Thursday, July 19, 2007

And now for something tangentially related...

I've decided that I'd like Elliot Goldenthal to disappear, to pack up his composing toys and go home. Permanently. Yeah, I'm sure Julie Taymor and anyone in the market for a workmanlike yet predictable soundtrack for a movie will miss him, but the classical music world certainly won't.

Here's my beef with Mr. Goldenthal: He sucks. OK, Grendel was like the curate's egg of operas--it was good in parts, but what made it out of the ordinary was the singers and Taymor's production, not Goldenthal's music. That was bland as bland could be, for the most part. If Grendel and random movie soundtracks were the only examples of Goldenthal's music I ever heard, we could peacefully coexist. But last weekend I heard the music he wrote for a ballet of Othello, and I've decided that this planet just isn't big enough for the both of us. Goldenthal has crossed a line--a line from blandness into inappropriately imitative hackery.

Grendel was peppered with such imitation; Stravinsky was especially cribbed from, and Othello is the same way. I generally enjoy it when a composer is inspired by the setting of his work, and either Goldenthal doesn't know where the hell Venice and Cyprus are, or he just decided to stick his fingers in his ears and say "La la la, I can't hear, you Venetian musical traditions!" The majority of the act set in Venice sounded like it was written by George Gershwin and an extremely drunk Igor Stravinsky doing a soundtrack for a film about Peter Griffin riding on a bus. Basically, it was bustling, squawking, and totally inappropriate. Then, in the pas de deux with Othello and Iago, Goldenthal decided to transplant them from Cyprus to the streets of Leonard Bernstein's New York, for a drunken night of shore leave with some classy dames. There were enough wa-wa-wa-ing saxophones in that scene to make it sound like a Charlie Brown Adult Chorus was singing along backstage. The other sincerest form of flattering that I noticed was in the last act, when Goldenthal threw in the same chords (probably the wrong musical term) from Mélisande's death scene in Pelléas et Mélisande. Yeah, Debussy isn't the captain of those chords or anything, but it was just too much of an homage, and it was misused dramatically too.

Goldenthal wasn't the only person ignoring traditional Italian styles, though. Set designer George Tsypin created a spare set (makes sense, otherwise the dancers would be crashing into things), often decorated only by a glass throne, and, in the last act, a pile of giant microscope slides and a bunch of shards. The glass was supposed to recall Venetian glass, but really it bore as much resemblance to Venetian glass as Goldenthal's music did to Venetian music. It just looked like George Tsypin was a giant child making furniture for his Barbie dolls out of household items.

Since I know next to nothing about ballet, I won't comment much on the dancing. Well, I will a little, because I can't resist a bit of mocking. Apparently, Lar Lubovitch mainly choreographs modern pieces, and he should stick to that rather than getting modern dance in ballet and making it look like crap. There was a lot of rolling around on the floor and flexed feet. A lot of the choreography felt too self-consciously symbolic; we were back in the realm of the Red Dragon "DO YOU SEE?!" nonsense. One touch that I did like was Iago's strange, oddly jerky and angular dancing. The most effective part of it was that when he was around other people, he danced like everyone else, but as soon as no one was looking, he'd go back to his weird, asymmetrical arm movements. In general, though, I felt that most of the choreography relied too heavily on upper body movements. It was like Emo Drill Team! If I wanted to watch dancers flail their arms around and roll their heads back and forth melodramatically, I'd watch So You Think You Can Dance. Also, I didn't realize that Muslims vogue like Madonna when they're praying. Because Othello was practically wearing a pointy bra, he was Voguing so hard. And then, to finish off his prayer, he'd crouch down on all fours, lower his head, and shake it around, like a dog digging in to an especially tasty meal.

Of the main dancers, Julie Kent as Desdemona stuck out the most to my untrained eye. Her first move, a pas de bourée couru downstage to Othello was beautifully fluid; it looked like she was on a track or something. Her choreography seemed the most traditionally balletic of the principal characters, which is maybe why I responded to it the most. Marcelo Gomes looked very beefy as Othello, though his tights matched his skin color so closely that I wondered why Othello never wore pants. Apparently, Lubovitch had made a point of keeping Othello "tethered to the ground", as a contrast for Desdemona's ethereal, airy movements, but this didn't really allow Gomes to show off much. He was either Emo Drill Teaming on the floor or he was partnering Desdemona or Iago. I'm told Gomes is an exceptional partner, but it would've been nice to see him let loose a little. Sascha Radetsky looked like Dave Navarro from far away, which added to his air of pint-sized evil. I liked his pas de deux with Othello even if the LA Times reviewer thought they were trite. Yeah, in a piece with music written by Elliot Goldenthal, the choreography is trite. Sure.

I very much doubt that I'll ever love ballet the way I love opera, and I'm not sure why. Though I know a little more about opera, I'm not that knowledgeable about either one. Maybe it's because opera, though sung, is still dependent on words, whereas ballet is all body. Words, I can understand, but bodies and movement, uh, not really. It could be simply a question of learning how to understand how certain movements add to the characterization. In opera, you can hear the emotion, even if you don't understand the language in which they're sung, but with ballet, it's hard to tell if a certain gesture or movement means anything or what it says about the character. I could see that Iago was evil because he had a beard and wore black, but while his movements told me that he was out of sync with the music of the spheres (which is a sign of evil in itself, according to Michael Hackett, who is quite the little rug-cutter in his own right), they didn't tell me anything else about him.

Photo copyright Gene Schiavone

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