On Stage: Titus (La Clemenza Di Tito)

So I’m sitting on the couch watching “Parks and Recreation” when The Wife comes to me and she says,

“Guess where we’re going?”

“Uh…tell me.”

“The opera!”

“Oh, thank God. I thought you were going to say a Cardinals baseball game.”

“See. There are fates worse than opera.”

And so it was that we made yet another trek to the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of “Titus La clemenza di Tito,” the final opera written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I am familiar with the works of Mozart (I’m not totally culturally illiterate — I have seen “Amadeus.”) so I figured this would be decent. Even if I’d never heard of it.

Titus-image

The story is a complex one, evidenced by the six-paragraph synopsis in the program. Do you know why they provide you with the entire plot of the show before you watch an opera or Shakespeare play? It’s because you would never understand otherwise. I have learned that the key to understanding opera and Shakespeare is to commit the synopsis to memory as best you can, and then let the show just wash over you. Reread the synopsis during intermission. Maybe you’ll understand it, maybe you won’t – but at least you’ll be able to follow along. Somewhat.

“Titus” takes place in ancient Rome. Vitellla (Laura Wilde) is the daughter of the deposed emperor. She hopes to maintain her status by marrying the new emperor — the too-nice-to-truly-be-an-emperor Tito (Rene Barbera). Tito wants to marry someone else so Vitella figures the only logical thing to do is have him killed.

To do the dirty deed, she enlists the aid of her lover Sesto (Cecelia Hall), who is also best friend to Tito. The plot fails, Sesto is imprisoned, and Vitella has to decide if she should reveal her role in the incident and possibly save her cohort from a fate equal to death.

There’s more to it but you get the gist. “Titus” is one of Mozart’s lesser works but still entertaining. The music is lovely and the musicians are very good. The songs (do they call them songs in opera? Liberettos, then. Or whatever) were challenging but the cast was up to the challenge.

The costumes were lavish. The set design was sparse, in large part because they blew the whole budget on a giant Eagle statue. It hung over the stage, fell to earth at the appropriate time, then rose like a phoenix when required. It was pretty cool.

Remaining performances for “Titus” run June 18, 22 and 24.  https://www.opera-stl.org/

 

 

Baseball: Spawn of Satan

It’s been pretty well established by now that I will do practically anything for my loved ones. I’ll go to the opera, I’ll go to Shakespeare in the Park, I’ll watch movies based on Jane Austen novels, I’ll skip Free Comic Book Day for a wedding, I’ll go on a float trip, I’ll go on a cruise, I’ll get in an airplane.

I’ll do pretty much anything that isn’t an obvious risk to my life, like riding a bobsled or climbing a mountain to look at a lake. I didn’t know floating was dangerous or I would’ve marked that off the list.

Yes, I’ll do anything for family and friends. Even go to a damn St. Louis Cardinals baseball game.

This comes up every couple of years. The Cardinals do some kind of special day and someone gets cheap tickets and there’s usually a free hot dog and soda involved. This year it was SMS Day, and since Sister2 and her husband work there, they got tickets for all the siblings, their spouses, Andrew, and Nephew1’s family.

(Yes, I’m aware SMS is now MSU, but I still call Riverport Amphitheater Riverport Amphitheater and always will, so don’t bother correcting me.)

Friday afternoon 6 family members showed up at my house. We fed them, watched a movie and went to bed. I did not give up my bed for a change because, you know, I can’t move my all-important CPAP machine. At least, that’s the excuse I gave.

The game was to start around 1 p.m. The gang wanted to go down early, but as my luck would have it, there was some charity run going on downtown that morning. You may recall the last time I drove downtown I got stuck in traffic due to a charity run. Dear Charities: Please find somewhere else to run.

19146144_10103031499637564_1619088713922500371_nLaurie mapped out an alternative route and we made it to her parking garage without incident. Everyone was decked out in red — even my poor son was forced to conform. I wore my Hawkeye shirt.

Chuck wanted to see Ballpark Village, which is nothing more than a giant sports bar, but you gotta appease the tourists, so we walked through it on the way to the stadium. They were giving out god-awful ugly Cardinal shirts at the door. They were so ugly I would’ve worn one — if it didn’t have Cardinals crap all over it. We then used our vouchers for a free hot dog and soda and that was lunch. I was surprised to learn the Cardinals let you bring in your own snacks and drinks, so we came loaded down with food. That didn’t stop people from throwing down $5 for frozen lemonade when the man came around.

