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Archive for the ‘mozart’ Category

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup re-named Plat when a slave (Twelve Years a Slave, directed Steven McQueen, screenplay John Ridley)

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Jay Morris Hunter as Ahab (Moby Dick, San Francisco opera production, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer)

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday and in the wee hours of the night I watched two movies I’d like to recommend not missing if you can help it. Both much worth immersing yourself in — thinking about in the case of Twelve Years a Slave and allowing the alluring beauty of the mood and music to bring you in with Moby Dick.

From what I hear other people say to one another, Twelve Years a Slave is misrepresented in ordinary talk somewhat. Since “word-of-mouth” retains its importance in making for a popular movie hit, I’m hurrying a little to write about Twelve Years. If seen by enough people, it could function (mildly) as Uncle Tom’s Cabin once did — this time to help against racial discrimination and racist thinking so prevalent in the US still. People have told me in some areas the film has not opened so maybe I’m precipitantly worrying the film will not be a commercial success. In my area it did open in our local art cinema; the owner rejoiced at getting two prints but it’s already in Theater 4 (smaller and not for continuing hits) and not many people were in the audience yesterday after only a week; and among these were a number of black people, so not many whites in the audience. This theater is not one black people go to much; it’s in an area that’s mostly white, upper middle and attracts art-film audiences. For The Butler I did have to go to Theater 4 but it had been playing for weeks and weeks, all summer in fact, and still the theater (4) was filled and it had a preponderance of white people. The Butler crossed the racial divide. In a nearby theater to me which has large black audiences The Butler was sold out on and off for weeks, long lines of black people waiting to go, early on and then the whites joined them.

Scuttlebutt (or what I’m told or read by friends) is how violent and hard to watch it is. It’s not non-violent and not easy to watch but not because you are shown excruciating torture or close-up shocking violence, nor is this perpetual or at all gratuitous. The violence wreaked on slaves that we see is precisely what will subdue and cow them (not nothing because it’s harsh and includes implicit threats of death), the beatings shown at a distance as (horrifyingly to decent emotions) par for the course, the ordinary routine of treatment for slaves. The coerced sex scenes (on the slaves Patsy played so effectively by Lupita Nyong’o) by the master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinder who does steal the movie) are not all that much different from what I’ve seen of half-rape type scenes in (soft-corn implicitly hard sex) movies which don’t name it that. The woman just lies there and lets him.

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Patsy asking Plat to help her kill herself

What’s memorable about the scene so many reviewers have mentioned of our hero, Solomon Northrup renamed Plat (Chiwetel Ejiofor) where he’s hung and will die if he does not manage to keep his toes on the ground is how everyday it is, how slaves walk by him unable to help him, how the whites watch and do nothing, and how the supposed “good” master (Bernard Cumberbatch as Master Ford) only comes to cut him down late at night lest he irritate his central over-seer. Ford gives him a violin but will not behave towards him as if he were a human being whose life matters.

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Plat rented out to a man who allows him to keep the money he’s paid for his violin playing

Twelve Years a Slave (based remember on a 19th slave narrative, a type or sub-genre) increased my respect for Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (essentially several slave narratives interwoven into a middle class type white novel) and watching it helped increase my respect for that nowadays somewhat under-rated book. It has the same attributed flaws — in the sense that there is a reductive quality, a melodramatic exaggeration going on continually so really the charge hurled at Simon Legree that he’s a monster and no one could be that bad and if he were he’d be an exception can be hurled at Epps.

James Baldwin would not like the way Plat is presented as sheerly noble and insofar as he can be good (see “Everybody’s Protest Novel”); he is not an Uncle Tom; he does not justify a(the character who does this who is popular now is Mr Carson in Downton Abbey) or suck up in his case in the face of horrible mistreatment, but he is an innocent as the film opens. When Solomon is lured to the south, it’s obvious that the two men luring him are crooks; they are over-praising him; he is a simpleton in the scenes. Master Ford as a character is better with his well-meaningness, and his inability to keep Plat, whose opinion Ford consults, thus whose abilities arouse the resentment-hatred of his over-seers slave-servant safe is believable, but numbers of the scenes are too obvious, he won’t help Plat for real, regards Plat as property he must sell to keep his debts down so our moral lesson is clear.

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Cumberbatch as the religious ethical man Ford nonetheless showing intense cowardice and lack of real understanding as he briefly explains to Plat why he sells him to Epps

But would such a man sell this man to Epps whom he knows is cruel, sadistic. Epps played as nearly psychotic and seemingly driven by guilt to be even crueller. The central parallel of the two works (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the film Twelve Years) is this half-crazed white master. Epps is a Simon Legree and his wife a female version. But you do (Stowe and now McQueen) want to make sure the audience gets it.

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Sarah Paulson as Mrs Epps riping off Patsy’s ear and taking a chunk out of her cheek with a knife (in Dickens’s Travels in America he easily exposes slavery quoting the ads for finding escaped or “lost” slaves by the scars they are said to have)

Gets what? the key to the film’s power and importance is we see what happens to people who lose all status all caste worth – and in the case of chattel slavery this is reinforced by law which defines them as property. If they should be owned by a mad-man he is allowed to do as he wishes. The point is what law and custom allows. Sure in the Islamic world most men are not ogres, but the Koran and custom allow horrific treatment and power corrupts. People will use power if they are given it even when not as obvious as Legree or Epps.

The film is relevant to us today because today people lose a great deal of status and caste worth depending on how much money they make, the schools they go to, where they live, if they are broke — and worse, if they are immigrants or of a different racial color than the powerful. I was reminded of a book I recently reviewed on global emigration in the 18th century, enforced diasporas, and mass murder, Hodson’s Acadian Diaspora, where the point was made that safety for the average non-powerful non-connected person depends on staying where you are, among relatives or friends and people whose truth or falsehood you can gauge so not be cheated utterly to your destruction with no recourse in courts not made for you. See also David Denby on Twelve Years (from the New Yorker) as best movie on slavery made in the US thus far.

It seems to reflect a book too: there are intriguing sequences which are not part of the plot-driven movement: a group of Native Americans come to dance before the black slaves as if their culture is what slaves will understood. Other curious moments.

The one real flaw in the film is the ending as has been suggested in reviews and conversations I’ve heard. Not so much that Brad Pitt as Bass (a major contributor of money as a first-named producer) gives himself the role of our one abolitionist talker, and the only man to keep his faith with Plat.

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Brad Pitt as Bass actually listening to Plat (with exaggerated courtesy)

Plat before this trusts a white overseer who seems to be his friend with money in return for taking a letter to the post office to send to the north to reach friends to help him in court; the man tells Epps so immediately that the man does not have the letter as evidence and Plat manages to persuade Epps (not too bright) that he man is lying:

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Half-mad man

The story is improbable Plat persuades Epps, and then we watch Plat burn the hard won paper and writing he did so laboriously with home-made ink and quill.

Bass is a hired architect, an outsider and he does get in touch with authorities up north and friends of Northup — at considerable risk to himself if he’s found out he says.

The flaw begins with how easy it is for the friends to show up & take Northup away. Why did they never look for Northup before? Well, it is true that people were terrified and a reign of terror worked down south (Harriet Martineau’s travels in America books record this) but then it should not have been as easy as we see it for the men to take Northup away Epps should have shot him, would have. We are then not shown the court scenes that would have been another 2 hours but that would have been original and interesting — so let’s hope for a sequel? I doubt it.

The least real moment is the return of Northup to his family. He looks just as innocent and sweet as when he set out. Not haggard, not worn, not much changed at all. His black family is improbably prosperous throughout yet seem to have no connections to anyone black or white outside themselves. All subside into joy in a circle. Plat-Northup keeps apologizing and that makes psychological sense.

