Cher Public

Cold “Case”

metropolis_caseFirst-time novelist Matthew Gallaway’s ardent love for Tristan and Isolde gushes through every page of The Metropolis Case. According to Gallaway, Tristan is the highest expression of human art, and the book functions effectively as the ultimate initiator in the cult of Wagner.

The novel opens with a lengthy discussion of the opera in the format of an email from an opera lover to a less-enlightened friend, and characters are forever discussing the opera, saying things like “You don’t ‘check out’ Tristan. You become it.”

This novel may be the fastest way for the average opera buff to join the high cult of Tristania (or whatever you want to call it.) Unfortunately, this novel is also a work of fiction, and Mr. Gallaway fails to create a compelling narrative. Instead, the novel is a convoluted jumble of plotlines and events that leave the reader emotionally blocked off and confused.

The Metropolis Case follows four characters in different time periods as they struggle to marry their love of art and music into their lives. Martin is a HIV-positive lawyer in 2001, facing what seems to be a mid-life crisis triggered by September 11. Maria is a tall, awkward teenager with a glorious singing voice in 1970s Philadelphia, struggling to fit in with her peers and family as she begins her trajectory towards Julliard and stardom. Anna is a dramatic soprano whose Met debut as Isolde in 1960 sparks an affair with a passionate opera lover. Finally, Lucien is a young singer in 1860s Paris, whose passion for opera and wealth of talent leads him to great heights before personal tragedy threatens to cripple his career for good.

Although these characters seem to be unrelated, there is a “twist” in this seemingly naturalistic novel which I will not reveal. However, any opera fan familiar with Janacek can probably guess the twist from the novel’s title, especially after mysterious characters with the same initials begin to show up in different time periods.

Gallaway sets so many pieces in motion that he winds up having to dip into melodrama to keep the reader guessing. Not one but two sets of parents get killed off in contrived accidents. A hackneyed interracial love affair in the seventies is for some reason included that’s more of an after-school special than anything else. Death is such a frequent contributor to the leading characters’ agonies that you find yourself waiting on who the next one to get knocked off is going to be.

What’s worse, the approaching deaths are so obviously telegraphed that it becomes a countdown to when the unlucky supporting characters finally bite it. Great historical events are thrown in: the premiere of Tristan, the Franco-Prussian war, the death of Maria Callas and of course, 9/11. None of these, even the last, which occurs in a moderately effective dreamlike passage, stands out with any great importance. They are just more events for the characters to suffer.

Martin’s sections of the book are especially heavy in suffering, although almost none of it happens in the present. His segments are frustratingly thick with flashbacks—in the first third of the novel, all he does in real time is drive to work—and even as he watches the twin towers fall it’s a cue for him to rehash the destruction of his marriage. Nothing ever really happens to Martin, and his slow journey through his own memories contrasts too greatly with the other character’s action-packed lives.

The most rewarding section was Maria’s. As she makes the transition from teenaged misfit to driven young singer, Gallaway pours his passions into her and the book is most exciting as it describes her tremendous talent. Unfortunately her pursuit of romance is less successful, both for Maria and as a plot device.

Lucien’s segments in the past are interesting but problematic due to the number of names Gallaway drops. Pauline Viardot, Hector Berlioz, Manuel Garcia (the famous pedagogue) and Wagner himself all appear, but none are ever developed as characters. They show up, chat about music for a bit, and then disappear. How an author can include Richard Wagner, one of the most fascinating and larger-than-life figures in history, in a novel and not develop him as a character is beyond me.

In fact, apart from Maria’s self-sacrificing adoptive mother, none of the supporting characters is ever really developed. The principals fall in love with ciphers, befriend two-dimensional caricatures and they have sex (a lot of it) with cardboard figures. Gallaway seems interested only in his four protagonists, and every other character in the book suffers as a result.

I suspect being a lover of Tristan might help the reader (I consider myself a Wagnerian, but I’ve yet to succumb to the pleasures of that particular opera) but really, the fault lies with the author. It feels like Gallaway, a first time author as noted above, bit off more than he could chew. In attempting to juggle four plotlines rather than one, he disservices all of them, leaving this reader unsatisfied and uninvolved.

  • Will

    I’ve never particularly enjoyed sex with cardboard, although other materials have had their charms on occasion.

    The idea of it makes it seem like it coulda beena contenda. Shame it doesn’t all come together, particularly fueled by the philosophically and physically erotic substance of Tristan.

  • Camille

    Hey Cieca!! Could we start up our book club again which you so valiantly tried to get going last summer, and maybe with this book? I mean, we’re snowbound and need to do something to combat cabin fever. Please, reflechissez-vous!

