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PorgyandBess
The San Francisco Opera production, with Eric Owens as Porgy and Lester Lynch as Crown

ensemble
Metropolitan Opera production of Le Nozze, with (most notable performance) Peter Mattei as the Count

Dear friends and readers,

The other night I was saying to Yvette as we sat down to our supper together and she channeled onto her ipad a station playing beautiful opera music (it happened to be Wagner’s Die Meistersinger for which we did buy HD-tickets), we have not heard or watched a full opera in ever so long — that is, if you exclude last week’s Great Performance on PBS of a splendid Sweeney Todd with (most notable performance) Emma Thompson. Well, we made up for this a little this weekend.

Friday night we watched a truly superb rendition of Gerswin’s 1930’s lyrical opera, Porgy and Bess. You have five more days to watch it here (start now if you can, or come back soon):

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365348853/

The meditative feel of the music reminded me of an Aaron Copeland opera Jim and I saw years ago, The Tender Land (1954), also an ensemble piece. The opera has flaws: stereotyping of black people in a condescending way, a couple seen writ much larger in the appalling Amos ‘n Andy TV show; Gershwin with the help of (mostly) Suzan Lori-Parks as librettist, assumes that women have no agency at all when it comes to choosing a sexual partner: Bess (Laquita Mitchell — not her fault) is depicted as helpless against her attraction to a mean Crown (Lester Lynch), only able to defy him because he is so violent and awful in comparison with the generous disabled Porgy (Eric Owens) who is driven to murder Crown:

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Porgy risks all (because the white men in this world as as viciously in charge of an unjust criminal system then as now); but while he is away she is unable to resist the temptation of drugs offered by Sporting Life (played wittily, vibrantly by Chauncey Paker — who has a resonant individual voice):

SPORTING-LIFE

Despite this it’s a serious opera, meaning to be genuinely reflective and respectful towards working class black people’s lives down south in the 1930s, genuinely critical of the white establishment. The music is often gorgeous, haunting. I was moved to discover there is a widow’s long lament for a husband unjust cut off:

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Especially strong (no surprise there) was Eric Owens who gave his disabled character a real living presence: he is not simply or not a saint. Much of his heroism is quiet. The story takes a while to become prominent and drama take over, but when it does, Owens endows his character with strength, manly dignity (for lack of a better term) and when at the close of the opera, he finally gets the people around him to tell him where Bessy has gone (New York City, envisaged as this dangerous large place) he sets off walking on his crutch to rescue Bessy from herself, I felt very moved.

This morning reading about tragedy in the opening two essays in the recent PMLA (actually readable and relevant, even provocative) brought home to me how the depiction of the working poor in Porgy and Bess reminded me of Daniel Auteil’s recent stunningly beautiful film adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s 1930s Marius (about fisherman in the Marseilles area): again the work depends on a group of peasant stereotypes, working class people all fundamentally finally good, and there is an idealization of the life of fisher people in the Marseilles area but this does not begin to give the feel of the story — wrenching manipulation and suspense is part of it too. It endows these characters with archetypal dignity and their conflicts and troubles capture our own memories and feelings. Maybe this descendent from Italian verismo books and operas was part of the 1930s socialist movements.

Auteil and Zambello’s direction is daring, the characters are allowed to feel fully, to have tender subtleties and witty nuances as in the characters of Jake (Eric Green) and Clara (Angel Blue) and their baby: he goes out fishing in bad weather and she seeing he is at risk, rushes out to stop and to save him, and both drown. “Summertime” is Clara’s song.

I wish I could say the same for this new production of Le Nozze di Figaro. It struck me that one response of the Metropolitan film people (including the man who directs the films for the cinema and is never interviewed, Gary Halverson) to having their operas beamed across the world is to play whatever is the material utterly safe. The bye-word: never offend anyone if you can possibly help it, and the way to do this is, especially when you have a “warhorse” opera which comes with a baggage of expectations, stick with a broadly traditional rendition, to the point of blandness. I love this opera, and have seen many performances with Jim — I have in the house a full thick yellow book of the script and musical score he would read to himself. One stands out in my memory aired on PBS around Christmas time at least 15 years ago, also a live staged opera performance filmed. it was very funny, but it was also warm, emotional, with the characters complex while corresponding to satiric and opera types.