I compared the final scene to some photos I’ve seen of Primo Levi when he first returned from concentration camp,haggard, exhausted, not the same ever again. I wondered if a man dragged from freedom to slavery wouldn’t have the same hostage symptoms, the same urges to self-murder and sense of deep humiliation not to be gotten over. We get intertitles to tell us how Northup wrote and published his book in 1853 (Twelve Years in Slavery, and how he worked hard for the underground railway. So he stayed in the US I thought.

But then this quietly ominous final intertitle: no one knows how or when he died or where he is buried. Maybe murdered?

The central performances of male roles as everyone has said are stunningly good. I’ve already named the principles.

As a woman watching I had though to endure the annoyance of women being presented one-dimensionally throughout — except for Patsy the girl who becomes Epps’ concubine; who he beats, who picks heroic amounts of cotton each day — so she is never whipped for under-picking as others are. The two white mistresses are basically either phlegmatic and do nothing (that’s their role) or spiteful: Sarah Paulson Mrs Epps loathes Epps and tries not to have him in her bed, to leave him but he threatens her too – she is a form of his property too (this reminded me of Valerie Martin’s book that won the Orange Prize, Property); Mrs Epps is as sadistic, as sick as her husband, hates Patsy and hurls hard objects at her, knocking her down, cuts her face and ear cruelly, will not let her wash herself so she flees for soap and is gone for a few hours which leads to a horrific scene of Epps beating her and then forcing Plat to do it.

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The scene’s reality for the era (keeping clean was difficult) makes one feel it comes from the book — as one of Indians humiliating themselves by dancing as white people expect

We see one black woman who has become a white man’s open mistress: she is fatuous, self-centered, looks down at other blacks. I don’t say these are not human impulses but that’s all we get of these women. A black woman weeps incessantly because parted from her children; another forces herself sexually one night on Plat.

So it’s masculinist movie — Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-39 depicts the terrifying work load and sexual exploitation and cruelty wreaked on women — and their complicated humanity too. And Kemble as mistress identifies with them and within 4 years leaves her husband — she must leave behind her children to do it, only regaining the friendship of one of them in much later years. Such a thinking upright brave type woman is not in the film.

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Which brings me to the opera of Moby Dick where (like Master and Commander out of the Patrick O’Brien books) where no women are in the film — just remembered as embodying civilization itself.

The one women in the cast was playing the boy, Pip, who is almost drowned. Suffice to say it outlined the major hinge-points of the novel (as seen in a play originally with Orson Welles from the 1940s I once saw), and it brought out the meaningful themes: does life have any meaning? who is this haunted creature-fish and Ahab or Ishmael? they are lonely? Is there a God; if so, is he evil incarnate? The music was alluring, the lines resonant to larger meanings we can identify with through generalizations. Like all films it was made for today, with today in mind. The artwork beautifully picturesque:

The production did not emphasize the primal animal-fish (as did Winston Graham in his last Poldark novel, Bella) but human displacement, alienation. The production did seem to suggest that all would have been well but that the captain was mad. (That’s not the note of the Graham novels.) As I recall the book the thrust is all is not going to be well, never has. We see a dream life or men cut off from where they could know happiness as they are driven to make money in this dangerous occupation.

So I loved the deep melancholy of the men, their desperation to bring home some whale oil for money I see as part of human life. I bonded with the man who survives and calls himself Ishmael. He had wanted to go to an island with Queegqueg and live out our lives as best we can; I felt for Mr Starbuck who is nearly shot point-blank by Ahab, and almost shoots Epps on the way. There are the comic undercutting characters too.

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And he wouldn’t know, he was tempted

This novel centrally attacks tenets of Christian belief, from justice as always or often done, to stories of an afterlife. These are deliberately not love or dynastic stories. He wanted to be spared.

I bring them together because I watched them within 12 hours of one another, and was struck by the shared masculinity identification. For myself the plangent nature of the music, Ishmael as a person alone in this world resonated enough. I think Jim would have enjoyed the great range of the masculine voices they hired. The lines on the screen and wild waters as the ships turning out from lines, the wild waters — all pulled me paradoxically soothed me. The ending of the tale is tragic as is a good deal of life.

Friday nights on TV contain a revival of the old Great Performances which I remember from my childhood, watching with my father on the old Channel 13: Judith Anderson in Medea, a Chekhov play with a male character who lived in an attic with birds, a sad poet, a bitter absolutely perfect Twelth Night (so that’s what is meant), Peggy Ashcroft, Duchess of Malfi. Now a few weeks ago the four Henry plays, from Richard II to Henry V (and the actors and actresses were great from the extraordinary Ben Wishlaw as Richard (this was Shakespeare I thought — ever autobiographical in my reading), Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York, David Morrisey as Northumberland, Tom Hiddleston as Henry, Roy Kinnear as Bolingbroke become Jeremy Irons as king, Michelle Dockery (Yay!) as Kate, Hotspur’s wife, Simon Beale as Falstaff, (I saw David Bradley too), magnificently done.

I did not realize the new version allows you to watch a re-run (as it were) as a podcast.

Learning to watch TV, a little
Ellen

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And I am blown along a wandering wind,
And hollow, hollow, hollow all delight.”
And fainter onward, like wild birds that change
Their season in the night and wail their way
From cloud to cloud, down the long wind the dream
Shrilled; but in going mingled with dim cries
Far in the moonlit haze among the hills,
As of some lonely city sacked by night,
When all is lost …. Tennyson, Death of Arthur

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Rene Pape (Gunemanz), Parsifal (Jonas Kaufmann), Kundry (Katarina Dalayman)

Dear friends and readers.

I don’t want to say don’t miss Francois Girard’s production, for that would imply I fear it will disappear and be replaced by the ritualistic, militaristic Catholic-Christian over-produced (crammed set) bogus history-filled (through ceaseless stage business lest the audience be bored) versions I’ve seen. I wish they would vanish.

Nor do I want to over-praise a production the 2nd act of which presents women’s sexuality as evil, destructive, with scenery being a huge pool of women’s vaginal blood (well water, gliserin and food dye pumped in from behind a scrim), and all but one of the women standing bare-footed in the water with their wild long hair over their faces. They and Kundry were supposed holding long poles under a spell of the villain-dwarf, Klingsor (Evgeny Nikitin), which when broken, become spear-like penis weapons they seek to kill with.

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Yet except for this (a big except), Girard’s production reminded me of the way Arthurian literature has been allegorized in the later 19th century and our time — say Tennyson or Sara Teasdale (wrote as Guenever) T.S Eliot. I have read Chretien, Wolfram, Malory and at moments it reminded me of these. Of movies it was closest to Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. These stills from the 1974 film which belong to same kind of terrain:

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Bresson’s Guenevere

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Bresson’s Lancelot

At one level or its most basic, the Met HD Parsifal is an allegory of depression, of human kind living minimally in deep sadness over the crimes and wrongs everyone has committed, grieving over this. No endless stage business. So as so little outward action went on you had to be contemplative of the tableaux. If you make all the talk of evil and sin mean the violence, brutal exploitation and daily cruelty on earth, then it’s an opera for our time.

We were in the still point of the world, in the 1st and 3d act, the edge of planet earth which seems to be a wasteland, scorched. The costumes were meant to evoke a universal humanity: when Jonas Kaufmann came out in the 3rd act and looked up at the two other main characters on stage at that moment (Katarina Dalayman as Kundry and Rene Pape as Gurnemanz), with a soft, plain, vulnerable look in his face, his hair greyed, the worn blue jacket, ordinary black trousers or hobo-kind of clothes, and began to sing, it was the high point of the opera for me.

