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LadySatdinner

Violetappreciatesit
Lady Sinderby (Penny Downie) winning the first round against Lady Flincher (Phoebe Nicholls), with Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) alone registering appreciation

Lady Flincher: ‘Tell me, do you find it difficult these days to get staff’
Lady Sinderby: (observant of the Flincher’s desperate state): Not really but then we’re Jewish, so we pay well
Violet, Lady Grantham smiles in enjoyment

Dear friends and readers,

It’s unfair and inaccurate to declare the fifth season of Downton Abbey was so much treading water, even if the experience often felt that way; but if so, it’s fitting that this season’s penultimate episode is Rasselas-like in that we have Resolutions, in which little is resolved. How did Fellowes manage this? By making important not what the principals in each drama said or did, but how what had just happened was brought about by other people enigmaticallyas the curtain went down on all left standing or walking towards Downton Abbey.

Walkingback
Far shot of nearly (but not) everyone walking back to the Abbey

For example, did you imagine Lady Rose McClaren (Lily James)’s wedding to Atticus Aldritch (Matt Barber) was about hopeful youthful love, or showed how intolerance can be overcome (pace Mrs Hughes’s “Hurrah for intolerance on both sides”), or even about Lord Sinderby’s (Daniel Aldritch) apparent intransigence (a theme of the episode as heard in Violet telling Prince Kuragin “Don’t proclaim your intransigence as if it were a virtue”). No. What happened is Lady Sinderby won, but not just over Lady Flincher who at the last moment said publicly she and Lord Flincher (Peter Egan) are getting a divorce, just what Lord Sinderby said he would not tolerate, as divorce is a degradation, a confession of weakness, failure (he was intensely strong on that), but also over Sinderby himself:

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Lady Sinderby: Thank you, Lady Flintshire. Or may I call you Susan? We are forewarned and so now we will be forearmed.
Lord Sindeby: You can’t mean
Atticus: Father, I beg you …
Lady Sinderby to her husband: Do anything to stop this marriage, anything at all, I will leave you, and then you will have a scandal worthy of the name! (HUSHED CONVERSATION) …

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The camera focused on Lady Sinderby’s intense trembling satisfaction first and returned to shots of her during the ceremony. Mr Carson (Jim Carter) was not the only one to remark on something odd going on. Like others he focused on the lack of a veil: “it was a funny marriage. No proper service, no veil! You’d have thought one of them was divorced.” But that was not it. We have yet to see the 30 year old young woman brought to Alnwick Castle Christmas time with her young boy. She comes because by Thomas (Rob James-Collier, a kind of avenging angel in this latest phase) as a mode of getting Lord Sinderby to dislike his spiteful steward-butler for exposing Lord Sinderby. But how did Thomas know about her? Something wants explanation. Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) says she wishes the young couple “well.”

Anibundel was correct to suggest not the new characters introduced in the first episode of this season, but those on board towards the end are the most intriguing.

Surely it will be said we have a resolution for Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) and the whole of Downton Abbey for closure for World War One. WW1 began the last episode of the first season went on through the second (WW1), and lingered past the third (Mrs Patmore’s nephew killed by the British army for not killing as ordered). The fourth season saw the disappearance of Michael Grigson. This fifth season there was the memorial committee and the widow in the village. Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonnevile) despite all bumbling, disregard (called “Donk” by his grand-daughter with Lady Mary’s [Michelle Dockery] encouragement), has had a memorial plaque put up for Mrs Patmore’s nephew too. We watched the ceremony of all the characters (but our true heroine, Anna Smith Bates, Joanne Froggart) sitting and standing as group remembering those who died and the war.

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Mrs Patmore is closer to feeling a resolution than the others. But her tie is now to Daisy (Sophie McShera) as we see when she walks back after gazing at the plaque; here is her daily life and future. How it grieved her to think Daisy would be giving her notice in so she could remain in London with all its advantages. She could not stop crying.

Is Daisy going to stay? The farm and her all-wise (better than Fielding’s Allworthy who was not all-seeing too) guiding spirit, Mr Mason (Paul Copley), win out for the moment:

Mrs Patmore: ‘At her age, it’s right she should have a new adventure, isn’t it?’
Mr Mason: ‘Is this true, Daisy?’
Daisy: ‘No, she’s just teasing! At least, I did think about it, but I’ve decided I’m not going anywhere, or not until after I’ve passed my exams.’
Mr Mason: ‘I’m glad. I hate it when people who love each other must be far apart.’

Another beautiful moment occurred when Mr Moseley (Kevin Doyle), Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and Daisy walked back from the Wallace Collection together.

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I know it’s absurd when Mr Moseley laments that he comes to London and never manages to see anything, as if he were not a full-time servant but a modern tourist; still it’s touching when he quotes an art book and shows he can respond as much to a reproduction (anachronistic again) as the pictures in the gallery. The point is Daisy with her Vanity Fair will not forget. Nor Miss Baxter who however rings in a new form of doubt about the future: “You’re never safe ’til the ring’s on your finger,”

Mr Moseley: ‘Do you want to be safe, Miss Baxter?’
Miss Baxter: ‘I might … ‘

To return to that last walk back to the Abbey after the Memorial ceremonies, Lord Grantham reveals he has guessed that that Marigold is Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) child by Michael Grigson, but is that the end of her story? (or his?). Tom (Allen Leech) tells Lady Edith that she should go back to London to run her publishing business and write; he’s going to take his Sybbie with him to Massachusetts. Why not take Marigold?

Does anyone believe he’s going for sure? Oh he’ll stay until Christmas, and then there are the houses he wants built on the estate. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) vows to stop him.

The worst is what has happened to Anna and Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle). She has held out against the Inspector Vyer’s (Louis Hilyer) bullying attempt to get her to admit she was raped by Mr Green, advised by Mr Bates to keep their secrets until they must reveal them. The upshot: she is arrested.

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Mr Bates says ominously to Lady Mary on the walk back to the abbey she won’t be convicted. In those words are a threat he’ll confess and prove himself guilty first.

Reversals too. Near the close it’s Mr Carson who tells Mrs Hughes as she reveals her intense anxiety about the Bateses’ future and for once her own:

Mrs Hughes: ‘Sorrow seems to shadow them both and in their wake, it shadows us.’
Mr Carson: ‘Come, Mrs Hughes. This isn’t like you. Take courage for their sake. We must always travel in hope.’

In previous episodes we’ve heard how hope is a treacherous distraction, hurting more when the illusion is done.

But has not Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton) made up her mind not to remarry Lord Merton? we saw as she came away from one dinner table the hurt Lord Merton’s sons were able to inflict her on, the tension between Merton and her they could cause. It’s been reinforced by watching what has surrounded Lady Rose’s marriage. But she looks grim coming back to the Abbey. She had expressed surprise at Violet’s disappointment for her in an earlier walking scene between the two of them late one evening as they were off to bed befoe the others

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Mrs Crawley: ‘You’ve changed your tune.’
Dowager: ‘I’ve been reminded recently that one is not given many chances in life and if you miss them, they may not necessarily be repeated… ‘

Mrs Crawley was not been at yet another scene between Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija) and the Dowager where Violet wavered:

Kuragin (2)

Kuragin (1)

And on this final walk, it seems what is holding Violet back is the existence of the Prince’s wife. Lord Merton’s wife is dead. Yet there they are walking and talking the true companions.

Is there anyone who does not either waver or express doubt about the future or act enigmatically or suddenly change their tune? Miss Denker (Sue Johnston) has it in her to be an unscrupulous lapper-up of alcohol, and we begin to wonder if Spratt (Jeremy Swift) is not right about her, though unable to do anything about her but hide his mistress’s case under the bed to get her into trouble. The Dowager caught that.

Who believes Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen) will be happy with Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman) who has returned to her supercilious self, so her thought about her wedding is her preference for the city over the country where there will be less mud, while he carries smoldering with resentment against Lady Mary Crawley.

Beyond “Uncle Thomas” (! he calls himself) rescuing another male footman so generously (in character that; he rescued Jimmy more than once), I found myself feeling for Lady Mary at the close of the episode because Mr Carson observed underneath her aloofness a bleakness. Carson may overrate her, but she is not a fool, and she will miss Tom.

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Carson: ‘Is everything all right, m’lady?’
Lady Mary: ‘I thought I’d sneak away. I don’t think I’ll be missed.’
Carson: “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.’
Lady Mary; ‘I feel as if our household is breaking up, Carson, but I suppose that’s what happens. People grow up and move away and things change.’