  • RRnest Thesiger

    A cinematic treatment of T&I is the recent Italian movie “Il compleanno,” released on DVD as “David’s Birthday,” directed by Marco Filiberti, who among other things used to be an operatic baritone — he sang Don Giovanni at the Hamburg State Opera about 20 years ago. His only previous feature film was “Adored: Diary of a [gay] Porn Star.” The protagonist of “Il compleanno” is straight and married but falls in love with the David of the (English) title, the son of his best friend, with deadly complications. Gay love is used, deftly I think, as the last taboo that can be used to represent forbidden love in the manner of T&I. There are several familiar faces among the actors, but David is played by a Brazilian fashion model, making his debut in film, who distinctly resembles Michelangelo’s David:

    The last previous cinematic incarnation of the story worth recounting was Cocteau’s “Eternal Return,” though James Franco starred in a recent version that attempted to tell the actual story, complete with costumes, battles, etc.

    • operaqueen

      I second the recommendation of the Filiberti film. I loved every minute of it and the two leads best described in two words: YUM ME.

  • Pelleas et Melisande @ Most Addictive Opera

    The over-the-top and even cringeworthy moments in a few passages of the Act 2 love duet in Wagner’s ‘Tristan’ most definitely disqualify it as… “the highest expression of human art” in my book.

    (And I say this as someone who still finds Wagner to be the most satisfying of all composers)

    • Batty Masetto

      P&M, speaking as another long-term Tristan fan, I think I know what you mean about cringeworthiness, if you’re referring to the labored, opaque word play. Or rather, I thought I did, till we watched what Chéreau does with the scene. For the first time -- after literally decades of what I thought was familiarity with the work -- I realized that these two people are seriously trying to work their way through an existential dilemma that words can’t really touch. Tristan’s recurring “das kann ich dir nicht sagen” suddenly became really central: this most verbose of operas is in part about the (failed) effort to say the unsayable. Maybe it took a French intellectual, used to wading through high-flown gobbledygook, to clear away the underbrush and get down to the real discussion here and realize that the failure of expression is itself expressive. (Whoa, am I beginning to sound like one of them daft French intellectuals myself??)

      • Pelleas et Melisande @ Most Addictive Opera

        Batty,

        Yes, that’s it. But also musically. The disappointing passages don’t amount to a lot though — less than two minutes at the most during just the beginning of the duet… If those moments were merely ‘dull’ I wouldn’t be complaining. It’s the fact that musically they seem ‘overwrought’ and a bit hysterical… (if that’s the word)

        (Needless to say, the remaining 3 hours and 58 minutes in Acts 1, 2 and 3 are musically flawless)

        And as ACDouglas said:

        “But for all the overflowing and substantial riches he did give us, we cannot help but forgive him….”

        • It is said (by which La Cieca means she is too lazy to look it up) that Wagner did have in mind some smaller projects including touchups to Tristan Act 2 once he’d recuperated from the strain of staging the first performances of Parsifal, but he had only a few months of life left by then. So it’s possible that the Meister might have recognized exactly the problems you recognize.

          On the other hand, imperfection in music offers the stage director an opportunity…

          • Batty Masetto

            It’s what, in another context, Camille so insightfully called “wabi,” La C.

          • Camille

            Hi Cieca, babydoll! I hope your snowplows have arrived.

            As it happens, I was just studying some pertinent facts on Tannhaeuser the other day — Cosima notes in her diary, not to long before he died--same year anyhow--that “Richard says he ‘still owes the world (another) Tannhaeuser'”.

            Okay, Dick dicked around with that score so many times, the Dresden, the Paris, the cosidetto Viennese, versions. Maybe,since he once actually contemplated coming to America--I think to Minnesota or somethin’--well, maybe we would have wound up with the “Lake Woebegone” Tannhaeuser, featuring a bunch of lonely, lutefisk-sodden minnesingers with the Venusberg at the Mall of America.
            Maybe we are just as well off without it!!!!

            We are listening Bach harpsichord musick at the moment and it lends itself well to hibernation und schnee!

          • Pelleas et Melisande @ Most Addictive Opera

            Very funny, Cieca.

            Seriously, there are very few musically flawless operas in my opinion.

            Only Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron’ (prime candidate in my book), Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ Wagner’s ‘Gotterdammerung’ and Strauss’ ‘Elektra’ come to mind…

          • celmo

            Totally off-topic but going crazy looking for a recent posting that had a number of Bach links from members of our group. Any assistance would be appreciated.

      • lorenzo.venezia

        Amen. It’s a brilliant and revelatory production, especially with Waltraute.

