Saturday, May 25, 2013

Riding In Cars With My Boy

Just look at that guy. It couldn't be more obvious he loved cars as much as I do.

He knew when I was getting ready for a drive and would scramble in a mini-panic to tag along. With no prodding he would climb into his car seat and arrange himself in a proper sitting position. And with heavy panting breaths, he would anticipate the joyride ahead.

He was always remarkably well-behaved; even more so in a moving vehicle. A picture of contentment and happiness as he sat there, taking in the world as it sped by. Oblivious to the delight and stares of everyone who saw him: a happy Chow Chow smiling in a sports car.

I guess that's why it was fitting that he would take his last gasping breaths in my car, lying in the arms of his loving yaya. As I stroked his head after having asked him to hold on as we raced to the hospital in the dwindling traffic of Friday night.


I had come home from a gruelling week and was dead-tired.

He lay on the floor like a Sphinx - his usual pose of choice - worshipping the electric fan. My first inkling that something was wrong came when he didn't get up to greet me as he normally would. He just lay there, turned his head, and smiled at me.

It was when I came close to pat him that I heard his heavy, labored breathing. "Matamlay siya buong araw, ser," said my maid. "At hindi po kumain."

"Dalhin sa vet ito bukas," I replied. I was so exhausted I really wanted nothing but to lie down and rest my weary body.

But not ten minutes later, the maid said he was vomiting dark blood. I rushed down and his breath was even more ragged, more laboured than it was scant minutes earlier.

And ten more minutes later, my exhaustion forgotten, we were speeding down EDSA. On what would be our last journey together.


It happened quickly. He did not seem to suffer. 

From his huddled position on his yaya's lap, he suddenly reared up with what seemed like a surprised gasp.

And then one more. A softer one.

More like an exhale.

Then he was gone.


I never did get a picture of him in the car, happily sitting in the passenger seat, smiling at the journey ahead. I always meant to, but there are many things in life we put off till the morrow, till the morrow never comes.

We'd taken many trips together, my baby boy and I. The last time bringing a buttload of cakes to Mom on Mother's Day, as I fed him colorum pastilles. But the thing with the last time is, you often don't know when the last time will be the last time.

No one will ever ride shotgun with me - opera blaring, the wind in our hair in a convertible with the top down - like you did.

And now, I don't even know if I'll vaccuum the last traces of the fur you kept shedding on the car seat.


All dogs go to heaven, they say. So godspeed on your final destination, and say hi to Fritzi and the others for me when you get there. Unlike the time he left, at least, I was there with you at the end.

Daddy loves you. 

And. I. Will. Miss. You. 

My loving, darling, lovely Rufi.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Rigoletto Redux

In a previous post, I brought up the issue of the artistic updating of classic works.

Art, like language, is ever-evolving. And I agree that one reason why the young are often averse to the classical performing arts such as ballet and opera is because these forms are perceived as stuffy and outdated - which, to be honest, they often are.

But while moldy, ossified art is not something desirable - a dead, empty thing - I'm still very much a purist at heart. Updating the classics to be more accessible to a modern audience is a good thing. Updating it for the sake of updating it, well, that's a whole other kettle of fish.

Which leads us to the Metropolitan Theater's Rigoletto in HD, the second offering in CCP's ongoing Operas in HD at the Little Theater.

Verdi's Rigoletto gives us two of the world's most famous and enduring arias. The first of which has become known as the signature song of the late, great Luciano Pavarotti (looking here like a young Jack Black) :

The other, of course, being the lovely Caro Nome, sung here in an excerpt from the 2013 Metropolitan production by the German soprano Diana Damrau (reminding me somewhat of a blonde version of Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray ) :

The 2013 Met production transposes Rigoletto from the original 16th century Mantuan duchy to 1960s Las Vegas. The lecherous Duke of Mantua becomes a Vegas big shot crooner - shades of Frank Sinatra - and his court of nobles and hangers-on form the Rat Pack.

Rigoletto himself, the Duke's reprehensible hunchbacked court jester, gets a promotion of sorts as a handler-cum-toadie. 

Gilda, Rigoletto's precious daughter, remains, somewhat anachronistically, the virginal, convent-bred, never-been-kissed-never-been-touched provincial lass whose innocence is rewarded with tragedy in the end.

