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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

deathscene

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

SPORTING-LIFE

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

widowslament

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

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

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

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

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A typical stiff screen shot of the group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah_Jessica_Parker_in_Sex_and_the_City-_The_Movie_Wallpaper_11_800
This promotional shot justifies Laura Mulvey’s famous paper about how film caters to the male gaze

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

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

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

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

Therapedheroine
Susan Woolridge as Daphne Manners the raped heroine

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

CharlesDanceGeraldineJames
Charles Dance and Geraldine James as our traditional white couple

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

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

Ellen

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kingleargloucester
Lear (Joseph Marcell) and Gloucester (John Stahl) on the heath

I stumbled when I saw

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players …

Dear friends and readers,

Don’t miss it. If the ensemble production of the London Globe King Lear comes anywhere near you, get there. The Folger theater in DC was their first stop round the US.

This London Globe production, like that of the earlier Hamlet (in July) can function as a revelation. The three times I’ve seen Lear before (once a PBS film, another time at the Central Park Delacorte theater in summer, a third time in London), there’s been a famous actor delivering himself virtuoso style as Lear. Nothing against that and Marcell lacks nothing against the others I remember. He seemed to be an elderly black man with white grizzled beard and thin hair. Perfect for the part. What makes this production is this Lear is part of a larger world where other figures have countervailing weight (Bill Nash as the Earl of Kent, Bethan Cullinane as Cordelia and Fool); the taking on of more than one role for many of the actors brings out stinging parallels (Daniel Pirrie as Edmund and the treacherous supposed loyal servant Oswald). Alex Mugnaioni as Edgar and Tom the homeless man was particularly strong.

The Globe production of Hamlet revealed its predilection for giving its characters some fun; Shakespeare’s text allowed for much comic deliverance. With the Lear text, the Globe production was at a loss for self-reflexive amusement so they plunged into, and insisted upon the ritual aspect of life, the hypocrisies. The framing of having the actors come out in 1940s style dress and present themselves implicitly as actors going round England in WW2 to keep up morale was the same, but they kept up the suitcases and mime bits in the Hamlet far more than Lear; basically the frame was active in Lear only as the play started, and to make the intermission. It did not return at the end of Lear, for then they were doing toned-down wild Elizabethan dancing (toned down as befitting the play’s ending). The opening scene of Lear is stiff, parable or fable like (as in the opening of Pericles) while Hamlet is realistic — or more so. So here the conceit of actors playing players playing Shakespeare’s characters is used to tone down some of the cruelty. We see the same faces and bodies doing different roles so we know we are in a play. Otherwise, in this play barbarity is us. Both productions were directed by Bill Buckhurst.

To me this time round (this is probably the fourth time I’ve seen the play), the whole of the fourth and fifth acts, especially Lear’s near last lines hit me with their direct truth fiercely:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

It took enormous reserves of strength not to howl with him. Had I done so I would have ruined the play for others around me, so I contained myself with mere writhing and silent crying. I did feel the ripping out of Gloucester’s eyes produced a different gasp in the audience than I have heard before and it’s since the ISIS/ISIL state beheaded by knife two American journalists on YouTube video place on the Internet so the play has become more generally relevant to its audiences too.

Taken as a dramatized poem (which I can do as a watcher), I was most moved in the fourth act when Lear is brought down to the level of a second homeless old man suffering from “food insecurity” (that’s the latest euphemism on US TV media), seeing other beggars, the hard lot of workers gathering seaweed on a cliff. Lear’s insight into how the generality of people lived whether it be BC or Renaissance or today makes him ask himself why did he not see this before? the wracking pain of loss has made him realize how blind he was when prosperous, unfeeling. I look back to see my life with Jim over the past ten years feelingly:

Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I’d say I had eyes again!

I thought about how I had been too complacent, mistakes I’d made, things I wish I had done otherwise. Since then I’ve told Charlie (my grief support person-friend at the Haven) how I felt when I saw the play. She urged me not to make causes of grief that were not there before. If I’m doing things now I wish I had done then, do not retrofit. He was satisfied with his life; he liked it.

The quiet of the audience filing out at the end of the play despite the use of exhilarating dance at the close suggests many were affected.

I can’t resist identifying an actress from Downton Abbey: Gwendolen Chatfield, Gwen in DA, the housemaid who left to take a job as a typist-secretary, was in this production Goneril. She plays the accordion:

accordion

Asgwengoingoffotherinterview
As Gwen going off to her interview with Lady Sybil (Deborah Findlay-Brown)

It was Izzy who first spotted her — though Izzy does not watch Downton Abbey.

It was a Sunday later afternoon and we went out to get two yummy pasta meals from Noodles and Company to take home with us. I washed it down with wine and told myself I would try to go to more of the Folger’s poetry readings, lectures, and play productions too than I have hitherto done.

In talking of Lear, we talked of older literature, Charlie and I. She brought up an image of me as having a package or burden I carry and take to her every other week now, and we go over what’s inside. I mentioned that was like Bunyan’s Pilgrim who falls into a Slough of Despond. I quoted Shakespeare’s speech about men and women being merely players on a stage, and she then said that the act Jim and I were in is now over, I am in the next act, and he’s left the stage.

Tonight I found in Alexander Pope’s poetry where he has a poignant passage about leaving the stage (in his Imitations of Horace) and asserts his actor has “play’d, and lov’d, and eat, and drank your fill,” and my beloved didn’t get to do that, but in another of the Horatian poems there’s this: “The Cordial Drop of Life is Love alone.” “A wheel of fire” Lear calls his life and that is what I am on still too.

