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Saturday, June 30, 2018

A Fine Family Fortune

WHAT “THE MERRY WIDOW” DEMANDS, first and foremost, is a hushed, haunting “Vilia” at the top of Act Two, in which the titular widow evokes the spirit of a wood-nymph who enchants a hunter even as Franz Lehár’s gentle melody enchants the chorus, who join it at key moments, and the audience, who probably, with little encouragement, would sing along as well.

John Tibbetts, Quinn Bernegger,
and Cecilia Violetta López
Although probably not “as well” in the other sense of the phrase, because Opera Saratoga’s performers, chorus and principals alike, brought a stellar array of voices to bear upon this production, the company’s first for 30 years. Cecilia Violetta López easily met the challenge of portraying Hanna Glawari, Pontevedro’s wealthy widow, who charms all of the men in her wake with her beauty and, of course, a shot at her fortune.

We’re in Paris, where Baron Zeta, the cash-poor country’s ambassador, has been charged with making sure that she only marries a fellow Pontevedrian, and baritone Andy Papas runs wild with the role, indulging in a frenzy of eye-rolling and fits of exasperation worthy of ’30s actor Walter Connolly. His hope is to marry the widow to the rakish Count Danilo, but Danilo, when finally located at Maxim’s, evinces no interest. Alex Lawrence has a wonderful voice that he uses to thrilling effect. His characterization, however, is hampered by a common acting trap, in which the diffidence he’s supposed to play comes across as unpleasant petulance.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Gourmet’s Love Song

Guest Blogger Dept.: Another poem by Wodehouse, you cry? My pleasure. The English writer P.G. Wodehouse not only was a master of light verse – he also showed himself to be an acclaimed lyricist, working with Jerome Kern on the famouse Princess Theater shows of 1915-1917, and inspiring many a fledgling lyricist, like Ira Gershwin, Howard Dietz, and E.Y. Harburg, along the way.


Who Cupid’s power belittles,
For Cupid ‘tis who makes me shun
My customary victuals.

Oh, EFFIE, since that painful scene
That left me broken-hearted,
My appetite, erstwhile so keen,
Has utterly departed.

My form, my friends observe with pain,
Is growing daily thinner.
Love only occupies the brain
That once could think of dinner.

Around me myriad waiters flit,
With meat and drink to ply men;
Alone, disconsolate, I sit,
And feed on thoughts of Hymen.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Central Issue

From the Food Vault Dept.: How much do restaurant review matter? At one time, they were on the order of sacred pronouncements issuing from a privileged few; now, the voices that clog online review sites have created a cranky clamor that obscures the opinions of those actually qualified to make such judgments. But I found out where I stood back in 2011, when my review of the short-lived Central Steak ran in Metroland at the same time that Cheryl Clark’s review of the place ran in the Albany Times-Union. As it happened, we sat together at the restaurant, and below you’ll read why. As it also happened, there were considerable problems with the meal. Cheryl’s review was fair but unkind, and the White Management Group, which owned the restaurant, swooped down on the Times-Union and gave Cheryl’s bosses hell, which, naturally, redounded to the experienced, professional reporter who was doing her job and doing it well. Over at Metroland? We never heard a peep.


JOURNALISTS DISLIKE COINCIDENCES. They are the stuff of the fictionist, desperate to tie together divergent threads of plot. Yet they do occur, and they must be dealt with.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It is a coincidence that my review of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que ran the same week as Cheryl Clark’s piece in the Albany Times-Union. It is also a coincidence, and, given my travels last Saturday, a very unlikely one, that we should encounter Clark and her husband, Paul, at Central Steak.

My family and I were waiting to be seated. Saturday night can be a trying time for restaurants, but we hoped that Central Steak was designed to move food and customers along with some efficiency. As soon as you enter, you can the grill – a long, open line banging out entrées like something out of “Modern Times.”

Friday, June 15, 2018

A Revolution Underfoot

SPRING – PLANTING SEASON – isn’t a good time to read David R. Montgomery’s Growing a Revolution. Not when you live, as I do, in farming country. The plows are at work everywhere, from large green motorized behemoths to the horse-drawn antiques of the Amish. And, according to Montgomery, this is what not only has been destroying farmland around the world, it also probably was responsible for destroying past civilizations.

Montgomery sounded a death-knell over a decade ago in his book Dirt, which took a pessimistic trip through a history of soil erosion and nutrient eradication, the long-range after-effects of what we thought was progressive agriculture. It stands alongside Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature as a call for action falling largely on deaf ears, so Montgomery has revisited the topic in an encouraging, inspiring way. The needed changes can be made, he argues, and are being made – and in the unlikeliest places.

Growing a Revolution follows the author from country to country, climate to climate, to look at successful examples of no-till farming. As Montgomery is quick to observe, farmers generally aren’t given to change anything unless confronted with evidence of success, and that success needs to be seen in the harvests.

The key to Montgomery’s argument is conservation agriculture, the three components of which are “(1) minimum disturbance of the soil; (2) growing cover crops and retaining crop residue so that soil is always covered; and (3) use of diverse crop rotations. These principles can be applied anywhere, on organic or conventional farms, with or without genetically modified crops.”

Monday, June 11, 2018

Venezia Millenaria

JUST WHEN YOU THINK you’ve heard everything, the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh starts to sound in a chamber-ensemble arrangement, and then soft voices creep in, singing, in French, “The night is dark ... let us go forth (to) wage war against the godless.” It’s a 19th-century cantata penned by the exiled Neapolitan Luigi Bordese, set to music by the composer who famously reversed his high opinion about Napoleon upon learning that the latter had declared himself emperor of France.

