Saturday, June 24, 2017

Guardians at the Front Gate

As I rode a MUNI bus toward the War Memorial Opera House the other day, I witnessed a family situation that, alas, has become all too familiar. A young father was seated across from me, intensely focused on his smartphone. Strapped into a stroller in front of him was his young son, who kept trying to get the man's attention. No amount of touching or vocalizing caused the man to look up from his phone. After the toddler dropped his juice bottle (which rolled under the father's seat), the man kept his eyes locked on his phone.

As the bus traveled toward its next stop I debated whether to call the man's attention to his squirming son but decided to wait and see what would happen. When the bus came to a stop and several passengers filed by the stroller in order to get to the door, I waved at the man to get his attention. After I explained that the boy's bottle had fallen under his seat, the disinterested parent went right back to focusing on his smartphone.

I thought that would be the end of it. But I was wrong. Oh, so very wrong. An elderly woman a few seats away from me launched into a loud tirade against the man, demanding that he take action and asking why he wasn't paying attention to his child. The young father looked at her as if she had just escaped from a mental institution and immediately went back to staring at his phone (which just goes to prove that not all Millennials become helicopter parents).

It's no secret that many people have become phone zombies. We see them walking across busy intersections while looking down at their smartphones; some are too busy trying to take a selfie to realize they might be in imminent danger.

For parents who are not so disengaged, protecting their children from harm means placing the child's health and welfare above their own desires. Sometimes parents are forced to acknowledge that their child's happiness depends, in large part, on desires beyond a parent's control. Depending on the society and culture in which children are raised and learn how to assert themselves, what will make them happy can embody a parent's greatest fears.

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I'm always fascinated by the films that the Frameline Film Festival selects for its Worldly Affairs program of shorts. Two stood out during the 2017 festival, giving the audience a fleeting glimpse of life outside the puritanical culture that infects much of these United States. Written and directed by Marco Leão  and André Santos, Pedro starts out as a young Portuguese man (Filipe Abreu) returns home from his night job as dawn breaks over the coastal city in which he lives.

Filipe Abreu stars in Pedro

Before Pedro can fall asleep and get some rest, his mother (Rita Durão) insists that he take her to the beach. She wants to get there early, before it gets crowded with lots of other people. Upon arriving, however, they discover a nearly empty beach. In the parking lot, Pedro exchanges a lustful glance with an older man (João Villas-Boas) who is obviously cruising.

Rita Durão, Filipe Abreu, and João Villas-Boas in a scene from Pedro

After Pedro and his mother return from a brief dip in the ocean, the stranger stops by their blanket to ask for a cigarette. Once again, Pedro's mother (who has been preoccupied with whether or not her boyfriend is going to meet her at the beach) is too distracted to notice the tacit looks exchanged between the two men. When his mother's date (Marcello Urgeghe) finally arrives, Pedro excuses himself and heads for a rendezvous in the bushes with the handsome stranger.

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Co-written by Yudho Aditya, Dea Kulumbegashvili, and Barbara Cigarroa, the protagonist in Pria is a young man constrained by the cultural traditions of life in a small village in rural Indonesia. Aris (Chicco Kurniawan) is fascinated by the pictures his ESL teacher, Peter (Jacob McCarthy), brings into the classroom to help illustrate words for his students by relating them to pictures taken during his travels to America and other Western cities.

Peter (Jacob McCarthy) is an ESL teacher in a scene from Pria

Because he lives in a Muslim culture where arranged marriages are commonplace, Aris is about to be wed to a young woman named Gita (Gladhys Elliona Syahutari) who knows as little about men as Aris knows about women. That hasn't prevented his mother, Ros (Karlina Inawati), and Gita's father, Fausi (Otig Pakis), from negotiating a match for their children.

Gladhys Elliona Syahutari (Gita) and
Otig Pakis (Fausi) in a scene from Pria

With his entire life planned out for him by an overprotective mother, Aris struggles with conflicting notions of tradition, duty and his own personal idea of happiness. Yudho Aditya's film captures the fear, confusion, and helplessness Aris feels at being forced into a lifestyle he doesn't want (especially when he feels no desire for a woman). It doesn't take much for the viewer to realize that Aris is developing a crush on Peter, a very white man who looks every bit as exotic to the young Indonesian as Aris might to someone from Ireland.

Chicco Kurniawan (Aris) and his mother
(Karlina Inawati) in a scene from Pria

Aris's mother (who appears to be single) is determined to lay a foundation for her son's happiness within the structure and strictures of the culture they know. When Aris finally gets up the courage to visit Peter and ask for guidance, a solution is found which will allow Aris to remain single without shaming his mother. In his director's statement, Yudho Aditya writes:
“I’ve made films ever since I was 13. Never once have I ever considered myself a 'political' filmmaker (I’m never very good at playing politics). I initially started making films mainly for me -- for the kid in me that was ostracized, alienated and muted; the kid that never felt like he really belonged anywhere. Ironically, as with the case of making Pria, the deeper I tapped into these insecurities and the more I wanted to explore and understand them, the more I realized how universal these sentiments are.”
Filmmaker Yudho Aditya
“As people who identify as LGBT, we are already alone -- empty even -- lost within the sea of heteronormative exclusivity. Forging an identity that is embraced and celebrated within an inclusive community is something we dream of. While, in the United States, this dream is becoming more real (slowly but surely and not without its problems), in places like Indonesia it’s not even a concept that people can fathom. Whether you’re a gay black kid from Michigan or a gay Hispanic from Peru or even a gay American from Indonesia, your voice and experiences should still matter. They deserve to be told just as much as anyone else’s.”

