Last night’s Tap:Ex Tables Turned lived up to the hype. It was a pretty incredible experience but extremely difficult to describe. The first half consisted of Nicole Lizée’s reprocessed clips from classic films (The Shining, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Birds, The Graduate and, of course, The Sound of Music but there were others). It was mostly short loop stuff; for example, the ball bouncing scene from TSoM over and over again. Beside the sound from the film there was live accompaniment from Ben Reimer on a variety of tuned percussion instruments and Carla Huhtanen with a variety of vocal effects and weirdly disturbing acting, helped along by the fact that she does look a bit like Julie Andrews, especially exploding Julie Andrews. I think there may have been more electronics from Nicole in the mix too. It was weird and fascinating and very enjoyable.
There’s not a lot of film footage of Maria Callas performing and most of what there is is of concerts. What makes this disk special is that it contains the whole of Act 2 of Tosca recorded at the Royal Opera House on 9th February 1964. It’s a Zeffirelli production and Tito Gobbi sings Scarpia with Renato Cioni as Cavaradossi. It gives, I think, a pretty good idea of Callas’ appeal as an actress and as a personality. She is fascinating to watch but in many ways quite hard to listen to. My partner, who was in the next room, thought I was listening to an atonal modern piece, which is as much as I’m going to say about accuracy of pitch. I found myself more caught up in thinking about that modern audience segment that wants to go back to “the good old days” because if this is representative I think they are nuts. It’s not about Callas. Well directed I think I’d have enjoyed seeing her. It’s the overly melodramatic, well, everything. OK, I know it’s Tosca but Gobbi’s eye rolling scenery chewing is like three Bryn Terfels without the self deprecating twinkle in the eye. One wants to shout “watch out for the crocodile!” And is he ever loud? At first I just thought it was a recording balance thing but I don’t think so as he sounds way louder than the other singers. It’s hard (and probably unfair) to judge a voice on the basis of a rather ropey recording like this but I wouldn’t pay to hear barking like this.
Marias seem to polarize the opera world. Ewing of that ilk still generates more search term hits around here than even Calixto Bieito. In her day Malibran was the Maria of note and controversy and more recently, of course, we have Callas. Callas was a bit before my time and it’s only really recently that I’ve listened to her much. It started, ironically, with the Pasolini Medea where she doesn’t sing but does radiate a most compelling presence. So, when Presto had the complete EMI recordings on sale for something like $20 I took the plunge and 7+ hours MC on CD duly arrived. Just looking at the leaflet blew my mind. She recorded everything from Rosina to Turandot and sang monster roles at an age when, today, she’d most likely still be in a YAP. I have to say it’s a really mixed bag. There’s some gorgeous singing. The Casta diva in this box set is exquisite. There’s also stuff that’s almost unbearable to listen to. Overall though I was still really wondering what all the fuss was about. So I got hold of a couple of documentary DVDs on Callas that included some footage of her on stage; concert rather than opera. There seems to be virtually no video record of her actual opera performances. It makes a huge difference. It’s not like she does much in the way of acting but there’s something, like in the Medea, utterly compelling. She’s still polarizing. My partner likened her voice to scratching on a chalkboard and the cats seem to agree. I was even asked this morning if the “Callas marathon” was over yet. I think the investigation may be continued but tact may be required. Also, am I completely nuts in noticing a certain similarity of timbre between Callas and Sondra Radvanovsky? It’s hard to be sure comparing 50 year old recordings with my memory of a singer I’ve only seen live.
Pasolini’s Medea, which I saw at the very comfortable TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thursday evening, is a striking and unusual film. Visually, throughout, it is painterly in an almost surrealistic way. Locations and costumes combine to provide a weird and disturbing visual language which is never less than beautiful even when the most violent and brutal acts are being portrayed. The visuals were helped by the really good job that had been done on restoring the original print.