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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.

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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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Dear friends and readers,

When Izzy and I arrived at our local better cinema and saw to get into one of the movies we had to join onto a long line thick with people, I was startled to find this was for Saving Mr Banks! which in the trailers had been represented as about a crabby old maid schoolteacher type giving the warm and wonderful Walt Disney a hard time, rejecting his of course charming Disneyland. We had assumed it was for The Hobbit.

I figured and still think that the 4 full Mary Poppins books are not widely read, but liked by a sub-group of reading girls, Anglophilic, with an unusual penchant for implicit meanings and respect for the old-fashioned values of decorum, titillated by strictness. I liked the 1964 Mary Poppins musical, but know it is wildly disparate from Travers’s books. (See my blog on Pamela Lyndon Travers, woman writer of children’s books.)

As we stood there and saw the line grow past us and out the door into the cold, I reminded myself the new film, Saving Mr Banks, did have big-name stars with strong talent (Emma Thompson as PL, Tom Hanks as Walt); was a Disney film and thus guaranteed-to-be-wholesome film, and of course would be connected to the 1964 Mary Poppins film, which perhaps had made a very distorted view of the original character into a household icon.

I’m writing this blog because I’ve since discovered that in more popularly oriented movie-houses parents had brought children (not what the crowd at this art house does) and overtly removed these kiddies from the unexpectedly unsuitable material. That means the hum and buzz is giving a wrong impression of what this film is about and is largely responsible for the big audiences; the few thoughtful reviews concentrate on how the film misrepresents the final outcome of the strong conflicts between Travers and Disney over the nature, mood, characteristics and specifics of the 1964 Mary Poppins film: in the film she relents mostly and is deeply moved by the film insofar as it reflects the autobiograpical sources of her books; in reality; she hated the film.. But see Caitlin Flannagan’s Becoming Mary Poppins.

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Promotional shot at the premier to which Travers had not been invited lest she convey her sharp disapproval: the photo shows she disguised her feelings that night

What’s been left out from accounts is more than 50% of Saving Mr Banks‘s matter: P.L. Travers’s childhood in Australia; few stills of Ruth Wilson as Mrs Hof, Colin Farrell as Mr Hof (the original we are told of Mr Banks in the books), and hardly any retelling of how Mr Hof is first responsible for moving his family from the comparative respectability and comfort of an upper middle class home in a citified area of Australia (New South Wales? Queensland?) into the hinterlands (called Allora in the film, perhaps central or western Australia) where he proceeded to become a thorough alcoholic and failure as a bank manager (someone who could not cope with the stress, repression, hard commercialism of any money-making occupation). We see him humiliate himself and family in a scene on a public stage, fall to the ground and slowly die of TB and delirium tremens. At one point Mrs Hof tries to kill herself by drowning. The child, Helen, called Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) by her father, who since renamed herself Pamela and then PL (Lyndon a middle name) is totally involved, worshipping and feeling for her father,

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trying to save her mother. A sister turns up to help them, dressed in the film like Mary Poppins in the book with a little of her outward sternness.

This does explain to me for the first time the strange turn the 1964 Mary Poppins takes: Mr Banks risks losing his job by refusing to give all his time to his work when he is made to realize he is neglecting his family; he refuses to yield to pressure and insists on going to fly a kite at the film’s end, when of course he is forgiven and hired back by the bank’s aged boss: Dick Van Dyke played this role as well as Bert, the match man, made in the film a lover-suitor for Mary Poppins, while in the books this is only hinted at, slightly and sometimes denied. There is no such story in any of the four MP books written by 1964 (MP, MP Comes Back, MP in the Park, MP opens the door). It is a much bowdlerized version of Travers’s father’s behavior. In life he did not die of TB either, but influenza; the real Mrs Hof had connections with powerful whites in Australia (and her sister had money).

Saving Mr Banks then may be said to inject back into the books the self-reflexive deeper material compelling the writer’s creation of Mary Poppins as a kind of strange savior of the family: the strangeness is in the way she does this: in adventure after adventure the children find themselves suddenly in another realm of reality, often connected to the zodiac or stars in the sky, the sun, sometimes natural worlds in a green park. Sometimes the figures met there are bullies, mean, or downtrodden and wanting and in need of affection. Mary is called upon to fix a situation, she does and she is worshipped there as a good kind all powerful woman (not the stern cold governess-figure she seems to be to outsiders), and each time the children return to Cherry Tree Lane somehow rejuvenated.