There has been plenty of criticism online from fellow purists like me regarding the Met's artistic decision to situate Rigoletto in the swinging sixties. But as I stated in a previous post, Art is a living, breathing thing, and the moment it ceases to evolve is when it ossifies and becomes a dead thing. An object of curiosity, not the affirmation of the human spirit and creativity that it is as its best.

To be fair, the amorality and gleeful licentiousness of the Duke of Mantua fit Vegas - especially 60s Vegas - like a glove. The Duke of Mantua was a suave charmer, and giving him a Frank Sinatra persona in the 2013 staging may grudgingly be called a clever move. Ditto the transformation of his court into The Chairman of the Board's posse.

The other changes, alas, do not work quite as well.

The 2013 Met production practically ignores Rigoletto's hunchback - a physical symbol of his twisted inner struggles between his genuine love and protectiveness for his daughter Gilda, his repressed loathing for the Duke and his court, and his own Machiavellian machinations which come back to bite him in the end.

Serbian operatic baritone Zeljko Lucic - outfitted in a tan overcoat that signals wino more than jester - brings tragic anger and gravitas to the title role, but seems lost amid his surroundings. 

Gilda, as essayed by Diana Damrau in her demure 50s bobbysoxer dress, reminds me of Tracy Turnblad, and all throughout the program I couldn't help imagining the rest of the cast of Hairspray showing up, with Edna Turnblad giving Il Duce whatfer.

And while the Vegas settings - complete with the Folies Bergeré - are visually arresting, the chintz and glitz lend the entire production an unintended tackiness that undermines its artistic aspirations. An argument can be made that the very seediness that lurks underneath Vegas' superficial allure reflect the ugliness beneath the dashing demeanor of the Duke, but the overall impression it left me was of the cheap imitation of class, the hollowness of the massive simulacra that make Vegas what it is, that unfortunately seep into the whole production like a stain.

I guess the purist in me wanted to see lush, romantic 16th century Mantua and its trappings as the contrappunto backdrop for this tale of depravity, false love and the blind lottery of fate - not the harsh, neon-lit, on-the-nose sleaziness of Vegas in any era.

Vegas will always be vulgar, and it just makes everything in Rigoletto look painfully familiar, mundane, and...common.

Happily, none of these "updates" distract severely from the sheer wealth of talent onstage. The Met doesn't pussyfoot around when it comes to talent, and the three headliners -  Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto, Diana Damrau as Gilda, and Piotr Beczala as The Duke - are perfectly-cast, voice wise, and deliver reliably bravura performances.

Damrau is my new goddess (check out her fierce, vindictive Queen of the Night in Die Zaberflote and compare it to the victimized naif she plays here to see her range, both as a singer and an actress ) but I'm beginning to love Piotr Beczala, in particular. I thought the Polish tenor's rendition of La Donna E Mobile was actually - heresy! - better than Pavarotti's. That pole dance was unexpected but so, so in character. And he was wonderful in Mozart's The Magic Flute as Prince Tamano as well.

Because beggars can't be choosers, I'm still happy CCP has embarked on this program, even though one can fairly easily hunt for the clips online. There's still something about the cinematic experience - the feeling of being in a darkened venue with other spectators, waiting for the curtain to rise, waiting to be captivated, enchanted, and transported into another world by sounds and visions literally larger than life.

Barring attending a live performance at The Met, watching Operas in HD at the CCP Little Theater is as close as we can get to the magic of opera.

See you on the 28th for L'Elisir d' Amore.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Eternal Embrace

More than a thousand people so far have lost their lives in a  building collapse in Bangladesh a little over a couple of weeks ago.

Among them, this anonymous couple, frozen in an embrace even death could not break.

The photograph is poignant, yet, despite the tragic context, it is also strangely, hauntingly...beautiful. It echoes the recent discovery in Romania of a pair of skeletons - dubbed as Romeo and Juliet - holding hands since they both died sometime in the Middle Ages.

And, even earlier than that, the "Lovers of Valdaro": a Neolithic couple buried together in an eternal embrace.

No one knows if that Bangladeshi couple were lovers, husband and wife, co-workers, or even complete strangers. But when tragedy befell them, at the very least - and I'm aware this is cold comfort for those they left behind - they had someone to embrace them in the end.

Rest in peace. Love forever.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Carmen A La Choi

"I have written a work that is all clarity and vivacity, full of colour and melody."
- Georges Bizet , on Carmen.