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A typical stiff screen shot of the group

In this production, you could be forgiven if you took the first half to have been rewritten by Rossini. It was not quite all dense farce, because you cannot omit the Countess’s melancholy aria, but one wondered where that came from. The singer, Amanda Majeski had a frozen face throughout the opera with her mouth held just so to make the notes exquisitely right, but as to any expression of emotion on her face, forget it. I didn’t blame her as Isabel Leonard playing Cherubino had a similarly frozen expression on her face: salacious wit had she none. Jim used to say his favorite character in the opera was Cherubino: this performance allowed no ambiguities because it had no complexities: she was simply scared or “in love” with Barbarina (Ying Fang). There was not a single scene which suggested intimacy with the countess. I usually dislike saying an actress-singer is too old for the part, but the way Marlis Peterson as Susannah was directed, she really came across as a stiff vexed tired servant:

SusannaCherubino
Leonard referred to “my” countess, but there was little intimacy between Cherubino and the countess; rather the pair were Susannah and Cherubino somehow working at something

As Susannah she was glad of a rest once in a while (as if she were Anna Smith Bate in Downton Abbey) when with the countess or her protective Figaro, played as broadly as Majeski and Leonard did theirs by Ildar Abdrazakov. I saw him last year as the Ivor in Prince Borodin and know he can do better. The only performer to escape this Rossini farce vise was Mattei and I had to wonder was if the result was to vindicate the proud amoral count Beaumarchais’s play and Mozart’s opera were meant to expose and ridicule.

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Peter Mattei during his opera — most of the time he was directed to look like a 1930s kind of lout

The second act was much better. Both leading men had arias with depths of emotion as they expressed their versions of manliness under travail (Mattei especially good at indignation and anger), and with this music still lingering, Majeski’s aria alone and then writing the letter with Peterson as Susanna (exquisitely lovely music) had resonance. The pace ironically was slower as if the director worried if they moved too fast we, a presumed dim audience, would not understand who and what was being mixed up in the night. The roundabout stage was moved back and forth as a kind of underlining as the characters worked to make it clear who had the wrong costume and veil on.

The putting the characters in 1930s outfits changed nothing of the meaning of the opera — as the use of Frank Sinatra and his crew’s stereotypes similarly changed nothing of Rigoletto last year: even deliberately lost some of the bite as the disabled condition of the hunchback was underplayed. In the San Francisco production Porgy is a cripple and for better and worse treated as such.

The most genuine moments in this HD film came in the intermission. When Renee Fleming had hyped and flattered to the point of embarrassment, Abradazkov suddenly said the experience of playing together in practice had been boring. This was turned around to be an ironic joke — of course he didn’t mean that. But it did stop Fleming in her tracks of adulation. There was a film of James Levine interviewed by Gelb in a chair built to enable Levine to sit up: Levine’s shook slightly as he talked and he noticed, this so began to hold them firm to stop their wandering. He tried to discuss this group of performers and production in plain language, all the while looking like a man who been through death, and lives with it daily and nightly.

Audiences matter in a live performance. The Met audience was the usual New York City crowd. There were no outbursts of ravishment during the production and the applause at the end while strong (after all tickets cost), had nothing to suggest anything special had happened. It hadn’t. Inside our movie-house theater, people weren’t applauding all that much, many were getting up to leave.

In the San Franciso audience though I did see something to remark: it was troubling to me to see that I could not spot one African-American or black person in the theater. Yvette offered the explanation that we rarely see black people at the opera; and perhaps it was too expensive, maybe less black people live in San Francisco than we realize. But in my experience when a work has only a few black cast members who are central this will attract black people to become part of their audience. Owens said in his candid way in his interview on-line he has become so used to performing with all white casts, he begins to forget everyone around him is white and now to perform with an all-black cast brought home to him his forgetting. (I’d use the word unconscious self-alienation: when I lived in the UK for a couple of years, similarly American accents began to sound funny to me, yet I still had an American accent, if it was gradually being changed by Yorkshire rhythms and vowels. And would have more had I stayed.) I know young black people will have read Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin so white art can become part of their classics. Does Porgy and Bess not speak to black Americans? the way it was directed and performed every effort was made to transcend the stereotypes and produce something fresh.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been in the habit of treating the presentations I’ve heard over the last months at the Washington Area Print Group (a subdivision of the Sharp society) in rooms in the Library of Congress on my Sylvia blog (e.g., a talk on Writing with Scissors) as part of a diary, but thought the topic of this talk sufficiently germane to the terrain of this blog as it’s developed (see The Way We Watch TV Now) to warrant summary and commentary here.

Prof Metcalf developed an aspect of his book, the relationship of technology and economics with the kind of narrative that appears on TV. so the burden of his song was: Changes in technology and economics within TV have changed the way TV is made and how we experience it. He delivered his talk entertainingly — accompanied by many many stills.

