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Hoffamily

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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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.

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Stand-out performance by Alice Coote as Sextus:

Giulio Cesare

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.)

Giulio Cesare

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:

Giulio Cesare

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:

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):

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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.

Francesca da Rimini
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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To show affection is to comfort oneself — From Kobayashi, Bonsai Miniature Potted Trees

“The convivium alone … rebuilds limbs, revives humours, restores spirit, delights senses, fosters and awakens reason. The convivium is rest from labours release from cares and nourishment of genius; it is the demonstration of love and splendour, the food of good will, the seasoning of friendship, the leavening of grace and the solace of life.” Letter 42 to Bernardo Bembo, in The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, Vol. 2 (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1918), p. 51, Ficino

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We last see Beecham house [Hedsor house], home for retired musicians, lit up at night

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Our principles as we last see them

Dear friends and readers,

On our way to this film Izzy and I expected another The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, another comic treatment of elderly people coping with retirement, old age, the onset of illnesses which precede death, having only a short time left. It is that and like Best Exotic Marigold, it has a superb cast, one of whom at least (Maggie Smith) has become familiar to many as the wry Dowager in Downton Abbey. Or (I thought) it might be like the Abbey with a central mansion-house, surrounding woods, sequences of intelligent dramatic interaction, and it is that too — Dustin Hoffman as director practices the slow pace, glowing use of sun- and moonlight. The doctor figure, Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith) even resembles Joanne Froggart (Anna Smith Bates) in accent, gestures, stalwart charity:

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Presiding good faery

But there the resemblance ends. The inner core of Best Exotic is irretrievable disillusion and real problems making ends meet. Unlike Downton, Quartet is not a defense of hierarchy. It’s not the house that’s wonderful; it’s what goes on in it. Quartet is a semi-egalitarian fairy tale: Two opera singers whose marriage went sour decades ago meet, after intensely painful encounters (which however don’t go on for that long), find they still love, miraculously sing the quartet from Rigoletto with precisely the same people they once sung it with to a highly charitable audience willing to buy tickets to help rescue the enterprise from bankruptcy.

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Sissy (Pauline Collins) and Jean Porter (Maggie Smith)

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Wilf (Billy Connolley) and Reggie (Tom Courtney)

What makes us accept this improbable fluff is a continual playfulness which emerges in all sorts of deprecating jokes about old-age (and sex, and incapabilities, and dignity), everyone making music all over the house as they work towards their fund-raising gala.

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Harry (David Ryall), Nobby (Ronnie Fox), George (Trevor Peacock) singing “Are you having any fun?”

Perhaps a clue to the serious moral feel of the piece is in the real pathos in some of the people: Pauline Collins captures a sharp note of need in the way she is so eager for everyone to like her and get along. Michael Gambon is amusing as Cedric, the impresario-dictator who bullies her with ease, but he has not given up his older role yet.

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Michael Gambon and Dame Gwyneth Jones seriously evaluate for the gala

The movie is about aging: it’s about being true to what you were despite decrepitude. Not to worry you are not as beautiful, cannot do what you did the way you once did. Let go. Return to it as best you can. Remember. And the credits reinforce this by showing us the musicians and singers in the movie next to photos of them 40-50 years ago, and ending on our principles.

It’s not all opera; there’s music hall. Once a week, Reg lectures to young people in the area about his music and they teach him about rap, hip hop and perhaps rock n’ roll too (though that’s old hat here). He says opera is all about the music, about expressing the inner self, and reprehends how it has been captured by the rich, and set up to intimidate. We see residents dancing all sorts of dances, young people jumping into the bushes (to make love), the doctor smokes on the side quietly in the greenhouse. But the music is mostly opera, mostly Verdi, and Quartet may be regarded as a celebration of operatic song.