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He and all the others were people on the earth, Everyman, Everywoman, with little money. Men on chairs. Anti-luxury — that a blessing in opera whose houses have come to be imitation ancien regime or corporate palaces and whose sets are often celebrations of status, wealth. Acts 1 and 3 had the women in dark outfits with veils; Kundry had a glittering dress but it was not a luxury ball gown, more like a heavy overcoat-bathrobe:

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She matched the women at the edge of the earth:

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In the middle vaginal blood scene, she was in a white nightgown, failing to seduce the virgin-like Parsifal:

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Peter Mattei acted Anfortas, the man carrying the wounds of the earth, very well and did the difficult job of singing in the postures of a achingly crippled man:

Music Peter Mattei

There was no filler. No militarism. What a relief. The ritual carried out using black boxes and minimal chairs. Insofar as Francois Girard could, he eliminated familiar Christian symbols. This was not quite a pagan-earth grail. No one was clothed in “white samite, mystic wonderful” (line from Tennyson). Rather props seemed to come from a lot of used iron ware turned black with age.

I’ve read that Wagner meant this opera to be Buddhist and in Eric Owens (he was host)’s interview of Girard, Girard mentioned this:

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I know little about Buddhism so did not recognize the allegory out of the set and the actor-singers’ actions. Maybe Gurnemanz was the top Buddhist? I saw a parallel with Mozart’s Masonic Magic Flute. The Queen of the Night is all evil and her women her instruments; Mozart males in the temple are good, rational, as a community must keep apart from women and women be “tamed.” So this Parsifal emerged as rooted in the same thought & feeling system.

The beautiful singing and acting helped deflect the worse aspects of the allegory and symbolic scenes:

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It was frank. Again as in all these HD productions, for the first time I could understand the plot literally — even if in this one the action was enigmatic, not rational. As I wrote above, maybe using vaginal blood pools was over-doing it in the central act but now I see how the opera has sex with women as evil. It’s more than masculinist: women are shunted to the side; women face backwards; women are enslaved by their sexuality as controlled by an evil dwarf but it is their sexuality that is this great danger.

The irrationality of assuming evil in the world is mystic and irreparable (see Bob Dixon) was also offset by Kaufmann, as a man who acted so compassionately, lovingly, tenderly in very gesture by Jonas Kaufmann (the way he put his hands on Kundry’s head):

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Jim says he is every kind of tenor: Helden tenor, someone who can sing Werther. And his voice-character is so touching (a singer’s voice-character trumps his action-character in an opera).

No he was an “innocent” — the production preferred to translate as “fool” what should perhaps be better named naif (naive). And he was a seeker, on a quest maybe to find his true parentage and identity.

I did wish it were shorter. I found fascinating the scene changing behind the curtain really revealing — the hard work putting the flats together, the screen for lights to be reflected on, great big square boxes to pump blood in and swosh it out through hoses. Still, Wagner’s Parsifal as done by the Met is too long. Six hours including scene changes is too long to sit through. I admit I began to get a headache towards the end.

Ellen

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Elina Garanca as Sesto

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Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia

Dear friends and readers,

So we went to yet another of these HD transmissions of Metropolitan opera productions and all three of us enjoyed it so much that Jim and I bought tickets for next week’s Un Ballo en Maschera for the 2 of us (Izzy can’t come, going to an ice-skating communal watch event), though until every single Un Ballo we’ve ever seen has seemed an incoherent mess, and encore tickets (a second set) for 2 of us of Les Troyens because Jim bought before he realized there was an conflict with this year’s MLA (we’re going) and we don’t want to miss it (Izzy will see the first live broadcast on her own).

This despite the manifest hollowness — or maybe senselessness at the heart of the way this 1984 production was (and for all I know most productions are) done. The grandiose still fake stone set is dull, and so too the inanely sexless, or asexual costumes for the 3 central male roles, two sung by female mezzo sopranos, Sesto and Annio (Kate Lindsay) in short skirts and tights and boots, and one by a stiff lifeless tenor, Giuseppe Filianoti (his idea of acting is to make his eyes bulge out at you). The core is riveting and basically the whole of the opera: Sesto (an ambiguous female-as-male) loves Vitellia (an ambitious woman ignored by Tito who drives Sesto to try to murder him) and there is no self-abasing act, no sordid or encompassing terrorist deed Sesto will not do for Vitellia, including (as Sesto does in the opera) set all Rome on fire in an effort to murder Tito, the emperor.

As presently done this makes no sense. Why should Sesto behave this way? She is presented as so innocent and moral she might still believe in Santa. What’s needed is to have it made clear Sesto wants to have sex with Vitellia (it’s not even hinted), and Vitellia refuses Sesto, rejects her and will have nothing to do with Sesto unless Sesto murders Tito. Then the disdain Vitellia continually manifests would have some content too. Sesto must in other words be presented as an active masochistic lesbian (and her costume bring this out) with Vitellia as the sadistic part of the pair or at least sexually flexible on behalf of gaining power by marrying Tito (and satisfying him in whatever way) so she may become empress.

Much of the opera are extraordinary arias sung by these two women. In the first half Sesto driven wild by need and Vitellia the (misogynistic) female who is the nasty woman scorned. Fittoli plays the first half partly comically in order to deflect the sheet disconnect to Tito and Sesto — Vitellia in the production while dressed very sexually, or got up in one of these 3 yard wide gowns stiff with jewels, seems to have no knowledge of sexuality or how to manipulate it beyond the costume put on her (which she seems unaware of).vitelliaSestoblog

In the second half when Sesto has been caught and condemned by Tito because she won’t tell who put her up to it, Sesto is all abject before Tito, in rags, chains, worn sandals, but not because she wants to be used by him, no she seems to need to cling to him in his purple quilted bathrobe, at his neck a frilly lace cravat and brooch.

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Note the irons on her wrist, she drags chains about too — what could be more incongruous?

In this same second half Vitellia suddenly guilty turns up in the usual gothic white nightgown, extremely low cut. Tons of hair on her head throughout. Her costume is will do, just.

Tito right now is your Sir Charles Grandison without a sliver of self-awareness. Told by the young lovely Servillia (Lucy Crowe) in the first half of the opera she would rather not marry him, but prefers Annio, Tito immediately gives Servillia up as the right thing to do. Upon which we get this exquisitely poignant duet:

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Annio and Servillia

Annio and Servillia can stay the same: the thus-far chaste young heterosexuals, with the source of Annio’s love for Sesto not yet aparently to Annio (though maybe Sesto could understand). But Tito must turn up as a gallant hero, good as well as debonair (failing that self-deprecating drag?). Then we would know why Sesto yearns for him too, and why Vitellia cannot attract him, hard as she has apparently tried. I’m not sure there is anything one can do about the content of his arias, they are so hopelessly jejeune but the acting could be of a man mocking himself as he is torn with his need to be ethical while he confronts these women who have (to him rightly) inexplicably tried to murder him. Jim suggested the director, Calixto Bieito is up to it; he of a Carmen which is admittedly far too fussy, what’s wanted is something more in Claus Guth’s vein or Willy Dekker’s HD Traviato.

The opera is made up of extraordinary arias of exploration and display by Sesto of her emotional life, and by Vitellia of her a semi-comic and then plangent journey spite to overwrought anguish. On the side, intertwined in, the parallel Annio for Sesto, and Servillia for Vitellia. Think of it as the soliloquys by the major characters in long 17th century heroic romances based ostensibly on classical history. The chief character comes from classical history, Tito, reigned two years when he was killed, not enough time perhaps for him to become egregiously corrupt and malign. But all else is made up, a heroine’s text (woman centered) about private sex life.