Made our way to our seats, where we were given free SMS Bears/Cardinals caps. I normally wouldn’t wear such a thing, but it fit nicely on my fat head, and it’s hard to find caps that fit well on my fat head, so I’m keeping it. I still kept my Thule cap on throughout the day.

We were early, so we had plenty of time to sweat it out before game time. Our seats were decent but in the direct sun, which was beating down heartily. I believe the temperature was 205 degrees. It certainly felt like it. I wound up with sunburned knees.

And then, the game began. Ah, Baseball. America’s sport. The same America that gave us President Donald Trump. When God decided to punish man for all his sins he did two things: 1) He kicked us out of the Garden of Eden, and 2) He gave us baseball.

Is there anything more boring and godawful slow as baseball? No, there isn’t. And I should know, I’ve watched Sofia Coppola movies. For those of you lucky enough to have never sat through a professional baseball game, let me paint you a picture:

There are two teams. One team goes into the field while the other goes into the dugout. One by one players leave the dugout to bat. The pitcher throws balls at the batter until the required number of balls or strikes or a hit is achieved. If you hit the ball, you get to run around in a diamond. Whoever makes it around the diamond the most wins.

Sounds exciting, right? And maybe it would be, if that’s what they actually did. But instead, one team goes out into the field and they toss the ball around. The pitcher throws it to the second baseman, he throws it to the first baseman, who throws it to the shortstop, and on and on for about 5 minutes until someone finally comes up to the batter’s box.

The pitcher stares at the batter for a while, throws a ball, waits another 5 minutes, throws a ball. If you’re lucky, they strike them out quickly. But nothing is ever done quickly in baseball. There will usually be 2 strikes and 3 balls and then an ungodly number of foul balls hit before that first out. And God help you if someone gets a hit, because then the pitcher has to decide whether to throw the ball at the batter, or at the guy at the base. This drags things out even longer.

Repeat. 18. Times.

Now, I can understand standing around playing catch when it’s your first time out there. Gotta warm up and all. But after the first inning — STOP SCREWING AROUND. Get On With It. I have places to be. Places with air conditioning. Places with shade. Places with comfortable seating.

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Somewhere around the 5th inning I turned to The Wife and I said, “As God as my witness, I’d rather be at Shakespeare in the Park.”

Or “Madame Butterfly.”

Or watching “Poldark.”

Or “Anne of Green Gables.”

Or sitting by the pool all afternoon.

Or having root canal surgery.

I took a few walks to get out of the heat. You know something is bad when I’d rather be exercising.

Eventually it ended. I don’t remember who won or who the other team was. We made it home without incident and that night we ordered pizzas from Stefanina’s. I wanted one of their delicious Buffalo Chicken pizzas, but Sister2 didn’t. Guess who “compromised” and wound up eating barbecue chicken pizza.

That night I got some small revenge for the day’s events by making them all watch “Logan.”

 

At The Movies: The Mummy

It’s hard to believe that a summer action movie starring Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe would pale in comparison to a similar film starring Brendan Fraser, but that’s “The Mummy” for you.

This latest take on the ancient Egyptian creature feature has decent special effects but lacks everything else that made Fraser’s 1999 version memorable — like humor, fun, likable characters and an interesting story.

Cruise stars as soldier/tomb raider Nick Morton. With his partner Chris (Jake Johnson), Nick is on a tour of duty in war-torn Iraq, making time to make off with whatever antiquities he can steal. One day they accidentally uncover the buried tomb of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella).

the-mummy-poster-2-988842Thousands of years earlier, the princess was in line to be Pharoah of Egypt. When her mother gives birth to a baby boy, a jealous Ahmanet makes a deal with the death god Set. She murders dad and brother and is about to give Set life by murdering her lover when the authorities arrive. They haul the princess off to Mesopotamia, wrap her up and bury her alive, where she stays safely imprisoned until Nick sets her loose.

Chris is killed in the process but comes back as a zombie to give Nick advice. This bit was lifted from “An American Werewolf in London” and probably many other horror movies I can’t remember or haven’t seen.

Archaeologist and potential love interest Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) takes Nick and the mummy to London to be examined by her boss, Dr. Henry Jelkyll (Russell Crowe), head of a secret organization that hunts monsters and evil. Yes, that Dr. Jelkyll.

If being entombed for centuries isn’t going to keep Ahmanet down, neither are Jelkyll’s chains. Since he set her free, Nick is now the mummy’s “chosen one,” which means she can get in his head and make him do things for her. But what she really wants is to reclaim her magic dagger so she can kill Nick and let Set free.

