Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lust, Jealousy, and Betrayal Never Felt So Good!

I ran away to Santa Fe!  For one night! To sit in that glorious opera house in the mountains and watch the drama and listen to the stirring, heart-opening music of The Maestro: Giacomo Puccini. Tosca. It was the closing night for performances of my favorite of Puccini's operas.  
I am in the gift shop when it starts to rain, twenty minutes before the performance is to begin. Great! I say to myself.  Living in the high desert of Northern Arizona, I welcome every bit of moisture that comes my way.  And here, at the world famous Santa Fe Opera House, I can enjoy the rain, the fresh air, the gorgeous mountains and the endless sky throughout the performance.  You see, the opera house is open: to the back, the front, and the sides. There is a roof and a few partial walls here and there, but mostly it invites and welcomes Mother Nature in all her glory.  Having been ill-prepared for wind, thunder & lightening, and rain coursing sideways in previous years, I am ready this year: long pants, hooded sweater, scarf, rain jacket with hood, and a blanket.  Yay!  Bring on the drama!
And drama comes in the form of Giacomo Puccini's first truly acknowledged Verismo work.  Verismo being true to life, real. La Boheme was not seen at the time to be sufficiently brutal to be real.  Whatever. This story is sufficiently brutal to conform to the definition of the time.  These days, however, with edgy, bloody crime dramas everywhere we look, it seems rather tame. And so welcome.
Not tame is the set.
For Act 1, the fresco the artist Mario Cavaradossi is painting, which is usually on the wall, is on the floor, or rather is the floor!  There is a cupola behind for we are in Rome, Italy inside the Church of Sant' Andrea della Valle, and embracing this set is the stunning backdrop of mountains, sky, and part sunset, part rain.  Can't take my eyes off it...any of it! 
For Act 2, the front half of the floor folds upward to reveal the rear wall, painted in fresco, of the Palazzo Farnese, where Chief of Police Baron Scarpia's office is situated.  
For Act 3, this wall folds back down to metamorphose into the floor of the rooftop of the Castel Sant' Angelo: spare, with small opening atop an invisible staircase, and above and behind a cupola that looks like that of St. Peter's Cathedral, which is just down the road a-piece from the Castel.  The movement and transformation of the sets are breathtaking. The sets themselves are creative, innovative, and true to story, and for that we thank Yannis Thavoris, whose work here at the Santa Fe Opera is consistently stunning! 
One thing this first work of Verismo brings from Puccini is his first fully-developed heroine: Floria Tosca.  She is not an ingenue, she is not a poor wretch, she is not financially dependent on her father, nor is she governed by convention.  She is a famous opera star, she is beautiful, she is richly gowned, she is an independent thinker, and she has the power to get what she wants.  And God help the man who tries to stop her!
The second thing this work brings from Maestro Puccini is a breakneck pace of the action, which is ignited by his opening bars: three ominous chords in ascending progression, which proclaim the malevolent force of the villain, Baron Scarpia.  Everytime we hear those chords from this moment on, we are terrified. 
Thirdly, Maestro Puccini brings to us his heartbreaking melodies, accompanied by equally heartbreaking lyrics, meticulously overseen by the composer, and, not so oddly, reflective of Puccini's own life.  When Tosca stands behind the desk in Scarpia's office in the tumultuous second act, having already been snared into Scarpia's web of psyco-emotional manipulation and sexual blackmail, and she sings the first line of this opera's most sung aria, "Vissi d'Arte, vissi, d'amore," (I have lived for art, I have lived for love), time stands still. She is all we see.  The music is all we care about.  And what more need there be, really?  This is opera, after all.  It is meant to transport us to a sphere beyond the beyond.  And it does just that.  
At this point in the evening, I want Tosca and Puccini to go on forever.  
Given that Tosca premiered in Rome on January 14, 1900 and that it is one of the most-performed operas of all time, forever seems possible!
Amanda Echalaz as Floria Tosca is commanding and strong in soprano voice and dramatic performance.
Brian Jagde as Mario Cavaradossi the painter and Tosca's lover is dynamic and disarming in his emotional delivery and tenor tones.
Thomas Hampson as Baron Scarpia brings his moving baritone to new levels of sinister seduction and Scarpia's appeal to frightening proportions.
After several standing ovations, I pack up my stuff and head for the car.  Thoroughly sated.
Thoroughly thrilled.  Thoroughly grateful I ran away to Santa Fe...even for one night!!!


Saturday, August 4, 2012

50 YEARS!!

I was on a Greyhound Bus with my mother traveling from Sacramento, California to our home in Marin County and we were listening to my portable transistor radio.  Remember those?  The bus was rather full, the weather outside was quite hot it being the first days of August, and I was glad to be going back to my bed, my stereo, and my movie theaters.  Things familiar and comforting, nourishing.  A news flash interrupted the music on the radio: a man's voice reported, "Marilyn Monroe found dead in her Brentwood home at the age of 36."
He could have reported that the world had come to an end--I would have not been more stunned.
It was one of those moments that has never left me.
I was and am a Marilyn Monroe fan.  Her death and all the mystery that has surrounded it for the last 50 years have made an imprint on my heart.  
The first movie I remember seeing her in was There's No Business Like Show Business in one of the big movie houses in San Francisco, California when I was seven years old.  Ethel Merman certainly was a commanding figure to watch in that film, but what I remember after more than half a century is how Marilyn lit up the screen in her every scene.  She didn't come into the story until somewhere near midway through, but when she did, that was it.  She stole the show.  
From a zillion showings of her films that I have watched since, I have come to appreciate what she was and is still able to convey to me from the Silver Screen.  And what is that?  It is her warmth, her innocence, her great humor, her sassiness, her humanity, and her raw vulnerability.  Those combined with her physical beauty in an age where a size 14, which I have read she measured often, enveloped the most desirable woman on the planet: curvaceous, luxurious, sexually attractive without so much as batting an eye.  All these and more combined to present on the big screen, and even the smaller one, that ultimately indefinable quality: CHARISMA!  I write that in capital letters because it is a capital item.  When someone has it, we all recognize it.  We are drawn to it.  We are enlivened by it. We bask in The Light.
Fifty years ago tomorrow, August 5th, is the anniversary of her death.  
Marilyn Monroe Memorabilia is still the biggest selling memorabilia in the world. 
I must add that I loved the recent film, "My Week With Marilyn," and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves Marilyn, who wants to know the woman behind the star image more intimately, and who would like to see her portrayed at the moment in time just before she made her most successful movie: Some Like It Hot, which was voted by the American Film Institute as the Best Comedy Film of All Time.  Marilyn had the good sense to take a percentage of the gross of that film as part of her salary, and that alone for the rest of her years made Ms. Monroe a very wealthy woman. Definitely no dumb blonde was she.
On Sunday, August 5th at 10:30 pm PDT, PBS is re-broadcasting an American Masters Special entitled,
"Marilyn Monroe: Still Life."  I saw this when it first aired a few years ago thinking I had seen it all regarding Marilyn.  Well, not quite!  These are still images shot of her over her lifetime, several of which I had never seen, and they are riveting!  As is the whole production.  If you love Marilyn, or even have a passing interest in her, I highly recommend you include this experience in your repertoire.

I have to admit that Marilyn Monroe's entire legacy is so tremendous that as I write this, I realize she has never really left us at all.  Yay!

Also for appreciating Marilyn, follow this link to a newly published article in the LA Times that I enjoyed and which inspired my writing this blog posting.

For more rare photos of Marilyn follow this link to Time, where I found the photos used in this posting:,29307,2074872,00.html