He began with what TV was and had shots of older TVs in their wooden furniture. In the 1950s TV represented a central threat to the film industry, whose first ploys were teen films, big spectacles and 3-D movies. TV sold its product as one safe for a family in its private living room; the language was that the program was invited into this sanctuary. TV was radio with pictures and sought to reinforce culutral values of the family. In the US its purpose was to provide eyes and ears to watch and to see commercials.

A central writer for US TV at the time was Paul S. Newman who understand the particular format of TV programs meant characters couldn’t undergo transformation over a season as this would be disruptive and defeat the repeated expectation of sameness. He was superb at writing a structure not easy to do: you must produce a segment which moves to a peak at its end, yet at the same time be self-enclosed; you must avoid lulls because at any time the person can switch using the remote. Admittedly this structure does not necessarily make for great art (an understatement).

The BBC developed differently. It was paid for by millions of individuals who had licenses to watch TV, so it was commercial free. Its aims were education, elevation and entertainment. Traditional theater could appear on British TV much more easily; its purse was to question. There developed a tradition of challenging the audience. Programs were not meant to be re-used, re-run. In the US each program was developed with the idea of endless re-use.

The first long-form TV came from PBS and Masterpiece theater which Metcalf thought unfortunate. He called British costume drama boring for most people, staid. He never mentioned any specifically after that. It was a commercial channel which offered a model others could follow: Hill Street Blues. Male soap operas.

Hill_Street_Blues_Cast
The cast of Hill Street Blues, all men but two and these women dressed to look like men

People (he should have said “men”) were invited to watch the suffering of men. A typical episode would have the on-going A story (over the arc of the season), within the episode a story which concludes, and 3 other shorter on-going stories (B, C, and D, generally taking 3 episodes). He named a series of male-centered programs — like so many film critics I’ve encountered (many of them men), most of what he then cited was masculinist, not to say (not admitted) misogynist stuff. He also cited Wise Guy, The Fugitive. You need the mythos (the ongoing myth) and free standing episodes within that. Like others he then credited Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective (Michael Gambon) as quietly influential ever after. It used the situation comedy of the hospital ward as developed in British TV. He mentioned The Sopranos. These are versions of instalment publication (began in Victorian era). I suggested that Breaking Bad had departed from this in having one long story with two parallel heroes for 42 episodes. That’s part of what made it powerful and great art.

He also talked of the influence of the “concept album,” where all the music centered on coherent themes. At the same time itunes and downloading enable viewers to select a segment or episode or single song to listen to. We’ve moved back from the album concept to the single. What happened in the CD world (especially MTV) influenced what happened in the mini-series TV and DVD worlds.

What changed this situation? First, the cable companies who offered good and recent movies (“premium”), and in the 1980s in both Hollywood and the UK films were transformed by new ideals, technologies, independence. Prof Metcalf thought the advent of remote control devices next pushed writers into writing segmented TV: the point is to allow switching back and forth. (Which I dislike; once I sit down to watch a program I mean to watch that program until it’s done.) Then the VCR player ($1389) which allowed people to tape say the HBO movie. But this cannot compete with the DVD — which allows the film-makers to market their product divided up into serving sizes. You can curate your own TV. Many people now have a movie screen on their wall for their TV watching so they are imitating a movie experience.

The talk became more original when he began to talk of what the DVD has done to movies. For example, what is the authoritative version of a movie? You can buy Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad in a huge box with the hour-long episodes with commentary on, with deleted scenes, with features showing how an episode was made, what were the aims of the film-makers, and an alternative ending. I mentioned that I had bought Michael Winterbottom’s 6 part Trip to Italy to discover that the film-maker had gathered all the deleted scenes and then arranged them thematically to provide another half-hour of programming. A DVD in effect can be seen as providing manuscripts of the programs as well as later polished versions. They are packaged to look like books, to sit on shelves in a bookcase. Prof Metcalf suggested that the DVD which provides the largest amount of programming is what is seen as authoritative. We are paying more attention to screenplays as these are published and we can gather the precise lay out and emotional structure, study dialogue and description, montage. Very gradually both US and UK TV began the practice of hiring stars to shore up long-form stories.

The way we watch TV changed the TV we watch. The mini-series are now manufactured with DVDs and DVD watching in mind.

To some extent the talk degenerated at this point because he and the audience began to talk of favorite mini-series, which (again) were mostly masculinist, most of them produced for commercial TV. This reminded me of how in other places I’ve been women are unwilling to criticize the violence and misogyny of computer games, will let the men take over discussing football — for there were as many women in the audience as men. Implicitly the BBC and PBS took a beating, which brought home to me how many of these sorts of programs are aimed at women or at least have the female audience at least as much in mind. Many of the series were clearly highly violent. Three aggressive looking males on the covers of the DVDs.