“The Mummy” is a perfectly average horror/action movie but perfectly average really doesn’t cut it in this day and age. There’s nothing original here, the story is thin and just plods along — it’s a very lackluster affair. The special effects are OK but nothing memorable.

This is the second week in a row where a summer movie opens with a woman in the title role, but “The Mummy” is no “Wonder Woman.” If Universal is hoping to kick off a big monster movie franchise with this film, they need to do a lot better next time.

On Stage: The Winter’s Tale

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis opened this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production Friday. In the spirit of let’s-get-this-out-of-the-way-as-soon-as-possible, I mean, let’s-go-enjoy-Shakespeare-as-soon-as-we-can, we made the trip to Forest Park on opening night.

I told The Wife to be ready to go when I got home from work, and boy, was she. The cooler was packed, the snacks were packed, I barely had enough time to change into my “God, I Hate Shakespeare” t-shirt — but I made the time. I wish I had taken the time to change into a pair of shorts. It was unseasonably warm that day.

I was tired from work, so I made Laurie drive. This quickly paid off as we soon wound up stalled in rush-hour traffic. But I did not curse, because I was not driving. Eventually things cleared out and we had an uneventful drive until we got on Skinker and Laurie missed the turn into Forest Park. I kept expecting her to turn into the nearest lot and turn around, but instead she kept driving until she saw her moment and MADE A U-TURN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET. Andrew’s having a good laugh.

“I’m not allowed to curse in front of our son but it’s OK for you to make an illegal traffic move in downtown St. Louis on a busy street?”

“Yes, it is.”

I blame Wonder Woman.

We find a spot in the free lot and haul our chairs and gear down the sidewalk past the art museum to Shakespeare Glen. We’re early so we find a good spot to set up camp at stage left. It’s 5:30 so we have 2.5 hours before showtime. The plan is to wear Andrew out before the show so that he will sit in a stupor throughout the show. Laurie takes him on his first walk while I sit in the hot sun and guard our possessions. They eventually come back and Laurie and I split a sandwich while Andrew eats grapes. Then I take him for a second walk and get him a jumbo hot dog at the concession stand and we find a picnic table where he quickly devours the dog. We go back and sit a spell then around 7 p.m. we take one final walk and visit the porta-potties. At one point a lady asks if she can take my picture.

“It’s because you were wearing that ‘God, I Hate Shakespeare’ t-shirt,” Laurie says.

“Are you sure it’s not because she was taken by my rugged good looks,” I says.

“Of course. What was I thinking?”

poster-winter-tale-2017This year’s production was “The Winter’s Tale,” a Shakespeare play so obscure that even my wife had never read it or seen it performed. Needless to say, I had no idea what it was about. Luckily, I had plenty of time to read the plot synopsis in the program before the show started.

“Winter’s Tale” was one of the Bard’s latter and lesser plays — it’s part tragedy, part comedy and filled with your usual Shakespearean cliches.

King Leontes of Sicilia (Charles Pasternak) becomes convinced his pregnant wife Hermione (Cherie Corinne Rice) has had an affair with his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Chauncy Thomas). The queen is put on trial for treason while Polix gets the hell outta Dodge.

Hermione gives birth to a girl but the king wants nothing to do with her. The child is secreted away but her caretaker is eaten by a bear. The infant is found by a shepherd (Whit Reichert) who raises her as his own. Hermione dies and the king realizes his mistake and is very sorry for it.

The Son has held up pretty well by this point. The only real distraction in our area is a couple of people behind us who won’t stop talking. They’re speaking a foreign language so I can’t understand a word they say, but that’s OK because I can’t understand a word that’s being said on stage and they’re speaking English.

When we get back from intermission, 16 years have passed. The young castaway, Perdita (Cassia Thompson), is now a young woman who is in love with Florizel (Pete Winfrey), son of King Polixenes. Everyone is eventually reconciled and Hermione is revealed as never having died in the first place. Hooray.

I know all this in large part thanks to the synopsis, but also because we are told what happens by second-party characters in lieu of actually showing us what’s happening on stage. This is a fairly common failing of Shakespeare. After sitting for 2 hours in an uncomfortable lawn chair, I would like to see these characters interact, not be told about it from some court jester or other.

“The Winter’s Tale” is a decent show but there’s a reason it’s not one of The Bard’s better known plays. I don’t recall hearing any notable quotables in the show, and isn’t that how we all judge Shakespeare’s works? The cast is fine, the set and costumes are fine, the musicians are good. It’s a solid production.

