Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wallowing In Nostalgia

In 1982 (a year prior to his death), Lanfranco Rasponi published The Last Prima Donnas, a collection of interviews with female opera singers from the first half of the 20th century. Rasponi made his feelings about the modern crop of opera singers quite clear: None of them could ever measure up to the voices from the golden age of opera.

A popular theory at the time was that the introduction of transatlantic jet travel had shortened the careers of many singers by putting them on an accelerated career track that did not allow for the proper kind of vocal rest enjoyed by singers who had traveled exclusively by steamship and rail. Even though American singers were being hailed far and wide for the quality of their education and training, a higher rate of professional burnout was becoming noticeable.

In the years that I wrote about opera (for my column in San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter as well as freelancing to numerous magazines), I tried to profile rising young American artists. In discussing the tendency of Opera News magazine to focus on voices from the past (often referred to as "dead diva syndrome"), a feisty young soprano argued that "Mozart's dead! He doesn't care what you write about him. We're the people who are working now, who are making news, and who need coverage."

No one will deny that there is a time and place for nostalgia. However tempting it may be to coddle one's memories of the past, we awake every morning in the present. Some people can accept that as a simple reality. Others find it a difficult concept to embrace.

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Woody Allen's new film, Midnight in Paris, does an exquisite job of making nostalgia-heavy visions of past glory come to life. As the latest incarnation of Allen's nebbishy hero, Owen Wilson follows in the mildly neurotic footsteps of John Cusack (who starred in 1994's Bullets Over Broadway).

Wilson's Gil is an acclaimed, wealthy Hollywood scriptwriter struggling to write a novel that he hopes will allow his writing to be taken more seriously. Engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdams), Gil has accompanied his fiancée and her parents on a family business trip to Paris, a city known for the ghosts of artists and writers who once inhabited Parisian café society.

Alas, this is not a match made in heaven. Inez's mother (Mimi Kennedy) is an extremely materialistic country club Republican who fears her daughter might be marrying below her social status. Her father (Kurt Fuller) is a conservative bigot enthralled by the rowdy rhetoric of the Tea Party, who wonders if Gil isn't a card-carrying Communist.

While in Paris, Gil and his fiancée run into Inez's friend Carol (Nina Arianda) and her husband Paul (Michael Sheen). Gil's suspicion that Paul is a pseudo-intellectual blowhard is confirmed by a museum guide (Carla Bruni) at the Louvre who has a better grip on reality than Paul (who is obviously in love with the sound of his own voice).

Carla Bruni and Owen Wilson in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris

Blessed by some wonderful cinematography by Darius Khondji, the film begins with a tourist's love letter to historic Parisian landmarks. However, as the clock nears midnight, and Gil decides to go for a walk by himself, Woody Allen's old black magic starts to assert itself.

Having imbibed a substantial amount of alcohol during his dinner with Paul, Carol, and Inez, Gil knows that he is drunk. But he's not as drunk as the events that follow would suggest. When an antique car stops in front of him and some strangers merrily invite him to come for a ride, Gil embarks on the kind of time travel adventure that makes Back to the Future look like child's play.

His hosts turn out to be none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill), who whisk Gil off to a party where Cole Porter is singing his newest songs while accompanying himself at the piano. In no time at all Gil is being introduced to Ernest Hemingway (a deliciously hammy performance by  Corey Stoll), who offers to show Gil's novel to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Rubbing elbows with such legends as Salvador Dali (an ebullient cameo by Adrien Brody), Pablo Picasso (Marcial di Fonzo Bo), and sexy bullfighter Juan Belmonte (Daniel Lundh), Gil can barely believe what's happening to him.

Whether the mystery car that picks him up each night contains Tom (T.S.) Eliot or he is taken to such legendary Parisian hangouts as Maxim's and the Folies Bergere (was that strikingly beautiful black woman Josephine Baker?), Gil finds himself basking in the presence of the artistic giants associated with the golden age -- a far cry from his future father-in-law's hateful vapidity. In a priceless scene, Gil tries to convince a doubting Luis Bunuel (Adrian de Van) that Bunuel will become famous as a great artist. "Maybe you'll make a film someday......"