None of the above gets into the 1964 Mary Poppins except the passage to another idyllic place (pastoral and filled with penguins and animated figures) through Bert’s chalk sidewalk pictures (something that does happen in one of the four books’ adventures). Some does get into this 2013 Saving Mr Banks: the outward stern, cold, fussy, dominatrix feel of Ms Travers or Pamela as played superbly well by Emma Thompson is modeled partly on the book’s Mary Poppins. Thompson also conveys non-caricatured hurt, quiet moments of self-doubt, disquiet, with gestures that at moments reminded me of her most magnificent performance in Wit.

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The advertisements for the film emphasize the relationship of Travers and Disney (much idealized, and played more subtly than at first appears by Tom Hanks):

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Some of the Saving Mr Banks‘s worst moments come out in this strand: Walt’s long preachy speech to Pamela (he insists on a first-name basis right away) about how everyone can have or do what they want if only they try or work hard enough (a popular rightist American myth — Disney was an arch-reactionary it is true). (See Slate article on this meeting where she agreed to go along with the film.) Thompson’s imitation of a wry whose guardedness isolates her and accounts for how unhappy she makes herself (message: socializing is the most important thing to do well in life).

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The strand in Saving Mr Banks which tells the story of Travers’s strong reluctance to give over the rights to Disney, her fights with the creative song-writers, Richard and Robert Sherman (David Schwartzman and D. J. Novak) and script writer, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) are part of the finer threads in the film: we see them inventing and singing some of the better and still well-known numbers from the 1964 film — which as a song-and-dance musical is marvelous (especially where Van Dyke dances with a chorus of men and with Julie Andrews up a stairway into the sky).

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I felt nostalgia for the film as these were sketched out by the creators, and Thompson-as-Travers’s disapproval added a piquant sauce to the mix. I remember how Izzy loved the film as a child. She has read at least a couple of the books.

The best companionable feeling in the Saving Mr Banks derives from Thompson as P.L. Travers’ relationship with Paul Giamatti as Ralph, her driver. He is the on-going person we see her with; at the first she bullies him and mocks his efforts at ingratiation and talk about the sunny weather, but eventually she comes to depend on him, especially when she has no invitation to the premier and he drives her there and provides her with support.

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Driving Ms Travers

The most natural moment of friendship occurs when she is leaving L.A. after having rejected the script when she discovers it will have animated figures (she had been promised it would not) doing inanely silly gestures with clothes. She is seen sitting in the grass deeply distressed to think of what is happening to her story, and the driver comes over and they talk. Here she learns of his disabled daughter at home; I have read that disabled figures are figuring more in mainstream films, and Thompson as Travers is several times rebuked for her demands for formality by stories of the hardships others experienced in life as if precise manners must be an indication of obtuse snobbishness.

As she and her driver bid adieu, she addresses him as Ralph (his first name) and he addresses her as Pamela. Throughout the film her formal or more old-fashioned approach to life is seen in her discomfort in being required to start relationships on a first name basis immediately. I understand that as that is the way it was when I was a child. It’s not snobbishness; it’s a way of making some relationships more special and acknowledging intimacy that’s real. She is followed by Disney to England and he preaches his preachy-speech of his hardships in life, his father, and voila she is convinced — having liked “Let’s go fly a kite” and the depiction of Mr Banks in the film (by David Tomlinson).

Often the best parts of films don’t make it anywhere near the trailer, but this time they are also failing to get into the reviews — perhaps deliberately? Makers and critics of films like to see what is not discussably in the open brought out visually and through story but themselves in the case of expected popular audiences not risk going into tabooed matter.

Saving Mr Banks‘s script is by two women: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith. I wondered if they had loved the Mary Poppins books, and wrote this movie in tribute to P.L. with a view of doing some justice to her and revealing some of the deeper explicable sources of the books.