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While the plots of many operas include young women who have been promised in marriage to men they do not love (women whose fathers seem to have no qualms about using their daughters as bargaining chips in arranging a marriage that might bring them political as well as economic benefits), Rigoletto is one of the few operas in which an overly protective father desperately tries to keep his daughter's existence a secret in order to protect her from his political enemies. As the late Verdi scholar, Julian Budden, once wrote:
"What were the qualities that attracted Verdi so strongly to Victor Hugo's play, Le Roi s’amuse? First of all, surely, the 'divided nature' of the protagonist. Up to then his leading characters had been relatively monochromatic, actuated by similar impulses throughout. The court jester Triboulet gave him the opportunity of filling out a personality in all its human contradictions. The play is a drama of paternity, a relationship which never failed to evoke a deep response from a man who had lost both his children in their infancy; hence his long held but ultimately unrealized ambition to write a Re Lear. Lastly, there was his desire, expressed earlier on, to 'unite the comic with the terrible in Shakespeare’s manner.' The subject of a court jester would allow him to do precisely that."
Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

One of the most frequently overlooked factors in staging productions of Rigoletto is the unbridled hatred that many members of the Duke of Mantua's court feel for Rigoletto. The Duke's jester has, after all, used his acid tongue to lambaste and humiliate most of them but, because he is protected by the Duke, there is no way for anyone to get back at Rigoletto until they discover his carefully-guarded secret.

The Duke of Mantua (Pene Pati) seduces the Countess Ceprano
(Amina Edris) in Act I of Rigoletto (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Inspired by the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, Michael Yeargan used the artist’s juxtaposition of the ordinary with the fantastic (as well as de Chirico's skewed perspectives) as a basis for his set design for Rigoletto. As he explains:
“In the most simplistic terms, Rigoletto is about a father's curse that fulfills itself. De Chirico’s paintings have a surreal quality that suggests a world of impending doom: that unsettling, airless feeling one gets before a huge storm is about to unleash itself. So when this production was first conceived, we unapologetically used elements from those paintings to satisfy the specific needs of the libretto, while at the same time preserving that feeling of an impending storm -- when the father's curse is fulfilled."
Michael Yeargan's set for Act II of Rigoletto
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

As much as I love the physical look of the San Francisco Opera's 1997 production of Rigoletto, a recent performance surprised me by the way previously unacknowledged design elements sabotaged key points in the opera's plot. Although a pre-performance announcement indicated that the soprano singing the role of Rigoletto's daughter, Gilda (Nino Machaidze) was ill, that was no reason for the lack of electricity in the performance I witnessed.
  • No one at the Duke's court seemed to be the slightest bit afraid of Rigoletto (Quinn Kelsey). Instead, they clustered together clad in Constance Hoffman's mostly black costumes like a darkly lit blob, passively commenting on the Duke's misadventures and the humiliation of the Count Ceprano (Anthony Reed).
  • Although she seemed to get through Acts II and III with sufficient power, Machaidze's withdrawal from the performance was announced during the set change between Acts II and III. Maria Valdes stepped in and took over the role of Gilda in Act III, handsomely acquitting herself as the doomed heroine.
  • Much to my surprise, the strongest singing came from Count Monterone (Reginald Smith, Jr.) and the male chorus (a huge shoutout to chorus director Ian Robertson) rather than from Kelsey Quinn's hunchback or Andrea Silvestrelli's hired assassin, Sparafucile.
Reginald G. Smith, Jr. as Count Monterone in Act I of Rigoletto
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

This San Francisco Opera production of Rigoletto is now 20 years old. In its first two seasons (1997 and 2001) it was directed by Mark Lamos. In 2006 and 2012 it was staged by Harry Silverstein. While the physical production is holding up quite well (and Nicola Luisotti conducted with admirable passion), I have to wonder about the strength of Rob Kearly's stage direction, which seemed to hit all of its marks but was nevertheless sorely lacking in dramatic tension.

Despite Gary Marder's superb lighting and Lawrence Pech's choreography, something was missing at the core of the production. It certainly wasn't the fault of Kelsey Quinn's robust Rigoletto or Zanda Švēde's lusty Maddalena. Could it have been Pene Pati's oversized but bravely sung Duke? Or a darker voiced Gilda without any semblance of a trill? I honestly cannot pinpoint the problem. All I can say is that I left the performance surprised by the way such a passionate opera could feel so mechanical. Meh!

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