Ellen

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Lyndsey N Snyder as the Duchess (We Happy Few)

Britain Global Hamlet
Naeem Hayat as Hamlet (Globe players)

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Emily Relva as Anouilh’s Antigone (Wandering Theater)

Dear friends and readers,

This past week I was privileged to see three absorbingly well-acted productions of profound plays, Monday evening as organized by Capital Fringe Festival: inside a black box theater in an art gallery, a 90 minute version of John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, done more or less in modern dress by “We Happy Few” in a small theater where all the seats were sold:

malfi-promo
Duchess of Malfi’s cast and commentary;

Friday evening at the Folger Theater (the whole place much loved by me, now a member of the theater side as well as a reader on the scholar side of the building), a 3 hour Hamlet performed by the London Globe players as part of their tour of welcoming places in 2014 (the 27th stop they said):

Britain Global Hamlet

and late this Saturday afternoon, as organized by Capital Fringe Festival, at the old and once again re-vamped Atlas theater, H Street, NE, a nearly 2 hour version of Jean Anouilh’s 1944 Antigone performed by the Wandering Theater Company who expect to take the production to off-Broadway this coming fall.

Chorus
Clemmie Evans and Jenna Krasowski as two woman chorus for Antigone

I probably enjoyed The Duchess of Malfi the most. It was acted naturalistically with intense forcefulness and the powerful soliloquies contrasting the natural joy of the Duchess marrying her steward, Antonio, against the fierce opposition of her corrupt, rank-obsessed and incestuous brothers’ ferocious what seems crazed perverse opposition struck strong chords. The focus of the production was the lower class male character, Bosola, endlessly murdering and torturing others in the hopeless hope of promotion and big cash, only to be sneered at when he’s done. (Bob Hoskins did this role decades ago.) So it was accessible. I last saw a production on TV when I was 13 when Channel 13 in NYC was first aired. This production de-emphasized Webster’s exploration of meaningless (“look you the stars shine still” says Bosola to the Duchess at one point) for a mirroring of today’s sexually sick religious hypocrisies, glamorized gangsterism, and antagonistic heterosexuality. I went alone and when I returned home (later at night) sat with a plate of tuna and glass of Shiraz wine watching the latest dire news.

A few years ago now Jim and I saw another Globe production of Hamlet at the Folger, and we did not care for it. The actors were acting Elizabeth players performing Hamlet, and the double turn was too distancing. I believe it was the same actress who performed Gertrude (Miranda Foster) and the difference will epitomize why this production succeeded at least with me. She really played Gertrude directly and with modern virtuoso hysteria and subtlety once we were within the play while at its edges, the singing and dancing and movements as we moved from scene to scene she reverted to an actress-player with her lute interacting with other actors and the audience. I just love the dancing of all the performers together at the end — as magically they all rise from imagined death to brilliant life again. This time the group had a lot more effective stage business during the play, some of which was self-reflexive — the trunks they carried about. At deeply felt tragic moments I felt I was near tears (Keith Barlett as Claudius suddenly confessing that indeed he killed the king and it is killing his soul) and cried at Hamlet’s death, but suddenly we swung round for genuinely comic moments: the world is filled with silly and ignorant and dense (in Shakespeare, Polonius, Laertes) unknowing profound (the gravedigger) presences while others understand the tragic ironies of existence. The mix of comedy and tragedy must indeed have seemed barbaric to the French. The audience did not appreciate the this more modified version of the Globe style, but I gathered more what Shakespeare’s text was meant to convey than I’d done since some of the productions of Papp in Central park years ago. Izzy was not sure how much she liked it. You again had to pay attention to the words which went swiftly. Very strong beyond Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude were Rawiri Paratene as Polonius and gravedigger, Tom Lawrence as Horatio, Laertes, Fortinras, Osric.

The players did get a standing ovation. Not only were all seats taken, but I saw chairs brought in for some known TV (WETA) critic types (Robert Aubrey Davis who seemed to be having a good time). Some of this type of clapping is the result of the place, the price paid, a sort of self-validation. For myself I felt the bitter ironies of the exhibit in the great hall on heraldry: Shakespeare had a hard time gaining the coat of arms for his father. Lord how petty and absurd these competitive mortals be. With my membership I did get a complimentary coffee without having to wait on line.

I mentioned the standing ovation because the Wandering Players were not similarly whooped up, and yet their efforts were as strong and perhaps for the audience more successful. The reviewers have been very hard on this production. It is true that their program notes where they say their play is an allegory of American power and abrogation of civil and other individual rights won’t wash. Creon’s self-justification is that of the Nazi collaborators (Vichy leaders in particular): if they didn’t compromise and collaborate it would have been so much more worse, there was nothing (was there?) to be preferred from the different “sides” and the whole controlled dramaturgy very French despite American costuming. Anouilh in fact like Sophocles keeps to non-specific references and that’s why the play applied at times to events happening in the perversely barbaric acts of this week. When Antigone from her place behind an immured wall talks to the callous jailer (who might himself have been murdered had events gone another way) the suggestiveness evoked the torture of solitary confinement in US prisons today. None of the performers were weak.

I write this blog because all three of these productions will recur elsewhere so my reader can perhaps keep an eye out for them. I feel a bit guilty for not having praised strongly one of earliest of the Capital Fringe Festival productions, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys, done by the “Rude Mechanicals” at the Goethe Institute. Marcus Salley as Sam was the noble soul. I was deeply moved and stirred, at the same time as I so badly missed Jim I had an episode of what’s called STUG. How I would have enjoyed discussing the stage business and props with him:

Prop

I came home in time to go to Noodles and Company and for the first time in my life bring home a hot meal of pasta for myself — spicey tomato and chicken pieces with some kind of scattered cheese, which I washed down with paisano wine.

