PBS unmasks 'Giovanni'; 'Panda Baby' enlightens

Television can do a lot for the arts when it wants to - although few networks want to. This week, PBS does more than its fair share with the introduction of "Egg: The Arts Show" (see story, page 14) and two excellent films - an adaptation of a devilishly clever Mozart opera, "Don Giovanni Unmasked" (Great Performances, April 6, 9 p.m.) and a fascinating documentary about George Segal, one of the great artists of the late 20th century.

George Segal's influential plaster sculptures, expressive paintings, and charcoal drawings reveal layers of truth about daily human experience. As he says in the film, George Segal: American Still Life (throughout April and May, check local listings), "Daily life has a reputation for being banal, uninteresting, boring somehow. It strikes me that daily life is baffling, mysterious, and unfathomable."

Perhaps best known for his sculptures, Segal evokes compassion for his subjects without condescension because we identify with them and empathize.

Segal used plaster casts made from friends and family to create tableaus such as lonely figures sitting in iconographic American environs, like a subway or a diner. His public art could be fierce, as with his Holocaust memorial, consisting of a single survivor gazing out through barbed wire as several figures lay strewn in the background. Segal has also made sculpture reflective of religious concerns - for example, Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac (which became a memorial for the Kent State University shootings), or Hagar and Ishmael in "The Expulsion."

But even as his work addressed so many of the concerns of our time, he did not participate in the cynicism of post-modernism. "I don't think he had much in common with Pop, except that he used found objects," says filmmaker Amber Edwards in a recent interview. "I don't think he was talking about materialism or mass production; he made everything by hand. It's not about art as commodity."

The director has gone to some length to provide a full historical background of Segal's era - the postwar effort to spread democracy is reflected in his obsession with common humanity.

Edwards has captured Segal's sense of purpose, his integrity, and his humanity in her captivating film. It's not merely an homage or a memorial (Segal died last June) because there is nothing sentimental about the picture we get of him. He was thoughtful, widely and profoundly educated, and something of a "mensch."

The filmmaker wants to give the public a glimpse of how Segal saw his own work. The sculptures in the studio are arranged so they are all relating to each other, she says. "So many people have trouble with contemporary art.... But anyone can get something out of George's work. If you know more about art, you can get more."

She refers to the many art-historical references in his work, from Michelangelo to Cezanne to Mondrian.

"There are all these levels and wherever you are in your perception, you can find something.... He gave such dignity to people in his work," she says. "He was so accessible, so real, and yet such a marvelously wise person."

* * *

Where the Edwards film is all realism and honesty, filmmaker Barbara Willis-Sweete's take on Mozart is deliciously artificial. Fully employing the prodigious talents of Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, she has him play the naughty Don and his servant, Leporello. If the idea of opera on TV seems dull, think again. Don Giovanni Unmasked is magnetic.

The persuasive premise is a film-within-a-film. The trickster Leporello is director, producer, and star of the film-within-a-film. As the story opens, Leporello narrates the film (set in the 17th century) in a 1930s screening room, where the cast of the opera watches in color as the Don's story unfolds in black and white.

"It's a look that can only work on TV and not on stage or in a movie theater," says Ms. Sweete, a trained musician.

She says that she got the idea to cast Mr. Hvorostovsky in both roles when one singer dropped out at the last moment and no other baritone of his caliber was available. "Leporello is a coward - and he's self-righteous. He's really Don Giovanni's alter ego." So it made sense for one man to play both parts.

"Viewers expect realism on TV," she says. "So I wanted to be as artificial as possible. We wanted to make it surreal - Frankenstein-ian - so we got rid of every vestige of realism. We used a strange, painted sky that has a German Expressionist element. The strange curves and angles come across as diabolical."

Everything she tries works wondrously. Many fine plays have been adapted for TV this year with excellent results, but this is the first opera to really make the leap. Yes, it's idiosyncratic, but it's also lively, fresh, and eminently watchable.

* * *

Turning to the realm of "Nature," the often excellent science series on PBS, Panda Baby (April 1, check local listings) records the history of quite possibly the cutest animal on earth.

Endangered pandas are losing their habitats - the bamboo forests of China - as more and more humans clear the land to till the soil. Still, scientists are waging a heroic struggle to save the bears.

Little Hua Mei was the sixth giant panda to be born in the United States since China presented the National Zoo in Washington with a pair of bears 28 years ago. The first five died within a few days, but scientists at the San Diego Zoo saw to it that Hui Mei survived.

They struggled to learn not only about breeding but about panda parenting in order to help mother Bai Yun, on loan from China, nurture her baby. Some of the medical details can be explicit, but the story of these mysterious and fascinating creatures is amazing.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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