a nice breakfast here, and catch the 10:15 bus to Haparanda. I hope its air compressor works.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Stockholm diary

December 10,2015: up at 8:15, after false start at 7:15. Looks like weather as yesterday. At breakfast (sk170) set agenda: for me, Medieval Museum; Fotografiska; Moderna Museet; concert at Berwaldhall. After breakfast in hotel, took tram, then Metro, then bus to Fotografika, walking wrong way at first up interesting path, then down to the museum. Moving refugee children; interesting huge portraits; nostalgic re-surrealist fashion photography. Then to Master Andre for late lunch; to Central Station to get train tickets to Umea; to Berwaldshallen for tickets to tomorrow night's concert; then back to hotel for the evening. A fine, sober, silver-grey day, most of it indoors, with much use of public transportation. (I'm getting the hang of the apps.)

A thought-provoking set of inputs. The photos, and accompanying captions, and a short accompanying film interviewing a young girl, all centered on the emotional damage done to these poor refugee children, left me holding my head between my hands on a chair in the lobby. Then a 40-minute documentary, Two Hungry Horses, about ex-methheads in Montana, and the isolated but strongly communitarian life they need. Then of course the excesses of the fashion industry.

In the evening we watched live coverage of the Nobel dinner, on tonight, trying to understand the thread of the Swedish commentary and thankful for occasional English when a guest might be being interviewed; and then I watched an hour-long documentary on the history of Swedish armament and defense during the Cold War and afterward — also in Swedish, of course, but some of it understood. Sweden's had a major arms industry for centuries, and faces a crisis of conscience economics, as well as an uncertain place between NATO and Russia. I think the Gun Problem in the US is a parallel of the larger War Problem of the human race, and I increasingly believe it true that you cannot simultaneously work for peace and prepare for war.

Sweden, or Stockholm at any rate, is quite different. The Swedish mentality (I have no right to have any impressions of it) seems to be thoughtful but fatalistic, educated and informed but detached, optimistic but a little tense. The commute hour on the metro is stressful.

And I continue to have trouble dealing with the modernity of technology, the ubiquity of consumer items, the mindlessness of the pop culture, and the complexity of finding my way. I feel older here than I do at home. I look forward to smaller cities and to countryside next week.

I stopped a couple on the street to ask directions today (in fact I've stopped scores of people to ask directions), beginning as I always do with the apologetic "I'm sorry, I don't speak Swedish": "Neither do we," the wife answered with a pronounced accent. Why not, I asked; you seem to live here. Yes, we live here, but we're Finns.

They helped us find our way. Our first Swedish Finns. This is a cosmopolitan city; lots of asians, a few muslims, a few gypsies even. No Sami yet that I've been able to identify, but I've perhaps missed them. Virtually everyone I've talked to speaks English, and good English; only one bus driver today didn't.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Handler of Gravity, iii

PERHAPS YOU'D LIKE to hear the third movement of my Ballet: Handler of Gravity. If so, click here. It's only eleven seconds long.


Handler of Gravity was composed in 1971 as the centerpiece of a concert of instrumental music from an opera, then in progress, based on Marcel Duchamp’s painting La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (usually translated as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even). Duchamp provided his painting with an extensive “commentary” in the form of notes, sketches and memos; and Handler of Gravity is based on one of these.

The “handler” was to influence the Bride’s decisions by responding to changes in a sort of gravitational field ó the details are unclear, and in any case the handler was ultimately left out of the painting. Duchamp’s note is accompanied by a sketch of a six-pointed star-shape surrounding a spheroid body; the six points represent points from which threads would stretch toward the central body, defining its location and shape by their tension. NewImage.pngSix systems of music, each but the third lasting about a minute, were conceived as both linear and textural analogues of these threads. The unsynchronized repetitions and reinforcements in the music was meant to represent the variations and displacements of physical bodies caused by gravitational disturbances.