I did justice to the witty comedy of Miss Emma’s Match-Making Agency for Literary Characters on my Austen reveries blog.

But I never mentioned anywhere a remarkable concoction written by Chris Braak an directed by Cara Blouin: entitled The Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn, the writer and director took numerous passages from Behn’s plays as well as short fiction of Oroonoko and her letters to her lover, Scott, and her begging pleas to Thomas Killigrew as a debtor in prison to present scenes from Behn’s life interpersed with some of her most intelligent moving commentary on her experience of life. It was that complicated an amalgram it should be published so people (me and others) could read the text before showing up. The players were movement artists more than actors and much was covered through mime. Sarah Robinson was Behn. I’d single out Alexandra Blouin as the bully Lord Willoughby and Jennifer Huttenberg as the sword-wielding Mr Scott. They all had studied later 17th century gestures. The production ought to be redone at conferences where people who can appreciate how the underlying material has been brought to life. Alas I cannot find one photo of the production anywhere on line so fall back on a photo of a young Jeremy Irons as a tough Rover from decades ago:

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as a way of remembering how badly Behn was treated by Scott, Killigrew and most of the men she ever knew, died young, but left 37 plays, many playable, much vivid iconoclastic poetry, translations from subversive French prose and verse, personal letters, and marvelously eloquent epilogues. Germaine Greer’s essay on her life is probably closest to the truth that she survived through sheer nerve, being kept as well as incessant writing.

Thus I managed to join in on some of the Capital Fringe Festival this summer. Jim would buy across the 3 and 1/2 weeks for us probably at least twice as many tickets and we would have gone to rock and concert shows. We would have gone to the final dancing under the tent near Gallery Place where prizes are given out.

Jim would have bought at least a couple of tickets for concerts and operas at Castleton. It’s a 3 hour trip to mid-Virginia by car. Out of the question for me alone. I would have gone to the Castleton Festival through the Jewish Community Center which organized a bus tour package to go to see Madame Butterfly complete with a lunch and lecture, but it was full up by the time I registered. I wonder now what the atmosphere of the place with Loren Mazaal’s death in the middle of the month-long teach-in for students and budding great opera singers and musicians.

This coming Friday evening will be my one effort at Wolf Trap. My friend, Vivian, who comes to the movies with me, will go with Izzy and I to a Mary Chapin Carpenter concert at the big theater, the Filene next week. With both Vivian there, Izzy, google maps and going when it is still light, I hope to learn how to get there and back without an ordeal of suffered anxiety over getting lost.

I am not writing as much about what play and concert going I do because a central inspiration for my blog is gone. My readers probably do not realize how much this was Jim’s as well as my blog. While I did 99% of the writing, many of my blogs were the result of seeing or hearing something with Jim, talking with him before and afterwards and then writing up the ideas and feelings conjured up. He would then read the blog and we’d talk again.

His life was cut off early; like many cancer victims he was destroyed horrifyingly by a disease with cruel indifference by the choice of the society he lived in. I was helpless to do anything for him, and today find myself sometimes asked to pretend it’s okay, that I too am getting over his absence. I am not nor are others similarly devastated and those who agree to collude to pretend do a disservice to those gone and the countless being thrown away or about to be as I write these words. Izzy and I remembered his quiet fun today as we went into DC. She talked of how she sometimes imagines herself talking to him as she leaves her job at the Pentagon, and I how I wish I could get myself to.

I did enjoy, learn, somehow profit from what I experienced and write to advise others to go see these productions if they should turn up in some form near you. And now I retire to read in bed with my two cats nearby.

GirlReadingVanessaBell
Vanessa Bell’s Girl Reading

Ellen

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Mybeautifullaundrette
My beautiful laundrette: 3 of the principals: Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis), Omar (Gordon Warnecke), Tania (Rita Wolf)

sammy_e_rosie
Sammie and Rosie Get Laid: street-fighting, riot, encampment removal, killing people, the backdro: Rani (Meera Syal)

Dear friends and readers,

Over the last few nights I’ve been watching these strangely unforgotten films: if you cite the titles, My Beautiful Laundrette (1986) or Sammie and Rosie Get Laid (1987), they seem to ring a bell in your hearer’s ears, or your correspondent’s email. Even if both were directed by the now famous Stephen Frears, as both were filmed more than 25 years ago, there no VHS cassette nor DVD available for Sammie and Rosie, and Laundrette was made for TV on a very low budget, before it was released to movie-houses, some unusual long-remembered chord was struck.

You can buy the screenplays as well as essays and diaries about them, plus Hanif Kureishi’s third screenplay, in a volume called London Kills Me: 3 screenplays & four essays by Hanif Kureishi: I was first drawn to them as I began reading and realized here are yet another set of movies which have drawn riveted audiences which don’t at all abide by the Syd Field screenplay paradigm (true, archetypally, Laundrette can be made to fit). I seem to be intent on watching as many of these as I can: Le Weekend (again Hanif Kureishi, the scriptwriter) two weeks ago, and Only Lovers Left Alive (scripted directed by Jim Jarmusch) this week, 40 minutes into which you are still wondering what is happening here, and what is compelling me to sit here and carry on anyway. Gothic freak that I am

TildaEve
Tilda Swindon as Eve, in this vampire as all anxiety

TimHiddleston
Tom Hiddleston as Adam, the vampire determined to fend everyone off

Surely not anything I am identifying with (as I did Johnny in Laundrette) or anything making any kind of coherent political statement (as does Sammie and Rosie). No, it was the images themselves (which is why I can’t resist circulating them from other places on the Net). And images from Laundrette and Sammie and Rosie are equally arresting.

my-beautiful-laundretteJohnny
Daniel Day Lewis won New York Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor

ModernBritain
An image of contemporary male Britain

Just watch the whole of Sammie and Rosie and you’ll see the point:

Maybe they are remembered because they did not give rise to copycat films; they remain sort of sui generis.