Caught an interpretation of Carmen last Saturday night by the Choi So Bin Ballet Company of South Korea, choreographed by its namesake and Artistic Director Dr. Prof. Choi So Bin. An international friendship gala in cooperation with Lisa Macuja's Ballet Manila held in Star Theater. Accompanying me were my cohort Mara and my young S.O., whose cultural indoctrination I have taken as a mission. 

Carmen is one of my favorite ballets. Originally an opera by Bizet, it's grand, it's passionate, it's dramatic as a Latin lover, and I'm always game to watch and compare its many interpretations. 

Something, however, seems to have been lost in the translation by the Korean troupe.

This is how it's done, chingu.

For starters - and I realise this borders on nitpicking - the titular character Carmen was supposed to be an amoral, scheming gypsy spitfire. Alas, the very Asian and innocent-looking prima ballerina failed to seduce me into believing she could be the scarlet woman, destroyer of men. Casting is often key to the suspension of disbelief. A performing artist may have all the singing and dancing gifts at his or her disposal, but if he or she simply doesn't look the part - despite heroic attempts by hair and makeup - then it just ruins the illusion for me. 

Lea Salonga as Grizzabella. Artist's rendition.

This is why I was unsurprised by the catty swipes at Lea Salonga when she essayed Grizzabella in Cats a few years back. Not only did she not have the gravitas to play a ruined outcast who had been around the block one time too many; her crystal-clear bell of a voice was simply too perfect for such a grizzled, raw, imperfect character.

For the same reasons, I will still watch, but will probably never fully accept, Lea in her dream role as Evita. Now don't get me wrong; I'm no Lea-hater. I give the lady her props. Her voice is like crystal, her accomplishments impressive, and I gained new respect for her standing up for gay rights against Tintin Bersola's brain-deadness.

But like any other performer, there are just simply some roles that aren't right for her. At least, not at this point in time. 

Anyway, back to Korean Carmen. The Choi So Bin company featured only three danseurs, and the rest of the corps de ballet were female. And because all three men - I'm tempted to call them boys, as it seems to be more apt - were dressed in identical tuxedo-like outfits and never had a single costume change, someone unfamiliar with the ballet would've had a hard time identifying who was who. I myself could not tell who was playing Don José, the captain of the guard who abandoned his fianceé for Carmen's seductive wiles, and who was playing the famous toreador Escamillo, for whom Carmen would abandon Don José - with tragic consequences.

All three danseurs were so practically identical in looks and build that Mara couldn't help but whisper "Para silang K-Pop boy band."

They actually reminded me of Sailor Moon's paramour, Tuxedo Mask. Sans the mask, and doing pirouettes :

By the time I realized that Carmen and Don José were performing their lovemaking scene in Carmen's boudoir, we were midway through the ballet already and I had been spending the time before that waiting. Waiting for the signature scenes to happen: Carmen's entrada grande and her habanera; the famous Toreador sequence and Escamillo's grand jetés ; the seduction of Don José and his abandonment of his previous life and respectability.

It then dawned on me that the Koreans were staging a very minimalist, abridged version of what was supposed to be a lush, passionate take on carnal desires, the capriciousness of love, the strictures of morals and the punishment of transgressions. 

Perhaps I was mistaken in assuming that the company would be performing the full ballet. Likewise, the lack of sets and the minimal number of dancers was perhaps a consequence of this being a one-night only guest performance.

Be that as it may, the barebones interpretation pretty much sucked all of the drama out, leaving only a hollow rind where a ripe and heavy forbidden fruit should've been.

Play it again, Carmen.

Ballet, like any other form of entertainment, is escapist. We expect to be transported to different worlds and be captivated, amazed, and filled with wonder and awe at the illusions we pay to behold.

In contrast - and I'm not saying this out of some misguided nationalism - Ballet Manila's more traditional interpretation of the same ballet as part of Lisa Macuja's ongoing Swan Song Series was richer and more rewarding. From the world-class dancing, to the sets, to the magnificent costumes, La Macuja's company embodied the passion, the fire, and the ultimate tragedy of the story.

The Korean Carmen - while aiming for lofty artistic ideals, surely - just struck me as experimental, self-conscious, and of about the same gravity and heft as a high-school play.

Carmen is a bottle of red wine: full-bodied, wanton, and intoxicating. What we got was a chaste sip of apple juice instead.

Next up: Rigoletto Redux