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Oct. 17, 2007

"There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats." - Albert Schweitzer.

          Ombra mai fu di vegetabile/ cara ed amabile/ soave più. . .
          Never was there shade of a plant/ dear and amiable/ More sweet. . .
          This ode to a tree is the opening aria from Handel’s “Xerxes.” In fact, it opens the entire opera. Somehow, in 150 years of listening to classical music and opera, I had never heard it before. Or perhaps I had, and it slipped in one ear and out the other.
          But I heard it the other day on KUSC, and I heard it because Fritz Wunderlich was singing it.
          And now you can, too.
          Winky the cat likes Fritz Wunderlich. He seems to like lots of music. When it plays on the computer speakers, as I sit and type, Winky arrives and stretches out on all sorts of things that he should not touch. Letters from friends I haven't answered, the “Dr. Wazoo” cartoons for this website, my collection of blues harps that I play badly.
          Winky particularly seems to like long Grateful Dead jams, as they put him right to deep sleep. But then, Fritz Wunderlich has a similar effect, so who knows? Right now, Winky is on his side, all 13 orange-striped pounds of him, with his head upside down, zonked.
          Of course, it might just be the clickety-click of the computer keyboard that he finds soothing.
          Went to the L.A. Opera over the weekend---the production of Leos Janacek’s early 20th century work, “Jenufa." Janacek’s fine operas are more and more getting their due after decades of neglect.
          Even “Jenufa,” which I must say I found rather obscure. The plot is a grisly potboiler involving infanticide in a peasant village. To hear the wonderful L.A. Opera conductor James Conlon explain it beforehand, you'd have thought you were in for a deeply affecting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting ride. Not this rube.
          By the opera’s end, a whole lot of characters who should have hated one another, if not engaged in murder-suicide, instead reveled in unaccountable mass forgiveness. Jesus Theory as emotional fascism.
          But that’s okay. Looking for logic in operas is like looking for kindness in Bill O’Reilly.
          About the music: Janacek's orchestration is just vivacious with color and nuance, the structure and thematic content novel, if not groundbreaking for its day (reminded of Zemlinsky, Prokoviev) and the choices of tone color and dynamics for dramatic illustration were surprising to the point of improbable. The xylophone motivs and the way Janacek changed symbolism merely by shaving a repeating six-note motive to five must have been a sort of proto-minimalist reaction to nearly extinct romanticism of the day. Nifty.
          But. . .
          This is music that sounds imposing and urgent yet never quite seems to complete a sentence. It is surging and roiling and full of portent, but never quite turns into something you can hang an emotional hat on.
          Still, better this or any other Janacek than L.A. Opera bringing back that vulgar Herb Ross "Boheme" almost every year.
          Maggie the cat can’t stand Winky, and the feeling is mutual. Never mind that they are brother and sister. Never mind that they were rescued together. After spaying and neutering, they have as much affinity for one another as Dracula for a mirror.
          So around here, at odd times of day and night, Winky bullies and rides Maggie until she affects a reasonable impression of The Count, hissing like a pile of pissed-off cobras. Then there is the requisite growling and squealing as Winky does his dirty work. I yell, Winky flees to the patio, and it breaks up.
          Treating Maggie as more important than Winky seems to have worked to some extent on mysterious cat psychology, though, and he seems to lay off her a little more. What’s more, she has become more self-confident, and has taken to cuffing and slapping him once in awhile, Ali-like.
          And if I hold Winky very still, and present his rather imposing head to her, she will sometimes grudgingly, tentatively, give him a bath.
          Cat we all get along?
          Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s sets for “Jenufa” were rocky. Literally. Musique concrete? This was opera with concrete.
          In act one, see, there is a kind of break in the wood floor, and this hunk of cement, this rocky bulge, this tectonic upsurge, protrudes. Yowzah. Whatsat, you wonder. Hmm.
          Then, in act two, there is a gigantic turd on the stage, pardon my French, right in the middle of all the action, right in the middle of what is supposed to be someone’s room or house. It’s about ten feet high and oh, 25 feet long. Really. Looks like Fasolt or Fafnir dropped by.
          No, wait---it's not symbolic excrement, it's a. . .rock! Crappy symbolism, not symbolism as crap.
          Yes, the itty bitty rock dimple of act one had grown into a monster. Ah, I get it! Jenufa was illegitimately pregnant in act one (the crux of the dark tale), and in act two, all the ugliness and horror associated with this development has. . .developed! The giant rock represented this gestation!
          I now hear the voice of Basil Fawlty in my head:
          So the whole second act, see, takes place around this giant rock symbol. I turned to my operagoing companion, Annie, at intermission and said, "Now watch. This intellectual giant will break the rock into tiny pieces in act three, when the ever-popular cliche, 'redemption,’ manifests, and there will be a big blazing, glorious sun or something like that. You know, something a goddamn ten-year-old might have come up with.”
          Guess what.
          Act three: tiny rocks all over the place, and in the last five minutes, a big, blazing sun! I should direct opera.
          Of course, there is um, justification for the rock. In act two, see, Jenufa sings that she feels as if a big rock is hanging over her(!). When I saw this line on the supertitles, as Jenufa swooned in front of the monster rock, I again heard Basil Fawlty’s voice in my head, saying, “Oh I SEE!”
          Well, maybe the production designer was stoned.
          You wonder where cats go in war, and how many survive, and then you don’t wonder because it’s too sad. But New York Times correspondent John F. Burns, stuck in a compound in Baghdad, wondered about it---and wound up taking care of dozens of felines who correctly deduced that life was better inside a fortified U.S. retreat.
          One of the things he learned was this:
          “The bloodiest suicide bombings, even miles away, have the sound and feel of the apocalypse, causing humans to freeze, no matter how often they experience it. Cats need to hear it only once. As they skitter to the safety of trees and bushes, they enter the blast and the tremor on the hard drive of their brains. On the next occasion, come the blast, they barely stir.”
          Winky and Maggie have never gotten over the garbage truck.
          Poor Fritz Wunderlich and his soaring, clarion, sweet tenor died in 1966 after he accidentally fell down a flight of stairs. He was only 36.
          Now, I liked the late Pavarotti, despite all the hanky-and-tux silliness and massive selling out. I mean, Luciano would have sung with James Brown if there was money in it. Whatsat? He did?
          Well, Luciano brought great happiness to millions, and was a very great singer in his prime. Bless him. Comparing him in later years with Wunderlich at his best is wildly unfair, but I’m going to do it anyway.
          Listen to Tux Boy sing “Granada,” then listen to Wunderlich.
          And hide the cats.

"Music and Cats" is
© 2007 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.

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© 2007 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.