Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Norwegian Wood

Friends and readers,

I braved or endured a 7 hour trip (counting to and fro from my house in Alexandria, Va, on July 16th, to the Ripley Center of the Smithsonian buildings on the National Mall) to enjoy the (as I discovered) privilege of listen to Saul Lilienstein for some 6 hours and 45 minutes. A tough travel experience (it was one of these supremely super-hot days in DC with humidity making the experience of difficulty breathing) amid crowds not decently serviced (not the fault of the Metro staff who actually drive and are on the stations of the Metro). See what goes unreported: mass prayer meeting in DC July 16th. But all this seemed no trouble at all in comparison to what this unusual man was able to say, convey, teach a small group of people willing to sit and learn.

He talked of the original and continuing British sources of Beatles’s music, its then immersion in American white and black music), accompanied by videos and sound tracks that moved me deeply for themselves and taught me generally how the Beatles came to have power over vast general audience, not only of young people.


Lilienstein’s ostensible plot-design was not chronological and throughout he used tapes, videos, UTubes made since the 1990s technological revolution to exemplify themes. But there was an ever-inching forward in time across a life-story in time, which seems to be inevitable when one tries to account for works of signally high genius.

For the first half of the day, morning before lunch (at 12:30) he covered the sources of the Beatles’ deep early appeal, what was original and yet so utterly British and traditional in their music, and how they began to break away musically and thematically.

It’s easiest to tell something of their joint career. Music comes from 1957/68 when Lennon and MacCartney first met and started to play. They brought into their pair, Harrison at age 14 late in 1958. They played everywhere in Liverpool and back and forth in Hamburg. They had trouble finding a drummer once they wanted someone for a commercial style recording, and it was 1962 when Ringo Starr joined them

Photo from early phase: Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul MacCartney

For the first hour he showed us how the earliest Beatles music in Liverpool and Hamburg was rooted in Irish, Scottish and music hall English aesthetic traditions and ethical-class outlooks. This hour-long part of Lilienstein's talk was the least accompanied by vocal tapes, and visual videos and at the same time the most startling. The cheerful music of acceptance of one's lot in the mainstream working class culture of later 19th and early 20th century entertainment is conveyed, but also how one belonged to this milieu captured once for all by Richard Hoggart in his famous The Uses of Literacy. Lilienstein would play a rendition of familiar early Beatles hits (before they came to the US), then an Irish/Scottish ballad or musical hall song. Lilienstein pointed out that “It was 20 years ago today/Sergeant Pepper taught the bland to play”constitutes an innovative reprieve of the deeply male upper class suave dominated music of the the later half of the 20th and into the 21st century by working class, soft shoe (American black) and effeminate plangent elements.

Lilienstein put a large image of a poster of a circus coming to a local music hall pre-WW1 and showed us how lines of the song “For the benefit of Mr Kite” are all taken from this poster. “The Long winding road” is another startlingly innovative harking back. The tune of “It was 20 years ago today” is from an earlier time utterly re-orchestrated. If we would listen to the lyrics of their songs, these tell us these truths: “I read in the news today, oh boy ..” If you begin to trace these lines, you find a genuine radical critique of history. One song about 40,000 holes takes us back to WW1 and horizontally to the number of seats in the Royal Albert Music Hall. Lilienstein played an early parody by Paul of this kind of music in a song my notes tell me ran “She was just a working class girl from the north.” I cannot over-estimate how startling and unknown to me all this was.

The second phase (another hour) was to trace the American roots of their songs. Americans had no trouble connecting with the Beatles as their songs imitated, were re-creations in a urban idiom of famous songs by Buddy Holly and his Crickets (whence the name Beatles), Little Richard, Chuck Berry. He would play an originally deeply American black song popular on black stations in the 1950s, then a semi-white rendition for a more widely-popular rendition on mainstream white radio, and then the Beatles, re-injecting black American words and rhythms. “Peggy Sue” became “P.S. I love You”. Mo-Town Smoky Robinson songs were re-injected into Beatles “This boy wants you back again.” They loved Chuck Berry, and combined his song with Blue Grass from white country music, giving it an urban edge either by imagery or quick pace. He played for us the Beatles’ rendition of “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Mr Postman.”