The Son made it through without incident and that’s what I’m most concerned about. The Wife enjoyed it and that’s all that matters.

 

 

 

At The Movies: Wonder Woman

Let’s get the history lesson out of the way first: “Wonder Woman” is not the first live action comic book superhero movie to feature a female lead. There was “Supergirl,” (1984), “Catwoman” (2004) and “Electra” (2005).

Granted, this is the first one that didn’t suck, so I suppose from that perspective it is historic. It’s also the first truly fine film that DC has released since they decided to ape Marvel’s success at building a cinematic universe around their stable of superheroes.

But then, we already knew that Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman was special when she stole the show from the all-star leads of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” If she could bring light and heart to that dark and dour picture, imagine what she could do on her own.

Director Patty Jenkins has cracked the code (which isn’t really that secret) to making a great superhero movie — a charismatic lead, a strong supporting cast, stellar special effects, gorgeous scenery and sets, a story with humor and human emotion as well as fight scenes and explosions, and fight scenes and explosions. OK, the villain is lacking but that’s par for the course as well.

timthumbGal Gadot stars as Diana, princess of Themyscira, the hidden island home of the Amazons. The two most important women in her life (and it’s only women in her life) are her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), leader of the Amazon warriors.

Diana wants to learn how to fight but mom doesn’t approve, so Antiope gives her lessons in private. This training comes in handy when several German soldiers show up on the beach with guns blazing.

The Germans stumbled onto the island while chasing an American spy, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), whose plane crashed shortly before their arrival.

The Amazons make quick work of the intruders and interrogate Trevor using their truth lasso. Trevor has stolen a book that could turn the tide of the war that’s raging back in Man’s World if he can get it back to British intelligence. Diana journeys to London with Trevor, convinced the war is being orchestrated by Ares, the god of such things.

With the support of Sir Patrick Morton (David Thewlis), the duo put together a ragtag team to travel to the front to stop the machinations of Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), whom Diana suspects is the God of War.

“Wonder Woman” combines the mythological elements of “Thor” with the wartime heroics of “Captain America: The First Avenger” to deliver the year’s third great superhero movie (it’s been a really good year for the genre, and we still have a few more to go). And while most of the action takes place in the World War I-era, the film is book-ended by scenes in the present day to remind us, yes, this is a partial setup for “Justice League.”

It’s not flawless — we’re still dealing with one-dimensional villains and the final showdown is too reminiscent of the Superman/Doomsday battle in “BvS.”

I’ve already mentioned all the reasons that make this movie good, but one element bears repeating. Some people may have thought Gal Gadot was an odd choice to play the Amazon princess, but it’s hard now to imagine anyone else in the role. She’s tough, beautiful, charming and plays the role with the right mix of intelligence and naiveté. She’s terrific.

You thought I was going to say wonderful, didn’t you?

 

 

In Concert: Ann Wilson

So I’m sitting on the couch watching “One-Punch Man” when The Wife comes to me and she says,

“Let’s go to the Ann Wilson concert.”

“Who? The name sounds familiar.”

“She’s the lead singer for Heart.”

“Oh. OK.”

Now you have probably figured out by now that when The Wife wants to do something — We Do It. I’m the kinda guy who likes doing stuff, and I don’t really care what, as long as it doesn’t involve running or risking my life (No dear, I won’t climb that mountain to see that lake; or ride that bobsled of death).

Plus, Laurie married me, and all that goes with that, so anything that can make her life a little brighter for a couple of hours, sign me up. Do you ever watch “The Big Bang Theory” and wonder “Why on earth did Penny marry Leonard?” So do I, but then I’m living proof that women sometimes do strange, inexplicable things.

Besides, I’m probably going to enjoy an Ann Wilson concert more than Shakespeare in the Park or the opera.

The concert was at River City Casino in Lemay, which is downtown St. Louis but off to the side. We had never been there before but it was near where Laurie goes to play bingo so I made her drive. Turned out it wasn’t a bad drive and we didn’t have to deal with downtown crap and the casino had a nice. large, free parking lot and we were able to get a spot at the front entrance.

Conveniently for the casino people, the Event Center was at the other end of the building, so you had to walk through the casino and restaurant row to get to it. I always feel dirty when I walk through a casino, I don’t know why. There was a Wonder Woman slot machine that I considered stopping at, but didn’t. I told Laurie that if we saw a Batman one or an Avengers one we were stopping, but there were none.

We found the venue but it was 40 minutes before showtime (we got there early since we didn’t know how long it would take to get there), so we made a stop at an Italian pastry kiosk for a tiramisu and a cafe mocha. Tasty.