Much of this was suggested by the curious rhythmic disturbances which frequently characterize organists — or, rather, their performances. The result is a rather different kind of organ writing, a sort of compromise between standard notation and a kind of tablature; the hope is to ensure an idiomatic organ character by harnessing the little clumsinesses of the instrument.

The organist must be the central body who determines but also is subject to these disturbances — by realizing the music as accurately as possible (with respect to dynamics and pitch) while altering “rhythm” by responding to the difficulty of fingering (and footing), to the acoustical circumstances of the room, to the registration possibilities (themselves determined by octave location and dynamic), etc., etc.

The score was written on 10 March 1971 for a concert given three days later, when it was given its premiere by Ted Ashford, organ, with David Smith, chimes and glockenspiel, in a performance superimposed on other music associated with the opera: Screen, En balançant, and Vie lactée for string quartet and Bachelor Apparatus for brass quartet; 13 March 1971; Mills College Chapel, Oakland California. The second of the three pages is reproduced here.

I LIKED THE MUSIC so much I set it in three other versions:

Five Pieces after Handler of Gravity, for solo piano (premiere: Nathan Schwartz; Jan. 17 1976, Oakland Museum). Each of these pieces was provisionally dedicated to one or another of the five music critics on the three major daily newspapers in the San Francisco area at the time, since Duchamp sometimes referred to his Handler as a “Juggler of Gravity.”
     score: FP she03, 12 pp., available from Frog Peak Music

Tender of Gravity, for nine instruments (fl-pic, o-eh, cl-bass cl, bn, harmonium, vn, vla, vc, cb) (premiere: Irene Pruzan, Lenore Sleeter, Tom Rose, Cyrle Perry, Beth Anderson, Nathan Rubin, Ron Erickson, Teressa Adams, Jedediah Denman; 9 May 1974; 1750 Arch Street, Berkeley)
     score: FP she04, 14 pp., available from Frog Peak Music

Ballet: Handler of Gravity, for full orchestra (3-2(eh)-2-2(cbn)/4-2-3-1/pno/hrp/1perc/timp/strings) (premiere: Shere, Contra Costa Symphony, Kensington, Calif., 28 Oct. 1976, as part of a compilation provisionally called Music for Orchestra). This version also stands at the end of the second act of the full-length opera The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. It is the version whose third movement is shown above, and can be heard here.
     score: Ear Press, 14 pp.,available from Frog Peak Music

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Perfection, explanations, and …

WE LIVE IN A WORLD, it seems to me, that believes in explanations, yet more and more of our circumstances defy explanation.

So wrote a person making a comment on a previous blog post, written eight months ago, a world ago, a continent or two ago. It was an obituary post, and there have been deaths since that have affected me, a brother, two colleagues, a cousin… another friend just Friday… but I'm already off the point.

In the last three Sundays, more or less, we've subjected ourselves to three brushes with a different kind of immortality. On November 15 it was Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, performed by a touring company from the Globe Theatre, no less. This was performed on an improvised thrust stage, with a simple façade backdrop, in a huge room, a former brandy aging warehouse in the second floor of Greystone, the culinary school just outside Saint Helena in the Napa Valley.

We found out about it late and were lucky to get any seats at all. Sightlines were not good. The floor, at least where we sat, was reverse raked, because of shallow drainage channels built into it; further, giants in pompadours, some wearing hats, were seated in the rows ahead of us. But the production and its performance were so perfectly fine we didn't really mind. The Globe has been experimenting, I've read, with Shakespeare declaimed in an accent thought to be that of his time (and place) — "Original Pronunciation," this has come to be called, "OP" for short, and there's lots online about it. I don't think this Much Ado was "in" OP, but I think it may have been influenced by the idea: the dialogue seemed faster and clearer than usual, even given the somewhat resonant acoustics of the stone-and-concrete building.

Eight actors made up the cast, half ot them taking two or three roles apiece; even Beatrice had a double job, filling in as Verges. As if that's not enough, they all play musical instruments, most of them more than one: violin, guitar, trombone, and less likely things; and they sing, and dance, and clown — to the point of interfering at least once with the story: when Benedick says he'll do anything for Beatrice, just name it, and she says, shockingly and chillingly, Kill Claudio — that line unfortunately drew laughs.