  • NYCOQ

    Maybe if La cieca suggested abook that we actually wanted to read the book club thing could work. My suggestion again: OF LENA GEYER.

  • NYCOQ

    or: CRY TO HEAVEN.

    • Camille

      That’s too scary, NYCOQ! I am so scared of Vampires and I am mighty afraid one would pop out of that story, so I put the book down one night, and did no more read therefrom. …

      • La marquise de Merteuil

        Dear Camille,

        Cry to Heaven is about a Venetian aristocratic castrato in ottocento Naples. It being Anne Rice, expect a lot of hot castrati action -- and I’m not talking about their singing… (The relationship with Raffaelle left me hot and bothered for weeks after reading the book … I wish someone would make a movie of it … )

        • Camille

          Ciao Marchesa!
          Yes, yes I know that ’cause I started to read it but I remember not getting past something gruesome, like castration, in the first part and so I abandoned it. Now I’m sorry I did!

          Anne Rice is the Vampire Chronicles lady, is she not? Well, I thought for sure she would stick a vampire in the Vatican and scare the bejabbers out of me.

          I unearthed a book in a pile hiding behind something called “The Masque of the Gonzagas”by a Claire Colvin, Arcadia Books which I also picked out years ago, I see, at the late and bitterly lamented Joseph Patelson Music House (RIP). Lots of hot+blooded Gonzagas and much imagined Monteverdi goings-on. I think I’ll finally finish it!

          Anyway, happy new year, Marquise, and may all your operas be ottocento and all your orgasms operatic!

          • La marquise de Merteuil

            Dear Camille,

            Thank you for your well wishes and I hope you have a good time too.

            If you ever read the book you must get the recording of A Scarlatti’s “Il Giardino d’amore” -- my fav serenata the version with Fassbaender as Venus rocks -- as the chapter with Tonio singing with the Marchesa is memorable. As well as his Roman debut …

            I will have a look out for the Masque of the Gonzagas.

          • Camille

            Chere Marquise — just what is this Scarlatti “Giardino”? I am not allergic to him as I am to Vivaldi, so I maybe will check it out, eventually. I am more partial to Scarlatti piano pieces, which I do adore.

          • La marquise de Merteuil

            Dear Camille,

            A Scarlatti wrote many operas, oratorios, cantatas and serenatas as you know. But of these I love this serenata the most. It is also called Venus and Adonis. Venus is an alto and Adonis a high coloratura soprano. The Adone of Catherine Gayer is incredibly well sung and why she did nto quite join the ranks of Donath and Grist is beyond me -- I believe she is a rhinemaiden (?) on the von Karajan Ring. The serenata is about an hour long and has some of the most heart-stopping, deeply romantic music for both characters.

            There are only two recordings of this work. The Fassbaender one which despite the unHIP interpretation is wonderful. And a HIP, but dreary version:

            http://www.amazon.com/Giardino-DAmore-Scarlatti/dp/B000004C9U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1293586196&sr=8-1-catcorr

            I have both copies and would be pleased to share them if you cannot get hold of them.

          • Regina delle fate

            Ah -- Il giardino d’amore with Gayer and Fassbaender! Gayer was my first ever Lulu -- the short version -- in the Deutsche Oper production originally premiered by Evelyn Lear and Dietrich F-D (recorded under Böhm for DG). It was at the Edinburgh Festival and I later saw her Lucia in Berlin. She also sang Hilde Mack in the premiere of Elegy for Young Lovers and was a stalwart coloratura at the DOB. American soprano, I think. Has that Giardino d’amore ever been released on CD? There was also another Scarlatti cantata a due on Archiv, Endimione e Cintia with Reri Grist in the male soprano role and Tatiana as Cintia. I had both of them on LP but they’ve long disappeared. Fabulous singing even if they probably now sound old-fashioned.

          • Camille

            O, grand merci, chere Marquise!!! and thank you so much and so kindly, cara regina delle fate, for your remembrances.

            It sounds marvelous indeed, and I will seek it out and let you know what I feel about it, and more to the point, be asking you a lot of wearisome questions.

            Scarlatti was the composer for Queen Christina, or was he not, when she was in residence in Rome? I may have this mixed up.
            I am trying to learn a little more about him, something beyond Ruggiadose odorose, sweet though they may be, and so I thank you for your generosity. There is nothing so wonderful as to find a new work, especially now, late in my life.

          • La marquise de Merteuil

            Dear Camille and Regina:

            The Giardino was released on CD but disappeared very quickly. I have a good sound copy from an LP.