But as he talked the BBC and British programming emerged as centrally providing quality to imitate and modify to an American model. He differentiated between mini-series that had a single person controlling the vision, and that still happens in British TV where a single author or at most 3 authors will write the scripts and the script writer become the organizing linchpin of what is done) and one that was the result of a fluid team of people. He also talked of how now that the soap operas has become a province for male suffering, comedy is a place for women to vent and expose issues of concern to them (Sex and the City, Nurse Betty).

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This promotional shot justifies Laura Mulvey’s famous paper about how film caters to the male gaze

American TV stopped in the 1950s but British TV continues to present live performances from the theater. The acerbic British TV sitcom may be regarded as dropped into melodrama to produce modern versions of say Sherlock Holmes. Someone mentioned how the rape story in the Downton Abbey fourth season outraged people; Metcalf was interested in how such an incident often covers but 3 episodes.

Some series especially praised and discussed: The Wire, for women and men, The Gilmore Girls (this appears to be a blend of screwball comedy and melodramatic romance, reminding me of Austen films). Clive Owens in Knick, a Steve Sodenberg product: Sodenberg did everything but write the screenplay and act in the series. Metcalf noted that again and again if you watch an individual episode it may seem funny, light, but when you watch the arc of the season, the series comes out as more serious, at times implicitly tragic (or explicitly as Breaking Bad). The good do win or if they go down to defeat we feel for them and there is sensitivity to beauty. These citations did bring out how often a Network or producer will cancel a mini-series that seems to be doing so well, getting so much praise. Why? the audience demographics are too old: they will not buy the products. The show is there for the commercials. The corporations making these are not content with modest or high profits; they want huge ones. (This is the sort of thinking that did in the rentals of books-on-tape and the choices of middle-brow excellent books not best-sellers nor high prestige old classics.) Lost leaders are programs which are made to attract people knowing they will make less money, but gather an audience who will remain loyal to the station for a while.

I enjoyed the talk though recognized the skewed nature of the presentation (of the examples). Afterward when a group of us went over to a restaurant to have dinner together the talk really did stay on the topic, on the TV people watch and how they watch. In this group many watched TV on their computers, as part of Netflix or streaming deals. When it did get down to what people really watched among this group, it was late night viewing (after all work was done and the person could do no more) of less avante garde popular shows. Metcalf said he watches all his viewing on his computer on some special channel where he can reach programs and movies made in a variety of countries across the decades.

What am I watching late at night just now? Ken Taylor’s Jewel in the Crown out of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, directed and produced by Christopher Morahan.

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Susan Woolridge as Daphne Manners the raped heroine

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Art Malik as Hari Kumar, the deeply betrayed unjustly treated hero – it made his career

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Charles Dance and Geraldine James as our traditional white couple

These brilliant 1970s series didn’t make it into Prof Metcalf’s narrative …. This would include the 74 Pallisers (a Simon Raven product) and Poldark (written by several people and it departs a lot in sexual detail and the ending from the books, but directed and produced by the same men) — both ran on US TV in the same year. The book of essays coming out on BBC costume historical drama which includes mine on Andrew Davies’s two adaptations of Trollope novels credits the 1967 Forsyte Saga and its popularity with starting the long decades of making such films, recently fallen off here in the US because of lack of money — so one gets thrillers instead. Downton Abbey has not been enough to re-start the engine for making mini-series from classic books. It is itself not an adaptation after all. The Singing Detective actually belongs to this narrative too.

But it was nonetheless instructive to listen to (Prof Metcalf knows a lot about TV) and I wish I could afford the book.

Ellen

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Pete Seeger on stage 1960

Dear Friends and readers,

I just watched a 90 minute American Masters program about the life and singing of Pete Seeger, an extraordinary hero. If only more people were as brave and good as he was, what a better world this would be. I put this link here in the hope others will watch it too:

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/pete-seeger/full-film-pete-seeger-the-power-of-song/2864/

One of Seeger’s choices to pay attention to: he refused to do a commercial selling cigarettes with the Weavers. The other three were willing in order to be paid the big sum. He saw correctly this was agreeing to sell cancer, and would change the meaning of their folk group ever after. A small but important gesture. However, not powerful beyond himself since so many would sell themselves. The program is well worth watching for understanding the success of the political hounding of this man and how what could have been a progresive politically galvanizing change in the US through folk music was thwarted: Seeger was centrally responsible for the folk revival in the 1960s, but it could in the 50s (when he was part of the Weavers) and more recently been a force for political change but has not. We see the role the FBI has played in the US since the 1940s.