Mozart keeps us at it and the paradigm is as tightly controlled and climactic as you might like. And the singers sang beautifully – especially Garanca. Her voice was beauty itself. Frittoli was as powerful as she had been as Elvira, Lucy Crowne has lovely tones, and Kate Lindsey may someday step into Garanca’s shoes. They kept the viewer and listener intent, absorbed in them while they sang and the camera kept close on them.

All else should be shorn away into large abstract symbols or re-set. Perhaps fin-de-siecle Europe, say Vienna, a cabaret, or everyone in art deco clothing, or surreal rock, anything but the still statues and hard-to-climb up and down steps that cover the stage. In one of the interviews, the hostess, Susan Graham did asks Garancia how she got up and down without seeming to look. Garancia said her boots were very good. Not slippy at all.

While hiring famous Broadway directors, set-designers, getting the most modern of technology going, the Met is still leary of growing up sexually or presenting these often deeply reactionary operas as underlyingly transgressive. As I watched the super-good Tito I thought of today’s world leaders, the Syrian and Israeli Prime Ministers, who appear keen to murder chldren, shoot up thousands of civilians point-blank (fish-bowl style), the US drones: the numinous awe of the production around Tito would not have been true even of the 1790s. Mozart surely had heard of the incompetent but tenacious Louis XVI, his emigre armies waiting to put back the ancien regime, and Marie Antoinette, and her ladies and jewels and the guillotine meted out to them. Citoyen Capet.

This is an 18th century opera, quintessentially so. The typologies, the aspiration, the symmetrical design. Tito is a good guy. We want good men. He ought to be presented in some way that makes him attractive. It’s apparently also autobiographical in that it was Mozart’s last opera written in his last hard year and he pours himself into it. But the 18th century need not be a museum piece. Made relevant, re-thought, sharply satiric (right now the dramatic ironies Mozart sets up just seem disjunctive with the blind characters), you might get full audiences. Today at the Hoffman moviehouse, about 1/3 of the seats were empty — well maybe a quarter. At the Met I could see the place was not near full.

Next week’s Ballo is one such re-thought opera; Les Troyens a new production. One may hope the latter has done for Dido what Catherine Clement would like see done for most opera women in her Opera, or the Undoing of Women (see “It’s not over until the soprano dies”). I doubt it, but surely we have gone beyond marveling simply at Vitellia’s duet with that saddest of horns and not looking to see how it is that Mozart passed beyond hell-hath-no-fury and chained women.

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After all this is an opera where at the close the women are not undone. They are all winners, whether in skirts or trousers.

Ellen

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The death of Dido

Dear friends and readers,

Sometimes we do go to live operas. And most of the time it’s one of the productions of Carla Huber’s In-Series, now in its 30th (yes thirtieth!) year. I want you to know how wonderful, original and daring this theater has been.

We were privileged on Tuesday night to be able to to go to a performance of the now over 200-year old chamber Baroque opera by Henry Purcell (composer) and Nahum Tate (librettist-poet): Dido & Aeneas, his abandonment of her taken from Virgil’s 4th book of the Aeneas. I think this may be the third time I’ve seen it: once downstairs in Vivian Beaumont Theater in NYC (a 1970s short-lived attempt to do small operas at the Met, Piccolo Met), once at the Folger, and now on just off U-Street.

This time the theater was so crowded, there was not an empty seat. I fear not everyone knew what they were in for. I heard one woman gong on about the interesting plot, and during the intermission someone behind me exploded with irritation because she was completely grated upon by the formality, conventions, music itself of this 17th century piece. She “had not expected this!” The second piece was a ballet by Manuel Falla, El Amor Brujo (Love by Sorcery), whose puppet show version of Don Quixote Jim and I saw at Castleton a couple of summers ago, Master Pedro’s Puppet Show. It was very still: basically we watch a woman’s nightmare enacted in front of her.

I suspect many in the audience were there for Carla — or because they go to her productions. She seems to know so many people, even recognizes us (or pretends to successfully). She is a miracle woman. Thirty years ago she quit a teaching post in music in a local college and started up this theater. Most women who do it (and women do it) leave off after a couple of years at most: Catherine Flyte ran out of money; you have praise that’s high and not many people come; it’s vexing and tiring and often thankless. Exhausting. She manages partly by devoting half her time to Spanish cabaret which brings in a popular crowd. But she does not compromise quality, taste, intelligence either in her higher culture or more popular ethnic productions. Sometimes the costumes and production design is clearly done on a shoestring budget, and she moves from theater to theater. But she sustains herself. Five Mozart operas where the libretto was rewritten to be modern and relevant. Carmen redone from Jose’s point of view.

This Dido and Aeneas was stylistically performed, beautifully sung, and the costumes lovely and appropriate, but (as we have before) we wondered if there is not a problem in the opera itself. Nahum Tate’s libretto seems to veer between sceptical slightly mocking comedy (subtly seen in the light-hearted witches) and the plangent tragedy of an abandoned woman. That Aeneas is given this hopelessly inadequate explanation for himself does not help matters in the sense of understanding the opera’s stance. Jim suggested that perhaps the origin of the first production explains the see-saw quality where sometimes you find something ludicrous in language or act and cannot be sure it was meant to be funny. Purcell did the opera for a school of young women (girls really) and wrote a moralistic “warning lesson” for them. Nahum Tate, fresh from the Restoration theater, with its ribaldry and misogyny made fun. Or perhaps it was the other way round.

Remarkable how many of these masterpiece-gems in the later 17th cetnury are plays written for schoolgirls to perform: Racine’s Athalie one example. Even more: how adult and grave the content can be.

Be that as it may (as they say), the music is exquisitely poignant in Dido’s famous lament. I embed a YouTube from Hampton court; do click and listen:

I know much less about Love Through Sorcery. It too places a forlorn woman at the center, but she is not a passive or accepting victim. The first version was a gypsy scene. Originally Candelas was a gypsy from Cadiz who goes to a cave to a sybil to ask the witch to conjure up her lost lover. As directed by Alan Paul, this version gave us a working woman whose lover has died, but she cannot rid herself of ambivalent memories. She works up the courage to summon him, and remembers good as well as very bad times in order to exorcise the demon from her soul. The piece included dancing by an alter ego, pantomime, much poetry. I suppose it was a ghost opera. By contrast, Falla’s Don Quixote episode was witty and pessimistic. Both modern disillusioned pieces.

An excerpt of the ballet done traditionally in a large theater:

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I asked the next morning on C18-l was there any literature, any secondary studies of this play. No answer cameth. But one friend said she finds herself driven wild by Dido: the play is so a male point of view.

The libretto is written strictly from a man’s POV … I, too, love the music -— Purcell was a musical genius -— our choir has sung some of his works [from his and Dryden’s “King Arthur”] and they were more fun to sing every time we rehearsed them). She was a queen! She’d get over that guy in no time flat -— I can’t stand Aeneas in this version. I just want to go up and slap her, shake her, and say “Get a grip, girl!” But that’s just me, most likely.

An essential source: “Stanley Sadie & associates, New Grove Dictionary of Music (‘Grove 5′) for reliable sources, mostly musicologists, on Purcell. (Purcell, one of my favorite subjects.)”

It is true that Purcell turns Virgil’s stoic male tale into one of the many tragedy queen operas to come. No different I suppose than many of our (by some) worshipped modern numinous stars and dead queens too (Marilyn Monroe dead at 33, Princess Diana), only more obvious. Think of all the Schiller based operas. A number of women poets wrote satiric responses to these tragedy queens, among them Anne Finch on Jane Shore (the play itself was political), Elizabeth Tollett on Anne Boleyn, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu on Mary Queen of Scots, to name but three.