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

My Beautiful Laundrette‘s plot shows you it’s about contemporary Britain’s ethnically mixed population coping while exacerbated by class injuries and lack of cash; it’s also about love two between two gay young men (Johnny and Omar); it’s about older male Pakistani’s emotional desperation, especially the depressed impoverished alcoholic Pape played by Roshan Seth (in an truly unforgettable performance); his beloved Pakistani wife threw herself under one of the trains that whizz by their flat, and he longs for his son to succeed somehow or other:

papaJohnny

It’s also about a younger female Pakistani’s alienation (Tania) from her traditional culture with no welcome into white modern culture. All the characters are complex presences and time is given to characters who don’t fit the general pattern: Rachel (Sally Ann Field) the slightly aging white “mistress” of one of Omar’s rich uncles, Nasser (Saeed Jeffrey) dissatisfied with an ignorant vengeful wife who has been made to be that way.

mybeautifullaundretteLovers

Kureishi writes of how his childhood growing up in the UK, visits to Pakistan, schooling and reading (he loved Baldwin all the more because Baldwin was attacked as hating blacks and himself), career, racial experience all came together in his films. This is its beautiful lesson about life according to him:

The evil of racism is that it is a violation not only of another’s dignity, but also of one’s own person or soul; the failure of connection to others is a failure to understand or feel what it is one’s own humanity consists in, what it is to be alive, and what it is to seeing both oneself and others as ends not means … a society that is racist cannot accept itself … hates part of itself so deeply it cannot see …

It’s an impersonal truth that resonates today in the racist US. The trick of the film though is it’s odd fun: Johnny’s grin, his mischief-making as most of the time he escapes being beat the hell out of; those who savagely attack one another (feet are a target) are also intensely jealous of male fancy clothes, resentful of their own thuggishness and poverty. And memorable scenes of people having their stuff thrown out a window when they are ejected from the premises. No one has a heart but for his or her lover and not always then. Nassar weeps when Rachel says she is tired of being a sex mate and is breaking up with him. Omar berates Johnny as beneath him. Tania is last seen escaping into a train, bags in hand, no where to go where as a modern Pakistani woman she belongs. The language lacks quips (or the kind of ironic jokes Jarmusch’s film and Le Weekend specialize in); simple statements:

Tania: [Excited] I’m going. Johnny: Where? Tania: London. Away … I’m going, to live my life. You can come. Johnny: No good jobs like this [running the laundromat] in London. Tania: Omar just runs you around everywhere like a servant. Johnny: Well I’ll stay here with my friend and fight it out.

It’s easier to like My Beautiful Laundrette than Sammie and Rosie Get Laid. it has more touching moments:

touching

It’s about a laundromat too. One man (often mentioned in reviews) is continually on the phone explaining himself to Angela; there are other regular inhabitants too:

laundromat

Its real and enduring strength is in the suggested complexity of the characters and the believability of their difficult situations.

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

My guess is the Sammie and Rosie is not commercially for sale because the judgement was few would buy it. It is not naturalistic; many scenes are symbolic and the characters kept at a distance from us. Kureishi says “it concerns a number of relationships unfolding against a background of uprising and social deterioration.” It opens with the Brixton riots, police flood a slum area and wantonly murder a black woman making spaghetti (they are after her son); the first words are Mrs Thatcher’s urging the morality of her encampment and people removal; the last words are hers overheard on a speaker.

It made me uncomfortable. Sammie (Ayub Khan Din) and Rosie (Frances Barber) don’t get laid by one another: he has a girlfriend he is sleeping with, Anna (Wendy Gazelle); Rosie refuses to sleep with Sammie because she doesn’t want to get pregnant; maybe she feels she’d have to carry it to term to satisfy her Pakistani father-in-law, Rafi (Shashi Kapoor). She goes to bed with Rani ((Meera Syal), a black British man whom Rafi picks up as a body-guard for a while, a street person with wife and son. She’s liberated as she sees it: dresses overtly sexually,

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doesn’t care who Sammie sleeps with and will not hide her affairs. What bothered me was the sex was done so realistically it was cloying — not parodic and crude as in Girls, and not the chaste romance of say Jewel in the Crown or Downton Abbey (one of several films Kureishi and Frears meant to counter with theirs, viz., Chariots of Fire, Ghandi, Room with a View (the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala version). I didn’t like her outfits either; I wanted to turn away. we have a lesbian couple: one of the pair appears to be Sammie’s cousin. They find heterosexual sex disgusting. We do have a genteel couple: Claire Bloom as Alice (a quintessentially English girl’s name) is brought in as a sweetheart of Rafi’s from long-ago, now living in a green and pleasant suburb; she defends law, police, order; we are to believe she was loyal to Rafi for a long time after and his promiscuity and traditional marriage hurt her. Their scenes are of tender nostalgia love:

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The movie has no story; basically it passes through a few nights of riot and private misery, of parties and ordinary citizen life — watching TV, eating in restaurants; parallel love-making on the screen the three couples. Dialogue concerns Rafi’s political life which he has now given up: he was high in the gov’t of Pakistan and responsible for torture and many ruined lives and places and finds himself berated by his son.