This oddball piece closes the new two-CD portrait of the musical beginnings of Venice, a place that long stood apart from other Italian cities. While this is unmistakably a Jordi Savall collection, it may have the most variety of material he’s ever presented. Which is very much the point, as “Venezia Millenaria” presents over a thousand years of material, from around 700, when the Byzantines began to inhabit it, to 1797, when Napoleon invaded, soon to cede Venice to Austria.

Savall recorded this material in 2016, and the musical portrait sparked a Carnegie Hall-based festival in February 2017 (coincident with Venice’s own Carnevale) at which Savall and his musicians performed, and which included lectures, museum shows, and other concert events  throughout Manhattan.

But this recording remains a most compelling souvenir. To make these musical points, Savall enlisted his usual ensembles: the instrumental groups Le Concert des Nations and Hespèrion XXI, and vocal ensemble La Capella Reial de Catalunya. Added to them are Salonica’s Orthodox Byzantine Vocal Ensemble and a quartet of specialist players comprising Driss El Maloumi (a previous Savall collaborator) adding wicked percussion lines on the oud; Dimitri Psonis, santur (hammered dulcimer) and morisca (a small guitar); Hakan Güngör, qanun (a zither cousin); and Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian on the oboe-like duduk and the lute-like belul.

Friday, June 08, 2018

A Cure for Insomnia

Guest Blogger Dept.: We’re revisiting To Think of Tea! by Agnes Repplier, one of America’s finest essayists. As I wrote earlier, her keen mind and colorful, precise prose style ensured a successful career. As a child, she quickly memorized and recited the poems her mother read to her, but resisted her mother’s efforts to teach her to read, which she did on her own at the age of ten. Apparently an unruly child, at 14 she was kicked out of Eden Hall, the Convent of the Sacred Heart, and then asked to leave Agnes Irwin’s West Penn Square Seminary for Young Ladies three times because of her rebelliousness. By the time she was 20, her writing began bringing in enough money to help support her family. She died in 1950 at the age of 95 in her native Philadelphia.


THERE WAS NO AILMENT – none at least known to the uninstructed seventeenth century – of which the new drink was not discovered to be the cause or cure. “Every remedy,” it has been pleasantly said, “has its appropriate disease”; but tea had so many appropriate diseases that, if we may believe Dr. Cornelius Bontekoë, of the University of Leyden, the moral as well as the physical world stood waiting for this great regenerator.

Dr. Bontekoë had the good or the ill fortune to cherish opinions which were well in advance of his day. It was his wont to express these opinions in terms which insured him opponents, so that he never lacked the cheerful stimulus of a quarrel. His treatise on “The Most Excellent Herb, Tea,” claimed for this “wondrous distillation” qualities more potent and more salutary than ever lay hidden in the Fountain of Youth. The author was no mean-spirited advocate of abstinence. He did not cherish tea because it cheered without inebriating. On the contrary, he denounced water in unsparing terms as being the most dangerous, as well as the least comforting, of drinks. Wine and rum were admirable in their way, but demanded temperance. They were ill-suited for continuous or excessive drinking. Tea and tea alone was innocent of offence. It warmed the stomach, cleared the mind, strengthened the memory, befriended learning, and lent substantial aid to the acquirement of wisdom and piety. It was, moreover, a supreme remedy for heaviness of spirit and for all melancholy humours. It promoted the sober and moderate cheerfulness which the Dutch rightly valued, and the stubborn courage which had won for them the apprehensive respect of Europe.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Running a Round: La Ronde

IMMERSIVE THEATER has become the rage, which angers a theater-going friend. “I go to plays to be entertained,” he grouses. “Why can’t they do O’Neill? Or ‘Macbeth’?”

Fisch and Botwick in "La Ronde"
Troy Foundry Theatre closes its inaugural season with an immersive “La Ronde,” the Arthur Schnitzler play so controversial when it was published in Germany at the turn of the last century that it was banned by censors and not performed until 1920. The play’s no-holds-barred depictions of freewheeling sexual affairs invited equal measures of scandal and acclaim, but it’s at heart a look at the contrasting, though often similar, mores of a rigidly class-structured society. (Schnitzler probably is better known these days as the author of “Traumnovelle,” which inspired Stanley Kubrick’s final film, “Eyes Wide Shut.”)

So what if, instead of watching the ten short encounters of “La Ronde” in sequence on a single stage, they were take place simultaneously in a number of rooms (and a staircase)? This is the conceit of director Brenna Geffers’s production for Troy Foundry Theatre, and it’s set in the lovely old Frear House, part of the Russell Sage College campus.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Sydney Greenstreet: The Story Now Told

MY INTEREST IN MOVIES as an art form was sparked by a TV viewing of “The Maltese Falcon” one afternoon. Although the film was cut to fit a ninety-minute ads-filled slot, its unique style, unforgettable cast, and surprising finish were enough to set me searching for more information about this movie. One of the first books I consulted (and I can’t remember its author or title) identified Sydney Greenstreet as a stage actor who specialized in playing butlers. How insufficient a description that turns out to be!

Greenstreet made his motion-picture debut in that film at the age of 61 in the unforgettable role of the chuckling, booming villain Kaspar Gutman. He was nominated for an Academy Award and worked steadily in Hollywood for the next eight years, appearing in 24 movies – although, as his fame skyrocketed, some of those appearances were mere cameos trading on his notoriety.

Yet there’s been a dearth of biographical material. Greenstreet has been included in several “Character Actors of the 1940s”-type anthologizes, and merited mention in books by or about Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Joan Crawford, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and others. Why the lack? Peter Lorre, with whom Greenstreet appeared in several films, has merited book-length studies, and a joint study of the two by Ted Sennett offered a tantalizing amount of biography before spending most of its length on a film-by-film analysis.