So, gentle reader if you require an antidote to Dido’s lament, here’s

An Epilogue to a new play of Mary Queen of Scots [never finished], design’d to be spoke by Mrs Oldfield by Mary Montagu

What could Luxurious Woman wish for more
To fix her Joys, or to extend her Power?
Their every Wish was in this Mary seen,
Gay, Witty, Youthful, Beauteous and a Queen!
Vain useless Blessing with ill Conduct joyn’d!
Light as the Air, and Fleeting as the Wind.
What ever Poets write, or Lovers vow;
Beauty, what poor Omnipotence hast thou!
Queen Bess had Wisdom, Councel, Power
How few espous’d a Wretched Beauty’s Cause!
Learn hence, ye Fair, more solid charms to prize …

If you will Love, love like Eliza then,
Love for Amusement like those Traitors, Men.
Think that the Pastimes of a Leisure Hour
She favour’d oft — but never shar’d her Power.

The Traveller by Desart Wolves persu’d,
If by his Art the savage Foe’s subdu’d,
The World will still the noble Act applaud,
Tho’ Victory was gain’d by needfull Fraud.

Such is (my tender Sex) our helpless Case
And such the barbarous Heart, hid by the begging Face.
By Passion fir’d, and not with held by Shame,
They cruel Hunters are, we trembling Game.

Trust me Dear Ladys (for I know ‘em well),
They burn to Triumph, and they sigh — to tell.
Cruel to them that Yeild, Cullys to them that sell.
Beleive me tis by far the wiser Course,
Superior Art should meet superior force.

Hear: but be faithfull to your Interest still,
Secure your Hearts, then Fool with who you will.

and Anne Finch’s The audience tonight seems so very kind. Tollett is not so satiric because her Anne writes the night before she is to be beheaded, but she is far wryer, corroded than Tate and Purcell’s Dido. It is also fair to say that Dido has not been picked as a favorite tragedy queen by other men, and in women’s poetry is often used as a Penelope type icon: strong, individual, independent, and ethical, even if done in the end. Anne Finch identifies with this Dido in an autobiographical teasing poem to her husband, asking him to come home after a quarrel: A Letter to Daphnis at London

Not that I don’t love Traviata.

I digress in order to suggest some lines of identification and full context. for both Dido and Candelas (who might be seen as a quiet prosaic daughter of Merimee’s Carmen in the short tale).

We ate out in a nearby good small French restaurant and I had my first ratatouille in years. Washed down by Merlot. Jim a steak similarly washed down.

In January Carla will do Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito on Mozart’s birthday. Since Jim and I and Izzy are going this Saturday to an HD Met performance I’ll be able to compare. I’ll bet Carla’s is as good, and perhaps more relevant. Who knows? maybe the libretto will be one of her updated ones.

In honor of the In-Series and Carla Huber, apparently not a lamenting dying nor ghost-haunted lady.

Ellen

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Promotional image for Mitzi’s Abortion

Dear friends and readers,

I was saving up a few events from Capitol Fringe to make a third omnibus blog treating of four shows (See Midsummer … In Full Swing and Midsummer … Pinky Swear … Hamlet), but find that I now insensibly have somehow gone to five, never wrote about the final gala afternoon at Castleton and have another evening coming up, this time Alice in Wonderland “as conceived by the Manhattan Project under the direction of Andre Gregory.” Jim bought us what’s called bulk tickets (you get a discount this way) and we added on another, so when the 3 weekends are over, we will have seen 14! Thus I had better hurry up and write reviews thus far.

I’ve discovered the question people ask genially, concisely, is, Which are your two best? Of the five we’ve seen since I last wrote, we’ve seen a small dramatic masterpiece, a play done with hardly any props or costumes, just the actors acting their hearts and bodies out: Elizabeth Heffron’s Mitzi’s Abortion. It’s this play that prompts me to write this blog as I hope it will eventually gain a place in the American repertoire. If I include the previous 5 Capitol Fringe events, the second finest original work I’ve seen was Andrew Simpson’s Outcasts of Poker Flat. The finest adaptation of a classic, Hannah Todd’s Hamlet. A great cabaret group (without trying to compare to others): Pinky Swear.

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The Young couple

Mitzi’s Abortion takes the over-wrought attitude towards abortion that has taken over the public media: the young woman who finds herself pregnant, Mitzi (brilliantly acted by Natalie Cutcher) begins by quietly doubting whether she wants to go through with this pregnancy, as it is truly inconvenient in every way: the father, Chuck (also done expertly by Christian Campbell, who alternates as an expert at a podium lecturing to us on supposed phases women go through when they are pregnant) is about to be deployed to an American war abroad somewhere; they have little money, are not married, don’t live together, the list goes on. By the end of the play, when she’s had a late term abortion (which is presented as if it’s done on a 16th century birthing stool when it’s not) of a fetus which developed in a deformed manner so it is an anancephalic non-viable entity – that is, the baby if it could survive, would be without a brain; but of course it could not as it lacks a vital organ to run a human body, when she’s had a late term abortion, I say, she saves what we are told are its bones, has these cremated and is determined to hold a funeral. She sits over this box weeping hysterically.

I half-think or would like to think that we are not simply to identify with what this girl has gone through, now feels and thinks and has become. It’s obvious she’ll never get pregnant again. She breaks up with the father — on very good grounds. In contrast, when told she is pregnant, he begins with absolute joy at this proof of his masculine prowess, a sign of just how powerful his penis is and how effective his sperm, with no doubt “they” should go through this pregnancy. (I’ve seen this use of the third person plural pronoun before — my view is the pragmatic real one: he’s not pregnant, she is.) He moves to horror at the news of what these technological tests have to say, to saying how he doesn’t blame her at all and she’ll do better next time, and maybe she needed to take better care, to demanding she carry this dead entity to term. There are other contrasting voices. Towards the end Mitzi’s father (John Kevin Boggs) is overheard telling older male friends how years ago these were women’s issues, men didn’t get involved, and he just overheard his mother going off for her “fix” (abortion) and coming back and nothing was said. She went for two such fixes, didn’t die and the family was spared all this. It’s implied that she did suffer but was also freed of nature’s cruelties and injustices. Mitzi’s mother (Elizabeth Richards Bailey) is humoring her daughter at the funeral; “whatever” you want, I’ll do to help you through this — as she did the abortion, bringing magazines, sitting with or near her daughter the whole time, no matter what berating talk the daughter aimed at her.

But I half-think not since the play dwells so insistently on this idea there’s a baby inside this girl and she begins to take on an attitude that its fate is more important than hers and her grief is treated with such dignity and serious gravity. As I watched her with that little box, I remembered (as perhaps some other women in the audience did if they have had such experiences and miscarriages are very common), my miscarriage which turned into an abortion to save my life (I was bleeding to death in a small Kendal hospital), and how I asked what caused the miscarriage and what had been done with the fetus. I was told by a British nurse that often these miscarriages are “nature’s way” of “washing away” something that was not developing right and not to worry about the fetus; it had been disssolved in the blood and was gone. I remember feeling sad but also relieved. When I was under the terrific pain of the miscarriage, I had one thought: get rid of this pain, make it stop, and they did or had.