She showed much feeling when mourning Matthew, unable to turn to someone else. Now she may be left with Edith and (as she jokes) get sent away for murder.

This episode was more Thackeray than Trollope.

Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets for our play is played out.

After all since Lady Sinderby was introduced, she has been my favorite puppet this season.

Ellen

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Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon as Mr and Mrs Miniver with their children in a locally dug-out air raid shelter with their children, Toby and Judy (Christopher Severn and Clare Sandars)

Dear friends and readers,

If you read my other blog, Austen Reveries, you know I’ve been working on a paper on the importance of screenplays to be given this March at the ASECS, part of my larger project on Austen films, and just enjoyment of, interest in screenplays.

This week I’ve been reading great and powerful screenplays, chosen mostly as a result of what’s in print and well-prepared in two sets of what ought to be famous collections (John Gassner and Dudley Nicols, 10 Best Film Plays, 1942, and Best Film Plays [10] of 1943-44; and George Garrett, Jane Gelfman, and O. B. Hardison Jr’s Film Scripts 1, 2, 3, 4 (1970s). This to help me demonstrate the centrality and great power of them when well-prepated, and how they are a new changeable experimental genre, worthy reading and study in their own right. When I read Dashiell Hammet’s Watch on the Rhine adapted from Lillian Hellman’s stage play of the same name, the experience was gripping, almost as good as watching it. When I read Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man this week (once again), maybe it was better in some ways. To my surprise, and not meaning at all to have Downton Abbey in mind (though Fellowes has been smart enough to publish the screenplays of the first three seasons completely annotated, with omitted scenes, stills, the works), I discovered a real provable source for one of the striking episodes of the first season: The Flower Show. Here is a still from that in Mrs Miniver:

TheflowerShow
Probably not one of the more remembered scenes of the movie, though it leads into the tragic climax

First let me suggest just a few of the characteristics of screenplays that put them apart from other genres that I’m working on: The writer writes with camera visualization in mind, and an awareness of there will be a world created by the hallucinatory screen from production and costume designs: screenplays presuppose encompassing specific worlds constructed so the viewer shall suspend disbelief, and within this assumed imagined environment the scripts present bits of dialogue, descriptions of movements of setting, suggestions for actors and silent moments, and camera angles as a quick succession of fluid and suggestive experiences with movement involved, freed of the time and space of a literal stage. In recent contemporary films what happens in this film is conveyed through a continual movement back and forth between past and present time, with lingering voice-overs that spill voiced thoughts across the interwoven obsessively remembered past and present time in quick change montages. Studying film adaptations alongside the scripts has taught me the films are made of dislocated series of images which can be moved about; Sarah Cardwell demonstrated these are not in the present tense, but tenseless or timeless (in her essay “About Time”). The relation of the words, the dialogue and voice-over, crucially tell the relationships in time between the images. They are concentrated, the feel is intimate because of the close-ups, split seconds of visualization brings us close-up and magnifies the experience. From this comes fan groups for cults of stars. If you know who played the parts and have not seen the movie, you try to visualize the actors and actors; if you don’t know who played the parts, or the screenplay was never filmed, you try to cast it with favored actors and actresses.

In the second Gassner and Nicols volume the screenplays are accompanied by stills from the films dropped it (like illustrations for 19th century novels) at the spots in the screenplay they visualized. That’s also done in the New Market paperback shooting script series, and in many publications of screenplays — often the better ones will have essays by the writer, or a journal of the filming, or particulars about production design, costumes, houses …. Mrs Miniver is in the first volume so I went onto the Net to find stills. I was not surprised to discover I could not find shots for the most traumatic and best scenes — that’s typical. What one finds are stills where the people look beautiful. It’s also hard to find stills of landscape, and the encompassing world which is so central to films. I did find this one of her compassionating the German soldier after he terrified, threatened and was ready to kill her but then sat to eat and wait, and collapsed:

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Helmut Dantine played the part of the German pilot forced down

First the 1940s screenplay is extraordinary. It is not by Joyce Anstruther (also a poet) whose columns in the 1930s were a precursor of The Egg and I, or Bridget Jones, the self-deprecating woman, here quietly ironic about much of her life, but herself the cynosure of competence and complacent assured middle class life (discussed extraordinarily well by Alison Light in Forever England). I can see from just reading the screenplay, how it could have the effect on its viewership it did. It subscribes to the most appealing myths of what England is. Paradoxically at the same time like so many movies of the 1930s and 40s the central characters are upper middle class and as a matter of course have servants (This is true of the characters in Watch on the Rhine, it is not true of the characters in screenplays starting in the 1960s, then we are no longer in firm middle class households, no servants anywhere, e.g, Darling a 1965 screenplay and movie, The Apartment, same era). Mrs Miniver opens in an expensive men’s club in Pall Mall; they are going about their business undisturbed as yet. She is the wife of such a man; we see her first jumping off a bus and rushing back to an expensive shop to treat herself to an unnecessary concoction of a hat. Yet as the story went on, and we go home with her, are introduced to her servants (whom she treats well but keeps in good order by her benign orderly ways herself) I believed in her and these children. Her grown son home from Oxford. The girl he meets and falls in love with — but lacks her upper middle class rank (Orwell would find all the careful nuancing par for the course).

Well emotions are worked up as this orderly life begins to fall apart, but everyone is stout together. I found myself coming close to tears, especially when the family was in the bomb shelter under their house, intensely engaged when the German soldier broke into Mrs Miniver’s house (of course she dealt with him, a bit of luck too, which Mrs Miniver ever has). One of its authors was William Wyler, and apparently some of the lines he wrote for the screenplay were used by Roosevelt in one of his speeches. The sense of the characters are turned far away from Anstruther then.

What startled me though is here is an important story in the first season of Downton Abbey. Remember that Flower Show and how the dowager at the very end gave the prize for roses to Mr Moseley’s father. It had been assigned her as always. The way you can tell if something is a source is if the source has something idiosyncratic which is repeated. In Mrs Miniver the movie the prize is again award to the great dragon lady turned women-with-heart-of-gold, Lady Beldon and similarly when up there Lady Beldon lies and gives the prize to the man who deserves it.

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Dame May Whitty as Lady Beldon

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Maggie Smith as the Dowager doing precisely the same generous act — we might ask why we should be so charmed after she has been taking the prize for years (Miss Obrien [Siobhan Finneran does ask]

It was then I asked myself if Mrs Miniver had a first name. Had Anstruthers and now these writers gone so far as to imitate earlier novels and not give us a first name for this lady. I hunted and found that at night when they talk (in separate twin beds of course) Mr Miniver who is referred to as Clem often calls her Kay.

Much is left out by Fellowes from the original: Mr Ballard (Henry Travers) who grew the beautiful rose wanted to name it Mrs Miniver and that had angered Lady Beldon as no rose should be named after a non-aristocrat. She had learned to accept that, and was about to about to accept seeing her granddaughter become engaged to Mrs Miniver’s son; Fellowes instead has Mr Moseley’s father accepting that he will always win second place though it breaks his heart. But Lady Beldon has always gotten it the way the Dowager had. The moment is much stronger in Mrs Miniver because of this secondary story of love and because the sirens have begun to wail loudly that the German bombers had been seen on their way.

Mrs Miniver is an important source text for a significant Downton Abbey the first season, and the attitude towards war in the second. In Mrs Miniver we see how class barriers break down and how everyone is valued together as they fight — so too in Downton Abbey season 2. (Sigh … .). Flower shows and the beauty and science in Kensington Gardens (its world-wide reputation alongside the Bronx Botanical Gardens) remain important symbols for middle class English-speaking people today. Another story in the first season, about Carson’s past was modelled on a story about Hudson’s past from the 1970s Upstairs/Downstairs. But using Mrs Miniver exposes how Downton Abbey repeats all the myths of this movie — other images in the movie reappear in Downton Abbey.

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All applaud the Dowager for her tremendous act

Let me bring up another unlikely or unexpected collocation: Dora Bruder, the autobiographical meditation by Patrick Modiano who won the Nobel this year. One theme of his book is how Dora Bruder, this young girl was just thrown away, powerless flotsam and jetsam when things got at all rough — or when the establishment decreed. Well in Mrs Miniver at said Flower Show we see a group of working class children from London who have been parceled out to people like Mrs Miniver. Of course not quite living in the great houses, or put in an attic, but that is not mentioned. We are to look quite sentimentally at them and think what an opportunity to get into the country. When the reality is these children in this movie are Dora Bruders. Who cares what happens to them as individuals, who considers it? how they got back home? if they got back home? why these were sent?

