Saturday, February 24, 2007

Thank God for Peter Gelb

I just had the most moving opera experience of my life.

In a movie theater.

In the Carousel mall.

Today the Met broadcast Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin into movie theaters the world over, starring American household-name soprano Renee Fleming as Tatiana, opposite Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role.

(As I watched, rapt, a thought flickered briefly across my mind: why did I give this up, again?

Oh, right. Because I'm not Renee Fleming.)

I went not only because I'd never seen the opera, but also because I'd never seen Renee Fleming in action. Sure, I'd heard some recordings, seen a PBS gala performance or something, and read roughly 4/5 of her book (note to Mom: can you ship that to me?), but I've never, until today, seen the goods to back up all the fawning praise. This is probably not a secret to anybody who knows anything about opera, but Fleming is indeed all she's cracked up to be, and twenty times more. As a 48 year-old woman playing a girl of 16, Fleming was utterly convincing. More than that, her portrayal was effortless, natural. There are very few vocalists I've ever seen who can make opera-singing look unaffected, even conversational (or any sort of singing, for that matter), and Fleming's impressive showing sets an incredibly high standard for other performers of her stature.

Not to mention that she is an irresistibly gorgeous, elegantly expressive singer. It's not that she upstages her costars; everything about her is captivating. Her charisma seems expansive enough to translate to the back rows of the Met, for sure, but the movie theater experience provides an intimacy here that is unattainable in the opera house; Fleming's expressive eyes amplified every emotion. Fleming reads so well on a movie theater screen because the passion with which she infuses her role is not overwrought melodrama; rather, she acts and reacts intensely, as a normal person would, free of contrivance or artifice.

Vocally, Fleming's performance was smooth and seamless. I'm no Russian scholar, but to my ear, her diction sounded at times like French rather than Russian - that might be my only inexpert complaint. But, since I didn't understand the language anyway, I was more than happy to let the lush legato of indiscernible syllables wash over me. Fleming's voice has a lovely color to it from top to bottom, and it seems well suited to Tchaikovsky's music.

As Onegin, the silver-haired
Hvorostovsky gave an equally impassioned and impressive performance. Also playing a much younger character, Hvorostovsky was boyish and headstrong, the archetypal cocksure twenty-something male. Onegin begins the opera as such, patronizing and cold in his exchanges with the bookish Tatiana. In the second act, Hvorostovsky demonstrated commendable range as a singing actor, from a smarmy seducer to a listless youth to a man crazed and consumed by an impossible, tumultuous love.

Both leads were spellbinding in their roles, yet so natural I felt as if I weren't watching theatrics of any sort, just observing a real-life tale unfold. As the poet Lenski, the man who introduces Onegin into the story, tenor Ramon Vargas sang confidently and with a touching sincerity; Olga, the object of his affections and Tatiana's sister, was playfully sung and acted by mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba. These four main characters carried the production, but the supporting cast and chorus certainly pulled their weight.

I've seen a fair amount of opera productions in my day, in houses all across Europe and from respected American companies, but none as memorable as this performance. Maybe it was the immediacy, or the intimacy; or maybe Fleming and Hvorostovsky are just that good. All I know is that goosebumps rippled down my arms on more than one occasion, and the climactic moment at the very end of the opera (perhaps Tatiana's highest note sung) was so intense that, had I not been in a very public place surrounded by complete strangers, I would have burst into very messy tears.

Those of you who missed it, fret not: the Met has encored every opera so far, I think, and this should be no exception. You can find information on this and other movie theater broadcasts on the Met's website.

GO. Especially if you've never seen an opera. You will not regret it.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Not from around here, are you?

Johanna Keller, director of my graduate program, is herself a displaced Southern gal with roots in North Carolina. When she moved from New York City to sleepy Syracuse a few years ago, she found she was initially disheartened by the unremitting winter weather; but she and her husband soon learned to love the snow by taking up showshoeing. Realizing that many of the AJ cohort are not accustomed to such inclement weather, Johanna takes every opportunity to enthusiastically encourage us to love the snow. Love it!

This afternoon, I tried. I tried, and I failed.

Witness my feeble attempt at a snowman on my apartment balcony:

As you can see, I hit a few snags in the process. In my windstop fleece-gloved hands, the snow wouldn't pack properly into a spherical shape. This was easy enough to work around for the base and midsection of my snowman, but his head proved problematic.

I set aside my gloves and discovered, to my great delight, that it was much easier to make a tightly packed snowball between two bare hands. I affixed my snowman's head atop his body and lovingly wrapped a scarf of scrap yarn around his non-neck. So far, so good.

I had to work quickly, as I was losing feeling in my fingers. I shook out some Ghirardelli chocolate chips from the bag and attempted to give him eyes. His right eye took just fine, but the left refused to stay put, and any time I applied some force, a chunk of his face would fall to the concrete. Three tries yielded the same result. I moved onto the nose - a half-eaten baby carrot - which posed the same problem as his left eye. Every time I'd get his nose to stick, an eye would pop out.

At this point, I couldn't feel anything in my hands but the burning of extreme cold. Defeated, I decided to head back inside; but I COULD NOT OPEN THE DOOR. Did I seriously shut my sock-footed self out on a 12th-story porch just so I could build a mini-snowman friend? I cursed the sliding porch door mechanism - not a handle at all, but a 3/4" deep vertical groove, useless in times of a dexterity crisis. After about two minutes of blowing on my hands in my sweatshirt sleeves, I regained some feeling in my fingers and slid open the door to my warm, welcoming apartment.

