Old Saying I Just Made Up

If the snake oil doesn’t do everything the salesman promised, don’t blame the snake.

Mirandolina at Center REP

Dave and I went to Walnut Creek Saturday for a preview performance of Center REP’s new production of Mirandolina! Mistress of a Tuscan Inn, an English-language version of the 18th-century Italian comedy La locandiera by Carlo Goldoni. We had a great time, and we’re planning to go back for a second look later in the run.

It’s a terrific production. The characters are strongly and strikingly portrayed by the excellent ensemble, headed by Tracy Hazas (who I don’t recall having seen before) as Mirandolina, an innkeeper who unwisely keeps the man she truly loves at arm’s length, partly because she’s too busy managing her inn, but mostly because two of her regular guests are smitten with her, and as they are both important men, she wants to keep their patronage by not dashing their hopes. One is a sour and haughty nobleman by birth who is constantly borrowing money to live on (played by Mark Anderson Phillips, who I think we last saw playing Oscar Wilde and an assortment of other roles in Mark Jackson’s Salomania! a few years back); the other is a brash, wealthy merchant who has recently purchased the title of count for himself (played by Michael Butler, in a more flamboyant role than I think we’ve seen him in before). The rivalry between the Count and the Marchese, each trying to one-up the other in front of Mirandolina, works to Mirandolina’s benefit — particularly when the men compete in giving her expensive gifts.

A third man comes to the inn, a misogynistic cavalier (Gabriel Marin, a longtime favorite). Mirandolina is angered by his disdain for women and decides she’s going to use her wiles to make him fall in love with her. At this point it’s easy to be reminded of Much Ado About Nothing, but the situation is different — and morally dicier — because Mirandolina does not actually love the cavalier, but is seducing him only to get revenge for her wounded pride. Meanwhile, the man she really loves, her butler Fabrizio (Ben Euphrat), waits on the sidelines with growing frustration. A couple of touring actresses having a lark between stops (Lynda DiVito and Lizzie O’Hara), wearing theatrical costumes and pretending to be noblewomen, add to the complications.

All this is played out on a wonderful, brightly colored set (by Nina Ball) that revolves to show the various locations in and around the inn. A swordfight that staggers from room to room as the set keeps spinning is a high point of the second act.

Goldoni’s comedies seem to be hard to pull off in English. I’ve read or seen six or seven, and in all of them his dramatic construction is loose, in the commedia dell’arte style; he evidently meant his performers to have a certain amount of room for improvising and bringing their own personalities with them — indeed, in 18th-century Italy, if his plays hadn’t provided those opportunities, the best performers wouldn’t have wanted to do them. That makes the plays a challenge to do in a different time and place where commedia is not part of the culture.

And then the plays are gentler and warmer than, say, the similar comedies of Molière and Gozzi, whose sharper, more satirical caricatures travel better across cultural borders. Goldoni poked affectionate fun at the manners, society, and even the dialects of Tuscany and Venice, and those things don’t mean much to us Americans.

This adaptation doesn’t really find ways of bringing those aspects of the play to life, I think, and as a result the play itself comes across feeling like a thinner and more conventional farce than it really is. But Timothy Near’s direction is sure-handed and most importantly the cast is strong, so it all works anyway. Lots of fun. We’re going back.

More ASMF at Davies

Dave and I went back to Davies last night for the second of two concerts with Jeremy Denk and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. All in all, I felt it was a more consistently enjoyable concert than the night before, though nothing in it pleased me quite as much as the Suk Serenade had. The program featured another two keyboard concertos by J.S. Bach, this time flanked by two works for strings by Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for String Orchestra opened the first half, followed by Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1. The second half began with Bach’s relatively brief Keyboard Concerto No. 5, followed by Stravinsky’s ballet Apollon Musagète. The keyboard concertos were a lot of fun; the problems of balance between piano and orchestra from the night before were gone, and Mr. Denk and the string players all seemed to be listening to each other and playing off each other in a way they hadn’t the night before. The Stravinsky works are not among my favorite ones, but both got bright, rich performances. Good stuff.