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I did come across two other more general sources for Cora, Lady Grantham: I’m following a Future Learn course on British imperialism (on which much more in another blog) and came across the name of Mary Leiter, Lady Curzon, the first American wife of a Viceroy of India during the Raj, and aspects of her life reminded me of Cora, Lady Grantham. I like reading memoirs, someone recommended to me Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan (1877-1964), who wrote a readable autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold.

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Mary Leiter, Lady Curzon in her famous super-expensive peacock feather dress — her expression reminds me of royal people in Goya’s paintings

Mary’s book is a slender volume of letters selected out of volumes and volumes by John Bradley. Once Mary Leiter marries and becomes the viceroy’s wife her life is endless showing of herself for spectacle, and having babies and caring for them. She becomes less open too, much less. The glimpses of a worthwhile person become rare. She begins to sound like Jane Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide when she poses, and registers no sense at all of what she (as a symbol and to keep up in this life style) is costing everyone else. Mary Leiter died of disease, sick and ailing by her early 30s, probably childbirth at the age of 36-37. Her mother-in-law died young too, similarly.

A biography by Nigel Nicolson tell you that Mary Leiter had been the daughter of a man who was a partner in one of these huge luxury-serving department stores that opened in the 1880s in NYC, London, Chicago — a Mr Selfridge (!), and Nicolson’s book opens with the portrait of such a store. These are a dying breed; now we get these cavernous warehouses of mostly junk. There are still a couple of them around: Lord and Taylor’s on 37th and 5th was still practicing making the person shopping feel as if he or she were a rich guest and all the objects important art, the experience somehow home-y, comfortable — complete with coffee for free at 9:30 (this was only 3 years ago). Anyway all her life she lived in a privileged environment, a glass box — only her real body she could not escape nor diseases. She was thought Jewish or half-Jewish because some names in the family “seemed Jewish.” In fact they were Memnonites. So she fits Cora, Lady Grantham — a link between one costume drama and another.

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Consuelo and Jacques Balsan, her “commoner” husband

CVB reminds me of the Mitford sisters; she has that strong sense of what she deserves, who she is, and while she was wholly tyrannized over as a child (she was even whipped), and when a young adult could be coerced into making bad important decisions (like marrying the super-rich Duke of Marlborough), give her time and she gets out of it — and married a nobody Frenchman who she lived happily with in France until WW2 when they escaped to the US. Lady Carnavon, the turn of the century owner of Highclere Castle who wandered about the world as an anthropologist of sorts, was a strong independent individualist iconclastic too — none of them stayed home to obey any gongs for dinner ….

Long ago at the close of Caleb Williams William Godwin had his imprisoned driven-insane servant hero, ask why are these people numinous (he had actually told the truth about his employer killing a man), why is are they so much more valued than others. The interest of Modiano’s book is how hard he tries to discover her life and what happened to her, and that he does find a trail. It’s much more than a detective story.

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Here is one of Joyce Anstruther’s poems — about whom I’ll write one of my foremother poet blogs next week, the first I’ve done in a couple of years:

Dedication to an Unknown Reader, from The Glass-Blower (1940)

Like rays shed
    By a spent star
The words of a dead
    Poet are,
That through bleak space
    Unchecked fly on,
Though heart, hand, face
    To dust are gone;
And you who read
    Shall only guess
What thorn-sharp need,
    What loneliness,
What love, lust, dream,
    Shudder or sigh
Lit the long beam
    That meets your eye:
Nor guess you never
    So well, so true,
Shall comfort ever
    Reach from you
To me, an old
    Black shrivelled sphere,
Who has been cold
    This million year.

She was nowhere as uncomplicatedly competent and cheerful as she made her Mrs Miniver to be. See my preliminary foremother poet blog: Joyce Anstruther.

Ellen

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Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) explaining to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery why the prospect of Isobel Crawley’s (Penelope Wilton) marriage to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) hurts so

Mary: Granny, I know why you’re finding this difficult.
Dowager: Do you?
Mary: Yes, but you mustn’t give in to it.
Dowager: What? Give in to what?
Mary: Isobel has always been your protege. She looks up to you and you have kept her from harm in return.
Dowager: Have I?
Mary: Yes. So of course it’s difficult that she is to take her place ~ among the leaders of the county.
… you simply have to be bigger than that.
Dowager: Is that what you think of me? That I care about her change of rank?
Mary: Well, you’re not exactly pleased, are you?
Dowager: No. But that is not the reason … If you must know … I have got used to having a companion.
A friend. You know, someone to talk things over with … You have your own lives … Isobel and I had a lot in common. I shall miss her.
Mary: Granny, you’re quite dewy-eyed ….
Dowager: You’ve made me regret my confidence… And for your information I don’t think Isobel has EVER looked up to me.

Dear friends and readers,

Soap operas when they do their work right root their suggestive believable characters into the daily memories and feelings of their viewers. That Fellowes has achieved this may be seen in his continuing audience for a group of stories that he lacks any new material for; one never needed new material for As the World Turns. This week I found my face was wet, the tears had overflowed beyond my eyes over fleeting scenes of decently felt emotion most of us struggle against or want to feel. Some were less tenuously set-up than others. The finest and slowest-fully built up to is above: the Dowager explains to the obtuse Lady Mary that she will miss her friend.

Robert Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) close relationship with his dog, Isis, has been before us from the opening credits (much mocked) where we see the dog from the back, presumably walking alongside Robert back to Downton, to the incident where Thomas (Rob James-Collier) ruthlessly locked the dog out in the wet cold wild so he could gain Lord Grantham’s trust by rescuing her, to her just being there, with him. Even that quiet boss-lady, Cora, Lady Grantham, oblivious as she was to the twisting of Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), her second daughter’s character and pregnancy, and much else seemed to notice the dog’s decline, and opened her bed so the suffering creature need not be alone and feel unloved in her last hours:

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Daisy continues to gain in skills and self-respect from the time we first saw her when the series began and she was making the fires in the house, filthying herself in the cold. She’s now reading Vanity Fair under the tutelage of that thwarted teacher, Mr Moseley (Kevin Doyle). While I wish we didn’t each time have to re-assert the justification for learning for Daisy, and this time it was to enable Fellowes to take potshots at the labor gov’t, I enjoyed the visit to Mr Mason (Paul Copley) engineered by Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) so as to keep Daisy’s spirits up. At his dinner table no one insults anyone. He wouldn’t allow it — all is generosity and decent social thought:

Miss Baxter: Are we all finished? How lovely, Daisy, to have such a beautiful place to come to.
Mr Mason: She’s always welcome is Daisy.
Daisy: I’ve not been here enough lately.
Mr Mason: You’ve been busy I know. With your books. That takes up time.
Daisy: I think I’ll stop it now. So I’ll be able to visit more.
Mr Moseley: Do you think she’s right to give up her studies, Mr Mason?
Mr Mason: I do NOT.
Daisy: Don’t you want to see more of me?
Mr Mason: You know I do. But education is power.

Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) had been startled to find herself invited, and once there, perked up, looked like she had some self-respect, enjoyed herself guiltlessly, and held Mr Moseley’s hand as they comfortably came home after a comfortable meal.

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HomewardBound (1)

Things were quite otherwise in the dinner scene closely juxtaposed next. I felt for Isobel as those wretched sons of Merton made themselves obnoxious again (to Edith too).

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I loved Tom Branson for getting up and calling one of them a “bastard.” They did throw a stink bomb at any coming happiness in marriage with them in the Merton house. I don’t know why anyone eats dinner at that place: it is a landmine.

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Of course dinner tables have ever been places where you dramatize social agons, it’s inherently theatrical.

The ball of agon has not left the Bates’s residence either. I did love the scene of Anna (Joanne Froggart) and Mr Bates drinking tea so comfortably at home together.

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Here I just wish Fellowes didn’t think it necessary for me to suspect one of the pair is a murderer. I have realized (from reading one of the Downton Abbey facebook fan pages where they regularly take the most small-minded positions, siding with the worst people) that we are supposed suddenly to suspect Anna. This is surely out of character. What would she feel in a prison? horrified. so humiliated and mortified and filled with inculcated self-hatred she’d wither up with shame.

Alas I’ve covered the fine moments and have now to turn to the absurdities and offensive omissions. I omit the condescension enacted towards the Duchess’s adult servants, Spratt (Jeremy Swift) and Miss Denker (Sue Johnston) as children squabbling. To this is Fellowes driven for material you see. Mrs Drewe gets to have her say to Cora, Lady Grantham, but we are not allowed to see or hear her, and doubt we’ll ever be permitted to develop some sympathetic imaginings for the Drewes at home now.