            This cantata is by Alessandro -- whom I do not know enough about, despite having sung a rather taxing role in one of his operas. The new cd Colori by Kermes sheds a lot of pleasurable light in previously unrecorded arias from his operas and a serenata (in which Farinelli sang.)

            I can also recommended the unHIP baroque duet album of Marsalis and Kathleen Battle -- has any other leggero sung with such grace and beauty of tone -- despite a few white tones around the top C area? Her “Mio bel tesoro”gives me goosebumps just even thinking about it!!!! The “Su le sponde del Tebro” is another gem on this recording …. Ah I could go on forever!!!

            But let’s not forget that all this is a folly, as Beethoven was the first composer to write real music with an emotional impact…

        • NYCOQ

          Or at least a 2-parter on HBO or Showtime.

  • scargo

    Best book I ever read about Wagner/Tristan/philosophy is “The Tristan Chord” by Bryan Magee. (Magee not only talks about Wagner, but also explains Kant quickly and clearly!).

    • Batty Masetto

      Yes, that book’s definitely a keeper, scargo.

      • Camille

        I just rediscovered this present to my husband from a few years ago, a day or two ago and was contemplating reading it. So thanks for your opinions.

        There is another book called “Death Devoted Heart”, which I started some years ago and didn’t finish, which could possibly be of interest to some. Can’t remember author or publisher but if we keep cleaning out the library, maybe I’ll find it.

        • Camille

          Book’s full name: “Death Devoted Heart — Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde”. The author is the most excellent Roger Scruton. dunno publisher, maybe Nerva Nelli will fill us in on it.

          Okay, this is now getting serious. For New Year’s, my resolution list is going to have a subdivision on: Books I’ve Picked Up to Read, or Intended to Read, but Never Quite FInished or Gotten Around To.

          CAN’T WE HAVE THE OPERA BOOK CLUB? Put Oprah out of business?

    • La marquise de Merteuil

      And then a luittle OT is Di gaetani’s : Penetratintg Wagner’s Ring available at:

      http://www.amazon.com/Penetrating-Wagners-Ring-Anthology-Paperback/dp/0306804379/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1293578758&sr=8-1

      One reviewer writes:
      Until recently, Wagner’s ring has been difficult for most of us to penetrate. Access to his darkest area has traditionally been restricted to those lucky few capable of maintaining strong, determined strokes of scholarly investigation.

      Happily, DiGaetani provides everyone -- including the most intellectually well-endowed amongst us -- with the tools needed to effortlessly prize apart Wagner’s ring and plunder its forbidden contents. DiGaetani’s main thrust shows that perseverance and a firm-hand are all that is needed to enter Wagner.

      Oiled with this literary lubricant, you will find yourself repeatedly sliding deep into Wagner’s ring until a satisfying climax is reached.

      The reviews at Amazon.co.uk are the best…

    • Straussmonster

      If you are very, very interested in Tristan, Eric Chafe’s recent “The Tragic and the Ecstatic” is an essential read, but it’s dense and difficult going in several of the chapters--read with a score open next to you.

    • lorenzo.venezia

      An indispensable book, I think. He had me with Schopenhauer’s assertion that only two things in human experience approximate the experience of the thing-in-itself: sexual orgasm and opera.

      • Camille

        I’ll drink to Schopenhauer’s Assertion!

        • Batty Masetto

          Maybe we could make “Schopenhauer’s Assertion” another of our catch phrases, like “Yes. But what about the conductor?”

        • Batty Masetto

          On second thought, maybe not. That experience of the thing-in-itself sounds like it might be a bit messy.

          • Camille

            Just what IS that thing in itself!

          • Batty Masetto

            I think it might have something to do with belly dancers.

          • lorenzo.venezia

            Everything that isn’t the thing-for-us :-)

          • lorenzo.venezia

            yes, but since you can’t comprehend it, you will merely experience it as an orgasm at the opera.

          • Batty Masetto

            Ah, as I thought, then. Messy.

          • Camille

            ‘Ding als sich’ ± ‘thing in itself’.
            Kant.

            I like Schopenhauer’s Assertion more.

          • oedipe

            The thing-in-itself for Schopenhauer was DEATH. Enjoy your reveillon everybody!

          • Batty Masetto

            I always thought “Das Ding an sich” would be a great title for a triangle solo.

        • lorenzo.venezia

          “The composer reveals the innermost nature of the world, and expresses the profoundest wisdom, in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand… Music expresses, in an exceedingly universal language, in a homogeneous material, that is to say, in nothing but tone, and with the greatest distinctness and truth, the inner being, the in-itself, of the world. (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation).”