The Academy of St. Martin Playing Suk, Bach, and Dvořák at Davies

Last night Dave and I heard Jeremy Denk and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields playing Josef Suk’s Serenade for Strings, two J.S. Bach keyboard concertos, and Antonín Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings.

The best came first: Suk’s Serenade was just drop-dead stunning, beautifully nuanced, lovely rich tone from all the string sections, played with all kinds of care and attention to detail.

Bach’s Keyboard Concerto no. 2 was a lot less wonderful. The orchestra sounded great, and Mr. Denk sounded great when he was playing alone, but whenever they were playing together, things got muddy. Mr. Denk played with a lot of rhythmic freedom in contrast to the orchestra, which played in strict tempo; this might give a appealingly jazzy, improvisational feel to the music if it were played on a harpsichord and/or played in a smaller, less reverberant hall, but on a grand piano in the huge space that is Davies Hall, it more often just sounded blurred. Dave hypothesized that perhaps they hadn’t been able to rehearse much in the hall beforehand because of the chamber music concert that afternoon, so hadn’t had a chance to adjust to the acoustics of the hall.

After intermission, the Keyboard Concerto no. 4 was much better. Mr. Denk played with a bit less rubato, and the orchestra dropped down to a whisper of a pianissimo whenever the piano was playing over them, and the result was much clearer. Still not the dry sound of Bach that I’m used to, and it lacked a sense of conversation going on between the soloist and orchestra that I tend to expect in Bach, but it was enjoyable enough.

With Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings, though, we were back to wonderfulness again, with all the same beauty and care that had made the Suk so glorious. I do hope they get around to recording these pieces, if they haven’t already — particularly the Suk, as it’s not done very often.

As an encore, the Academy performed a lively piece that sounded like it must be by Percy Grainger, but we’re not sure what it was.

Later: Dave finally figured out what the encore was: the last movement of Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite.

Fade Out-Fade In

Hoo boy! I’m a sound engineer! After several years of procrastination, I actually set up our as-yet-unused-other-than-for-gathering-dust USB turntable, learned enough about Audacity to import the audio from one of my old LPs into my laptop, divide it into tracks, add fade-outs and silences at the ends of the tracks, and export it all into WAV files that I can then import into iTunes and thence onto my smartphone. Listening to the result through earbuds now — sounds pretty good.

I picked the original cast album of the little-known 1964 musical Fade Out-Fade In to work on first. It’s not a great favorite of mine by any means, but it’s fun for a listen now and then, and I don’t have it on CD. Hopefully this will be the start of transferring a lot of my old LPs into digital format.

Fade Out-Fade In was a spoof of the early days of Hollywood, tailored for the particular talents of Carol Burnett, who was just becoming a Broadway star and hadn’t yet abandoned stage for television. (That she did precisely that so soon after opening night resulted in a threatened breath-of-contract suit and is probably why the musical isn’t all that well known, but that’s a whole other story.) Many of the lyrics, which are by Comden & Green, are too facile and jokey by half for my liking, and others (such as that for the title song) seem bland and generic to me, but there are a few gems, including a Shirley Temple parody called “You Mustn’t Be Discouraged” and a mock femme-fatale number titled “Call Me Savage”.

Some of the music, which is by Jule Styne, is really good, especially if you stop paying attention to the words. (Some of the songs, though, are just Styne writing deliberately corny period numbers, as he did quite a bit — I tend to think of this as his “vo-do-de-oh mode” — granted, he was terrific at it, but a little of it goes a lot way for me, and in some Styne scores, including this one, there’s quite a lot of it.) A song for the egotistical leading man (played by Jack Cassidy), called “My Fortune Is My Face”, has got some of the strangest chromatic harmonies Styne ever put into a song. (It has one of the show’s funniest lyrics, too, IMHO.) “I’m With You” is meant to be a parody of the cheesy, overblown Hollywood ballad, but it seems to me it would be a darned good song if it had less cheesy lyrics. “My Heart Is Like a Violin” is an even more exaggeratedly romantic ballad, with an even cheesier lyric and a big, overblown orchestration to boot, but I find it a really appealingly quirky tune all the same.