For once the trailer is not a mis-characterization except of course the film is altogether quieter for long stretches to allow for relationships to develop, people to fall sick and learn lessons in forgiveness, humility, not to omit kindness:

Maggie Smith is not just a jokester (which she is too much of in Downton), but a lonely woman looking for friends (as are they all) and something with which to replace what’s lost; Smith’s talents not given much play in Downton Abbey come out here (see her Bed Among Lentils for these on brilliant moving display).

The movie based on a play by Ronald Harwood; there is apparently a retirement home for musicians in Italy, Casa Verdi, where (like this Beecham house, named after a benefactor, Sir Thomas Beecham) each year a Verdi gala is put on. The quartet in question, with which the film ends in celebration is from Rigoletto.

Izzy and I arrived just as the movie was starting and had to sit 4 rows from the front: the auditorium was crowded. People applauded when it was over, and the credits begin to roll.

I recommend going. It just avoids the cliches of admirable facing-up in the face of adversity to evoke human and bitter moments. I was all anxiety lest everyone not make it to the last scene. You might say this is Dustin Hoffman’s Act 2 of Last Chance Harvey. There we had the 50 year old couple going for a long-night’s romantic walk; here we have the 70 to 80 year olds not able to do that anymore so making music and singing while there’s still time left. This is Hoffman’s vision of his art now:

QuartetHoffmanBlog

Move over Woody Allen and Julie Delpy (Two Days in Paris).

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[Pray excuse the intrusive ad-words]

Ellen

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Clear away the barricades/And we’re still there! (Thenadiers) …

But the tigers come at night/with their voices soft as thunder … (a lyric in one of the quieter songs) ….

There’s a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables. Now my friends are dead and gone …

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The 2012 film had last year’s Occupy movement in mind

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Ensemble, Signature Theater, DC/Virginia 2008

Dear friends and readers,

Christmas day we (Jim, myself, Laura & Rob, and Izzy) went to see the musical movie version of Hugo’s Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper, an adaptation for commercial film of the original book by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil, Englished and made Dickensian by James Fenton and Wm Nicolson (lyrics Herbert Kretzmer), produced by at least 9 people, some original (Cameron Mackintosh), some film types (Eric Fellner), featuring most notably and successfully Hugh Jackman as Jean ValJean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine (Izzy said later that after a while all she had to do was she Hathaway and she began to cry):

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Raped, stripped, her very teeth taken from her

Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche (this Artful Dodger provided the most unexpected totally alive moments of the production),

Gavroche

Eddie Remayne as Marius and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, the young revolutionaries on the 1832 barricades (representing the 1870 uprising which was put down with more killed than in the whole of the 1792-3 so-called Terror), Samantha Barks as Eponine were as a group stronger and more effective than the first quarter or so of the film. I suspect Hooper felt more at home with them than the wildly romantic pursued Valjean. He changed Fantine to be sexual in lieu of a gamine — for me this did make Hugo’s tale relevant for women. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thenadiers were faultless but over-directed into exaggerated grotesquerie, and Jim felt that their lines, some of the rawest most powerful in the whole piece, were placed so as to lose the central impact they were meant to have.

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Thenadiers with young Cosette

I found Tom Hooper’s production of intense interest as film, as an instance of what contemporary computer, non-naturalistic and symbolic theatrical, on location, close-up and aggressive film-making can tremendously effect. I’d like to see it again to study how the camera was daringly used to turn the vision of the novel into world-as-nightmare.

The music is as stunningly piercing as ever: I was again unbearably moved by the destruction of Fantine, the heart-break of Eponine, the nobility of Jean Valjean and the soaring revolutionary defiance of Marius and Enjolras. At first I thought Marius the actor who played Bingley in Joe Wright’s P&P (2005) and Enjolras, Elliot Cowan as Darcy in Dan Zeff’s Lost in Austen (2008), both deeply appealing types.