          “Because music does this it has unique expressive potential in conjunction with words and with drama, and therefore in opera. ‘It gives the most profound, ultimate, and secret information on the feeling expressed in the words, or the action presented in the opera. It expresses their real and true nature, and makes us acquainted with the innermost soul of the events and occurences, the mere cloak and body of which are presented on the stage…’ Specific examples of this cited by Schopenhauer include Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which he describes as one of ‘the most perfect masterpieces of the very greatest masters,’ and Bellini’s Norma, which he calls a tragedy of extreme perfection.”

          Schopenhauer: “If I am asked where the most intimate knowledge of that inner essence of the world, of that thing in itself which I have called the will to live, is to be found, or where that essence enters most clearly into our consciousness, or where it achieves the purest revelation of itself, then I must point to ecstasy in the act of copulation. That is it! That is the true essence and core of all things, the aim and purpose of all existence.”

          Magee: “In other words, orgasm in not only the ultimate experience, but a quasi-mystical one that carries us to the very centre of life’s mystery, even if, in the nature of things, the experience of it is a very short one compared with the the sustained transports of the mystic” [or Tristan ;-) LV]

          culled from Bryan Magee, The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy

  • operaqueen

    “I consider myself a Wagnerian but I haven’t yet succumbed to the pleasures of Tristan und Isolde.”

    Huh? There are so many contradictions in that statement one hardly knows where to start.

    • Baritenor

      Okay, Operaqueen, let me explain what I mean in greater depth.

      I love Wagner. He is my favorite Composer other than Mozart (or at least he’s tied for second with Puccini). TANNHAUSER and HOLLANDER are on my most played list on my Itunes (Gerdes’ and Dorati’s recordings, respectively, and I own several others of each opera). I own multiple ring cycles (Solti, Bohm, Goodall, Sawallisch and Krauss, as well as the Levine, Boulez, Barenboim and Zagrosek DVDs and several other recordings of the individual operas) and this summer attended my first full cycle in Los Angeles, an experience I’m planing to repeat next year in San Francisco. I consider myself a Wagner lover. If there is another definition of “Wagnerian” I’d love to know what it is.

      HOWEVER, every time I have attempted to take in TRISTAN, it has defeated me. I do not have the capacity to take in a full recording of the work in one sitting, and the second act, to me, is a sheer endurance test. I hope this will change. If I have an oppertunity of seeing TRISTAN live, I will gladly take it (well, depending on the singers, I guess…) and I fully expect the experience of seeing a live performance will help my understanding of the opera a great deal (it worked for GOTTERDAMMERUNG). For now, however, I look at TRISTAN as a beautiful but overwhelming opera that needs to be seen live to appreciate properly.

      Any contradictions there?

      • NYCOQ

        What I love about the cult of Wagner (and I am a member) is that they have somehow convinced the world that you have to LOVE everything Wagner ever produced. Baritenor its ok to not like Tristan. I have never for the life of me understood people who torture themselves with things that they don’t like.

        • Baritenor

          It’s not that I don’t like Tristan, its that its too intimidating.

  • rysanekfreak

    At a local thrift shop, I got a paperback mystery called “The Bantam of the Opera” by Mary Daheim. I don’t care about the plot (a short fat tenor comes to town to sing in “Tosca” but ends up dead at a bread and breakfast) or the cover blurb (A cantankerous tenor waddles into town--and there’s murder in the aria), it’s the title. I love that title! I don’t even need to read the book. I’ll just keep reading the title!

    • Camille

      Well, for moi-meme, I love the ‘short, fat tenor ending up dead @ a bed and breakfast’. There IS a god, after all!

  • Camille

    oh. I finally read this review. Tristan meets Makropoulos Case? Just how in the world is that ever going to work out, eh?

    The James Franco Tristan is worth having only if you enjoy licking the screen of your computer for the yumminess of James Franco, who, as yet, had not got it into his head that he was ACTUALLY Allen Ginsburg. Guess he is trying for an Oscar?

    • Baritenor

      “Just how in the world is that ever going to work out, eh?”

      Uh…not that well, really.

  • Baritenor

    In the interest of full disclosure:

    Because this is a new novel, I do not wish to dissuade too many people away from it. I did not care for this novel, but I have always found that people can have vastly different reactions to fiction.

    I am also a far from experienced book reviewer, and I did not have time to read the book as carefully as I’d like. So, as protection against looking like an idiot if you actually like this book, I’d like to stress that this review is solely my opinion, and ere are a few links to reviews that are much more positive.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/28/books/28book.html?_r=1&ref=bookreviews

    http://amoslassen.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/the-metropolis-case-a/

    http://www.curledup.com/mtrocase.htm

    • Baritenor

      *here

    • mandryka

      Your point . . ?