Implications: When told by Robert that Isis has “cancer,” and Cora replied: “Poor old thing … Oh, how I hate that word,” she for a moment redeemed herself, but like Anibundel whose recap is again worth reading, I cannot grasp how Fellowes expects us to take seriously her indignation at her mother- and sister-in-law, Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) at having not told her what she should not have needed telling to know. She will never forgive them, never trust them for not having informed her her daughter had a baby while away on a suddenly “mysterious” 10 month trip to Switzerland:

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Yet worse there was Edith, since Episode 6 closed, set up at last, running a business she owns (left her by Mr Grigson), a job to do, writing she does well, a place to live, a nanny on the spot, with money to pay her:

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And what does she do? return to the Abbey where she hides from Mary and her maid at the station giving up her baby once again to the conveniently there Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough)

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in the library again overridden by Mary (coolly despising Edith’s generous impulses to take “an orphan child”), look like some rabbit or deer staring at headlights lest daddy say no to adopting this strange child until mummy declares it is right. The family obtuseness passes to Edith’s father. There’s more than a hint that Tom (Allen Leech) suspects (he asks her more than once to be open with him about her troubles over many episodes). Mary of course couldn’t be bothered to figure anything out about anyone, least of all Edith. Psychologically for Edith it does fit: she is the bullied, over-sheltered, super-ego driven ugly daughter. I hope she never marries, because surely she’ll end up abused — and we saw in the fourth season that Grigson saw this and refrained.

Is there any more to add? I fear Fellowes enjoys inflicting pain on Edith because he likes Mary’s meanness, identifies, triumphs with it. So more obnoxiousness from Lady Mary supported by the complacent Charles Blake (what ever happened Julian Overdeen as the man who worried about the average person’s housing in Britain): if it was so little trouble for Mary to get rid of Gillingham (Tom Cullen) by a kiss in public of Overdeen, why did we have that scene in the park? Fellowes gives away how he manipulates shallowly to milk scenes.

Lady Rose’s (Lily James) continuing charitable impulses and her hurt and fear she will lose her suitor, the good-natured bright Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber), are a decent note and rightly rewarded by Lady Sinderby’s (Penny Downe) generous liking of her despite her being a non-Jew; Lady Sinderby and her husband showed real awareness of the prejudice against them, he that he needs to fight to maintain respected space to thrive in, and thus is not eager for a daughter-in-law who will not be Jewish (conversion never mentioned), but their son’s total lack of any consciousness of what it was to be a Jew in England in the 1920s brings us back to the incredible. Someone on a Jewish news on-line page suggested he is modeled on Prince William (Charles’s son); so when he kneels to this princess, far from an intermarriage, we have a simulacrum of revered English royalty:

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(Jim was one of those who wanted to see their huge fortunes taken from them, lamented when again the Queen was no longer to pay taxes.)

I suggest Fellowes is moving time so slowly because he does not want to reach the 1930s. He frequently gives Violet quips which are designed to obscure hard truths, this time it was “My dear, men have no rights.” In the real world of 1924 or so the men were in charge, servants were beginning to flee these places for work for money and freedom. There was a general strike in 1926.

But allow me to end on another of the good moments: Tom leaning over a bridge in the green landscape of the Abbey (one of its attractions for him, one he is at work on as steward in his fine office daily), with his daughter, trying to get her used to the idea they will perhaps leave for another country where he will fit in, be able to maintain his identity (and hers) better:

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Now if we could just get a message to Miss Bunting (the show is a continual fantasizing so why not?) to meet him at the New York docks.

Ellen

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Anna Netrebko as Iolanta and Piotr Beczala as Count Vaudemont (Tchaikovsky); Nadja Michael as Judith and Mikhail Petrenko as Bluebeard (Bartok)

Dear friends and readers,

If you needed confirmation, in the filmed interview conducted by Peter Gelb between the two one-act operas of the singer/actors for Bluebeard’s Castle with the production designer of both, Mariusz Trelinski (a iconoclastic courageous film director, like Netrebkvo, a Russian separatist), Trelinski made the brilliancy of the coupling of the two operas plain: these are two phases in the life of one woman, not a particular psychological person, but an archetype.

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Trelinksi tries to transform the Tchaikovksy’s opera: Tchaikovsky meant us to see the utterly submissive Iolanthe, as a blind (disabled) mythic figure, whose loving father, King Rene (Ilya Bannik) mistakenly shields her from understanding she is blind, to prevent her rich suitor, the Duke of Burgundy (Aleksei Markov) from knowing about this by imprisoning her, allowing her to come into contact only with a nurse, her husband, a huntsman, and two (sneering) maids. Trelinski juxtaposes this material with Bartok’s legend of Bluebeard, the story of Judith inexplicably (she is given no past, except she has escaped her bethrothed) continually pleading with this cruel, sardonic, and murderous male to allow her deeper into his castle from door to door until she reaches a wood where she finds herself surrounded by haunted, wounded, and dead women and must remain forever herself.

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We are supposed to see Iolanta has changed one supposed benign tyrant for another as Judith has exchanged one openly fearful one for another.
Trelinski’s production reveals Tchaikovky’s supposed sentimental romantic piece is a transparently cruel story of a young woman kept helpless and obedient to a tyrannical obsessive father, King Rene (Ilya Bannik).

That Trelinkski meant the pair to be read as feminist mirrors of women’s oppression was obvious: though he was not willing explicitly to say anything concrete, even Rupert Christiansen of the Telegraph saw this. As Iolanthe began the stage was turned into a movie-screen as a black universe, with stars, flowers and figures that suggested fragility, at the bottom of which was a lovely faun, which reappeared on the screen until Iolanthe’s father murdered it and it seemed a real fleshy body bleeding to death hunt up upon a nail. There is a long tradition of equating fauns with women (e.g., Marvell’s “Nymph complaining of the death of her faun”).

As Bluebeard opened a similar film screen took over the stage, similarly blackened with fragile petals, stars, small woodland creatures, only instead of a pastoral wood with a what looked like a square shoe box as dwelling, it kept turning into fearful images of elevators, tunnels, prisons, tables where hospital like operations could be performed (Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein used the same medical imagery):

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At one point the same shoe box like square appeared but this time tiled like a bathroom (or the NYC subway), with Judith crawling on the ground, kneeling, clutching at the wall, a strong version of Iolanthe’s stumbling about. Netrebko’s outfits, a white slip, and a garish blue day dress were counterparts of Michael’s white slip and acqua blue gown.

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Both women had the same white round flowers handed to them by men. Both operas had walls covered with stuffed deer heads. So this is what all those 19th century fairy tales were covering up. At the close of Bluebeard’s Castle, Bluebeard is having sex with a mannequin half-buried in a grave in a landscape that seemed something left over from bombing in a war

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I would have liked to conclude the pairing was feminist but alas both operas resisted this imposition strongly. Had the Met opera had the nerve to end Iolanthe before the hero count persuades Iolanthe’s father to yield her up to the doctor, it might have worked for the first opera. But the second half of this play was dedicated to the still popular idea that if you believe yourself into health, have the will say not to be blind, you will be cured. This because a wonderful God has done this to you to show you just how good he is. In return, you of course must worship him abjectly.

"Iolanta"

As staged, the opera ends in this ludicrous Busby Berkeley spectacle of rays of green light like the spokes of a crown as everyone thanks God profusely — before of an unexpected and added on entry of the Trelinski’s father tyrant in a silent dumb show (so not part of the original script or singing): King Rene comes out and instead of smiling rejoicingly because his daughter’s eyesight has been restored after the hero persuaded her she wanted to see him and has been united to him, and throws out grim looks of anger and resentment.

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This shot is from earlier in the opera but it shows how the King is presented — against the grain

Bartok’s opera makes more sense if you see it as misogynistic. Judith is endlessly masochistic; she just cannot get enough intense pain; she begs for more keys to open more doors apparently so she can submit and suffer and writhe some more. Bluebeard is her God, teaching her how to experience things physically:

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Never mind that study after study has shown that the mashochistic woman who just loves abuse is a myth. The women at the close are just as hauntedly submissive as Judith; Bluebeard who is dressed (appropriate to his music) as an pleasure-loving (he smokes cigarettes, drinks wine) sardonic Citizen Kane type, more insouciantly rakish than murderous.