I am interested in Australian literature, which I now see the Mary Poppins books belong to, and am tempted to buy one of the biographies of P.L. Travers. Patricia Deemers’s Twayne book may be the sensible one, but Valerie Lawson’s look like the writing of someone deeply engaged by the author and her books. Out of the Sky She Came: The Life of P.L. Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins. The sky provides the highest moments in the books and the 1964 film; this more sceptical disillusioned film (when it’s at its best) makes the sky the place planes fly across, but from time to time a sky is filmed, blue, with lovely clouds, as symbols of the books’ visions.

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Bert and Mary looking up into the sky (1964 Mary Poppins)

Ellen

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Mother and daughter (characters become Mrs Ford and Nannetta)

Dear friends and readers,

For the first time since we have been going to the HD-opera season broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera house from NYC, we did not go to its earlier operas, but began with the third or fourth. Earlier this fall, Jim was ill and dying; then I was involved with his funeral and so much I had to do and endure for the first weeks of his absence. A little over two months later, I had the heart and time to go. Another factor is Izzy is not as keen on operas as such as her father was, so she did not care to go to the first two. But we agreed that Verdi’s Falstaff was worth seeing. She has now written a blog on the opera, and I’m going to add to her remarks and those of reviewers (a excellent one) I’ve read since Saturday.

So, in general, this new production is a visual delight and as far as I could tell was sung exquisitely well: especially lovely were the tones of Angela Meade as Mistress Alice Ford. But the perspective, and acting of the play itself (based on Shakespeare) was so bland, the overall effect was dull. It lacked even the genuine hardness of Roman comedy from which Shakespeare’s text descends or sheer zest of some Italianate art buffoonery, since we were to assume everyone but Falstaff sentimentally cared about everyone else and so much attention had been paid to details to make the piece into domestic semi-realism.

Visually, someone had had the insight to see that dressing everyone up as if they were in a 1950s movie or situation comedy, was the right analogy for the domestic toy realism of Shakespeare’s play. Some of the costumes were inspired: as Master Ford, Franco Vassallo was dressed in a cowboy outfit hilariously, parodically like Gene Audrey. It was as unreal (super clean, super starched), yet macho male in its accessories, and as Master Ford Franco Vassello in this outfit swaggered about.

Stephanie Blythe as Miss Quickly just stole the show. She told us in her interview it was a pleasure to have more than one outfit (her usual allotment as a mezzo, and a heavy-set older woman type as well); indeed she said, “I have 4!” and 4 she had. She was a parody, an escapee fugitive from Far from Heaven. Her gestures, winks, body language had just the right amount of mockery and tongue-in-cheek and yet seem to be involved in the action as something she actually felt real emotion about: she had some sardonic irony in her face as she gave the arrogant male Falstaff his comeuppance.

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In a witch-like ensemble in the last act

One of the interviews was with the prop man: he said there were at least 1000 items in the show they had made or planned for if not individually at least as part of a group (say china, a kitchen set); he cited some huge number of cabinets for the Ford kitchen, which was a cross between ideal 1950s kitchen and something you might see on the Home improvement channel on TV today.

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The women read the assignation letters Falstaff has sent Mistress Ford and Meg Page (Jennifer Johnson Cano, perfectly coiffeured in her curled blonde pageboy)

There’s a certain irony in the producer and designer (Robert Carson and Paul Steinberg) producing the 1950s in an utterly uncritical spirit, since it was the rare film or popular show at the time that broke through unexamined modes of the time (exceptions were Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows as the Kramdens).

Ambroglio Maestri was dressed exquisitely well for each of his appearances: from self-indulgent layabout in the morning, where it was implicitly (hintingly, delicately) suggested he sexually used the two valets he was bullying; to a man about town, gentleman-cad in his club; to a man who hunted like an English lord; to the filthy outfits he ended up when dredged out of the Thames after having been in a linen basket filled with soiled garments; to the ending in a Herne the Hunter outfit with antlers. We were told he is The Falstaff for our era, having played and sung the part over 200 times by now; that’s why he was a must for this production I suppose.

However, gentle reader, the great singer has no idea the play has any meaning. In Italian during the interview with Renee Fleming he said “secondo me” Falstaff does not deserve his punishment. He seemed as oblivious of the real nastiness of the character as he was of the cruelty of scapegoating a person so incessantly which in the production takes over the whole action of the play-within-a-play or masque in the wood at the end. There was no sense at all in anyone that this kind of ritual humiliation is awful. As there was no anger or disgust at the man, so there was no sense these people were engaged in callous mortification — including physical biting by insects. Nor did it feel magical; it was too grounded in magazine-y images.