The play included a scene with an insurance agent (Louise Schlegel) who tells the doctor the insurance people will not pay for a termination as that is not allowed. No abortions. But they will pay for care of the anancephalic baby as it lies dying, which it must. She says she hates these rules, but there they are. She suggests to Mitzi that had she not been attached to a machine to test the fetus, Mitzi would not have known anything was drastically wrong (except she had stopped gaining weight as she should have been), had the nearly stillborn baby and then it would have died. So go ahead and do that as the cheapest easiest thing.

Easiest? walk around for 3 months with a dying or dead thing in you; just then it was continually kicking as a frog would.

Mitzi’s mother goes to her church (improbable place to go, but for her to defend her daughter against this group’s prejudices was part of the point) to beg for $10,000 to cover the termination. The doctor finds a way around the rule by redefining what he’s doing (this may have been improbable) and they go through with this termination.

The play has much doubling. Louise Schlegel also plays a 16th century midwife who just turns up on the stage — a dream figure. Her arms are covered with blood scars. It seems she was burned at the stake as a witch. She did in her time try to help women abort children too. Barbara Ehrenreich has written a historical pamphlet, persuasive, arguing that huge numbers of the witch trials were ordeals inflicted on women who worked as health professionals in effect, sometimes midwives. They were blamed and by the 17th century a ferocious attempt was made to stifle them and replace them with men and institutional control of women.

John Kevin Boggs also plays Aquinas who gives us the church’s positions over the ages, contradictory. His soliloquys were filled with ironies and very funny.

What we are shown is a deeply morbid self-destructive culture. Everyone who is not a professional dresses in rather poor clothes. Entertainment is Esperanto meetings, going to fast good joints; they shop in supermarkets whose array of food choices (and magazines) is depressingly meager. Their choices are limited by their range of understanding. Chuck argues that Mitzi has no right to try to spare herself since he cannot spare himself in whatever country he is deployed in. Killing or being killed is clearly not what he would have chosen as his life’s work to have a salary and place.

I fear many leaving that theater would simply have identified with Mitzi and not realized that she was driven to bring this on herself by all the cultural artefacts, economic and social pressures, deluded norms that shape her every thought. Heffron’s play is really also a portrait of contemporary US life.

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Sean Pflueger as the father with his son

Not the worse done, but the worst show I’ve seen thus far was the horror opera Jim and I saw Saturday afternoon, Sean Ffleuger’s Children in the Mist, an adaptation of a short story by the best-selling gothic-horror writer, Stephen King . We were told it was an abridgement even though it took 2 hours and was at times tedious and repetitive. Jim said the music was “uninteresting,” and when I reminded him that to me Philip Glass’s music seems endlessly repetitive, he said it wasn’t, but subtly nuanced and continually stimulating. I know Pflueger’s music felt dull and didn’t arouse me to nervousness and distress the way Glass can. It reminded me of other contemporary American operas we’ve seen in that the centers were were not individual soliloquies, but rather everyone singing apparently meditatively, a huge folk ensemble, only it did go on making me restless (while I feel I could never tire of listening to Copeland’s music). The language was demotic, very short kinds of sentences one might hear in a supermarket or drug store. The only general statements were about God and how one must live for one’s children.

It was not the music or even lack of intelligent utterance that made the opera pernicious. Rather it was the story and characters and meaning. If (as I think she meant to), Elizabeth Heffron exposed the wretchedness and delusions fostered by our cryingly (egregiously) unjust social and economic arrangements, rules, reinforced by the way we use our machines, this one made that sickness into reality that we as people cannot escape, one engineered against us by mysterious forces we can call God. It was a sick experience. I turned to ask Jim what he thought. He came out with the word “sick” first.

We probably should have left, but I was curious to see if the play had anything intelligent or redeeming about it. I had read with my students this term 3 chapters of Bob Dixon’s Catching Them Young. One of these is an analysis of popular fantasy and supernatural stories given to children: he shows these are 20th century versions of the worst aspects of religious allegories, starting with Pilgrim’s Progress. Evil is a mysterious force; people are bad, sinful and deserve to be punished; the way they can atone for what they are is passivity and obedience to their authorities, especially the Godhead. Then when they die, they are rewarded partly by escaping a violent hell. He only included authors like C. S. Lewis, Tolkien (yes), Ursula Le Guin, Madeline L’Engel and the syndicate creations like Star Trek, so I never thought about books for adults. Now I know something of why Stephen King appeals.

I could say that poor Mitzi and her family would certainly have found copies of Stephen King at their local Safeway. As Dixon says, how can such a book teach you anything helpful in getting through life with some fulfillment? There was no sense in this opera anywhere that the explanation for the evil mist enveloping the town and killing people as if they were being painfully electrocuted could be anything but God. Half the people stuck in a supermarket cling to a woman who rants over her Bible, but the other half have no argument against this half when they refuse to succumb to hysterical praying. They just look irritated and try to flee the religious fanatics; this is the best Pflueger can come up with.

The opera’s climax includes the most violent and stubborn of the religious fanatics trying to kill those seeking to flee the situation. Many die, four escape. The four get into a station wagon that is soon out of gas, so our chief hero turns around and shots them dead with a gun. (Of course everyone has guns.) He is not left standing, oh no, a military soldier suddenly runs in and tells him, all is under control and he can return to his apartment now. We are to take this as a kind of relief. All clear go the sirens.

It put me in mind of the way Muslims pray five times a day. The stoges who work for and in the American theocracy were before me. The composer had the chief role in the cast. I noticed a few people left at intermission and the applause was not strong. However, in the audience near me were some “big” people in the festival who put on plays and act in them and they appeared very proud. The auditorium was pretty full.

Best and worst? One could say Pflueger is contemporary. Two days before we saw Children of the Mist, there had been this huge circus at an Aurora cinema where thousands gathered at midnight, taking their small children, to see another supernatural fantasy about good and evil with lots of killing, only to be interrupted by someone with real powerful weaponry (intended for wars) who massacred as many people near him as he could. Children in the Mist is the weak pablum sold to the minds of the people who go to such movies, those of them who do read.

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What else have we gone to at the Fringe? In the Company of de Sade, written and directed by Timothy R. King. This was actually very preachy — as is Sade. The cliched story of a group of people trying to put on a play was the core of the plot-design, and the players came out individually to tell us their sad histories of unemployment, despair, or high dreams of an acting career. There was especially at the opening obligatory transgressive sex not so much enacted but suggested symbolically. The basic text was Sade’s Philosophy of the Boudoir, and what we really saw was people bickering with one another over their discomfort with the roles they were expected to play, the conditions of employment and some of their own dreams of self-esteem, who they are.

The play is interrupted by a “Christian” woman with a gun (she had only this one pathetic gun and yet it was formidable as it could kill or wound others quickly) who loathes “free sex” and our atheistic society. Bit of black humor here. She rants and raves and finally the actors jump her and she is killed by accident. But at least silenced. Everyone is discouraged and the rehearsal ends for the evening, leaving on stage only one actor who appears to have read Sade, be sympathetic with his libertarian and anarchist ideals and the actress who has befriended him. They are left alone and lonely by this body. Curtain falls.

Had the actors not been directed to try to entertain us by becoming so loudly argumentative or amuse us by self-denigrating jokes about sexuality in general or their own, it would not have been bad. I suppose in the context of the two plays I’ve gone over in this blog the characters on the stage were at least not self-destructive, tried to keep calm and through Sade’s story and words presented complicated political ideas and the quirks of human nature driven by need, vulnerability, self-delusion. I think the play could use more work.

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Maazel owns a huge swathe of land in Rappahannock

Two musical shows and one — what shall I call it — dud. I enjoyed both musical events. Jim and I discovered that when we went this past Sunday to what looked like a long program of “bleeding hunks” (Jim’s terms for this), famous arias, scenes, moments from famous operas, we had stumbled on (or least I had for I didn’t realize this is what we were going to) the graduation recital of the whole summer school. Every single young adult aspiring singer and all the young adult musicians were there, and, under the direction of their many teachers, in the lovely festival theater Loren Mazeel’s money built, they put on a smashing show.