Poster art for Midnight in Paris

But then Woody Allen goes one step further. Each morning, as Gil returns to the brutal reality of his impending nuptials -- and the people who will dominate his future -- he is buoyed by the memory of a mysterious beauty from his late night escapades. Adriana Marion Cotillard may be in the middle of a passionate affair with Pablo Picasso, but she is drawn to Gil and entranced by his writing. One night, when Adriana suggests that she and Gil leave a party, they end up going to a nightclub whose guests include artists from La Belle Epoque like Henri de Toulouse Lautrec and Edgar Degas.

Adriana is just as fascinated with this historical period as Gil is with The Golden Age.  When she opts to remain behind, Gil realizes that he can no longer live in the past and must confront the realities of the present. Soon after breaking off his engagement, he befriends Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux), a beautiful young Parisian who sells items of nostalgic value, including some old recordings by Cole Porter.

Woody Allen's script is filled with mischief and merriment, perhaps none so grand as a sight gag involving the unfortunate Detective Tisserant (Gad Elmaleh) that takes place in the famous Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles. A grand intellectual romp, Midnight in Paris is one of those rare films that, as soon as it ends, you'll want to see again. Here's the trailer:

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The decades Gil and Adriana worshipped were not happy times for most African American women (particularly those working in the fields). A 1989 documentary entitled Wild Women Don't Have The Blues describes how their work songs led to the development of an art form as American as jazz and the Broadway musical: the blues.

Currently onstage at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut CreekBlues in the Night is a musical revue conceived by Sheldon Epps that offers a wealth of songs written by such legends as Harold ArlenVernon DukeDuke EllingtonBessie Smith, Billy Strayhorn, Ida Cox, and Ann Ronell.

The final presentation in Center Rep's 2010-2011 season, Blues in the Night is also one of the most musically satisfying performances I've attended in a long time.  With a cast headed by  Armelia McQueen, Debbie de Coudreaux, Amanda Folena, and C.R. Lewis, the action takes place in the late 1930s in three rooms of a seedy Chicago hotel whose occupants can't stop thinking about the men who done 'em (as well as the men who done 'em wrong).

C. R. Lewis, Armelia McQueen, Amanda Folena,
and Debbie DeCoudreaux in Blues in the Night
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Lesser known numbers like "Take It Right Back," "Dirty No-Gooder's Blues,""Four Walls (and One Dirty Window) Blues," and Alberta Hunter's "Rough And Ready Man" easily hold their own against old standards like "Nobody Wants You When You're Down And Out," "I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues," "Am I Blue?" and "Wild Women Don't Have The Blues."  With the same kind of ghostly nostalgia that inhabits Midnight in Paris, Armelia McQueen seems to be channeling the great Sophie Tucker as she belts out Andy Razaf and Wesley Wilson's bawdy "Kitchen Man" and Leola and Wesley Wilson's "Take Me For A Buggy Ride."

Armelia McQueen as "The Lady From The Road" in
Blues in the Night (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The words to many blues songs are rife with double meaning, best exemplified in the lyrics for the lusty "Kitchen Man" (which was recorded by Bessie Smith in 1929):
"Madam Bucks
Was quite de-luxe;
Servants by the score,
Footmen at each door,
Butlers and maids galore!

But one day Dan,
Her kitchen man,
Gave in his notice, he's through!
She cried, "Oh Dan, don't go,
It'll grieve me if you do."

I love his cabbage, crave his hash,
Daffy about his succertash,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

Wild about his turnip tops,
Like the way he warms my chops,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

Anybody else could leave
And I would only laugh,
But he means that much to me,
And you ain't heard the half!

Oh, his jelly roll is so nice and hot,
Never fails to test the spot,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

His frankfurters are oh, so sweet,
How I like his sausage meat,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

Oh, how that boy can open clams,
No one else can catch my hams,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

When I eat his doughnut,
All I leave is the hole!
Any time he wants to,
Why, he can use my sugar bowl!

Oh, his baloney's worth a try,
Never fails to satisfy,
I can't do without my kitchen man!"

Debbie de Coudreaux as "The Woman of The World" in
Blues in the Night (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

They may not write songs like that anymore, but you can catch an evening chock full of them up in Walnut Creek.  Winningly directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming, performances of Blues in the Night continue through June 25th at the Lesher Center for the Arts (you can order tickets here). Thanks in no small part to Nathan Lively's sound design, the orchestrations and vocal arrangements used in this production enhance the songs without ever overwhelming them. With music direction by Brandon Adams, Center Rep's production of Blues in the Night is a rare treat!

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