Politican
Being interviewed

He wants to retire to a peaceful suburb (like Alice’s), share his ill-gotten gains with his son and daughter-in-law, watch his grandchildren (he urges this on Sammie and Rosie as their duty) grow up. A bit improbably by the end of the movie he feels guilty about what he has seen in the streets, blames himself for his son’s (to him) hopeless relationship with his wife, but also in a state of confusion about his own life (like Nassar in My Beautiful Laundrette when he loses Rachel), he hangs himself.

Soulsearching
Soul Searching

The trouble with the film is the characters are not as deeply seen, they are more types.

Both movies end on a slightly upbeat note on the principle you can pull down the curtain on life on a good moment as they do occur. The laundry has been half-destroyed by Johnny’s thug friends and he beat up trying to defend one of Omar’s vicious corrupt male relatives, but after some intense strain, Johnny and Omar begin to make up, and are last seen on either side of a sink, washing Johnny’s body together genially.

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Sammie begins to cry for his father and suddenly Rosie shows tenderness to him, embracing him, and implying she may even consider going to live in a suburban house with the money Rafi has left them and at least have sex with Sammie too.

As with Ingmar Bergman’s films (I recently watched another “alternative” paradigm magnificent film, Bergman’s Smiles on a Summer’s Night), Rohmer’s and any number of serial film adaptation, costume dramas (by among others Andrew Davies, Sandy Welch), My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammie and Rosie Get Laid ought to put paid to the idea that written texts must be superior, more complex and complicated, than movies. I find myself unable to write a blog about Bergman films. They are like a super-complicated novel. To the end of his life Jim never gave up on going to see the latest Bergman; we saw them all. A favorite of his was Begrman’s The Magic Flute (it can make you cry with joy).

What I’ve been doing, what has guided my choices beyond my own taste among films in local movie-houses available this or last or the other week, is, is the screenplay available? Is a scenario (in whatever form, companion book is one)? I’m reading these and trying to work out how one moves from these texts to realization, what in the these texts are guiding indicators, how do they work as instruments for creative structure as importantly as the sequences of images and juxtapositions that are laid out in DVD analyses of films called episodes.

Who we are determines what we notice and what we regard as worthy of notice, what we find significant … I came away having bonded with Rachel (Sally Anne Field, the aging white mistress in Laundrette) and Alice (Claire Bloom, ditto, in Sammie and Rosie).

Ellen

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Only in semblance are the outward and inward seasons of a life identical; in verity, wealth of experience is the sole measure of living, and the spirit is timed by another clock than that of the calendar. Under the intoxication of destiny, the mind may traverse lengthy periods in a few days; whereas long years may count for nothing when life is void of momentous spiritual happenings …

for the biographer, who is concerned with the inmost story of a life, only the pulses of passion count. A human being is not fully alive except when his best energies are at work; and when feeling is active, time moves swiftly though the clock-hands circle at the customary pace …

as in dreams, one under stress of powerful affects lives through measureless epochs between two ticks of the pendulum; and with each of us it is as with the enchanted man in the folk-tale who fancied that he had spent a thousand years in the interval between two heart-beats. — Stefan Zweig, as translated by Eden and Cedar Paul, in Mary Queen of Scots (1935)

Hotel
This image is in the movie

welcomingyou
Welcoming the guests

Dear friends and readers,

I’m at a loss as to why or how Wes Anderson claims the connection of this and his group of film-makers’ The Grand Budapest Hotel, with Zweig the movie is so unlike what I’ve read by Zweig (and not only in his Mary Queen of Scots). Anderson has been responsible for the publication of a group of selected works by Zweig titled The Society of the Crossed Keys, and a fair reading shows the same unironic, deeply immersed reverie-voice of Mary Queen of Scots, this time lightened so as to tell the tale of his parents, childhood, and two stories, from one of which, the art-house film, woman-centered, epistolary, all over-voice, Max Ophuls’s The Letter from an Unknown Woman was made (see my Significant Women’s Films).

The Grand Budapest Hotel, featuring Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, concierge of said hotel, is a surreal tongue-in-cheek controlled caricature of other films of the upstairs/downstairs type from Downton Abbey (clearly in mind by its focus on a butler and ostentatious Edwardian feel inside the hotel) to the Grand Hotel (by Vicki Baum, adapted in 1929), to horror films, with an assassin who is a Frankenstein (Boris Karloff has not been forgotten) as brutal murderer. We rush through (as part of a long comic chase) scenes an archetypal museum — shown as basically a boring mausoleum that crowds are found in, why hard to say. We see armed groups at checkpoints at borders of countries with machine guns waiting for others in trains.

Checkpoint
A checkpoint

Have you got your papers? No! off the train with you — and death awaits. It reminded me of the film adaptation of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (scripted by Pinter) in its simulation of scenes from everyday life characterized by impersonality, absurd demands from people at desks, convenience stores, uniforms.

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On the elevator

It is filled with bizarre images of our own society, from over militarized terrifyingly armed, masked police, to miserable prisons and prisoners, to half-crazed people starving, to rich people over-catered to at dinners, in lobbies, trains, suddenly on a carousel,

Carousel

and especially spectacularly a funeral for a grotesquely dried-up old super-rich lady, Madame D. (Tilda Swindon) that M Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) catered to, and was a lover of, as he is of everyone who wants him he says (generous man cannot keep anything to himself); a funeral, I say, where greedy relatives are led by a half-crazed would-be heir (Adrian Brody) who wants to murder M Gustave because the old woman left everything, and especially a picture, to M. Gustave. The picture is a caricature of admired art today (cartoon-like figures, mindless, with an apple — think Francis Bacon).