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The film’s Eponine (Samantha Barks) dying in Marius’s arms — both elegant, white, archetypal mainstream in looks

By contrast, Jim said no one could sing (!) and they all held their notes too long, Hugh Jackman was miscast (not so) and the whole production (which he said serious reviewers all agreed with) “a mess,” but apart from Russell Crowe who tried hard but just could not get up the seethingly pro-murderous law-and-order evil of Javier I thought them all stirringly effective and recognized that we had here a typical faithful BBC production. I’ve read about 3/4s of Norman Denny’s translation of Hugo’s novel, and unlike the musical, this film adaptation seemed to go through the book phase-by-phase. I don’t say the film had the original coherence, taste, brilliance of Hooper’s Daniel Deronda for the BBC (2002) or even the poignancy of The King’s Speech (2011), but it not intended to be subtle, but rather to sock its cri de coeur of the disenfranchised and powerless to wide varied audiences, and make huge returns in money.

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Jackson as Jean Valjean, the tender-hearted caring for Fantine, promising to bring up Cosette, her daughter

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I know I need say no more as so many have already, since there have been so many reviews not only on this musical film (among them Miss Izzy), and the many productions, French, the original London, the Broadway one, various intermediary as well as concerts versions, but the straight dramatic films and the musical version Jim thought and still thinks the outstanding best, Eric Schaeffer’s Signature version, with Greg Stone the closest to Hugo’s conception of Jean Valjean I’ve seen:

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and Felicia Curry as an inspired Eponine type:

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But I think we can contribute to the ongoing conversation about Les Miserables. We have now seen or perhaps I should say heard the musical four times. Jim did once read about and attempt to sort out the original pre-production show from its first staging and I’ve also read Notre Dame de Paris (in French this time), and Hugo’s powerful anti-capital punishment novella (The Last Day of a Condemned Man (an English translation). And I watched two recent “straight” films.

Le Repas des Pauvres 1877 by Alphonse Legros 1837-1911
Alphonse LeGros, Le Repas des Pauvres (cover illustration for Hugo’s novel)

The soul in darkness sins, but the real sinner is he who causes the darkness (Denny’s translation of Hugo)

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Before the musical was ever produced it was changed to include an overt providential patterning, religious emotionalism, and images of family types sticking together, with the Thenadiers as hypocritical aberrations we are expected to be amused by.

Jim:

Thirty years ago, Alan Boublil and Claud-Michel Schonberg decided to write a musical adaptation of Hugo’s Les Misérables. By 1980, they had a demo tape, themselves the sole performers: voice and piano. They took it to London and got sufficient backing for John Cameron to orchestrate what they had written and to record it with actual performers. This record is commercially available: call it “the French text.” Both Cameron Macintosh and James Nederlander of New York were interested in producing it, with changes. Nederlander actually optioned it, but the option lapsed.

By some later point in time Macintosh had talked Trevor Nunn into directing it. He brought in the RSC and John Caird. Herbert Kretzmer was hired to write the English lyrics, after James Fenton’s attempt was abandoned. The Macintosh/Nunn/Caird/Kretzmer collaboration was produced, first by the RSC as part of their London season at the Barbican, then by Macintosh in the West End, in 1985. Call this “the English text.”

Three major changes mark strong differences between the French text and the English text: the English text is more religious; the English text is, if anything, conservative politically where the French was more à gauche (to the left); the English text is a much bigger show. Nunn seems to have been responsible for the religious emphasis. The French text had scarcely mentioned God: a couple of “God knows how” sort of phrases and two mentions in Jean Valjean’s final lines, closing the piece.

La lumière, au matin de justice,
puisse enfin décapiter nos vices
dans un monde où Dieu pourrait se plaire
s’il décidait un jour de redescendre sur la terre.

Cosette, aime-le
Marius, aimez-la
qui aime sa femme
sans le savoir, aime Dieu.