Number after number of some of the most moving, witty, subversive, and traditional single arias, duets, trios, several singer-scenes, and two powerful monologues took about 3 hours of performing time. They began small with lighter pieces (“Cinque … dieci” from Le Nozze di Figaro), the transition was one of Jim’s favorites, Rossini’s Duetto buffo di due gatti, two young women singing miaow and hissing and making cat yowl sounds to invigorating music, and we ended with final scenes from Don Giovanni (Jim predicted the powerful baritone young man singing Leporello would indeed have a career as his voice has unique feel and range, was memorable), Eugene Onegin, Der Rosencavalier. I realized it was a graduate recital (like Isabel had only she was the only one to sing for two hours) when I realized most of the audience were parents and relatives and the young people were going home this afternoon or tomorrow.

I have increasingly ambivalent feelings about Castleton. In-between the acts, we walked onto his terrace and looked out at his 600 acres. Nearby the most picturesque of gardens, a place to boat, a fountain, all sorts of employees everywhere. We are invited to come partake of this man who is indeed representative of the 1%. He is filthy rich. He does good things with his money but because he and others have so much, the people of Mitzi’s Abortion and Children in the Mist have so little. The tickets are not cheap to Castleton and I often have the feeling of invading a particular’s man’s house. Each year the arrangements for refreshments and snacks are different; not everything is announced to everyone (games of exclusion and inclusion played). He decrees what he wants to share and what he doesn’t. Jim mentioned that Mazeel was wrong not to have subtitles or surtitles for the gala. He has the system in place. He has more money coming out of his ears than he knows what to do with. He has rebuilt the theater in the tent three times. Was it that he or his employees just couldn’t be bothered? It would have been a lot more enjoyable to me had I known what the words for in each scene. I was not there as a “proud” family member.

I rejoice for the strong heathly excellently fed dog I saw trotting along side Mrs Maazel (well fed herself, much much younger than her husband, an ex-actress) but the rest of us are called upon to take positions just to eat and have shelter whose central purpose is to protect this place, this man’s wealthy, it’s asked that we give up our lives doing bad, corrupt or just foolish things to keep this establishment going.


Pam Ward singing Somewhere over the Rainbow

Izzy came with us to this summer’s contribution by Carla Huber’s In-series folks: an evening of song by Arlen and Berlin. Jim didn’t chose the events we went to because they were in keeping with one another and would enable me to write a coherent blog, but it does turn out this way. Whoever chose the songs stuck with depression era cheer. While at first it was indeed spirit-uplifting to listen to songs like “Let’s have another cup of coffee” (another piece of pie), to be asked to smile, smile, smile did become enervating. There was not enough plangency and when the evening ended with the singers holding up signs saying that they still believed in the American dream, to a chorus of “God Bless America” this was too much.

Tellingly, it was tamely done. We needed more “The Man that Got Away” and less “I love a parade.” Fine poignant moments were the irresistible (nostalgic) “Over the rainbow” and “Last night when we were young.

Well, what was the dud? If gentle reader, you are still reading and remember my references? the one-woman show we saw last night on a (foolish) impulse it turns out: Monique Holt called her far more than one hour performance Men don’t Listen to Naked Women. She did sign that line but it had no thematic shaping. We found ourselves in a show meant for deaf people; Holt signed everything and a man spoke the language for the sign-impaired. It seemed to me she was taking advantage of the enjoyment deaf people seemed to be having of a performance done in sheer signs. She didn’t need to have a real program (so to speak). It was slapstick, with occasionally superficially innuendoes; she made comedy out of people who smell. I noticed the couple of times she even came near something controversial (like the banks being bailed out to the tune of billions and not yielding an inch to stop foreclosures), she punted; she hesitated and seemed to sign how she wasn’t really angry at what had happened. It was a contentless hour. Did she think her audience doesn’t have any information?

My two worst (another version of this question people ask one another under the Baldachinno tent), if I take the previous 5 we went to into account, was this Men Don’t and Madame (the lame musical about Helena Rubenstein at least had a reasonable story, was trying to show something of the woman’s life and character). Men don’t show cost us more than usual as we didn’t buy it as part of our bulk.

What happened was we did miscalculate time intervals. After Mitzi’s Abortion we had a lovely yummy meal in a Chinese restaurant on Chinese restaurant row, which is near the center of the Fringe where the ticket booth and the baldacchino tent are, and the two shows we had bought for. We had egg rolls, a single eggplant claypot we shared, beer for him and white Riesling wine for me. But there were more than two hours in-between and we thought we might get bored sitting in the tent and I can’t walk that much and it was not that cool anyway. Turned out we would have done better to sit said tent which was at the time right next to a repeat performance of Pinky Swear. We could have heard it clearly and drunk more Prosecco together.

Next time we’ll know better and stick with our planned choices. Four more to go.

Ellen

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Cast of Outcasts of Poker Flat (composer Andrew E. Simpson)

Dear friends and readers,

Every year I know we are well into “middle summer” when our Capital Fringe Festival begins. It’s been going for six years, and this is the fourth year we’ve attended. From July 12 to 29 from late morning to late night performing arts shows are done across DC, from plays to musical concerts, to films, solo artists to bands, in all sorts of venues, chiefly inexpensive ones (sometimes without air-conditioning where the building has been condemned). A comforting note for us occurred when Jim showed up to buy our tickets. He was first on line, and the chief woman organizer, Julianne Brienze, came out from her office, and kissed him, welcoming him by name (“Jim!”). We (Jim and I) may never have won one of these attendee awards (the Washington DC performing arts community gives out awards to the most devoted theatergoers), but we are apparently recognizable (last year we were probably an unusual spectacle of middle-aged people dancing at the last concert of the summer’s nights) and I know I recognize other hard-core audience members. Like Alan, who was second online and for $300 buys a ticket which covers all shows.

The festival began on Wednesday, but we were still in NYC so did not start until Friday evening when we went to Andrew Simpson’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat, a one hour chamber opera based on Bret Harte’s famous short story.

The story is a tragic poignant piece. Like other “classic” 19th American century texts given NYC children to read in the 1950s-60s (at least in the NYC schools I attended), Harte tells of characters traveling in the vast wilderness to find or to build some kind of new life for themselves, becoming stranded in an inclement place with no food and no shelter, and after a considerable struggle dying. (Think o f Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth which was assigned to a class I was in during 10th grade.)

What makes Harte’s different from those assigned in my school is the major characters are not the usual respectable middle class types, and they are angry and resentful at how they are treated by others. After all, they too are struggling to survive and those who pretend to more piety are just luckier. Two prostitutes, a gambler, a drunkard and thief, and the two normative lovers (innocent, meaning well, but poor) are our protagonists. Still they do betray as well as support one another. The tragedy is partly brought on by Uncle Billy, a drunkard and thief who steals their horses. Not enough food, freezing cold, successive snow storms do the trick. Harte’s story is told by the gambler, Oakhurst, who kills himself; the opera is equally divided between the characters who all have an aria (or so it seemed to me).

They called themselves The Timberline Players who do American and modern operas. The composer was at the piano dressed as a bartender-attendant (he was called “The Professor” as he is one) of the 19th century, and played with real feeling. The young singers were very good — the singing was strong and felt full and resonant. They have few costumes and props so have to convey their content through their gestures, and simply costume changes. It was a moving mesmerizing hour in a church assembly room. I liked how the characters turned to one another, and gradually it was clear there was no real difference between the women called whores and the newly married woman.