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During the regulation hyped interview (by Joyce DiDonato) Netrebko said she felt for her character, stumbling about helpless and indeed she was poignant; Beczala is less of a phony than many of the singers and he refused to pretend to have psychoanalyzed his part and said what was hard about it was all the high Cs. In the filmed interview with Gelb, Michael seemed aware of the contradiction of claiming a perpetually longing- punishment type as an icon for feminism as she volunteered the interpretation that Judith wanted to see within herself, and what the “the world” is for real behind doors. Gelb (like the Telegraph) seemed a bit nervous at this open explicitness of what the opera might be about, for he immediately cautioned her “not to give away the story.” It was a rare good instance of how spoiler warnings function to stop bringing meanings of story into the openly discussable.

Very unusually for the movie-house audience I have now observed for four years there was little applause at the end of either opera or after some remarkably sung arias, especially those (in my view) of the unfortunate Michael whose acting was stunning; she had to have been exhausted.

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I applauded for her but no one else did. The people around me were silent altogether. Were they embarrassed? The audience at the Met applauded now and again for some spectacular singing (it seemed to me) but did not stand up as has become the custom (the audience nowadays seems to do this to congratulate themselves for coming).

I decided to go out of curiosity. When the New York City Metropolitan opera chooses to do this kind of pairing, how they do it is significant. Izzy and I had been complaining all season of how conventional what we saw was, well, here was another instance after The Death of Klinghoffer (however in reality tame the opera is) of courage. It would be easy to make fun. Iolanta just needed to be mainstreamed and all would have been well. Bluebeard needed to stop imitating gangsters from movies and Judith their faux-glamorous beat-up molls. I prefer to take seriously what took itself seriously: these are two productions saturated with unexamined assumptions about disease and women, the first exposing teleological absurdities, the second genuinely mirroring a deep sickness in the images we are surrounded by in popular and high art. Torture came to mind; they were torturous, so appropriate to our political landscape today? I was relieved to escape when they were over.

I wonder what Jim would have thought of it. Had he and Izzy come with me (she didn’t come either) they’d have discussed the music and perhaps the singing. I found nothing thrilling about the 19th century opera and do not wonder it has rarely been performed since it was first paired (and then dropped from) the Nutcracker Suite. As for Bartok’s music, it seemed to me harsh and dissonant. I can’t say I enjoyed anything, perhaps the images of fawns at the opening of the first opera were touching; I was genuinely horrified when what made to seem an apparently real faun was knifed to death and hung and when Bluebeard was having sex with the mannequin.

Ellen

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Midpoint — the Dowager (Maggie Smith’s) second walk and talk with Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija), this time in his grey impoverished lodgings

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Closing still — Edith (Laura Carmichael) to a child who either avoids eye-contact, or looks on warily: “I’ll order ice cream, and a glass of Champagne, and we’ll be as jolly as you like.”

Lady Mary has her Hair Bobbed:
Lady Mary: ‘Does this cover it?’
Hairdresser: ‘My Lady is very generous.’
She sails out
Hairdresser to colleagues: ‘At least she can carry it off. Most of them look like bald monkeys.’

Dear friends and readers,

Like life, soap opera is all repetition, and this was another week where endless deferral alternated with levels of climax; the pleasure is in the talk and pictures of the mini-series, and the talk overheard (or writing on the Net I read) added more to the mini-series than much in the hour itself. Have others observed how time has slowed down this year? Unlike previous seasons, each episode begins precisely where the previous left off. It’s all leisurely endless continuation …

Edith story began the hour (Carson: “Telegram for Lady Edith!”), provided several high scenes of emotional trauma (Mrs Drewe [Emma Lownes] upon being shown Marigold’s birth certificate and tearing it up to her husband [Andrew Scarborough]: “How could you do this? I’m your wife, yet you have lied and cheated and used me shamefully. If you’d have taken a mistress you couldn’t have been more false”)

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Mrs Drewe: ‘It’s lunacy! You’ve lost your mind! Tell her.’
Mr Drewe: ‘It’s true. Marigold’s her daughter.’
Mrs Drewe: ‘It’s a lie! I don’t know what she’s holding over you, but you can’t let her get away with it!’
Lady Edith: ‘I have a copy of her birth certificate.’

and ended it in a final chilling madness made sense to Laura Carmichael who enacted the role:

It sort of felt like a long time coming that moment when it’s really exposed how unaware and indifferent Mary is to Edith’s grief even without knowing about Marigold her baby; the pressure would have been so intense and she’s sort of had enough by that point to have family members tell you that they don’t care [Cora, Lady Grantham has a groaning look that Edith has brought up the death of Grigson when Mary has had such a modern haircut] your heart and your happiness must be incredibly difficult

On my listserv a member was eloquent: “I did truly feel sorry for Mrs. Drewes and was glad to see she upbraided her husband for lying to her. Someone on the Downton Abbey fan page (“Spoilers here!” their page motto) scorned Edith as “bleating.”

I’d just been reading an intelligent essay in Leggott and Taddeo’s Upstairs and Downstairs by Andrea Wright on the popular semi-comedic costume dramas focusing on the recent shopping worlds of women, The Paradise and Mr Selfridge, comparing them to 1970s much more feminist The House of Elliot — the owners are women and not punished for risk-taking. But like Downton Abbey, these new costume dramas have lots of “good girl messages” — stay home, be obedient, don’t rock the values that supposedly sustain you and you’ll be safe, perhaps even happy. Well, without reading much against the grain we are shown 6 supremely good girls in this series (the 3 daughters, 1 cousin [Lady Rose aka Lily James, Cinderella herself] and Anna and Daisy), in the case of one denigrated since she was young for awkwardness, intelligence (she writes), what ambition she has, ugliness, “poor” Edith, has been made psychologically sick by obeying most of these messages. Yes she had sex outside marriage and now has paid not just big on it but been made much much sicker. 5:5 ends with her fleeing with her baby lest the grandmother and aunt manage to take the child to an orphanage and it ends on this (to anyone with an ear) chilling line: we’ll be so jolly together. Right. In an impersonal hotel room, baby with ice cream and mother with champagne.

Over on two of the Downton Abbey facebook pages a favorite “fan fiction” thread finds viewers persisting in the theory that Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) is Edith’s mother: how else explain Cora’s absence of any deep feeling for her second daughter, no defense, no help, no observation, all at a distance — if she is the kind of woman who is not a natural mother then why so indifferent to her husband? Why insist he get back in bed with her? he obeys.

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Cora: ‘Because I’m telling you. Nothing happened.’
Robert: ‘I’ll tell you what did happen. You allowed him into your private life. A man who thought he could step into my place, just like that.’
Cora: ‘He thought it – and he was mistaken.’
Robert: ‘Very well.’
Cora: ‘If you can honestly say you have never let a flirtation get out of hand since we married, if you have never given a woman the wrong impression, then by all means stay away. Otherwise, I expect you back in my room tonight.’

As to Lady Mary, I rejoiced to hear the French hairdresser’s view of her haircut while Anibundel picked up on Mary’s gut bitch reaction to the ailing dog, Isis: “I wonder if she’s picked up a germ, or something equally fell.”

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When it came to Fellowes’s apparently ideal normative aristocratic types, I was told that it was amusing to watch and listen to Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary pull off such continually “mean narcissism” and I should consider Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) as someone hiding her pain with self-effacement, having accepted Robert, Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville’s rule). The YouTube advertisement assumed I would enjoy her hard-faced triumphant riding point-to-point and sneers at Mabel Lane Fox (who never manages to win)

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As she tells Charles Blake (Julian Overdeen) she doesn’t believe in letting other people win …

But I do not like cruelty even as an aesthetic spectacle, and wish that the new man she finally attracts might corrode her soul in the way she carelessly does to others, but I suspect Matthew having touched her was a temporary weakness.

By contrast, Anna believes in helping others to win. We were treated to Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) for once angry at Anna (Joanne Froggart) when he discovers near where her button box should be a dutch cup and Marie Stokes’s book. So she’s been lying when she has said she longs for a child, and preventing it because she thinks her husband a murderer.

Anna: ‘Will you please tell me what is the matter?’
Bates: ‘I couldn’t find your button box.’
Anna: ‘I’d forgotten all about it. Oh, well, never mind. It’ll turn up.’
Bates: ‘I did look. I looked in all the cupboards, and I found some other things.’
Anna: ‘Oh, yes?’
Bates: ‘Yes. I found a book by Marie Stopes and a box containing a cunning piece of equipment to ensure there would be no Baby Bates.’
Anna: ‘And I’m supposed to applaud your poking around in my things, am I?’
Bates: ‘Now, just a minute. It is not for you to be angry with me – it is for me to be angry with you.’