Nunn added the scene with the Bishop of Digne; the scene where Jean Valjean wrestles with his conscience: “Who am I”; “Stars”; “Dog eats dog”; “Bring him home” and the dreadful scene where the spirits of Fantine and Eponine flank Jean Valjean as he dies (memory claims they were even dressed in white, but memory is unreliable and sometimes exaggerates for effect).

I add that Hugo is anti-clerical; the priests who harbor Valjean are pariahs and despised by all the other church people we meet. There is no afterlife. “Les Miserables” means not just the wretchedly poor but miserable in a more general sense and includes the outcasts, underdogs, rejected of society, and radical critics and rebels (who often do very badly economically and socially). Take, Book 2: Book 2, “The outcast.” The opening sequence of the movie follows this — prison for no crime at all, cruelty in a long sentence, hounding afterward with no forgiveness or any opportunity to be a productive member of legal society.

In case anyone might think this kind of thing can’t happen, he or she need only read a newspaper or journal article about who goes to prison in the US, for what, for how long, the typical use of extreme solitude (which Atul Gawande in a persuasive article in the New Yorker argued is a form of super-expensive torture): very long prison sentences, no reprieve, for small crimes having to do with drugs. Inside may be a step up for some, but it’s very bad socially. Women’s prisons are even worse than men’s, for they are subject to sexual harassment, parted from their children ruthlessly. Meanwhile bankers steal billions, flout the law and are not even brought to trial.

But the musical takes Hugo in the direction of Thatcher’s 1980s:

Jim:

Some of the depoliticizing between the French and English versions may have been unconscious, the result of removing specifically French references. In the French text, the students are carefully organizing coordinated risings:

Au Pont au Change, toutes les sections sont prêtes
Grantaire attend à la Barrière du Maine
les sculpteurs, les marbriers
tardent à se joindre à nous
mais les maçons de Montreuil
seront tous au rendez-vous

In the English text, they seem to take it on themselves to rise, because who wants to confuse the audience with the masons of Montreil. But “Empty chairs and empty tables”, added for the English text, clearly condemns the students: “Don’t ask me/What your sacrifice was for.” More, Javert, in the French text, is not really to be taken seriously. In the English text, thanks to “Stars”, he’s the second leading man.

Nunn also made Les Misérables a grandiose show. DCist in its theater preview wondered how Signature would fit it into “much smaller quarters than usually house the famous turntable-style set.” Nunn had added choruses, he added scenes, some, like “Turning”, quite unnecessary. Nunn justified “Turning” on the grounds that the women didn’t have enough to do otherwise. Of course he then used the revolving set to manage the quick scene changes. All these changes made the show worse.

I don’t mean to say that in all aspects the English text is worse than the French text. Many of Kretzmer’s lyrics are much better than those of Boublil/Schonberg. The bridge of “I dreamed a dream”, for example: “But the tigers come at night/with their voices soft as thunder.” There is nothing remotely like that in the French text. The best line in the show, from Madame Thénardier, I’m sorry, Mme. La Baronne Thenard, in “Beggars at the feast”: “Clear away the barricades and we’re still here” (perhaps the profoundest line in contemporary theater), was added. “Beggars at the feast” is the reprise of “Master of the house” which bulks up and makes rollicking — and Dickensian. Nunn had directed Nicholas Nickleby — “Devise d’un cabaretier” where Thénardier complains he is one “qu’une destinée contraîre a planté dans ce canton” and thus has become, perforce, an innkeeper)

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The 2008 production had La Boheme not Dickens A Tale of Two Cities in mind

Jim had gone up to Eric Schaeffer, to say this Signature production was better than the London production we had seen years ago. “This sounded better than it was, since the London production had left me rather cold.”

Jim:

Schaeffer managed, in the Signature production, to minimize these changes. He could do nothing with the religion and politics that are baked into the English text. One cannot not sing “Stars” or “Bring him home.” And Javert did take the penultimate curtain call. But he could and did de-emphasize at least some. The business with the saintly Bishop of Digne went quick. In the final scene, Fantine and Eponine sang with Jean Valjean, but they stayed on catwalks leading to the stage (and neither dressed in white).

