More Thoughts About Mirandolina

The Mercury News reviewer generally likes Center REP’s Mirandolina a lot, but she calls it a “door-slamming farce” and says that it never quite achieves the “fever pitch” she thinks it needs.

Alas, Goldoni, the great Venetian playwright famed for “Servant of Two Masters,” is sometimes funnier on the page than the stage. Near, former head of San Jose Repertory Theatre, directs with a light touch, but the first act lacks pep, and the last act needs more of a breakneck pace to make the farce pop. A little more speed would give the zaniness more zip.

I think she’s right in thinking — despite the excellent production — that the play itself comes across as a bit thin, especially for a play widely regarded as one of the great masterpieces in Italian theater. But I think she’s wrong in assessing why; she thinks the production isn’t zany enough, but I think the problem is really that the play loses some of its character in translation.

Goldoni’s play is more of a comedy of manners than a farce. Goldoni was writing in reaction to the commedia dell’arte of his time, which had become tired and formulaic, repeating the same slapstick gags over and over. On the one hand, Molière breathed new life into commedia dell’arte by taking its small-town character types and making them grander and more important, using comedy as a way of mocking and satirizing what he saw as important evils of society. Goldoni went in the other direction, keeping his characters at a more human scale, but drawing them less like cartoon characters and more like real people. But for that to work for us, we have to perceive the humanity in them, not just see them as stock characters in a zany farce.

Molière’s larger-than-life characters transcend cultural borders more easily — Tartuffe and Orgon and Harpagon and Arnolphe are larger-than-life social monsters whom we can recognize in our own society even if the details of 18th-century Paris society are a mystery to us. But Goldini’s more human-sized characters — innkeepers, servants, merchants, rural nobility — are woven into the fabric of 18th-century Tuscan and Venetian society, and Goldoni took it for granted that his audiences would be familiar with their quirks and foibles simply from living among people like them every day. These characters tend to seem remote to us today, and they have concerns that can seem more artificial than real to us. So it’s hard to bring them to life in a way a modern American audience can understand and connect with.

One way to accomplish that might be to rewrite the plays a bit. Goldoni’s best-known play in English, for example, is The Servant of Two Masters, but it’s most often done in versions that are more freely adapted, tightening the story and broadening the farce. Center REP’s version does a bit of this: The long, hilarious swordfight in the second act, for example, is an interpolation; in the play as written, the fight is interrupted almost as soon as it begins.

Another tactic is to move a play from 18th-century Italy to more modern times. A popular version of The Servant of Two Masters in English, for example, moves the action to London in the 1960s. I did this sort of thing myself (though not with a Goldoni play) with The Riot Grrrl on Mars by “translating” the characters and situations to modern equivalents that the audience would recognize more readily and with less need for explanation of the cultural assumptions being made along the way. The original opera, L’Italiana in Algeri, has a story straight out of the commedia dell’arte in which a young, determined Italian woman journeys to Africa to rescue her lover, who has been kidnapped by pirates on the Mediterranean, from the Bey of Algiers; in The Riot Grrrl on Mars, a young, determined punk rocker flies to outer space to rescue her boyfriend, who has been abducted by a UFO, from the King of Mars.

Center REP’s Mirandolina tightens the dialogue a bit, updates the rather formal Italian to breezy modern English, and adds a few songs and that splendid swordfight, but even so, it mostly stays close to Goldoni’s story and characters. That gives us a more direct view into Goldoni’s play, which is a good thing, but it can also make situations and characters seem quaint to us, which is not so good. We American playgoers have to stretch a little harder to see the humanity that is shared between Goldoni’s world and our own. A worthwhile stretch to make, all the same.

(Now, if it were me translating, I’d probably have made the Marquis the arrogant head of a once-successful dot-com that has recently gone bust, and ….)

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.

Handel and Haydn at Davies

Last night we heard Ton Koopman conduct the SF Symphony in Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music and Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante and Symphony 103 (the “Drumroll”). It was a pleasant but not memorable concert. The Fireworks Music and the Sinfonia Concertante are lightweight works at best anyway (IMO, at least). But the Drumroll is a favorite of mine, and I was hoping for a more polished and powerful performance from SFS than they gave. The symphony got off to a bad start with a small but embarrassing flub in the opening drumroll, and the small glitches continued — a slightly sour note in the horns here, a slightly ragged entrance from the strings there, the double basses too loud during one section, and so on. Still, what we heard the was first of four performances of this program, so maybe it’ll gain in crispness at later performances. Anyway, an enjoyable enough night out, but not a concert to remember.

The older couple to my right really enjoyed it, though. They spent much of the concert cleverly waving their hands in time to the music to give the illusion that they were the ones actually conducting the orchestra. So droll!

Two Concerts at Davies

The SF Symphony is trying out a new plan that lets us pay a lump sum at the beginning of the month and then get last-minute tickets for most concerts that haven’t sold out. Dave and I were on the list to be offered it, probably because we have been such heavy and regular users of their annual discounted ticket offer. We figured that if we used the offer to attend at least three concerts a month, we’d break even, and there were easily at least three concerts a month we’d like to see (heck, there are easily twice that many), so we signed up. It does eat up most of our entertainment budget for the month, but it’s also a great deal for us. So we’ve been going to a lot of concerts the last month and a half.

A Friday evening a couple weeks ago was Herbert Blomstedt conducting Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem. This is a great piece and a favorite of both Dave’s and mine (I sang the bass part twice way back in my singing days, and understudied the baritone solos one of those times, so its a work I got to know pretty closely). It was a rather lackluster performance, however — not bad, exactly, but it wasn’t up to the usual high standards of the SF Symphony so it was disappointing. The orchestra’s playing was often a bit ragged; worse, Blomstedt’s tempos were tepid, relentlessly moderate even in the sections of the requiem that should be spirited and joyous.

I did like the baritone soloist, Christian Gerhaher, a lot, partly because of his attention to the words. I really love the texts Brahms chose for this work, and Mr. Gerhaher’s diction was very crisp and clear, though he does sing with a Bavarian accent that took me a few phrases to get used to; however, he comes by it naturally as a native of Munich.

The strongest part of the performance was the chorus itself, clearly well prepared by chorus director Ragnar Bohlin. In fact, the highlight of the entire concert for me was the unaccompanied motet (Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen) they sang before the intermission; the piece was new to me and the performance was full of spirit and emotion.

A few days later on Sunday evening we heard pianist András Schiff playing four late piano sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Schubert. This was the second of three concerts on this theme; we heard the first of them last week, but I was in a very dark mood and couldn’t concentrate much on the music. I was in better spirits this week and enjoyed the concert. I know very little about piano music, though, and all four sonatas were new to me, so I don’t have much to say about them.

Mr. Schiff is an amazing pianist. So much careful and intelligent attention to clarity and nuance, and all in the service of making transparent the structure of the pieces! Everything clean and clear as crystal. Not a lot of power and drive, though, even in the Beethoven, which I have to imagine must usually be played more forcefully. But everything was beautifully and thoughtfully shaped. Even though I was hearing the pieces for the first time, and even though I’m not really all that deeply musical, I was able to follow quite a bit of their structure, something that would ordinarily take me two or three listenings just to start to get.

Interesting, too, to hear him so soon after hearing Ms. Grimaud the week before, one very classical and finely polished in style and the other very romantic and energetic, both excellent but in very different ways.