Saturday, November 7, 2009

Philip Glass in Portland/Sheets of Rain

From Thursday on , we were warned that a big storm was heading to Portland from the coast and that we could expect two inches of rain. Well the rain came on Thursday night where it could little harm. Beau and I managed to walk to the doctor's office for more therapy on my shoulder on Friday morning. It was a beautiful day and stayed that way until we settled down to have a late supper in a restaurant in Portland's trendy Pearl district after the opera on Friday night. And then it poured. But first...

The big news was that Philip Glass, one of the most accessible of "classical" composers was here this week in advance of the opening of his 1993 opera, ORPHEE under the auspices of the Portland Opera. Based on the celebrated film of Jean Cocteau Glass's libretto is set almost verbatim to Cocteau's screenplay. This is Cocteau's version of the famous Orfeo legend which has been the subject of many operas before, most notably Gluck, Monteverdi, and Jacques Offenbach. I arrived at the Keller Auditorium where the Portland Opera performs and was dismayed to find myself in an all-purpose auditorium that seats nearly 4,000 people. Crap--it's a barn like the Met in New York, but the Met has superior acoustics. Worse, Glass has written a chamber opera, which means it had no business (other than the depressing mandate of finances and corporate sponsorship) being presented in such a huge space. So Glass's adaptation of Cocteau's film is swallowed up in the vast surroundings of the Keller barn. All sense of intimacy was robbed from the piece which is based on a staging for the much smaller Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York.

Cocteau's interpretation of the famous story gets complicated and in the midst of Orphee's trials to bring his dead wife back from the Underworld--TWICE--he manages to fall in love with an enigmatic spirit from the Underworld named The Princess. In the end, not only is Eurydice restored to Orphee, but she's also pregnant. Cocteau it seems is not to interested in explaining how such a loving husband can love another as many of the adaptations have suggested. According to the program notes, Orphee, who is a wildly celebrated poet, has sold out for his conventional life, which stifles his creativity and originality. So we get Cocteau's fascination with immortality--"the relationship with between death, mortality and art."

This is the first of three operasthat Philip Glass set to a Cocteau film--the others being La Belle et la Bete and Les Enfants Terribles. Most of the important music here has been assigned to the orchestra and the first act takes some time to get going. Or course Glass is famous for his repetitive sound pictures, which can be hypnotic, and there are lots of spikey, jazz-oriented tunes assigned to the players while the singers are assigned short, enigmatic phrases that go nowhere. Only in the second act with the love duet for the Princess and Orphee does the music really take on a mesmerizing, soaring quality. There is also a nice aria for Heurtebise, the Princess' chauffeur, who has a crush on Eurydice. Overall the singing was expressive but not very memorable. Ryan MacPherson's musically contoured tenor has an individual timber and he was consistently interesting to hear. He's also a fine actor. Lisa Safer, a veteran soprano I've enjoyed hearing New York and Santa Fe, has a light but penetrating sound, and she looked good in her full length fur coat. She did well in the duet, but her singing is not memorable. Philip Cutlip made for a handsome Orphee, yet his baritone lacked color. Georgia Jarman's Eurydice's provided a smooth and attractive soprano who should have had something more to do than sulk. The reduced orchestra was under the lithe baton of Anne Manson. Still the size of the house mitigated against the orchestra's ability to make an impact and much of the effect of Glass's intricate and undulating music patterns.

I had dinner this week at Belly Timber, a Victorian slang expression for "food of all sorts," which is not too far from my home on SE Hawthorne and 32nd Avenue. This good looking restaurant is housed in a gorgeous yet understated Victorian house on the corner of Hawthorne and SE 37th Avenue. The restaurant has a spare interior with stripped down decor--no tablecloths and very simple china and flatware. The menu is spare and consists of foods from the Pacific Northwest, but the cocktail list on offer is substantial. The chef has previously cooked at Merriweathers (a beautiful restaurant with so-so food in the NW area of the city), Nostrano and others. For wine we chose a Cotes de Ventoux while we perused the menu. Belly Timber offers small plates but we were interested in a simple dinner. We selected a good salad of mixed greens with thin slices of pear and toasted pumpkin seeds. The lemon and oil dressing was perfectly balanced. My friend ordered the steak with smoky french fries. The fillet looked beautifully cooked but it was the fries "what done us in." These crunch, starchy golden fries were very lightly dusted with smoked paprika, giving them a smoky flavor. They were addictive.