And he made the show intimate. The MAX theater is a black box. For this production it seated around 250. It was set up as a thrust stage, with two catwalks leading to the corners of the box, screened at the back. Sliding doors in the screen allowed mass movements onto the stage (for choral entrances or the barricade). The orchestra (two winds, five brass, three keyboards, guitar, bass, two percussion) was set on a balcony behind the screen, the conductor’s image on two screens visible from the stage. The audience, then, was on three sides. No more than six rows on any one side. Every member of the audience was closer to the cast than any member of the audience would have been in a conventional proscenium theater with the orchestra in a pit between the audience and stage.

In this setting, he brought out the quiet elements of the score. There are many. Of the 28 numbers, a majority are either soliloquys or conversations. We eavesdrop, up close, on them. The actors eavesdrop with us. In “A heart full of love”, Eponine is on the catwalk, members of the audience on either side of her, as she overhears Cosette and Marius (the same location, exactly, as she will occupy in the second act finale). She is suddenly lit as she reacts. We do not know how long she has been there. She is us. And we sympathise. Schaeffer doesn’t shrink from the noisier numbers. “Master of the house” is duly rollicking. He accepts the Dickensian parallels: Cosette in Paris reminds us of no-one more than Lucy Manette.

But the heart of this production are the quiet lyric pieces: “I dreamed a dream”, “Who am I”, Fantine and Jean Valjean’s duet around her deathbed, “Stars”, “In my life”, “A heart full of love”, “On my own”, “A little fall of rain”, “Drink to me”, “Bring him home”, Javert’s suicide, and, yes, the second act finale.

******************

To conclude,

There have been 19 (!) film adaptations, most recently a French mini-series with Gerard Depardieu as Valjean and John Malkovich as Javert, and in 1998 an English, with Liam Neeson as a noble Jean Valjean; Geoffrey Rush as Javert (hard and steely), Uma Thurman as Fantine (the raped Cecile in Les Liaisions Dangereuses), Hans Mathisen as Marius (deeply felt), Ann-Marie Duff (wry, realistic) the last two also in Davies’s adaptation of Dr Zhivago. Depardieu practically stands for France (remember Martin Guerre) and Malkovich (Valmont, Jekyll-Hyde) has had a long career playing evil types; the English cast shows the connection between Zhivago and Hugo. Five translations into English are available.

The story, characters, events are a parable for our time.

To turn it into a film musical with the whole repertoire of montage, location, psychological in-depth acting is to make it more available to everyone. On Christmas day almost every seat in the auditorium was taken. We were just in time and had to sit in the front row.

I remember that in London Patti LuPone sang Fantine, but she was far away — we were in the back of the orchestra. Anne Hathaway is right on top of us, close up, the story made utterly contemporary. When she sang the pain goes on and on I found myself remembering my own anguish. I was rooting for Enjolras all the way.

ENJOLRAS

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!

(I wish).

Izzy is right. You need not see this version probably. Jim is right too: perhaps another would be more thrillingly sung. This was over-produced and not controlled enough. But I would say not only don’t miss it, but also read the book, go on to Notre Dame de Paris and then The Last Day in the Life of a Condemned Man. Les Miserables‘ vision is more than of the wretched of the earth; he shows how such wretchedness is made deliberately and what it feels like to be hunted down, scorned, fearful, alone. Don’t skip the supposed digressions (Waterloo for example): the history, analysis of how society is organized into exclusionary cliques, the skewed values of church and courts passionately laid out and as relevant today as ever.

Ellen

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The death of Dido

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

************************

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that I don’t love Traviata.

