Saturday, March 1, 2008

Comment / Items

Dante's Divine Comedy is not, at first glance, obvious libretto material for contemporary musical theater. . . . Yet for the composer, sgr. Marco Frisina, Dante's journey to the three realms of the dead -- hell, purgatory and paradise -- was a score in waiting. "There is a lot of music in The Divine Comedy already," said Monsignor Frisina, who has been director of the Musical Chapel of the Basilica of St. John Lateran here since 1985. "Dante wrote it in canticas and cantos. There's rhythm, a lot of passion. It is the perfect text for a musical work." But Monsignor Frisina does not consider his new stage production, called The Divine Comedy, the Opera: Man's Quest for Love, now playing on the outskirts of Rome, a musical. "I see it as Italian opera . . . I leave musicals to the Americans, who are better at it". . . . The production opened in November in Tor Vergata, a section of Rome, and runs to the end of February. Reviews so far have generally focused more on the special effects than on the content, but audiences have been enthusiastic. The effects were in part created by Carlo Rambaldi, who has two Oscars for visual effects: one for his work in Alien (1979), the other for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). . . . The effects are so spectacular . . . that a special theater . . . was built in Tor Vergata, about nine miles from the city center. At the Teatro Divina Commedia, as the theater is called, there are red-eyed demons writhing acrobatically in various spheres of hell against a backdrop of sets inspired by Gustave Dore, whose 19th-cenury engravings of The Divine Comedy are arguably the most famous. . . . Monsignor Frisina's score touches on a mélange of styles: sweeping melodic arias of Puccinian score, somber Gregorian chants, even a dash of heavy metal and a wailing guitar riff in some of the numbers composed for the first ac, which takes place in hell. "The guitars express the deep pain of the sinners," he said, quickly adding that the heavy-metal sound "was chosen for its dramatic intensity" and was "not a moral judgment on rock." For the record there's an entire Web site dedicated to adaptations of Dante in music ( . . . The electronic music pioneer Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream also put the text to music. The Divine Comedy was the first opera for Monsignor Frisina, the choirmaster of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, though he has composed several oratorios as well as the soundtracks for Italian made-for-TV movies like Callas and Onassis and Pompeii. For the lyrics he and the librettist Gianmaria Pagano mostly drew on Dante's text, although it is abridged and in some cases paraphrased for dramatic effect. Never in the original do the characters give the cheer "Hooray for poetry." [Elisabetta Povoledo, The New York Times, 12/24/07].

Anyone who sees Mikhail Baryshnikov in Beckett Shorts, the set of four brief plays by Samuel Beckett at the New York Theater Workshop, must reflect on how far this former ballet luminary has come from his training in Leningrad and his roles in the 19th-century classics. He is best known now as the star of the TV series Sex and the City and the distance between that and Beckett Shorts is virtually as far. . . . [W]here Beckett comes close to dance is in the precision with which he choreographs movement. . . . For many or most stage actors, whose time-honored method is often to ignore stage directions whenever possible, such precision can seem maddeningly prescriptive. But for dancers, who often learn to do exactly the same steps their predecessors were doing decades or even centuries ago, this is home terrain. There are more links between Beckett and ballet than have been recognized. I cannot see Footfalls . . . without wondering if he was drawing on some memory of Giselle. . . . The Beckett biographies don't say whether he saw Giselle, which had its premiere in 1841, but the most thorough of them, James Knowlson's Damned to Fame . . . tells us that Beckett attended the ballet several times while living in London, from 1933 to 1935. He saw one-act ballets by the Ballets Russes, including Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la Rose and Le Tricorne. In paricular, he saw Petrouchka (1911, music by Stravinsky, choreography by Fokine) danced by two companies in different theaters, once with Leonide Massine in the title role, once with Leon Wolzikowski, and was prompted to write a letter about the character's philosophy. And in Murphy, the novel he was writing at this time, he wrote of Murphy's heart: "Buttoned up and left to perform, it was like Petrushka in his box." . . . Especially in the first half of the 20th century, [the] second scene [of the work] was seen as a high point of ballet as drama. (Nijinsky, the original Petrouchka, was hailed in the role by Sarah Bernhardt as 'the greatest actor in the world.') The role has tempted more recent stars to dance it, including Baryshnikov, who not only performed it onstage but also filmed this second scene for Margo Fonteyn's 1979 TV series, The Magic of Dance. The image of Petrouchka alone in his cell bears a definite resemblance to more than one of Beckett's characters. The protagonist of Beckett's nearly silent 1965 movie Film (played by Buster Keaton) is seen in public and alone in his small room. He says not a word; a marked connection to Petrouchka occurs in his alarmed reaction to a picture of God the Father on the wall. . . . And Petrouchka may have been in Beckett's mind again when he wrote Eh Joe (1965), the final and greatest of the four plays in Beckett Shorts, though written by Beckett entirely as a television drama. . . . The camera close-ups of Mr. Baryshnikov on a scrim at the front of the stage show what a truthful actor he is: there is no fake, no exaggeration, as he listens, listens, listens. Is it too much to hope someone might film him in Beckett's Film? I notice that Beckett's 1986 edition of his Complete Dramatic Works pointedly observes of Film that 'no attempt has been made to bring it into line with the finished work' and that the 1965 version with Keaton includes a considerable departure from what Beckett had imaged. For all Mr. Baryshnikov's charm, there is a deep affinity between this most objective, economical, ego-escaping performer and Beckett's bleakness that the wordless Film might suit, to mutual advantage" [Alastair Macaulay, The New York Times, 12/27/08].