It's a line I always look forward to, and am always surprised by — shocked, even, in a good performance. Like so many pivotal moments in Shakespeare it is unpredictable beforehand, perfectly inevitable once met. It's pure energy and no substance; the flash accompanying the destruction of matter, the shock of recognition.

Perhaps because the audience was — well, less sophisticated, less theater- and Shakespeare-adept than those we're used to, at dedicated theaters like Oregon Shakespeare and California Shakespeare and, in Pasadena, A Noise Within. Those companies, though, would do well to book in this Globe touring company from time to time. They were a reminder of how effective the master's plays remain when you just play them, simply and directly, engaging the audience with the words and the situations, and letting symbols and relevance and meaning simmer on a burner well to the back.

A WEEK AGO it was another timeless genius's turn: we went to a marvelous performance of the Mozart Requiem. This too was a local, small-town production, by the Sonoma Bach Choir and the Live Oak Baroque Orchestra (playing in period style, at A=430), directed by Robert Worth. The inspired idea here was to play the piece twice: first the score as Mozart left it on his deathbed, only a few parts fully composed and orchestrated, others present only via chorus and the first violin line, or a little basso continuo. This is of course heartbreaking: clearly Mozart knew he was dying, that the piece would be left incomplete. And this was disastrous for more than merely artistic reasons: the piece was a commission, and his widow would need the money — which would not be paid for an unfinished torso.

Mozart: Requiem, K 626, Kyrie, last page.
Mozart's hand in black, Freystädtler's in top five staves;
Süssmayr's in the trumpet and drum staves
As is generally known, the torso was of course completed, by Mozart's friend and occasional student, the composer Franz Xaver Süssmayr. What is not known, and probably never will be known, is how exactly this was accomplished. Wikipedia has an insightful comment on the reason for this:
The confusion surrounding the circumstances of the Requiem's composition was created in a large part by Mozart's wife, Constanze[citation needed]. Constanze had a difficult task in front of her: she had to keep secret the fact that the Requiem was unfinished at Mozart's death, so she could collect the final payment from the commission. For a period of time, she also needed to keep secret the fact that Süssmayr had anything to do with the composition of the Requiem at all, in order to allow Count Walsegg the impression that Mozart wrote the work entirely himself. Once she received the commission, she needed to carefully promote the work as Mozart's so that she could continue to receive revenue from the work's publication and performance. During this phase of the Requiem's history, it was still important that the public accept that Mozart wrote the whole piece, as it would fetch larger sums from publishers and the public if it were completely by Mozart.

It is Constanze's efforts that created the flurry of half-truths and myths almost instantly after Mozart's death. According to Constanze, Mozart declared that he was composing the Requiem for himself, and that he had been poisoned. His symptoms worsened, and he began to complain about the painful swelling of his body and high fever. Nevertheless, Mozart continued his work on the Requiem, and even on the last day of his life, he was explaining to his assistant how he intended to finish the Requiem.

Nor is Süssmayr's the only current completion, though it remains the most frequently performed (copyrights and licensing fees may have something to do with that). There's plenty of interesting comment about all this on line: I recommend Peter Gutmann's note, the source of the image reproduced here; and another, by the conductor Kenneth Woods, particularly attractive for me for its reference to my late teacher Gerhard Samuel, whose performance of the Requiem with the Oakland Symphony, forty-odd years ago, was the first live performance I heard, and remains in memory.

But, again, I'm distracted. The point just now is that we heard the Requiem twice: as Mozart left it; then, after intermission, as Süssmayr completed it. It was a very good performance indeed: the soloists (Dianna Richardson, Karen Clark, Kyle Stegall, Ben Kazez) were well matched, nimble, earnest, modest, accurate, and possessed of beautiful voices. The chorus was also light on its feet, negotiating fast fugal passages easily, pious in the presence of Mozart if not necessarily of the Christian God. And the orchestra was wonderful: six violins, two each violas and celli, one contrabass, two basset horns, two straight (unkeyed) trumpets, three trombones, two bassoons, timpani, and harpsichord continuo.