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Johan Botha as Otello and Renee Fleming as Desdemona

Dear friends and readers,

We began our fourth season at the Met via satellite and digital technology with an older production of Verdi’s Otello, this season featuring Renee Fleming (one of my favorite singer-actresses) as Desdemona and Johan Botha as Otello, Falk Struckman as Iago. The movie-theater less than 10 minutes away from our house — a huge building which has something like 14 auditoriums — has taken to making the Met HD opera auditorium a wing-side groundfloor corridor, and there were some surprizes for us this season. Not all of them welcome. For example, the benches just outside the auditorium in said wing which allowed the customer (not guest as the employees have been instructed to call people who pay to see movies there) to sit just outside the individual theater while the deafening preludes of relentless glittering screen advertising are going on have been removed. My guess is the management noticed that some of the HD opera patrons were quietly eating food and drinks they had brought from home. Verboten. So I have now to sit in the front main area and be bombarded (though no where as loudly) by advertisements for coming movies on screens placed at regular distances from one another.

I do my best to ignore these TV screens against walls, stuck in corners high up, while reading whatever books or periodical I have bought with me. I noticed that other HD patrons on near-by benches (who are distinguishable from the usual movie-goer and not just by age) were doing the same.


The party-crowd scene with Desdemona in middle

More ambiguous was the change in camera work which defines and shapes, indeed is our experience of the operas broadcast from far away. As I came back into the by-then crowded theater (Otello is provides popular erotic tragic and violent melodrama; Renee Fleming what’s called a Diva) five minutes before the show was to begin, I steeled myself for the usual last minute Bloomberg commercials. For three years now I have heard how I am to be grateful to Bloomberg for this broadcast and then told in very high decibels with continually changing shots on a screen that subdivides and re-divides itself that Bloomsberg and his employees are working for me, watching over the globe everywhere in the globe that counts, every minute of every hour of every day. What am I to do? Huis clos (no exit). This revelling in Big Brother Watching Us All glides into the opera and and start as the theater goes dark. I could boo and hiss, and certainly wanted to when Bloomberg rejoiced over how he owned the police and they were his army to destroy the Occupy movement. (If anyone wanted proof of Vidal Gore’s comment that the top 25% in income in the 1990s despised everyone else, and the real elite spent their political lives making sure there is no democracy, he or she had only to listen to this man sneer at average New Yorkers’ response to his sending “his” cops to beat up anyone assembling at Occupy sites; their racism, only watch a YouTube of police stopping and frisking young men of color — humiliating, kicking, imprisoning them.) Still what good would it do? I’d probably be shouted down by at least a few people (if anyone bothered to protest) and if anyone else booed too, it’d be just silliness. (As the movie-theater for reasons that remained mysterious had no coffee available, and I don’t drink popular soda except in super-heat, I was in no danger of being caught with anything but a medium-sized drink.)

This year though the commercial had vanished, and instead I was informed the Neubauer Family (whose name had been prominently displayed before the Bloomberg extravaganza got going) and Bloomberg were the people (corporations anyone?) I was to be grateful to in a series of silent varied artistic print-outs playing over a screen which metamorphosed gaily from a lovely silk looking cloth (rather like the one that start each episode of the BBC/WBGH BB 1995 Pride and Prejudice), to suggestions of countries across the earth (we were one family of theaters across the globe) to galaxies back down to figure drawing suggestive of Lincoln Center, the Met theater and little people hurrying inside.

But before that we had noticed something else new. From the first year we have been aware that that the reason the audiences far away can enjoy close-ups in ways no one inside the theater can were robo-cams, really small cameras along the side of the stage which had no person attached to or controlling them directly, but which Jim had suggested to me where operated by people in the house at remote points in the house. At the back of the theater are (we have supposed trailers of equipment) into which all this feeds. These robo-cams may still be there. But now they are accompanied by two cameras on long poles positioned from the nearest boxes and operated directly by someone. We could see the two men.