Images, stylized shots, sudden frozen or slow-moving stills whatever you want to call them are what the film has to offer at its best.

Görlitz
An inside shot

The way these are offered is this: We begin in a graveyard — young girl comes to Zweig’s gravestone (is it? — not sure) and finds many keys attached to the stone, and attaches one herself. She sits to read and we hear talking an over-voice of the bell boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), now grown old and owner of Grand Budapest. He takes us back to time to him as a middle-aged man by a young boy in a train station (I’m not sure which he is) and then back we go in time further to the height of the Grand Budapest Hotel’s life as a place for rich people to come on holiday to. But if you were expecting a sort of Gosford Park with an Agatha Christie flavor (I was), that’s not it at all: instead we get a browned kind of coloring film narrative so we feel we are in a past, and narrative over-voice (still Zero is talking) that presents to us all the types in the hotel, very tongue-in-cheek and slowly, stylized gestures, everyone moving in time with parallel gestures. Finally we meet, M Gustave, concierge, and watch him take up Zero. Then switch to Zero grown older as our narrator and he is sitting down with another guest — most guests sit alone – and proceeds to tell the story — and all drops away to reveal …

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People at work, scurrying about

The movie has problems — like most reviewers have said. First it has little story — once it’s established the Zero inherited the hotel and its in desuetude there’s nothing much to present. It does make fun of how people are often socially dysfunctional when they kid themselves they are socializing. Everyone eats alone. Zero does fall in love with a girl on the staff (there is a staff who we glimpse every so often eating downstairs in a corridor at a long table): such as it is, it’s a chase, with the old lady’s heir seeking to murder Gustave and his sidekick, Zero, and snatch back the picture. Agatha is Zero’s beloved’s name (honoring Christie), played by Saorise Ronan who trots about with the priceless (awful) picture; she is a stereotype of good cautious girl (good girl messages everywhere), bringing with her the baggage of awfulness (difficult, she’s difficult) from Hampton, Wright and McEwan’s Atonement where she played an adolescent girl who falsely claimed rape and of course ruined the lives of a beloved hero and heroine (Keira Knightley and James McAvoy).

Cook
Cooking downstairs to serve the people who count

Yes there is much anti-feminism if you call it anti-feminism to present mocking depictions of lecherous old women straight — not much tongue-in-cheek at all. The jealousy among the males for both the old woman and the young is not one of the areas the movie sends up. So male novels deriving from sexual anxiety are sympathized with.

The film is enlivened by appearances of famous stars — the friends of Fiennes? or Anderson? Bill Murray, Jude Law, William Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson (as “the author”). Each delivers a virtuoso moment. As will be seen it’s your usual movie: mostly males with the token two women.

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Personnages

What keeps it going is a long chase. Essentially it’s a stunt-movie. Fiennes and Revolori (and their stunt-men) performs feats of comic derring-do and miraculous escapes from prisons, down manholes, across snow-covered Alpine landscapes. Intertitles giving us chapter headings help things along.

Flight
Flight

It’s funny — I laughed at witty jokes now and again. We learn the world is a vast place made safe for the rich because they can make the right phone call to the right person who can send a luxury cab to pick you up anywhere you want — in the nick of time. Bob Balakan as M. Martin (head of everything) is hilarious at this. But it’s a game without meaning, put there for the Poloniuses of the audience, who need a jig or they sleep (the uttered jokes are not of the self-reflexive type I remember Ronald Colman uttering in Prisoner of Zenda) .

Prison

You could leave the movie not aware it is through the images a silent satire of our political world where 1% own everything worth while and bully and brutalize and terrorize everyone else — though surely you’d have to be dull to miss it. The alienation is conveyed mostly through Fiennes’s inimitable sudden moments of inquiring gentle candor or (conversely) wild savage cursing where suddenly he is human. I am not sure it does not reinforce favorite myths as the story-line may be said to be about how M. Gustave teaches Zero to take control by self-control amid mad antics (reminding me of Breaking Bad) and then we watch him hand this world over to Zero who however did not live happily ever after since Gustave died young as did Agatha.

It was playing in a huge theater near me which has 22 auditoriums, most of them playing utter trash films, junk, popular action-adventure, Disney whatevers the sort of thing I cannot get my mind to listen to to process. Grand Budapest Hotel was in theater 22 — way up on top, a small auditorium. I’ve no doubt it was there because Fiennes is a box office draw. There were quite a number of people in the auditorium given the size of the space — and we were subjected to 15 previews and loud obnoxious endless feeds of commercials. I did walk out to sit in the corridor until the movie started as the pre-movie stuff had the effect of making me so jarred and nervous I would not have time to calm down before the movie started. Somehow this real framing of the movie was fitting.

That I had to walk to get there (I’m policed by invisible computers which could flash light through my suspended license tags) through sidewalks not meant for pedestrians, fell twice, was fitting too. I wish the mood had been bitterer — Zweig’s stories are sometimes desperately suicidal.