For more songs, testimony, and life history of Seeger see my blog Pete Seeger has died.

Ellen

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ReneeFlemingblog
Renee Fleming

Dear friends and readers,

As part of a friend’s long weekend visit, I planned for us to go to 3 places, and see one concert, one play, one movie. We’d have plenty of time inbetween (I hoped) to walk, talk, watch TV (even, shoverdosing on say Downton Abbey), eat. Maybe we didn’t have quite enough time to do all that. What also got in the way was the cold weather and occasional struggles to find my car.

Renee Fleming put together a remarkable three days of American voices at the Kennedy Center; we experienced a powerful expressionistic Romeo & Juliet at the Folger, and happened on beautiful and interesting objects in the National Gallery.

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The first place was Kennedy Center, and when we got there, we realized what I thought might be a concert was master-training session and three chosen students after which there was a panel discussion with Fleming herself, and people high in the particular music world the training sessions were in.

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It turned out that what was happening was for 3 days and nights an exploration of “American voices” (as it was billed) was going on in different parts of the building. Opera, musicals, country, rock, gospel, pop. It was made to happen by Renee Fleming whose position, respect, prestige, knowledge of people (they are her friends) could create something like this. We had stumbled onto something remarkable, and I really think we might have seen the most interesting musically.

The first session with Eric Owens correcting, urging teaching three superb young opera singers. He was witty and wise. The panel then came out on stage and discussed education, starting a career, what kind of training do opera singers get today, what kind of voices do audiences prefer today as opposed to the early 20th century, how HD was problematic for older women singers, and for a trade where what had counted was the voice, and now what was counting was an image. What about non-traditional casting in these works, African-American casting. I loved some of Owens’s replies. How does he cope with rejection — implied on the basis that he’s African-American: traditional casting is the rigorous norm it seems in Europe. He said if a place or organization didn’t want him, he didn’t want to be there. I could see that Fleming was going to ask questions that were appropriate for each kind of music and that the training session by the “master” was going to bring out different aspects of the different arts. Susan, a woman we met later wrote a fine account of the Jazz session.

The whole thing reminded me of one summer Jim and I attended 5 Sondheim musicals; over the course of that summer Sondheim was explored in all sorts of ways, music made all over the building. I asked my friend if she’d like to go the musical session. I love musicals and it was on at 11 on Sunday, a free time for us still, and I could bring us by car. Alas, it was sold out. According to one review, the concert was a disappointment as the singers did not seem to have taken their learning into their art, but as most know, someone’s art develops slowly.

But we were not done: there was the 6 o’clock free Millennium stage. So first we ate out in the upstairs cafeteria. It was too cold to go out on the terrace, and we got involved in a conversation with Susan, an on-line theater critic of music. A lot of the people at these sessions were singers, teachers, people involved in music. I learned there is a long line to get a seat for the 6:00 o’clock show by 5:30 but we got seats. Two sets of singers: one more operatic set of songs (I began to cry at one it was so movingly sung), and the other Jazz singers from Howard University (Afro-Blue songs).

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The second place was the Folger Shakespeare theater. My friend had not been in it before and her fresh eyes enabled me to realize what a small theater it is, never mind the columns and woodwork everywhere getting in the way. It is quaint, but this season the company inhabiting it is “all Shakespeare, all the time,” and the exhibit showed us actors from Shakespeare’s era to our doing parts of the plays the company is doing this year. The Folger Shakespeare library has just about everything one wants from the 16th through later 17th century as part of Shakespeare’s life, and then it has a remarkably rich theater collection moving on to our own time as part of the world of the theater. Naturally they could form such an exhibit.

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Romeo (Michael Goldsmith) and Juliet (Erin Weaver)

I thought the play itself wonderfully well done, the best Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen. Someone had had the idea of really making our star-crossed lovers into young teenagers so the play was no longer about love, but fierce idealism, childish or irresponsible crazed and innocent behavior, and murderous impulses in the human spirit. Dumb shows were able to bring out male abusiveness, macho-ness, especially as inflicted on cowed women. It was expressive, symbolic, a play meant to speak to us today. They kept the comedy, the poetry, Mercutio was more of a careless amoral bully, which made his death more endurable to all. The acting was superb.