Her anxiety at home gives him a chance to supposedly prove himself innocent (an untorn ticket to London — what? he couldn’t have bought two?) and they end on perfect contentment, she kissing his hand:

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So Fellowes weasled out of that one, jumped that shark. Lady Mary’s choice of contraceptive and who murdered Mr Green is now the subject of talk on fanpages.

For my part I can see how little free is Anna ever and remain much moved by her. I wish such scenes as hers were longer, lingering. The scenes move far too quickly for the emotions suggested.

And for me the absent Miss Bunting and present Daisy (Sophia McShera) provided the high point of the hournot that I mind Daisy, with the help of Mr Moseley (Kevin Doyle) who we discover should have gone on for further schooling given his intelligence on tests, reading away in his prized precious 5th volume of the Cambridge History of England which she is induced by Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) to accept

Daisy: ‘Miss Bunting loved the new hairstyles. She said women were being set free.’
Moseley: ‘I’m sorry Miss Bunting’s gone.’
Daisy: ‘She gave me such confidence. She’d tell me how sharp I was, how quick.’
Moseley: ‘I agree with her.’
Daisy: ‘It’s harder on your own, harder to believe.’
Moseley: ‘Well, could I help? Not with mathematics, probably, but I know a bit about history and I’ve read a few books.’
Daisy: ‘How old were you when you left school?’
Moseley: ’12.’
Mrs Patmore: ‘It was a shame, really.’
Moseley: ‘I was quite bright. And my dad wanted me to stay on. He thought I could be a teacher, if that doesn’t make you laugh. But he couldn’t manage it. We had no money, you see, and then my mother got ill and so I had to earn as soon as I could.’
Daisy: ‘Why don’t you take Math now?’
Moseley: ‘No, I’ve missed it. But I’d like to help… ‘

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Similarly talk on line and Rob James-Collier made the role played by the ever sicker and more desperate Thomas Barrow to electric shock and otherwise poison his sexuality, rescued finally by Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and advised by Dr Clarkson (David Robb) to “fashion as good a life as you’re able” though in words condemnatory of Thomas’s homosexuality (“Remember harsh reality is always better than falsh hope”), one intended to make the viewer think

‘For the first time ever in Downton Abbey we see Thomas question his sexuality, himself as a gay man and it set about a sequence of events to try and cure that. So Thomas reads about a “miracle” cura as it were and yah we see the scenes where he’s injected himself and he’s slowly making himself more ill, and it’s quite a sad journey (“I assume this is a course of treatment you spent money on.” “Yes a lot of money, I went to London for a course of electro-therapy … ) they were viewed as freaks of nature the most abhorrent thing that you could be. He’s just saying you’ve got to accept it because there’s no way around it. That is what you are. That just explains how difficult it was back then. For a practicing homosexual man it was virtually impossible … ‘

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Another couple not resolving issues under an umbrella after they leave the doctor

Thomas: ‘Well, that will give you a good laugh.’
Miss Baxter: ‘It won’t. And I don’t expect you to understand, but I think it shows you to be a very brave person.’
Thomas: ‘What?’
Miss Baxter: ‘To inflict such pain on yourself to achieve your goal. Think what you could do in this world if you just set your mind to it.’
Thomas: ‘You’re daft – do you know that?’

As in the fourth episode, these scenes and that of the Dowager (Maggie Smith)’s visit to Prince Kuragin’s impoverished lodgings with her new maid, Miss Denker (Sue Johnston) who does not go up, were the most quietly humanly interesting. It’s a foregone conclusion that Maggie will not elope with Rade; she shows up out of respect for their memory, with the ostensible excuse that slowly his wife is being located — not that he has any room for or has shown any interest in getting her back. Their conversation is nuanced, touching and the acting of the aging people effective

Prince: ‘Some tea? I can just about make tea. How did you find me?’
Dowager: ‘Rose gave me your address.’
Prince: ‘And you came alone to this part of the city?’
Dowager: ‘I was accompanied by my maid. She’s waiting outside.’
Prince: ‘How wonderful to be back in a world where ladies are accompanied by their maids. Why didn’t your son provide you with a car?’
Dowager: ‘Oh, he would have done. I just didn’t choose to tell him where I was going.’
Prince: ‘It is not our first secret assignation.’
Dowager: ‘I always feel more comfortable leaving the past in the past.’
Prince: ‘Then why have you come?’
Dowager: ‘Because Rose’s father, Lord Flintshire, thinks he’s close to finding the Princess.’
Prince: ‘She’s alive, then? She was alive when she left Russia.’
Dowager: ‘That they know. They think she was put on a boat headed for Hong Kong. You’ll know more soon.’
Pause.
Prince: ‘I wanted you from the moment I first saw you. More than mortal man ever wanted woman.’
Dowager: ‘That is an historical detail.’
Prince: ‘Nonsense. If Irena were dead, I would ask you to run away with me now.’
Dowager: ‘You couldn’t run away when there’s no-one left to “run away” from.’
Prince: ‘I loved you more than I loved her. Even today. Even this afternoon.’
Dowager: ‘Please don’t.’
Prince: ‘Why not, if it’s true?’
Dwoager: ‘Because you’ll make it sound as if we were both unhappy, and I don’t believe you were – and I certainly was not.’
Prince: ‘You wouldn’t admit it if it were true. You think to be unhappy in a marriage is ill-bred.’
Dowager: ‘You do know me, Igor. That I must concede.
Prince: ‘Yes.’

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The technique of endless deferral is also resorted to over Mrs Crawley’s (Penelope Wilton) coming decision to accept Lord Merton (Douglas Reith), the police’s latest visit to the Abbey now to question Miss Baxter who as she says knows nothing. Only Mrs Patmore’s buying a cottage for her retirement is permitted closure, not just to show off the old stove someone rebuilt or procured, but ready us for the coming getting together of Mr Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) who look at each other before turning to gaze on Mrs Patmore’s satisfaction:

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Mrs Hughes: ‘What’s the kitchen like? Oh, not quite the scale you’re used to.’
Mrs Patmore: ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind – it’d be my own. I could live here later when I stopped working. There’s only one flight of stairs, so I’m sure I could manage that, no matter how old I get.’
Mrs Hughes: ‘Oh, an outside privy, I see. That’ll bring back memories.’
Mrs Patmore: ‘Well, Lord knows I’ve seen one of them before. But ‘appen I could change things round when I move in.’
Mr Carson: ‘I’m sure you could.’
Mrs Patmore: ‘Well, that’s it. I’m going to take it. Now, if you’ll come outside, I’ll take the key back and give him my answer.
Mr Carson: ‘I envy her. Have you ever thought about your life in retirement?
Mrs Hughes: ‘Who says I’ll live to retire? Is everybody ready?’

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I wish both scenes, of Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore, of the Dowager and Prince were longer too.

Moralizing about characters is central to novel reading — not as if they were people, but in accordance with the implied author’s design, his presence making them perform as his puppets, the themes of the whole piece. In Bernard Paris A Psychological Approach to Fiction and Character and Conflicts in Jane Austen’s Novels, he argues for the centrality of characters in understanding novels, that an implied author projects his ethical, political, social (&c) outlooks through what his or her characters are, say, do. The authors studied in the first book are mostly Victorian, and realists, e.g., George Eliot, Stendhal, but he also studies Thackeray’s more satiric approach. The book is refreshing in the way he honestly critiques the ending of a book or what happens in it through his approach. He moralizes through an intelligent thought-out approach to characters. All our talk is filled with subtexts showing our political, social, psychological and other views interacting with the author’s.

That I find no content to comment on in Atticus (Matt Barber) and Lady Rose’s recurring early romance scenes, but noticed alertly how well and cheered Lady Sinderby’s first appearance with her husband (Daniel and Rachel Aldritch) at the point-to-point seemed, and how she cordially accepted Cora’s invitation to dinner (so that’s our next episode) tells something about my age and gender.

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After all, though this too suggests nothing exciting for the mini-series, just more of the same. Lady Sinderby will turn out to be another of Fellowes’s aristocratic women who pay for their privileged lives by behaving discreetly, with self-control and on the surface kind self-effacement.

For myself I remember how Jim loved to go to point-to-point races, how we’d take picnics and wine, he’d bet and lose on the races and I’d buy a new big hat. I died the day he did.