And what a difference these made. Immédiatement. We saw the audience close up as I don’t think we had before. Some of the angles made me slightly dizzy. You felt you were in the theater. When we watched (one of my peculiar delights) the opera crews, riggers, people putting together the sets, electricians, we really saw details I had not before: one man high up on a ladder in a harness holding two parts of stage-y temple like structure together. It was as if we were on the stage with them. This is great fun. But when it came to watching the opera I’m not sure. One problem with a movie is the camera can control what you see as the stage does not in a live theater, and I remember feeling frustrated when we watched the dancing in a Carmen because the film-maker-director had decided I would watch those part of the dance the star was in when I’d like to have seen the whole figure. Now we dived into the stage deeply.

They de-mystified the experience. It was like you were on stage. So we got up close to the extras and very minor singers doing things to pretend they were at a party. When seen from far, the effect is more illusionary. I could see the individual children prancing around Renee Fleming and her smiling sweetly at them. It’s long been known that the close-ups in HD format do not flatter the singers necessarily and they make the older, less attractive, let’s call it fatter people look inappropriate for their roles. This time I could see ripples on skin.

Maybe though it was also like being at a play instead of a movie. When in a small theater and sitting close-up I’ve seen the action at such an intimate vantage point. I’m not sure though that the film director credited does have the final say in what’s done on stage. When I’ve asked (at Castleton’s operahouse in mid-Virginia in question-answer sessions with directors), How does the increasingly wide-spread viewing of operas change the way they are directed? I am ignored, not answered, or told “not at all.” Really? if you believe that … Enchanted Island last year was aimed at the larger auditorium audience at a distance.

At key moments — say when Otello is singing of his broken faith in Desdemona, or that final poignant death scene, the camera stayed at a discreet enough distance to emphasize the tableau of dead bodies fallen on the stairs side-by-side.

It was really the breaking in on of ensembles where a general impression was sought, not scrutiny of particulars going on stage.

However, the photographic presentation of operas are changing, and there is this irresistible urge to use whatever new technology is available at the moment, and that is what we are seeing this year. Last year was the year of the Wagner’s Ring on a dangerous ludicrous machine.


Falk Struckmann as Iago singing of revenge, exploitation, greed

And what about the opera itself? This production manifests a reading Verdi and Boito’s text and spectacle and music that is familiar to me. In Shakespeare Iago descends from the “motiveless malignity” of an idea of evil, pure evil, reveling in itself seen in medieval drama. The destructive nature of nature itself. Othello’s sexual anxiety and humiliating jealousy is prepared for: Shakespeare’s Desdemona is, it’s insinuated, a sophisticated Venetian lady, and Othello a naif from magic-ridden Africa. Yet it’s fantasy too: for swift movement allows for no slow-build up making for believability.

By contrast, Verdi’s Iago is a venal man, sordidly murderous because he has been passed over for promotion and Cassio the up-and-coming man. Verdi’s famous arias for Iago show the figure was to sand for someone who lives his life without religion of some sort. That’s what makes him evil. The language of the opera is Christian religion-drenched while Shakespeare’s is not. Verdi’s Iago is a nihilist. IN both though Desdemona is hated by Iago, despised because she is so good and loving. In both it’s not realistic she would not catch on until too late that Othello is jealous of Cassio and she is needling him unconsciously by in Shakespeare her attempt to exercise power, and in Verdi her innocent appreciation of the sweet young equally good man, Cassio.

So, how what was the take of this 1994 production? Verdi’s and the most powerful arias are Iago’s on nihilism. Falk Struckmann as Iago was strong throughout, sordid and venal and petty when he needed to be, reaching out for allegories of meaningless and against Christian idealism implicitly. Struckman’s voice was ringing strong, nasal in just the right way. The young Michael Fabiano’s tenor as Cassio was very sweet. He seemed the youngest of the principles.


He looks tougher and darker in this still than he comes across in the production

James Morris’s baritone still has an uniquely beautiful sound and he acted the ambassador with asperity; Renee Tatum was a strong mezzo-soprano presence as Emilia. A small but significant role — though too much is cut from Shakespeare’s wry ironic woman.