I wanted to try the pan-roasted cod with bits of cooked octopus, on a bed of fennel puree with a sauce of blood orange--a solid dish. On a Wednesday night, we wondered why the restaurant didn't have more patrons--I guess it is a sign of just how bad the economy has hurt this area of the country.

My reaction to the outstanding food scene in Portland is the sheer consistency that is on offer here everywhere. Even in a lowly greasy spoon you'll find more quality of ingredients and a level of skill in food preparation that would be hard to match in most American cities. Does it reach the sublime highs that a great restaurant in New York can achieve night after night. Maybe not. But I haven't eaten a bad sandwich here and you can be served some terrible sandwiches in New York. The food cart scene is livelier here than in any other city I've been to, with carts offering a wide variety of exotic fare. I've only been to one restaurant serving high end dining and it was very good (Sel Gris) indeed. But Portland restaurants have a lot to be proud of.

Last night I had company over for dinner. I was testing a recipe from a forthcoming cookbook by one of my favorite cookbook writers--Michele Scicolone. Unfairly she is best known as the writer of THE SOPRANOS COOKBOOK, which was a bestseller. I've been collecting her books since the late 80s when her ANTIPASTO TABLE was published when I was at Morrow. Her recipe for roasted cauliflower made me rethink vegetables entirely. The new book is THE ITALIAN SLOW COOKER, where she applies her considerable skills as an outstanding creator and interpreter of Italian recipes to the popular slow cooker or "crock pot" machine. I had one of these devices in the 70s and adapted many of my own recipes to it with considerable success. But at heart if I'm looking for an easy way to enjoy these slow-cooked dishes, I prefer the faster method of the pressure cooker, which is equally effective. But if Michele Scicolone is aiming her energies at the slow cooker, I'm going to pay attention.

I made her Beef in Barolo on Saturday evening, which was a resounding success. Using a three-pound chuck roast, I browned it in olive oil, and then sauteed onions, garlic, before adding a cup of red wine (I had an open bottle of Shiraz--Barolo is just too expensive and it was okay with the author), and bringing it to a simmer. The recipe required a cup of beef broth, two cups of crushed tomatoes, a sliced stalk of celery, some sliced carrots, salt, pepper, a bay leaf and a pinch of clove and six hours of "slow cooking." Fall-off-the-bone tender, it was excellent with oven roasted potatoes, green beans with lemon zest, and a blueberry tart to finish the meal. This is an excellent start to a fine collection and if you have a slow cooker, this is a good cookbook to have.

Back to the pretty much poured for most of the weekend. Saturday it didn't get started until around 12:30--just as I was getting out to do some marketing for Saturday night dinner guests. I walked to the market, and as I left Trader Joe's the heavens opened up full blast and by the time I got home, I was thoroughly soaked. It continued to rain for most of today, stopping long enough for Beau and I to sneak out for a quick walk at 3:30. So we stayed inside where it is very warm and toasty. Tonight we're settling in for a final episode of Season three of Mad Men. It's been a dismal season of Dancing with the Stars (what stars--I think I'm rooting for Donnie Osmond!), and Top Chef was a snore. I snuck back to network TV and discovered Glee, which is a huge amount of fun and there's lots of performing to admire in between it's clever plot. The other surprise show for me has been The Good Wife, with the estimable Juliana Margulies as a lawyer who goes back to work for a big Chicago-like law firm after her DA husband is sent to jail. Was he set up? In the midst of this, the wife is forced to live the nightmare of watching her husband's sexual indiscretions revealed and has to go through the humiliating process of "standing by her man," as their married life falls apart. She at least had a high-powered career before she got married. Rejoining the workforce, she's a junior associate in a big corporate law firm where she's on cases that have a lot to do with an over-zealous ADA who may or may not have been a big competitor to her husband. Is her husband giving her insider information? The show has strong writing, and it far more involving than your standard legal drama these days. Chris Noth plays the disgraced husband cooling his heels in jail while his wife now brings home the bacon. The cast has additional depth from the wonderful Christine Baranski who plays one of the firm's senior partners, who may or may not feel threatened by the arrival of Marguelies. The show's first season is well worth your time.

This gorgeous orchid was found at Fred Meyer for $9.95! And this Buddah guards my backyard garden.

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