The Event Center at River City Casino is a small-medium size joint where there’s really not a bad seat in the house. The rows go to Z, and the last 7 or 8 rows are on risers. I got us a couple of seats in row X and it worked out nicely. I was on the aisle for extra leg room and immediate extraction once it’s over; we were elevated so we didn’t have to stare at the back of someone’s head like the people on the floor; the venue was small enough that being in the back wasn’t a big issue; I don’t need to see Ann Wilson up close anyway; the seats were much cheaper; nobody in the risers is going to be standing up all night dancing and annoying the hell out of me.

The show was to start at 8 p.m. with no opening act. Good on you, Ann Wilson. “We’ll see how much of a diva Ann Wilson is by when she shows up,” I says. The show started a few minutes after 8. Good on you, Ann Wilson. She opened the show with a blistering version of “The Real Me,” track 2 from the classic Who album “Quadrophenia.”

Ohmigod, I love Ann Wilson.

annwilsonofhearttour2017poster (2)From there she ripped through a trio of Heart tunes (Barracuda, Crazy on You, What About Love) and that was pretty much it for the Heart catalogue, aside from a couple she slipped into Act II (but let’s be honest, “A Million Miles” is just an amped up reworking of the old folk standard, “500 Miles”).

It turns out that if you’re going to an Ann Wilson concert to hear Heart songs, you may leave disappointed. But if you’re going to hear an eclectic greatest hits show, Ann delivers. They’re just not Heart hits. In addition to a couple of her own songs, she and the band performed tunes made famous by Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Yes, Peter Gabriel, The Animals, The Black Crowes, Buffalo Springfield, Aretha Franklin and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

Since I’m not a Heart fanatic, I had no problem with the song selection. Ann has an incredible voice and her 4-piece backing band was solid. I’d rather hear Ann sing “She Talks to Angels” than “Dog and Butterfly” anyway.

There was a large video screen behind them that showed odd images. Sometimes they were cool, some sometimes they made no sense, and some I could’ve done without.

She wrapped up the show (pre-encores) with an amazing 3-song punch of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Alone” and “Love, Reign O’er Me.” Imagine the audacity of someone thinking. I’m going to end my show with not 1, but 2, Who showstoppers — and I’m not Roger Daltrey. And yet she pulled it off flawlessly.

Ohmigod, I love Ann Wilson.

 

 

 

On Stage: Madame Butterfly

So I’m sitting on the couch watching the end of civilization as we know it, aka the Nightly News, when The Wife comes to me and she says,

“Guess what time it is!”

“Time to move to Canada?”

“Maybe. But it’s also our first night of Opera Season! Go shave off that stubble, put on a shirt that doesn’t have superheroes on it, and let’s go have a great time.”

“I can do two of those things, but I can’t guarantee the third.”

And so it was that last night we once again made our way to the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of Giacomo Puccini’s classic tale of love, betrayal and delusion — “Madame Butterfly.”

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Written in 1904, the show feels both dated and yet contemporary. The latter part largely because it reminded me of “Miss Saigon,” which shouldn’t be surprising since “Saigon” rips off the story line almost completely.

Cio-Cio-San (Rena Harms), aka M. Butterfly, is a 15-year-old Japanese geisha from a once wealthy family whose future now rests in a marriage with American Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (Michael Brandenburg). She’s ecstatic over the union, he’s excited that he’s going to get some underage sex before he goes off to sea – never to be seen again.

The American Consul (Christopher Magiera) warns Pinkerton that this is a bad idea, but the lieutenant doesn’t listen. Cio-Cio’s uncle (Dominik Belavy) throws a big stink at the wedding and her family disowns her. Finally alone, the couple sing for a bit and then go off to engage in coitus while everyone else goes out for intermission.

When we return, two years have passed and Cio-Cio is now penniless and living with her 2-year-old child (coincidence?) and her faithful servant Suzuki (Renee Rapier). Despite their dire circumstances, Cio-Cio is certain that her husband will return.

And he does return eventually. With his new American wife Kate (Anush Avetisyan).

As operas go, “Madame Butterfly” is pretty entertaining. There’s not a lot of story but there is a lot of singing and music. It’s very good music, and that’s the key — I think I even recognized some of the music, which always makes me feel a little less culturally illiterate.

The cast is very talented, as are the musicians. Nice costumes and the staging was clever, although at times the Japanese house set did obstruct one’s view, even with a rotating stage.

“Madame Butterfly” runs through June 24. http://www.opera-stl.org