All said, my snowman could certainly be worse. At least he has a complete body, and a scarf to keep him warm. Maybe he's just a pirate snowman, minus the eyepatch. Next time, though, I'm leaving the door cracked.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Adventures of Little Man

Tonight, my cat, Little Man, got himself wound up in a Borders shopping bag that hadn't yet made it to the Land of Empty Bags (aka my coat closet). For nearly fifteen minutes, I heard a persistent rustling from the other room, during which time Little Man evidently determined that he couldn't disentangle himself on his own. Head through the handle of the bag, he crept into the living room, parked himself nonchalantly by the coffee table, and waited for help to arrive.

Naturally, my first instinct was to laugh out loud, followed immediately by retrieving my camera. After a brief photo session (for my first foray into catblogging), I helped him out of his plastic bag predicament.

He certainly does carry it well though - doesn't he look like a superhero? It's almost like he did it on purpose. Now all he needs is a theme song. And perhaps some magical powers.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Restaurant Re-creations, vol. 2

In a previous dispatch from the NYC food field, I blogged about the unbelievable deliciousness that is Sylvia’s banana pudding. Well, thanks be to God and the Internet, because I was able to locate what purports to be the recipe of Sylvia herself with minimal reconnaissance work. Upon discovering said recipe, I got myself to the store as soon as I could to gather the ingredients. Given the proximity to February 14, I decided to make this a homemade sort of holiday and whipped up a Valentine’s batch of Sylvia’s banana pudding for my Puddin’. (Awww.)

Once you get past the alarming hue, it's really quite delicious!

To my great delight, I was able to replicate, more or less, the delectable dessert we devoured in Harlem. Since this restaurant re-creation recipe is not as readily apparent as the first, I give you my edit of the recipe I found online for Sylvia's Banana Pudding:

2 cups milk
4 tbsp unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1 cup sugar
½ tsp yellow food coloring*
1 tbsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp cornstarch
½ cup water
2 large egg yolks, beaten, room temperature
4 large ripe bananas
½ box Nilla Wafers

*(optional – and, might I add, NOT recommended unless you like neon food)

- Combine milk, butter, sugar, and vanilla (and food coloring, if using) in a heavy saucepan. Stir occasionally, until sugar is dissolved and milk is simmering.

- In a small bowl, stir together the cornstarch and water until cornstarch is dissolved. Stir cornstarch paste into the milk mixture and summer, stirring constantly, until thickened.

- Add the egg yolks and continue stirring constantly, one minute. (Tip: add some of the hot liquid to the egg before adding to the mixture – that way the egg won’t cook or scramble immediately when added to the simmering pudding and will integrate smoothly)

- Transfer to a bowl and cool to room temperature. Stir pudding occasionally while cooking to prevent a skin from forming.

- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice two of the bananas and arrange slices in an even layer in the bottom of an 8x8-inch baking dish. Cover with a slightly overlapping layer of about half of the Nilla Wafers. Spoon half of the cooled pudding over the layers. Repeat with the remaining bananas, Nilla Wafers and pudding.

- Bake until the top of the pudding is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Cool completely before serving. In fact, I’d recommend serving it slightly chilled. YUM.

But don't take my word for it - make it for yourself!

SNOW! Also, the best $100 I ever spent.

I walked to school today.


In the snow.

But that's where the similarities stop for me with the old parents' tale. (I only walked one way - a bus starts running past my apartment at 5 p.m. on Thursdays - and, thank the lord, I was not barefoot.) Much like running on sand, soldiering uphill through knee-deep snowdrifts with a shoulder bag full of books and a laptop is hard work, and I arrived at my 11:30 appointment eager to peel off my downy layers to get at least to the sweat-soaked cashmere underneath. Delightful.

Here's a taste of what the rest of my leisurely stroll campusward looked like:

Syracuse: where cars come to die.

Looking up the street toward the library. What, you can't see it?

Just as a reference, the snow would hit me a couple of inches above the knee...

When dealing with such inclement weather, it's important to be well-equipped. Two weeks ago, I bought these boots on a whim, because they were literally following me around town - I saw them on Marshall Street, then later that week at a Thai restaurant on Erie boulevard - and my previously purchased winter footwear was KILLing my feet. And what do you know, they were on sale at the shoe store near campus!


I can see now that it was clearly meant to be. Nobody in their right mind would go tromping through unplowed sidewalks (see first picture above) without a trusty set of boots like these.

It's a good thing I like them, because I sense that we're going to be spending a lot of time together.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Restaurant Re-creations, vol. 1

Pictured above is my at-home re-creation of Penelope's "Sam I Am," as described in my post of January 14. The combination of flavors was as felicitous as I remembered (though I think my execution could stand a little work).

If you've never had feta over your eggs before - especially with asparagus - I'd strongly recommend you try this at home. This is a quick, healthy, incredibly delicious dish that works any time of day. (Or, at least it does if you're a graduate student...)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Pop matters, indeed

Check out Jon's first piece on PopMatters - it was the lead review on Thursday when it went up. He's writing reviews for the site all semester (and likely beyond). I promise I won't do this every time my friends write something cool (after all, we are in a writing program), but felt compelled to post this one...