I just loved Renee Fleming (so beautiful in one of her dark red dresses and swathed in lovely shawl around her white nightgown — I love in her aging), but her character was given much more depth as the opera went on, and she consequently had more to act out and was more and more effective as the opera went on. How scared she gets of Otello. How much she wants to live. I was surprised how moving, poignant was Johan Botha as Otello; his dream of this person lost. The two of them in the last part were breath-taking. At first they seemed too old but then since the first act is left out I just saw them as an older couple (like a 1948 movie with Ronald Colman as an actor who plays Othello in a play and really murders his wife – in the film story) who have had the crux of their belief in one another successfully undermined. I did have to forget Andrew Davies’s modernization of Othello where the principals were searingly Shakespeare’s in allegorical reach as well as contemporary relevance.

Which gets me to the staging. It creaked. Too much fuss. Too much tawdry when up close phony attempts at apparently luxury and power seen in the lavish costumes and then the temple-like settings. We did see how scratched the bed-boards on the side of the bed were by this time. The opera needs to be re-conceived along the lines of last year’s Willy Dekker’s Traviata. The power of this opera is not in the politics, or the crowd scenes, but in the transformation of intimate life so aptly shown most readers and viewers can enter right into it. This was the focus of Andrew Davies’s updating of Othello. And the best moments in this opera and for the actor-singers too were in the initial love duet of Desdemona and Otello, the gradual poisoning, disillusionment, her growing terror, and his obtuse madness.

I recommend seeing it as a traditional production.

A word on the interviewer to this one and these interlude interviews in general. Sondra Radunovsky. Dressed in this too tight-for-her big body glamorous-polyester scarlet red low cut gown, Miss R was not talking to anyone but enunciating a memorized speech filled with cliches at us, and making hardly any eye contact with the interviewees. it was sort of funny, especially when Radunsky interviewed Thomas Ades, composer of the new opera The Tempest. He half made a little fun at the way she was mouthing her cliched pronouncements. I suppose it was bad of me not to feel for the person slightly mocked but I found Sondra R’s whole demeanor grating — it felt so false, so mindless. I detest false glamor, false cheer. How happy and lucky everyone is, and all the interviewees insisting on the genius of everyone around them. Jim maintains there are cue cards and the “host” or “hostess” is partly reading these, and even that those who come out to be interviewed are given suggestions (partly scripted). If so, Renee Fleming and Deborah Voigt are very good at simulating conversation when they are hostesses.

A friend on facebook suggested it was a sort of culture clash: Ades was not prepared with canned replies or not used to be asked canned questions, and his discomfort came out in ironies that distanced himself and half-made fun of the conversation. In the HD Euro-operas we’ve seen in DC theaters, there is nothing like this Met hype. The talk may be scripted but if so it’s kept a lot more low key. The Met is continually selling itself, positioning itself. It’s the American opera house. I much enjoy seeing some of the singers; they do give themselves away and I especially enjoy watching the crew people but I know that when I go to a Euro opera I have thought to myself, I’m glad to be left to myself to enjoy or react however to the the opera in a quiet screening.

I confess I find laughable when the hostess suddenly turns round on you and tell you the only truly “real” experience of an opera is when you are at the Met theater. The “local” ones count too of course (but since when is the Met not also a local place.) Go there rather than sit where you are. (Actually another aspect of the implicit elitism of what’s broadcast.) If so, why are you now so determined to make us feel we are there with your cameras, up on stage with the performers? or is this just an unexamined development of technological innovation overdone.

I now know what these operas are about from the subtitles. I’ve really seen and taken in 3 seasons. Still the occasional wince & sense of aggravated ostentation is not a bad price to pay for these richly artful experiences of song, music, drama, costume, production spectacle, a friendly non-pretentious audience all around you. $20 for each of us a time. We are from the 99% in the movie-theaters.

E.M.

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