Ellen

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KirstineOpolais
Kristine Opolais who sang and played Mimi

Dear friends and readers,

As what will be remembered about the HD-opera production of Massenet’s Werther this season is the satellite transmission went silent for the crucial last 7 minutes of the play, so what will be remembered about the HD-opera production of Puccini’s La Bohème is the scheduled young star, Anita Hartig was so ill with the flu that she could not show (and HD-productions are not missed by star if they can possibly help it). Hartig phoned to say so at 7:30 am the morning of the performance so that Leonard Gelb and company, frantic to substitute a powerful singer, phoned Kristine Opolais, the effective beautiful soprano who had sung Madame Butterfly in the house (so was close-by) the preceding night to see if she might agree. As Opolais said during the interview, although after a performance she does not fall asleep for a long time and had been sleeping only since 5 am, she felt it was an offer she could not refuse. 2 and 1/2 hours of sleep.

So up she got, was driven to the Met opera-house, rehearsed a part she had not been practicing, got herself into the outfits the Hartig was to wear, these were re-sewn, and the company and she worked together and at 1 o’clock the show went on. The excitement of going to these HD-transmissions is while they are films, while the production is shaped to be a brilliantly projected and understandable movie, they are live. As I sat (alone in the sense that I had no one I knew on either side of me), and Joyce DiDonato came out as hostess in an absurdly over-tight bright royal dress (not her fault, the hosts and hostesses are dressed by the Met staff) and announced apologetically that Anita Hartig could not make it, I felt and heard the disappointment around me. Then before the opera commenced, she said there was a special announcement and out came Gelb with his story. He asked the audience to be flexible, patient, understanding at the same time as trying to assert this would be as powerful and wonderful a performance as Hartig’s had been — he hoped and trusted.

In the event it was. I have no idea what Hartig is like, but Opolais to my ears sang beautifully poignantly and her exhausted appearance, strained face, and all that went with enacting a young woman in the early and then last stages of TB were as good as one can hope for in a singer whose body was strongly healthy in order to undertake such a part and who was wearing exquisitely cut, lavishly swathed, evocatively-colored Victorian dress and shawl. I have seen La Bohème many times, sometimes unconventionally done (as several years ago now at Wolf Trap with Jim and two friends it was set in Brooklyn circa 2000), and knew this was a traditionally-designed performance, heightened into the romantic picturesque by Zeffirelli, the sets going back to 1981. Yet I wanted to go, even though when we three (for Jim was alive when we talked about going to this year’s season), both Jim and Izzy were unenthusiastic. Izzy walked with me to the movie-house but went into another auditorium to see Captain America, The Winter Soldier.

Why? because I find the music exhilarating and wanted to understand it better. Among the various lies the hostess tells the audience, the one of those most irritating is the insistence that the experience of the opera in the house, live, is superior. Nonsense, or it’s only so for those in the first few rows, and I doubt that’s so even then. The large images, the direction which has the movie-audience in mind and shows considerably sophistication over shots, angles, juxtaposition, sets, are intended to reach audiences and do as nothing on the stage in a large house with most of the audience far away can do. The sound I will maintain is as good. Another is the insistence that the people making the opera do not have the film audience in mind, or (Gelb concedes this lest he be absurd) only as an afterthought to a stage production, an enhancement. Again nonsense. For years I’ve seen movie and TV versions of operas before these HD-screenings of the last 6 years and most of the time I fell asleep on the movie just as frequently as the stage production and the movie was never more understandable than the stage even when there were sur- or subtitles. Now I never fall asleep, I don’t even nod off, and I understand what’s happening, including nuances. This would not happen were the film not being done in a new movie-audience directed way.

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The newly angled attic

I know why they insist. They fear the wrath of patrons paying anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars a seat to a mere few hundred to say $100. The HD-seats here in the 2 Northern Virginia and the 2 DC movie-houses we have gone to seats are $25. They fear diminishing the mystic of the voice without microphone, of “presence” and I admit presence probably thrills many people. But there is nothing to compare really having the performance reach you powerfully, directly, with a feeling of no mediation. For the first time I realized with clarity that the story of these lovers is of them getting together because he pretends he cannot find her key, and then breaking up, because of his jealousy; her resort to a viscount because she is so ill and in need of comforts, and with this context their final scene in the attic room where she dies and he at first does not know it, was more riveting. It’s acted and sung in a far more modern way than Traviata where the dying is lengthened out improbably in order to let her sing more and permit a duet. The intellectually intriguing aspect of La Bohème is it combines a Victorian story (with the frankness of a French source) with a modern assumption of death as extinction and relationships as serial without taking this as awesomely sinful at all.

Rodolpho
Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolpho

I was disappointed nonetheless and for what seems a strange reason. I found myself remembering Pavarotti singing Rodolpho. And thus while handsome enough and acting finely and even singing his heart out to the best of his ability (I assume), Vittorio Grigolo just didn’t come up to the thrill of Pavarotti. His voice felt reedy in comparison, it had not the timbre, the suavity, was not as stirring as memory told me. During the intermission he was asked about following in the path of Pavarotti, and said Pavarotti had been his mentor, and he knew this role was especially connected to Pavarotti, a signature role in which Pavarotti made his reputation outside Italy, but he (Grigolo) could do only what he could do. He obviously thought he was equally adequate but to me he lacked that plangency Pavarotti had. In contrast, probably because I don’t remember Mirella Freni in the same way, Kristine Opolais seems to have the requisite timbre and resonance he lacked, projected a voice of painful feeling inside beauty.

SusannaPhillips
Susanna Phillips as Musetta

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. The famous crowd scene (150 people on stage) at the end of the second act was as effective as ever, Susanna Phillips singing Musetta and Massimo Cavaletti Marcello memorable passionate excitement and thrilling voices. Their two voices and antics against those of our central lovers in the second act snow scenes made the contrasts of vexation and petty squabbling against real hurt of a sick woman and bored and foolish man.