Ellen

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Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis) before Tom Branson (Allen Leech) finds out she is leaving

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His not-so-cool but complacent acceptance of her departure

Dear friends and readers,

It’s hard to know how to approach this week’s episode: on the level of human feeling, I felt most for Miss Bunting (“I loved you you know”), but found Branson’s cool adieu where he just about informs her while he’ll miss her it’s her fault for not being compliant that drove her from the abbey, repugnant, and repugnant the more lavish punishment meted out to other decent characters. Edith (Laura Carmichael) is forbidden to come near the very young child who she now has a sick craving for. Her male aid, Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) is now bitter at the possible loss of his farm because his unbelievably obtuse wife, Mrs Drew (Emma Lowndes) says she cannot bear the pressure from Lady Edith and will insist on departure:

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Edith is directly threatened by immovable pressure from the aunt who enabled her to have the baby (Rosamund, Samantha Bond) and a grandmother (the Dowager, Maggie Smith) who sometimes seems to be the only person in rooms filled with people to recognize intense strain, though her response is usually one which makes the person’s inner condition more wretched. They begin to insist on the departure of the baby to an orphanage in Switzerland where Edith could visit — as long as she’s discreet.

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Lady Rosamund and the Dowager close in on Edith, apply pressure …

Rosamund: I gave up ten months of my life to make sure she [baby Marigold] came safely into the world.
Edith: The trouble is, the farmer’s wife, Mrs Drewe, she just thinks I’m a nuisance. She doesn’t want me to see Marigold.
Rosamund: So, we have a situation of infinite danger to your reputation, which brings you no emotional reward to compensate.

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The shared heart-hope of Anne (Joanne Froggart) and Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) rocks back and forth over the persistent if gentle interrogations of police implying that one of them was near Mr Green in London at the moment of his death. They fear parting from one another.

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Mrs Hughes sits by and supports Anna in one of the police interrogations

I also found repugnant how unthinkable it is to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and her father, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) that she should be anything other than imperturbable at questioning by the police, and the way she reacted to meeting the young woman, Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman), at a luncheon meanly (coolly is the word I’m supposed to use) engineered by the self-satisfied Charles Blake (Julian Overdeen).

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Miss Fox gets up rather than be ganged up on by this pair:

Charles: Well, what shall we do with your food.
Mable: Eat it. And I hope it chokes you …
When she’s gone:
Blake: Now, I’d like my beef pink, but not raw.
Lady Mary goes on sipping her port.

How the ongoing self-berating abjection of Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) prompts her to regard the kindness and understanding with with Mr Molseley (Kevin Doyle) greets her as a further burden. So too an unexpected parallel with Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) also whipping himself (physically, he is inflicting taking electric shock therapy on himself) who refuses any comfort from concerned expressions of regard (from the Dowager, Mrs Hughes [Phyllis Logan], even Mr Carson [Jim Carter]). He is still out to do damage where he can.

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Sick, giving himself sick treatments, he lashes out yet …

Sometimes it becomes impossible to ignore the perverse ethical and reactionary class and ethnic biases of Julian Fellowes — even if he feels for his victims. There is a very nasty outlook undergirding the whole of many scenes in Downton Abbey this year. I wonder sometimes if many people watching this just rejoice in the faux glamorous settings and clothes and have the most shallow understanding of the forces and themes Fellowes’s figures in the carpet represent.

For example, this week the as yet untouched and thus easily sweet Rose McClaren (Lily James, soon to be playing Cinderella in movie theaters near you) encounters in the rain an equally sweet suitor, Atticus Aldritch (Matt Barber), who turns out to be Jewish. It is the episode’s second sequence to use the romance of umbrellas:

Umbrellas

He at first presents himself as Russian partly perhaps because Rose tells him the sweets she is carrying are for a group of Russian emigres she provides comfort for twice a week. But when they get there and the two Russian males they introduce him are told his relatives came to England in 1859 and 1871, they become angry at his presence, and declare him not Russian, he is pushed into admitting he is Jewish. Those were fierce pogrom years.

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Russian emigre reacting to Aldridge’s presence

Those who would rejoice in another break-through against prejudice in this new coupling, should notice that Aldridge does not behave in any way that marks him as Jewish, seems to have no feelings that might naturally arise from such a family pre-history. Why should these Russians be angry at him? Disdain would be more realistic. This resembles the treatment of Cora, Lady Grantham, who many people might forget is said to be half-Jewish. This identity would be totally erased but for her wealthy dowry, her mother’s name, Mrs Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) and the way Paul Giamatti who played Harold, her brother, did present himself as Jewish now and again.

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As a rakish New York Jew in a London park

At the dinner table with the Sinderbys Atticus’s parents (Daniel and Rachel Aldritch, married n real life and introduced in the next episode), there is a back-handed joke about how much money the Sinderbyss have: this fits the stereotype of the super-rich Jew (the father is a well-to-banker); it’s something about how they need not worry about what others do, but of course the sting in the joke is they do.

I noticed that again it’s Lady Rose who is open to someone outside this narrow purview of who is acceptable to these upper class British people. Can she really be surprised that there is such a thing as anti-semitism? She is the one who went out with the black musician in the fourth season; she did seem to realize there was racial prejudice. Before that she danced with and was genuinely attracted to a working class man to whom she said he was a “nicer” person than she; and again she recognized that he would be seen as “beneath” her. I give her that as a character she does her charity work in a generous spirit, but Fellowes can conceive of such behavior only in a peculiarly innocent person. I just wish he did not then (in the following episode, 7) display a need to demonize some woman in sight so that when her divorcing mother and father turn up, the Marquis of Flintshire, Shrimpy (Peter Egan), and the Marchioness (Phoebe Nichols), he is the generous spirited one and she the poisonous witch. Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran, appropriately for a while the Marchioness’s lady’s maid) having gone, Fellowes turns to the Marchioness — Phoebe Nichols often gets such parts, and I suspect because she’s not pretty and has a reedy voice. It won’t do.

How does the Dowager’s schemes to forestall the possible coming marriage of Mrs Isabel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) with Lord Merton (Douglas Reigh) fit into this white world paradigm with its reinforcement of every law and custom that upholds this aristocratic order? After all, does she not want her best friend, Mrs Crawley to be like herself?

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They do a puzzle and drink tea — to keep Spratt (Jeremy Swift) occupied …

When Dr Clarkson (David Robb) suggests to her, she is jealous, she demurs, she does not “understand him.” She cannot be threatened; no, it’s that this useful active female bourgeois will wilt under a regime of having nothing to do and life with a boring man. This does not seem to have hurt Cora, Lady Grantham, and anyway of late, Mrs Crawley’s life has been (as far as we can see) sheer leisure whose one sport is the occasional tension that dinner conversations cause. She says she’ll miss Miss Bunting.

It is hinted that Cora, Lady Grantham may miss her gentlemanly art-historian Mr Bricker (Richard E. Grant) because she is seen standing at her window watching him leave early in the morning.

Window

He overplayed his game by sneaking into her room on the night that Lord Grantham said he would not be returning from his dinner at Sheffield. But unlike Lady Mary, Cora remains physically untouched; indeed she stands in her lovely dressing gown stiff as a board during much of this “ordeal” — she produces mild abjurations that he must go, until unexpectedly Lord Grantham does turn up, and when Mr Bricker tells Grantham he insufficiently appreciates Cora, Grantham at least erupts and punches him and we get a near row. For once this character is seen to bend and look excited. Never fear when a knock on the door is heard, she returns to peaceful walking and speaks Edith who comes to the door as if Edith were a five year old, “‘Your father and I were just playing a stupid game and we knocked over a lamp.’ ‘Oh. If you’re sure.’ ‘I’m sure, poppet.’

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Since she was allowed to act for real when Sybil died, McGovern has at best been allowed dramatic self-control which she performs here

The legitimate male order must be preserved. What comedy the episode had is provided by Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and Mrs Hughes when Mrs Patmore inherits a small sum. His desperate stab at advice was she should buy into a building firm that Lord Grantham had a brochure about on the dining table because he might hire them to build houses on his estate to rent to tenants. He is non-plussed when Mrs Patmore asks if the shares have gone public. The two women conspire to make Mr Carson feel not that he has exposed his ignorance of the ways of the stock market (which he has) but is responsible for Mrs Patmore managing to think of buying herself a cottage and renting it until she retires. Mrs Hughes is (as is common in this series) given the one genuinely funny line as she assures Mr Carson that because of him “We feel thoroughly protected”

Protected

After Miss Bunting, Daisy (Sophie McShera) had the best moments of this hour. She braves the rule which forbids her to show herself upstairs (how many times over the past five years has an upper servant reacted with horror at her presence, one of the household looked puzzled to see her upstairs?) and reaches out to the bumbling Branson to tell him not to give up Miss Bunting: He sees her peeping out at the door and comes over and asks: “What can I do for you?”