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I put it this way because some years ago now I went to a production of Verdi’s Falstaff in the opera house in Cleveland, Ohio. I was visting a friend who lives nearby. The characters began in a room behind a stage in “real” clothes and then changed before us into Elizabethan costume; they ended in reverse by taking off the costumes and returning to street clothes. This gave the characters a dual reality: Falstaff was mean and salacious, insulting to Mistress Ford and Page, a lout, a snob, took advantage of his valets. But the comeuppance was seen as overdone, and we felt sorry for him. At the same time the ritual was made to feel atavistic, dangerous folk primal. So along with the singing, I was very much emotionally engaged and the laughter at the slapstick action became complicated, a self-reflexive critique of this sort of “let’s play a trick on someone”, make them “it,” comedy. It’s a good opera based on a fine play: years ago now I saw a production at Sweet Briar college when Izzy attended and still remember it as absorbing (the story of Ford’s jealousy especially) and comically delightful (the masque at end).

It should be said that Shakespeare’s Falstaff in Merry Wives is the same man as the character in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2: Michael Gambon rightly played him as selfish, ruthless, all appetite, highly intelligent but low and amoral in his behavior. Henry IV is at the same time a play with a serious political vision; Merry Wives is an autobiographical witty take on Plautine comedy. None of this came out in the Met production. They often do conventional work: their Don Giovanni last year was similarly utterly unadventurous but saved by the literal obvious meaning of its play, and the acting (especially the two singers playing the Don and Leporello).

As everyone in the interviews say good singing is not enough; one must act, and here they were going through a set of stylized emotions no one took at all seriously. For Shakespeare’s play the passionate character is Ford but his angry aria of jealousy which closes the first act was not murderous; Vassello was eager to smile at each turn of the action after all, belying how he was told this play is about having fun.

A slightly effective note was struck by an emphasis on how this Ford intends his daughter to marry Dr Caius (sung by Carlo Bossi); the possible mismarriage and miserable life ahead for Lisette Oropesa as Nannetta Ford was given some bite and then the fun of her assuaging her comic anguish by eating big spoonfuls of ice cream from a huge tub in the fridge was effective. However, her suitor, Paolo Fanale as Fenton gave no sense of passion or even presence; he could be brushed away by Meade and Blythe as if he were a kitten. Asked what was her favorite moment in the opera, Oropresa said (half-hesitating) her aria during the forest ritual. It was a sincere moment in the interview and it could be said in that bridal outfit, the misty sparkling veil, with all around her solemnly complacent, this moment summed up the production’s pretty unmeaningness.

She was not the only one to have a genuinely felt kind of moment on stage. This was James Levine’s return to active conducting. He may be well enough, just, to do this well (after years of practice and skill), but sat in a hugely engineered special wheelchair one could see he is not well. In the taped interview he could not stop the movement of his hands. I felt for him and thought the most moving parts of the production were when he was applauded. His was a deeply felt performance.

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The reiterated assertion in the interviews that this is his favorite opera, I take to be the usual Met hype.

Of course I thought about Jim and wondered how it was Levine had survived: doubtless he spent hundreds of thousands, and had crews of caretakers, and so many people to make sure he was never abused or mistreated (as my Jim was occasionally), but I know he had a plethora of often fatal painful conditions one after the other and then all at the same time. What an iron will he must have.

Ellen

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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:

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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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Giulio Cesare
David Daniels as Giulio Cesare

Dear friends and readers,

The Met ended its 2012-13 HD season with the superb Glynbourne production by David McVickers of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. From the inspired idea of setting the action in 19th century colonialist India loosely conceived: some of the outfits were 18th century and some contemporary 21st century (Dessay’s last dress and her slip-dress on the bed respectively), some mythic Renaissance (the triumphant close outfit of Daniels. The point was to evoke the colonialist world run by whites — none of Cesare or Cleopatra’s immediate servants were white. To the naturalistic acting and mostly exquisitely beautiful singing (exceptions were Daniels’ first aria, Achillas’s baritone which didn’t carry far though he looked right as the ruthless torment and would-be rapist of resistant Cornelia, Patrica Bardon.