Snowtwo

In the closing scene Patrick Carfizzi sang the melancholy adieu to his coat as the philosopher Schaunard with the right tone of despair, and when they got to the dying, I lost it altogether. I cried half-hysterically, responding at a personal level to some of the lines, crying over Jim’s extinction, the meaningless waste, the pain, the silence, the helplessness, an agon, perhaps disquieting those around me though they seemed a singularly phlegmatic bunch. They had not clapped when any arias came to an end; two over-dressed women on one side whose conversation consisted in talking of how much money they were spending on daughters socializing at expensive private colleges performed sighs to one another over the scenery and picturesque romance. That’s all it was to them — much of the audience seems to have bought their tickets at the last moment, came precisely because this was seen as unreal silly romance. I would agree the poverty of the principals was not very persuasive — nor was the experience presented as an escape to real gaiety.

On one of my list-servs someone had gone to La Bohème for the first time the week before (a Pittsburgh opera company) and she had asked fresh questions of it:

I found the Pittsburgh interpretation a bit flat, but have no context to know if that is “normal,” whether or not I am being too critical or what. The opera is very Victorian, with the consumptive seamstress Mimi openly described as an “angel.” I had a bit of problem with the singer portraying her being quite overweight and much as I tried to suspend disbelief, it was hard for me to accept this large woman in her death throes as consumptive. The set was very somber, done in grays and browns, and while the opera depicts both the joys of being a bohemian artist living in a garret–one’s art make one a millionaire, etc — and though the poor artists are shown rejoicing happily in Dickensian fashion over bread and wine, the opera also underscores that poverty contributes to Mimi’s death. However, I thought a brighter set might have helped counter the sadness of the opera–might literally have highlighted — some of the joys amid the poverty. This is important, I think, as I am seeing a tendency (Mad men comes to mind) to depict the bohemian, the hippie, the alternative lifestyle, as unrelentingly miserable — rats, poverty, drugs, etc., and yet we have ample testimony that, at least in the early days, the hippie movement was often also a joyful experience. I also was a bit bemused that in La Boheme we go from Mimi and Rodolfo falling love to Rodolfo wanting to end the relationship because he is too poor to care for the dying Mimi — he can’t keep her warm, etc.–leaving us to rely on narrated backstory about the entire middle, ie substance, of the relationship.

which I tried to address:

For my part I like the productions which are far less fancy … It is true that the way the story is presented is anti-hedonism and in effect a condemnation of living in poverty — see how miserable they all are. No sense that departing from the mainstream for art gives one some strong compensation. If it is presented with gaiety, the gaiety is not attached to any ideas beyond the stirring music and voices.

Most the opera is deflected over to dwelling on tuberculosis and there we have this beautiful woman dying of TB — itself a subject worth our attenion — for again it’s a fragile woman we are encouraged to dwell on as a poignant ideal. A woman I met at the ASECS conference told me her paper was on how this ideal of fragility and sickness (which Austen mocks way before she got ill) combined with TB was really presented as somehow wanted, admired — as long as it was respectable. It was respectable as long as so many people got sick and died — but apparently once it became attached to myths of prostitution and also once the medicine began to be better understood, it was no longer an ideal for readers or viewers to emulate. So Mimi would be rejected as someone not to identify with.

We don’t see the middling parts of their story (presumably going on for months) except as back story; there is no emphasis on joyful experience (escape from grinding jobs), but only how poverty contributes to Mimi’s death. This was the perspective of the Wolf Trap production set in Brooklyn. In this HD-one Rodolpho and Marcello don’t even take their writing and painting seriously: he burns his play and Marcello paints walls in taverns. True.

What emphasis I have seen done seriously is the story of the TB; TB in the era was a taboo subject, not treated at all realistically (except by daring people who then were condemned and castigated): presented fatuously in art (perversely) as an enhancer of a “fallen” woman’s beauty; when respectable women became ill it was to be hidden. Mimi is a milliner, seamstress and is assumed in Victorian myth to be susceptible to seduction so it’s fine to present her as dying of TB.

dying

I’ve never read Henry Murger’s stories. I have never seen Leoncavallo’s so don’t know what verismo brings to the story. If one were to do the opera more seriously, one might switch the illness to cancer, now an epidemic killing and maiming thousands of people, breaking their finances. Perhaps then one would not have a full house unless one did the setting somberly – a sort of Breaking Bad in operatic masque terms.

Given the philistine atmosphere I felt myself in, I escaped (fled from my seat) while the applause at the end was (in the production) still going on and hurried out of the awful theater lobby for the last time this season. I had a cold windy walk home — not being able to use my car. I did show myself that I can be deeply engaged by opera myself — it’s not just a matter of going with Jim. In his interview with Joyce DiDonato Gelb said some truths: one, that each year the Met tries to broadcast a representative set of operas: and next year there will be brand-new productions, unusual pieces (John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer; Iolanta, (alas with Anna Netrebko, a guarded cold woman, stilted and stiff in my estimation), and Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), traditional pieces with great singers (Verdi’s Macbeth); in new productions, Lehar’s The Merry Widow with Renee Fleming, Leoncavallo’s Cavallero Rusticana and Puccini’s Pagliacci (with a great tenor singing both).

I’d like to see some of them, so too would Izzy and were it not that Netrebko is in two I’d like see, Izzy and I might manage far more of the season than we did this sad year.

Ellen

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