I was moved to near tears remembering what a dead body is like, soared in the light of Shakespeare’s lines done so aspirationally, so sardonically …. Sophie Gilbert found the production uneven; he intense Juliet and pitch prefectly naive Romeo is done justice to by Peter Marks.

I had forgotten how much I love Shakespeare and began to remember the first time I ever saw a Shakespeare play: I was 17 and had gone to the Delacorte theater, run by Joe Papp at the time in Central park. (The plays are still being done today — though half the audience has pre-paid. When I went many of the people waited on line and got seats on a first come first serve basis.) My favorite research spot — the Folger library rich in everything that could possibly connect to Shakespeare — not far off, nor the bookshop, I felt for a moment that I had broken the spell of the vise of misery seemingly clutching to my throat like some halter around my neck since this past August when Jim’s cancer metatasized into his liver.

On Eric Posner:

We ate nearby — in one of the restaurants in the row facing the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. A Chinese place, it was pretty, but my dinner was awful and I couldn’t eat it. We should have followed the advice of a woman who told us she runs tours and gone to Union Station on the Metro, then my friend and I could have seen that place and maybe gotten a better restaurant. Can’t win ‘em all. I had wanted to show my friend the Capital Hill area, with its Botanical Garden, and we saw just a bit of it, especially the Library of Congress’s three buildings (John Adams with its Canterbury pilgrims frieze on the top floor) and the elegant older houses in rows all around it.

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The third place was the National Gallery. We did choose to go where there would be fine art and paintings — maybe next time we’ll try the Newseum or Smithsonians for cultural artefacts and lectures. To go there was to include the Quad, 14th street, but the wind defeated us and we rushed into the Gallery. Kathy was dismayed by the exhibit she had especially wanted to see: volumes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses . She thought we’d see Latin texts, hear of who read them, how influential they were (on the arts). Instead we were into post-modernism: how was the average person responding to this text, and it was clear the curators thought the average person could not read Latin and was into these translatoins. It is true that in England there were a number and some of great poetic power. This is the first time I saw the French ones (mostly in prose) and the Italian. There were some modern translations and there we saw how the book illustrations changed: Pablo Picasso was among those who illustrated books with Latin texts in translation in the 1930s.

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I love happening on exhibits or favorite objects in the collection. We happened on a 5 room journey through Paris as photographed by Charles Marville who caught the old Paris being destroyed, people displaced, and filmed demolition and despair. We saw the price the new Paris (so familiar to us) with its great boulevards, and beautiful buildings. Marville created picturesque scenes too:

CharlesMarvilleLandscapeblog

On the way from there to the Ovid exhibit, we happened on a set of sculptures on the theme of Diana, of women who retreated with a special animal — in bronze beautiful strong women’s bodies austere looks on their faces.

Upstairs I visited old friends in the collection. Corots, impressionists, Pissarro, a Turner. The rotunda filled with flowers.

Down by elevator, we bought snacks in the cafeteria and sat near the waterfall. The huge bookstore tempted us and we were sorely tempted by a book called Dressed as in a Painting; it looked so perceptive and its angle so pleasing but the price was $40.

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We went through the glittering diamond-starred moving walk to the other part of the museum, East Building and modern art. There we were to have seen Piero Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore but it was late, we were tired and wanted to get home before dark.

So we retraced our way back in the museum to where we had come in — rather like Hansel without his breadcrumbs — but eventually we were in the right vestibule with our coats and hastening across the squares and streets into the Metro to get out of the bitingly cold wind.

A piled-in time — my legs were aching by the end, my back, my friend was exhausted she said. Jim and I would do this kind of thing regularly, but not so much all at once, over say a few weeks or over a period of months we’d have subscriptions to a theater or opera company. My friend and I did not have the luxury of much time. Still amazing she made it from Iowa, stayed in a comfortable near-by not expensive hotel, met and talked with Izzy, saw my house, all my books, and the pussycats too.

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Ian on my desk, near my Vittoria Colonna book

I’ve vowed to myself I shall return to going to the Folger regularly, keep an eye on what films are on, and try to discern the presence of a music festival.

Ellen

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One of several marvelous dance sequences

Dear friends and readers,

Friday nights on PBS I’ve become a faithful watcher of Great Performances, and this past one for 3 hours I reveled in the marvelous British National Royal Theater production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahhoma as directed by Trevor Nunn: this the same group that brought us the unforgettable Yorkshire plays (medieval cycle, words by Tony Harrison), and part of the exhilaration arises from doing it in the round with an audience close in. It’s famous in the US for making a singing star out of Hugh Jackson.