Giulio Cesare

Stand-out performance by Alice Coote as Sextus:

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Christophe Dumaux as spiteful lascivious yet comic Tolomeo and (as ever) the actress-singer Dessay. Coote was subtle, fearful when she should be, shocked, comic. To the use of Indian style Bollywood gestures and dance steps, and orientalist comedy: Rachid Ben Abdeslam as the nervous servant Nirenus.

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It all fit together. (See Cast, story, list of books.)

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Part of the way the opera-makers broke the barriers of baroque formalized stylized acting and repetitive lines of song was also to insist on the staging, kinds of voices, motifs, attitudes, practices (and some of the costumes too) of the 18th century. A proscenium stage within the stage with columns up and down the side. Ships which cross the framed artificially flowing waters — such rich colors.

I noticed it’s called a Bollywood Giulio Cesareit’s not; it’s eclectic, taking what it wanted from repertoire of genre cliches to achieve comedy: it sort of made fun of Handel’s opera. Here are Cesare and Cleopatra as a 1920s competitive couple:

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Here they are all sexuality until a frantic revolutions turn the scene into slap-stick comedy:

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Cesaer (David Daniels) and Cleopatra (Natalie Dessay)

Sometimes Dessay danced a Charleston (all gay innocence):

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and sometimes Dumaux was a silly vain Brit in a tennis-outfit and then again a transvestite in drag:

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At the same time it took the story seriously — especially distressing to watch was Achillas’s (Guido Loconsolo) humiliation and suggestive torture (brought in everywhere in contemporary art) of Cornelia:

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Achillas

The self-conscious variety reminded me of last year’s pastiche Enchanted Island as fantasy mash-up. I’d call this post-modern mash-up. Nonetheless, my favorite moments were the serious ones. I found touching Cornelia’s relationship with her clinging clumsy son, Sesto. I loved the more melancholy arias, like Dessay’s haunting “Piangero, la sorte mia:”

This opera reminded me of how important the costumes (here by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) and masque-like nature of the genre is.

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These past four years have provided me with my real first experiences of actually going to a full season of opera at a given opera-house. I don’t know that I have a sense of a general theme or feel or outlook for a season at the Met. Izzy suggested this year Diva’s predominated. A few got to choose an opera that would be done. Eva-Marie Westbook brought back Francesca di Rimini. The great ones made the opera, like Joyce Didonato as Maria Stuarda. But the Met seems to me to have no perspective but that of strong entertainment, piquant and original productions which do not offend the audience. Pleasure, interest-arousing variety and bringing in money and a larger audience are key here. That’s why the celebrity Broadway-like productions.

I find all the more grating (and condescending) the insistence each time of said hostess (or host) that the experience of “live-opera” in the house is so much superior to that of the person in the far-off theater. I wonder if they believe that? They must say it: how else how justify huge prices? The Met management fears their live audience members will revert to movie-going. Doubtless some people have. That means big loss of revenue for their donors come from their live audience members.

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Joyce DiDonato — close up from Maria Stuarda

While I do not underestimate the visceral effect of live performances, for myself seeing operas in HD-format genuinely competes with seeing and hearing them live. For each opera I’ve been able to understand what’s going on for the first time, to really see the action and acting close enough to be affected by it. I’ve not fallen asleep as yet, and I still fall asleep every once in a while when Jim takes me to a live opera even when we are not sitting too far off. Despite the irritating hype and inanity of some of the interview talk, I enjoy and learn something from watching the stage crews set up the stage between acts and the “hostess’s” talks with costume and other tech people and even the occasional honest intelligent singer. That’s part of what I value of the experience. And yes I like the informality of the audience, the lack of false showing-off.

I now have favorite singer-actors. I recognize less well-known superbly-talented people. I begin to have knowledge of the repertoire.

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From Susan Herbert’s Opera Cats: gentle reader, can you guess which opera is alluded to here? (answer in comments)

The experience lifts the year so that next year I’m again wanting to go to almost all the productions. Saturday dinner Izzy, Jim and I have good talk about the opera. $20 each for admission.

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:

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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):

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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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