Monday, November 28, 2005

"A Little Vessel of Sadness ..."

Unfortunately, the image accompanying this post has been blocked. Someone does not like John Banville, or Irish people maybe. It couldn't be me they don't like. Ya think?

Sunday in the city. The streets of Manhattan become absurdly crowded with tourists at this time of the year. The sidewalks are filled with gawkers, staring up at the tall buildings, or at the windows on Fifth Avenue, at the beautiful women walking and carrying shopping bags.

Admiring beautiful women may be a sin in the political correctness church where we are all forced to worship this "holiday" season. Don't say "holiday"! That's too benevolent to religions. Say this "special-wellness-time-for-collective-healing."

Children are a special delight at Christmas. They are often dressed in color-coordinated outfits, as though they stepped out of a catalogue. As a child, my clothes rarely managed to achieve any intended chromatic relationship to each other, except a highly abstract one. Until I discovered girls, I thought of a bath as a form of oppression and an outrageous imposition, to be endured only when the crust in my hair became a menace to others. (The foregoing statement is an example of humor and not literal communication.) Today, children seem to arrive wrapped in plastic and designer clothes.

Whatever happened to Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer? Perhaps they were insensitive to women's issues. Holiday season strolling in Manhattan also reminds me of trips to Lincoln Center, which I can no longer afford, to attend performances of La Boheme, or The Nutcracker at ABT. In 1982, I rewarded myself for completing a number of tests to receive my undergraduate degree and begin law school by viewing a performance of Puccini's masterpiece of young starving artists in a production that was filmed at the MET.

Jose Carreras was a honey-voiced, melodic and oh-so lyrical "Rudolfo," Teresa Stratas was alluring and fragile, while belting out the necessary B flats as "Mimi," and their performance of the first act love duet ("O 'soave fanciulla ...") will stay with me forever. It was the debut of Zefirelli's legendary sets too. For some reason, MET audiences love to applaud the scenery. Villazon is less good than Carreras; Netrebko is better than Stratas. (I can only hope that all names are spelled correctly.)

Boheme is a love-song to youth and the indestructible need to make art, to create and live with beauty, but also a celebration of the yearning to love one another, even in the shadow of an early death -- which was far from uncommon in the tenements of Paris, in the nineteenth century, before antibiotics, when Tuberculosis was as lethal as AIDS is today. Both AIDS and T.B. are still diseases of poverty.

We know that 20 million people, in Africa alone, will succumb to our century's horrendous plague in the next ten years. Yet our greatest resources continue to be devoted to war and to the acquisition of more fossil fuels, leading to the further destruction of the earth's ecology. Range Rovers are more popular than ever in the United States, even in cities where they are nothing but grotesque and obscene displays of American hubris. You do not need a Range Rover in Manhattan. I see lots of them parked on the street, even in my neighborhood. It is madness.

This Puccini Opera is considered the most popular work in the repertoire, a "bread-and-butter" role, in the words of the great Leontyne Price. It brings together the Romantic (and Freudian) themes of eros and thanatos, love and death. Puccini was an exponent of "Verismo" (realism), his early work being a departure from the obsessive concern in nineteenth century Opera with kings and heros of mythology in the great "Belcanto" roles.

Boheme was also a trip down memory lane for the composer, recalling his own "starving artist" days in Paris, before getting to make Operas out of plays by Sardou or a novel by Prevost. To have written the music of "Musetta's Waltz" is sufficient achievement for a lifetime, even for the creator of Madame Butterfly, Tosca, Manon Lescaut and Turandot.

The movie version of the downtown musical "Rent" is O.K. (Hackers have inserted "errors" in my last sentence. How curious?) It will introduce young people to the story of La Boheme, and may lead some of them to venture out to the MET, so as to experience Puccini's genius. Seeing the film with my daughter was an "experience" (to use her word), allowing us to discuss some of the themes in the show.

Boheme is the one Opera that I know with a character who is a philosopher, who gets to sing a love song, to his coat, which he has sold to get money for the ailing Mimi. Fortunately, it is Spring, so that his sacrifice is not so great. The movie of "Rent" avoids these issues by turning the philosopher into a more ... well, "philosophical" character. "I am thwarted by a metaphysical puzzle ..." he sings. Welcome to the club.

In "Rent," the philosopher's one song contains a revealing reference to Heidegger, whose theory is concerned with death as the poignant reminder of Dasein's meaning. At the funeral for "Angel" we sense both an hommage to Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the significance of the character's name, as the one "angelic" figure in the plot.

The music tends to become indistinguishable, after a while, and the lower East Side depicted in the film is a relic of the pre-Giuliani era, but the concern to live, intensely, lives that will be cut off long before they should be is ... timeless, as is the artists' "Bohemia," which exists in every great city and always will. The landscape of this film is recognizable for New Yorkers, but the emotional landscape is familiar to the young at heart and hopeful, to creative people, always and everywhere.

Bravos to all, especially Rosario Dawson. An added bonus, by the way, is being mooned by an attractive young woman in the cast during the course of this opus. That's the sort of thing that never happens to me in real life. I wonder whether I can get a still photo of that great scene?

In Sunday's New York Times, in the "Book Review Section," an intelligent assessment (finally) of Banville's The Sea, contains this paragraph:

His descriptive passages are dense and almost numingly gorgeous. ("The mud shone blue as a new bruise," for example, then a sentence later: "the water racing in over the flats swift and shiny as mercury, stopping at nothing.") And he's adept too, at deploying the mind-clouding aphorisms the English-style memory-novel cannot, apparently, do without. "So much of life was stillness then, when we were young," he writes, "or so it seems now; a biding stillness; a vigilence." And another: "Happiness was different in childhood." Another: "But then, at what moment, of all our moments, is life not utterly, utterly changed, until the final, most momentous change of all?" And one more (my favorite): "What a little vessel of sadness we are, sailing in this muffled silence through the autumn dark."

Banville has provided me with the perfect assessment of Mimi's story, in any version, with this single final line that will now serve as my title. And in the process, he has confirmed my opinion of his literary gifts.

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