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Jackson played Curly as self-deprecating, no threat to anyone, courteous even to old maid aunts

I recommend watching it because it turns the musical into its bare-bones (sort of an outline effect), tones it down and so brings out subtleties in characterization. I don’t know if I’ve said enough on this blog how much I love musicals. I know often the content is deplorable; so too are some of the plots of older and more recent operas too.

So I want, at the same time, to point out that the distinction often made between this musical and its near-companion in time, place, and composers, Carousel, often (rightly) condemned as celebrating an abusive relationship, reinforcing the worst of sexist portrayals of sex outside marriage, absurd in its heavenly ending, is false. As Carousel can be done with equal intense pleasure from the music, dance and when done (as I once saw it in London) with the same bareness and toned down, becomes a downright subversive thrust by Billy, the working class male, and his Julie, neither ever given a chance for a fulfilled life, so Oklahoma is a predatory pastoral.

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A not atypical moment

The US early on developed a particularly predatory culture — sometime in the later part of the 18th century, reinforced by the lack of identification across immigrant groups, slavery and a lawless west where US guns reigned supreme and lynching became a commonplace way of “administering justice.” The cruelty of Southern culture in the early 19th century was matched (according to Harriet Martineau) by overt Northern killing of anyone opposed to slavery by those profiting from it. The modern Tea Party, some of the most powerful of southern writers (Faulkner, O’Connor) participate in this. An article in a recent issue of Women’s Review of Books where the US GI in France as opposed to all others, was the most violent, the male the most macho in his expectations of women and angry when he did not get what he thought he was entitled to (shades of our massacres), and then court-martialled black GIs as scapegoats — brought this out. It explains so much, from the centrality of slavery to US continual attacking other countries near it (almost immediately we invaded Canada), and the behavior of this state around the world today.

What do we have in Oklahoma: Jud, a male bully (the George Zimmerman of the piece, snarling, treacherous, a “skunk”) eager to violate Julie and kill Curly, and stopped only by murder by Curly (declared okay in a rigged swift hearing). The secondary couple presents sexism and stereotypes pastoralized so it is not as obvious as Carousel.

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A long dance sequence with Jud at center and saloon girls around him

Quintessentially American musicals which the British unerringly (as a result of their culture) sufficiently distance so instead of the series of visceral skits strung together punctuated by high eruptions or intensely repudiative optimism (“When you walk through a storm …”), from raucous and poignant lyrical (Carousel) and to mindless joviality (Oklahoma), we are invited to enjoy them as nostalgic set pieces, e.g., all imagination as in this surrey with the fringe on top:

Ellen

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And she to me: ‘There is no greater sorrow
than thinking back upon a happy time
in misery …
One day, to pass the time away, we read
of Lancelot — how love had overcome him …
this one, who never shall be parted from me,
while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth …’ Dante, Inferno 5, translated Allen Mandelbaum

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Act One: the stage scene as a whole

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Act One: Francesca (Eva-Maria Westbrook) and Paolo (Marcello Giordani) meet: he pretends to be her bethrothed

Dear friends and readers,

The 1984 Pre-Raphaelite picturesque production of Riccardo Zandoni’s Francesca da Rimini (libretto Tito Ricordi) is wonderfully absorbing in its HD Met Opera format (conductor Marco Armiliato; production Pero Faggioni; set designer Ezio Frigerio; costume designer Frana Squarciapino, lighting Gil Wechsler). I had not expected to enjoy it so much. Breaking through the fussily-decorated elaborate Pre-Raphaelite picturesque and early 20th century art deco decor, its core and action are fuelled by primary passion: the coerced marriage of Francesca (Eva-Maria Westbrook) secured by trickery: Paolo (Marcello Giordnai), the youngest handsome brother of the groom allows himself to be presented as the groom); these desperate adulterous lovers driven passionate in the way of Cavalliero Rusticano or Il Pagliaccio; the violent brutish lame murderous anguished husband, Giancioot (Mark Delavan); the even more brutal vengeful one-eyed malacious younger brother, Malatsetino (Robert Brubaker).

It’s the stuff of a verismo tale except occurring among aristocrats of the 13th century, and first turned into literature by Dante who presents the lovers after death in fifth circle of hell,

… a place where every light is muted …
The hellish hurricane , which never rests,
drives on the spirits with its violence;
wheeling and pounding, it harasses them … (Inferno 5)

“damned because they sinned within the flesh … now here, now there, now down, now up, it drives them./There is no hope that ever comforts them — no hope for rest and none for lesser pain.”