Most events are no more than one hour, and time inbetween shows is not long so you could get to see three weeks worth of shows, 5 a day.


The courtiers (chorus) with our heroine, Desiree (Julia Hardin)

On Saturday we drove to Rappahannock, Central Virginia, to Castleton Festival, to see Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, inspired by Bergman’s film, Smiles on a Summer Night. (Sondheim based his Passion also on a film rather than the 19th century novel the film was adapted from.)

If you go over to the website, you will see that the Castleton festival hosts and provides training for a group of exceptionally gifted graduate music students and everything done is by these students — except perhaps leading the orchestra, directing the productions, fund-raising and the like. For the first time I saw a real weakness in the group: it was due to the engimatic and over-the-top noble opening of the Sondheim’s, with characters modern ambitious 20 year olds may not be able to connect with. A trio is sung where the older hero wishes to be able to have sex with his wife, the young wife wants to put it off, and the man’s son sings of his anguished non-conformity. It is also true that we couldn’t hear all the singers clearly or very well, and the actors did seem embarrassed by some of the story turns (the man who cannot get his wife to have sex with him).

But by about half-way through the first act, particularly the introduction of the wry comedian, the wronged-wife, Charlotte, the opera came alive. The people in their roles started to be believable, the production began to jell around the time of the irresistible “A Weekend in the Country.” The play and characters became very moving in the second half. Not just that Sondheim’s powerful music and intelligent sophisticated lyrics carried it, but that the individual actor-singers were superb. Julia Hardin who played Desiree did “Send in the Clowns” better than anyone I’ve ever seen.

The Castleton production seemed to embrace the kindly perception that we must accept our ridiculousneses, love one another and ourselves as best we can, knowing all the while how needy, foolish, vain, frightened we all are. I liked the simple scenery of a wood with a mansion just out of sight, the Edwardian clothes (especially Charlotte’s outfits).

I wish there were many more contemporary musical plays, for it is really only contemporary art that can speak directly to us of our concerns through an adult humane perspective. Older operas often are based on pernicious ideas, celebrate the powerful and hierarchy; while not all do, and there are attempts to make the opera speak differently to us than intended, there really is nothing like Britten, Sondheim and some other of the contemporary writers of musical plays I’ve seen at Castleton and elsewhere.

We have bought for Wolf Trap Barns theater twice this summer, not to omit what we hope to see and hear during our week in Vermont in early August. We are staying in the 19th century Landmark Amos Brown house and from there will go to plays, an opera, museums and swim in a nearby lake. One lives only once.

Ellen

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Sketches for the production of Don Giovanni (left to right, the Don, Elvira, Leporello and Zerlina’s outfits)

Dear Friends and readers,

Our first summer outing was a bit of a disappointment. The air had been burning hot today, brutal heat that left me breathless when I went out, so we were looking forward to a little cool in the evening at the park around the Barns. That we did have and a yummy meal of salmon, pesto fat spaghetti salad, artichokes and Riesling wine. The singing and some of the talk before the opera was fun to listen to and the crowd was big and enthusiastic. But the opera itself as done just didn’t jell, had far too many gimmicks. Her thinking seems to have been superficial, and done with an eye to “pleasing the crowd.” She did not trust the audience to have an intelligent awareness of what we were seeing, or herself wanted to avoid the opera’s central themes.

It may be that I’ve seen too many Don Giovannis lately, and it would be hard for a company to come up with yet another brilliant, relevant and thoughtful dark, or just an alive exhilarating production with terrific interactive performances. The competition is keen. Well this one, while clearly well-meant, didn’t have some central idea or mood fueling it, so it really felt like one or two characters coming on stage each time, doing their bit and getting off. There was no sense of a real individual interactive relationship between Leporello (Craig Irvin) and Don Giovanni (Ryan Kuster). Kuster’s best singing was the serenade in the second act, and his sudden vicious beatings or arrogance didn’t fit his mode of singing. Irvin as Leporello was not tired of his job, not irritated or conspiratorial, just there taking pictures (a conceit was he loved to take photos). Don Octavio’s (Jason Salyden) best arias were cut, and Donna Anna (Marcy Tonikas) and he were dull bores: no terror from her at having been raped, no comedy later when she refuses to marry him after all his devotion. So the primary rich woman (as I’ve seen before) became Elvira, played marvelously (as has become typical) as a woman still deeply in love and even wanting to go to bed with this man who seemed on the edge of beating her up:


She was one of the strongest singers with a voice that was lyrical and projected

There was no anger from Masetto (Aaron Sorenson), who was easily brutally beaten by the Don and all gentleness with the kewpie-doll comical Zerlina (Andrea Carroll) who showed more life in her reluctance to let Elvira boss her around than in her scenes with the Don. The masquerade didn’t look like fun; everyone was going through gyrations that showed a kind of Marat/Sade corruption (including buggering) which just didn’t belong. The 18th century supposed thrift-shop type outfits just looked odd. The best moments were those which were reminiscent of 18th century comedy, with, for example, the Don to the back of the stage making funny comments as Leporello pretended to be him wooing Elvira.

Kim Witman’s half-hour talk before was perhaps a warning signal. She went through the history of productions cursorily, concentrating just on those which turn the Don into a romantic figure, but then turned around and defined the opera as basically comic (dramma giocoso, or jocular) and all she said about the production as a whole was they decided to use contemporary dress to try to evoke contemporary types. In other of her talks I’ve seen her come out with ideas about the themes of the opera. How are we to take the opening rape? Is it a rape? The Don’s attitude towards his male servants? why is he a half-mad promiscuous man who never seems to have any sex during the course of the play? Is it about the irrationality of everyone which they carry on with after the curtain goes down? or a morality play? any or all of these? If she thought about it, it did not appear from the production.

I must say that I have seen nobody on stage who has been a more interesting Character than that compound of Cruelty & Lust — Jane Austen, on a pantomime-burlesque, Don Juan, or the Libertine Destroyed, adapted from Thomas Shadwell’s Libertine, 15 Sept 1813, showing even casual pantomime can evoke thought

Worst of all was Witman’s reliance on computer gimmicks. She turned the stage into several movie screens and while the first time we saw on some of them images familiar from the Internet made relevant, it seemed funny, after a while the jokes paled and were intrusive. Yes some in the audience laughed and laughed (some always do), but I noticed she did drop these jokes towards the end of the opera when things were getting serious as our two heroes went into the graveyard with the usual stone effigy.

People applauded the cast who were eager and had worked so hard. We sat next to a couple where the man was himself an opera singer and we had some talk with them about the instruments which were right in front of us. We were in the first row of four seats to the left, and just before us were the musical instruments that played for the Don’s party as well as piano and cello that didn’t fit in the pit. During intermission I suggested perhaps we were having too many gimmicks, too much of a good thing the jokes about computer usages (Leporello keeps his records of the Don’s conquests on an ipad). The man said the lights which kept traveling up and down the movie screens (to me like some Mondrian painting gone electric) made him think of Romney as an etch-a-sketch man.

You can’t win ‘em all. Mozart’s music is so alluring and some of the singing was entrancing.

The theme of this summer’s two Barns productions is the 18th century aristocratic debauched or macho male. In the era such a figure was often presented morally. Next up (in August) is Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, libretto by W. H. Auden. I hope Kim thinks about Hogarth’s powerful pictures.


Rake’s progress: the orgy at a brothel

Don Giovanni’s primary title is Il dissoluto punito; perhaps the two singing males were too wholesome-handsome:


Lunchtime special performance

Ellen

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