Daisy

Daisy: You can do something for yourself. You’re making the biggest mistake of your life.
Tom: Is this Miss Bunting, by any chance?
Daisy: She’s an extraordinary person. Clever and kind.
Branson: She’s all of those things.
Daisy: Then why turn your back on her? … I mean it. She’s leaving tomorrow, but I know she loves you. I can tell when she speaks of you.
Branson: She’s leaving tomorrow? For good?
Daisy: Won’t you stop her? You’re not a Crawley. You belong with us. We’re the future. They’re the past.
Branson: Well, I can hear her voice in that …

Alas, the upstairs people are still very much in charge of the UK. But people like Daisy have access to good educations and much more fulfilling jobs than they could dream of in the 1920s.

In James Leggott and Julie Taddeo’s Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama from the Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey, Andrea Schmidt dilates on “Imaginative power” of the fan fiction and postings on the Net about Downton Abbey. She demonstrates how these fans — often disdained — expose the absurdities and perversities of Fellowes. He hires a “historian” as a reinforcement of his claim that he refuses to develop his characters in more sophisticated adult ways and deal openly with complex politics because is he keeps to “historical accuracy” no anachronisms in his characters. “Historical accuracy” is his mantra (like the US uses “national security”) behind which he wants to control the depiction of the characters to suit his defense of this super-rich order of people. At the same time he can write dialogue and invent presences with the power of suggestivity. He is usually real enough, and registers the depths and amorality of people sufficiently to open up suggestions we can play with — such as my argument last year that Mr Bates murdered his first wife and Mr Green through the clever ruse of accident.

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POV: Miss Bunting looking back from her carriage window at the village and Tom Branson standing by a tavern door — perhaps we may hope he relents for his own sake ,a poignant shot

Similarly this Downton Abbey fan fiction develops his characters from hints and behaviors Fellowes refuses to make clear or explicit — he cannot sue them as they are making no money and are not acknowledged as legitimate or serious by those in charge of literature and art. These fan fictions and postings and blogs too expose the nasty undercurrents of his portrayals, his fatuity. They complicate his stories in more “interesting, self-aware and sensitive areas” that he (in effect) refuses to. One I noticed is a fan fiction that postulates a love affair between Miss Obrien and “arguably the most underdeveloped character in the series, Cora, Lady Grantham.” A pair of lesbians. In another “poor Edith” is given a sarcastic and funny voice and describes the passive-aggressive relationship of Matthew (his sycophancy and making up to her) and Lady Mary (her cold indifference and potentially needling tongue) one New Year’s Day. They allow Robert (Lord Grantham to have his affair with Jane (the widowed housemaid?).

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After punching Mr Bricker and throwing him out of his and Cora’s bedroom, Robert asserts himself by holding on to the chair and saying he will sleep in his own room —

Ellen

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One of Renee Fleming’s stand-up numbers: it’s of a magical child who has left the singer: “how could you leave me alone” the refrain – stop and click and listen ….

Dear friends and readers,

When today while Yvette and I were watching the HD opera broadcast of the latest new HD production, Lehar’s The Merry Widow, starring Fleming as Hanna, I recalled to mind one night years ago. Jim and I were in a live audience somewhere and had been listening to a live act on stage of male rock-n-roll well-known singers; they ceased, and Pavarotti came on stage and began to sing. It was startling, just felt like he was knocking you off your seat. Jim began to laugh aloud so superior were they to all this noise, microphones and all. We were in the first row, and I may have imagined it but I thought he caught Pavarotti’s eye for a moment.

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Fleming early in the first act — in the later scenes her many changes of costumes included no widow’s weeds

So too after I don’t know how many minutes of trivial supposed funny dialogue (some of which thudded badly or was not pointed enough, especially between Sir Thomas Allen as the count, and Mark Schowalter as the winking perhaps gay servant, Njegus), and Fleming was brought on. Kelli O’Hara (playing the count’s perhaps unfaithful wife) was just pathetic in comparison, her voice one reedy stream, until towards the middle of the third act she came out with a can-can costume amid the chorus of Broadway dancers and did a powerful effective wry playfully sexy number

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What depth of feeling was pulled out of this production (and there was some) was mostly the result of Fleming’s songs, Fleming’s singing when she intones “The Merry Widow Waltz” and “Off to Maxim’s” her voice vibrates with alluring trembling trills. She just outdistanced them all. I fell to crying three times, real crying, the yearning for romance, and the lied refrain “how could you leave me alone” just entered into me.

Somehow the love story between the two aging principals, Nathan Gunn as Danilo and Fleming does start to move us gradually — alas Fleming’s face and neck are starting to show her age and she is uncomfortably stiff when dancing just a little or being pulled back to be kissed; Gunn is none to lithe. The waltz music helped — on the way home Yvette began to hum or sing the musical line; how lovely her voice sounded.


A finer rendition than anything in this production: Placido Domingo (he sings with delicacy) and Ricio Martinez, Rio, 2014

Towards the end of the second act the rousing dance numbers begin, some by the men in a kind of mock chorus: what is it that makes women so strange — and yes, not to be trusted (that stereotype duly trotted out). Gary Halvorson, the director for live cinema (never mentioned in any of the increasingly hyped interviews), took all the right shots. It was fun to watch the stage change from a garden to Maxim’s while the curtains remained open — through keeping our attention on the dancers as all around them the props and settings moved.

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Susan Stroman, whose origins as a Broadway choreographer were repeated too often (as well as her and everyone else’s endless awards), nonetheless deserved credit for the risqué nature of the dancing which was suggestive as well as exhilarating.

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The production’s hard-working dancing grisettes — in 19th century France grisettes were also hard-working women, sometimes milliners, or seamstresses who made ends meet by quiet prostitution on the side (it paid for your lodging)

At its best moments this operetta is a slightly heavy-handed but effective comedy with occasional brushes with romance that can still, just, reach us.

So, mark another highly conventional opera done traditionally for HD (“embalmed” said one critic). I remarked to Yvette that we were told before the broadcast began 37 school districts from around the US were watching. Before the intermission, the lack of any actuating believable emotion made for tedium. But after well-timed performances and “mistakes of the night” kind of humor also kept things going. Perhaps they could have used a bit more stylization. It’s too much to hope for re-thinking and making it contemporary (which they might have done in a European house — who knows?)

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I also thought (once again) of Downton Abbey. Was this not the same kind of pastiche, pastoral of upper class life, where hardly anyone can be seen doing anything transgressive for real, though they are all running about as if they are about to; where we are told the characters need huge sums of money because their “country” is threatened by bankruptcy, but far from deprivation, all there is in sight is luxury. In the house on camera shots, Yvette spotted the dress circle seats she and I had occupied while we saw the Death of Klinghoffer — at considerable more expense and effort.

It is grating how each time a hostess begins her major spiel for money to an HD audience, she emphasizes that no matter how wonderful the experience of this broadcast, it is nothing, NOTHING, to being in the house. The obtuse tastelessness and dishonesty (for the movie experience is in some ways far better and interesting, except for the irritating false upbeat pseudo-depth talk in most of the interviews) of this is matched by the reality of opera as an elite entertainment; if occasionally it crossed your mind (as it did mine in this production) to wonder about the parallels between street life in Austro-Hungarian cities in 1905 to street life today in New York or other cities across the US, it became harder to push the thought away. Capitalist bourgeoisie at play. Satieted rhythms in the songs.

When I cry at these movies for real, I find the people near me get uncomfortable quickly. People can bear very little reality. I could go on about the falseness of this stereotype of the merry widow. But Lehar was not a fool, and the story concerns a very young woman, a farmer’s daughter, poor, married off to a very old man who died on the honeymoon. If she marries, her fortune reverts to her husband. And in life in the 19th century widows often could not control who would inherit their money. So no possibility of grief? and yet these haunting lyrical lines recur starting at the end of the first act.

I’ll be teaching the Poldark novels and film adaptations (now we’ve got two!) this coming March at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University, and browsing the catalogue discovered a course in the Met opera seasons (apparently given regularly) where the practice is to watch those Met operas available on DVD not made into HD broadcasts (this year The Death of Klinghoffer, called “controversial”). Discussion then includes HD broadcasts as a comparison plus local operas (complete with a few guest speakers). An effort is made to discuss those operas not broadcast: I hope it is not on behalf of the idea that we must see the opera live to experience it most wonderfully as after all they are going to be using DVDs but rather to look into the choices and the different kinds of presentations HD-broadcast leads to.

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Kelli O’Hara and the dancers during rehearsal — seen in a previous HD-opera as part of an intermission

Ellen

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