The story has a basis in actual events, and before this 1914 opera after a play by Gabriele d’Annunzio whose language came through the modern English subtitles (“The stars are drowned in the sea” Paolo says), the story had been told in many versions, staged, sung, painted mostly (it seems in Pre-Raphaelite style). Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1855) tells the spiritual after-death Dante version:

Rossettiblog.

but Alexandre Cabanel (1870) prefers the theatrical murder (reminding me of Wallis’s Death of Chatterton, which is just now hanging at the National Gallery in DC, part of a Pre-Raphaelite exhibit):

_Alexandre_Cabanelblog

What distinguishes this opera is its highly dramatic play with effective vigorous scenes, sung to music said to be a mix of Strauss, Puccini and Debussy: the love duet at the close of the second act which in the required way the lovers are reading of Lancelot, let the book fall and then “read no more” is just sweepingly swayingly lush,

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It ended as swiftly as Cav and Pag; the words were simple and music felt sudden and elemental at the close: the lovers are stabbed to death and the bodies drop on the stairs, with the actors making sure they ended up flung over one another.

It was said the production was revived because Westbrook asked for this, and she sang and acted her part to perfection. She did carry the opera; she was hardly ever not there, and was endlessly singing. She got to wear the loveliest of embroidered costumes. In her interview she insisted the story was not just credible; coerced marriage happens still today. This is a big disingenuous since the motives given the lovers are hopelessly lachrymose and ethical, but the situation is given bite by ferocity of the behavior of the husband and his demented brother. Delvan was powerful, Brubaker memorable, especially when threatening Francesca and then going down below to behead a man in the midst of being tortured and screaming. Jim said Giordani sung weakly; I wished the lines about him had said she loved him for his goodness and kindness, for he’s not handsome, nothing like a Rufus Sewell.

The opera is fleshed out by Water Scott like happening: a comic minstrel opens the piece, offering to serenade Francesca’s ladies with the story of Tristan and Isolde (anticipating the story to come) — we are led to fear for his life because at the hands of these criminal males. Her ladies were characterized enough, her sister (a kind of Dido relationship):

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A supposed battle takes place in Act 2 which is not convincing as the production did not take advantage of modern screen computer techniques at all. It was grotesque, with a gold-layered siege ram set on fire (like something taken from an Aida set). In act three a bloody head is flung about in a pillow case.

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Delavan as Gianciotto in a Walter Scott-like knight-warrior outfit (aware he is a bad guy in the interview he asked our “hostess” what she had in her wallet)

And what a pleasure it was to see a new great grand opera. While I knew the story of course (the opera audience does not practice the inhibiting nonsense of no-spoilers), I had no idea how it would work out as an experience. The surprise element added to my experience.

Any flaws? well, yes. It just took too long between scenes which intervals sometimes seemed much longer than the acts. At one point the camera cut away far too quickly from a genuinely moving scene to Sondar Radvanovksy as “hostess” which her commercial blurb and hype. While we really enjoyed watching the behind-the-scenes setting up of the scenery and curtains, and painted flats, there was just too much of it, and it made the production feel as staid as some Victorian drawing-room. I’d love to see a new post-modern kind of production, with maybe a mimed scene of the woman raped by the husband, a far more effectively suggestive violence for the battles, and a mimed-coda added on where we see the lovers in hell. In Claus Guth fashion, it could critique even Dante for punishing those whom life had punished enough.

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Rodin’s The Kiss (1888), said to be originally titled Francesca da Rimini

As to the play itself, there was something funny to see the principles act out the love scene over a book, and wait for the book to drop. Everyone accepted this because it was in Dante. More seriously, while here was the inevitable falsifying of sexual life so that what was the real horror of this situation, marital rape, was obscured from view; as Izzy said, the “lesson” of the play was not that adultery was evil. The lovers are not evil. It was deceit and brutality that were the evils in this opera. So it had no trouble speaking to our time. As Maria Stuarda seems to have not been revived for decades and now is utterly a propos, so Francesca da Rimini, if revived for a diva, seemed to please the audience strongly for its fable and presentation, which (to refer to the Pre-Raphaelite exhibit’s comments on my blog), revealed a pseudo-medieval, literary highly sexually liberated (for the men) art fit the pre WW1 world.

Few women in the arts or as patrons have interested themselves in her story. Josephine Bonaparte bought a 19th century painting of the story; Gabriele d’Annunzio’s play was written for Eleanore Duse:

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Eleanore Duse as Francesca da Rimini (1901)

and Olga Gorelli, a 20th century Italian composer wrote some music.
Renata Scotto played the part with Placido Domingo as Paolo, and Cornell MacNeil as Gianciotti in 1984, the production now available as a DVD.

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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