Süssmayr's oft-noted errors of voice leading and orchestration were, I think, somewhat cleaned up, though occasional passages clearly reveal his less inspired imagination. But the Requiem succeeds to such an extent! Mozart seems to have been reaching beyond himself — occasionally recalling previously composed material, but relying often on counterpoint clearly inspired by, and learned from, Bach and Handel. His orchestration, for those marvelous dark winds, especially as revealed by these period instruments, presents a sonic world no successive composer save Berlioz could match for a hundred years. (Well, the von Weber of Freischütz, maybe: an isolated case.)

THE PERFECTION OF Mozart and Shakespeare, of course, defies explanation; when attempted, such explanation is necessarily dull. The lesser genius of a figure like Giacchino Rossini, the lesser perfection of a work like Il barbiere di Siviglia — that can be explained. In Rossini was inspired by Mozart's example, more adeptly than was poor Süssmayr; Rossini's bright melodic invention, rhythmic precision and interplay, certainty in writing for the voice, and orchestral enterprise and expertise — all that can be explained by his knowledge of Mozart, both Mozart's composition and his example as a hands-on opera collaborator.

We saw Il barbiere yesterday, at San Francisco Opera; again, an afternoon matinée. The performance was satisfactory in every respect. I thought Daniela Mack, as Rosina, took a few minutes to lock into voice; when she did, she was fine, a true coloratura mezzo with a low range that bordered on contralto and pinpoint accuracy at the high end of the range. Her Almaviva was René Barbera, a light coloratura tenor with ringing top notes and an affable, very pleasant demeanor. Lucas Meachem was perfectly adequate as Figaro, though hardly the central character on the stage; Alessandro Corbelli was nicely detailed and vocally secure as Bartolo; Andrea Silvestrelli was a commanding Basilio; Catherine Cook a winning Berta.

Llorenç Corbella's physical production is striking, the most striking visual staging I've seen here since Pierre Luigi Pizzi's bizarre Semiramide back in 1981: a white, two-storey, vaguely Art Deco Seville house, with grillwork and a second-floor window in lieu of balcony, angling away dramatically from downstage left to upstage center, raked, and fronting on a black street, also disappearing at a parallel angle. The building was so Sevillian I missed millstones set into the plaster along the street. The period seemed timeless; bicycles were featured; the ballet danced faux-flamenco; the happy couple left the opera at final curtain in a sports-car coupe de théâtre.

For all the striking staging, or maybe even because of the physical concept, this was the most static Barbiere I've ever seen, accentuating Rossini's nearly isolated, formal arias and set-piece choruses. This is neither classical opera nor Romantic: it's bel canto, revealed here as the late-stage Baroque form it essentially is. It's a type of theater I particularly love; I live always with memories of Racine's Bajazet, stunningly staged at UC Berkeley forty years ago or so, and of Last Year at Marienbad, and of the Hippolytus in Italian in the Greek Theater in Siracusa.

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Hippolytus in Siracusa, May 2010

At their best these theatrical moments — extended through the forced perspective of heightened emotions voiced with restraint, whether in song or architecture, dance or verse — these moments are inexplicable. When things happen to us in daily life we want to know why; much of the time we cannot. Deaths, departures, dislocations — we attribute reasons for them, causes, agencies, primarily I think so we can then absorb them in order to dismiss them. We know, much of the time, that we're deluding ourselves. We search for meaning but frequently we're thunderstruck,

Freddo ed immobile
come una statua…
and it's funny — Guarda Don Bartolo! — because if we're not laughing, we don't know what to do. Which reminds me of a Duchamp anecdote I just read somewhere. He was touring an art school in San Francisco (I hope it was the old California School of Fine Arts) and saw a young man flailing away madly at a canvas. What are you doing, Duchamp asked. I don't know what the … I'm doing, the young man answered. Duchamp patted him on the shoulder: Keep up the good work!