They had an ear to pick up the most remarkable of American songs: Barnett’s “Give me Money, that’s what I want,” adding to that their own personal intensities (Lennon screamed at a wild moment the lines about “give me money”), using darker chords. Wilbur Harrison trying to make some money re-made his “Kansas city,” rubbing out all black and Detroit references; the Beatles put these back in with lines about a “black beat” which referred to their imitation of music coming out of Detroit and Negro Spirituals. Lilienstein ended this section of his talk with “A Ticket to Ride” and “Day Tripper.”

Lilienstein’s talk was not just a matter of showing likeness and repetition of lyrics and tunes. He also showed transformation of blues structure quite early on in their music. 12 bars, each subdivided into 4, from C major into subdominant F and back to major C. They broke this up, turning to minor keys, bringing in sudden other unexpected chords (Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” became “You’re gonna lose that girl”). They never tried to hide what they were doing so you can use names and titles and lines to discover affinities and transformations. An early name for Lennon, MacCartney and Harrison was “Johnny and the Moondogs,” a term which has reference to performers of blues in the US. He discussed “She’s a woman” and “Help!” — for the first time I noticed the plangent nature of the words

Then a much shorter phase was “In a rebellious generation.” While towards the end Lilienstein played some of the music the Beatles recorded specifically against the Vietnam War, his subject was their rebellion against the musical forms they had been tinkering with, imitating, urbanizing. They began genuinely to expand what was meant by the term “rock’n’roll”. Norwegian Wood (which my daughter, Izzy, recorded a version of) was among these; also “Tomorrow never Knows” where they begin to bring in the drug culture through a psychedelic sound.

They imitate the sounds of technological machines, include lots of extraneous sounds, the point was to be haphazard. The song about the LSD experience was called Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in order not to be too much in your face.

At this point Paul MacCartney began to pull back, and we see him returning to Western modes, and in Victorian stories like “She’s leaving home,” about grief and loss with the music leaving traditional cadences in a way expressive of descending sorrow. “All you need is love” is memorable because it’s rhythms are off-kilter. By contrast, experiment for John Lennon meant embodying his troubled spirit, his angst in quick moving rhythms, modern songs whose lyrics showed a deep critique of the society they were living in as in “Revolution.”

Asked whether “Revolution” was an anti-war song, Lennon replied all their songs are anti-war.

In the first half, the long morning, Lilienstein brought in how their career as a group developed, telling of their first successes with a British audience, the coming to the US, the first TV appearances and concerts (Shea Stadium). The second half, he moved into showing us the inward musicians: the composition process as recorded on pirated tapes of sessions where we see them move from a first version of a song (mostly brought in either by Paul or John, sometimes as a lyric and sometimes as a song without words), and how they hammered at these to develop a full sound with all four playing, altered the lyrics and often the very character or mood they began with. This reminded me of how Jane Austen’s few ms’s show she often began with something very coarse and conventional (in her case burlesque) and gradually revising, turned the passage to something with an almost diametrically opposed mood and character, though some core in the original idea is brought out memorably.

It’s not true that they didn’t know musical notation; MacCartney and Lennon both studied music in college. Lilienstein showed them bringing in a line from Hal Arlen’s “Somewhere over the rainbow” in one of their songs, and how they began to softly linger at a song’s end. George Martin had taught them much: how to use a recording studio; he brought in discipline and “cleaned” up songs, but Lilienstein maintained that someone else could have contributed what Martin did, and by the end (1966-69) he was just standing there recording expertly.

In this hour and one half about process we listened to at least 3-4 versions of each song. A first and last, and two intermediary. “Get Back” started out (possibly dismayingly) as an anti-immigrant song with Pakistani people told to “get back to where they once belonged: we heard them free-wheeling with chords sounds, and that Jo-Jo was originally aimed at “Yoko Ono” whom John had begun to bring to recording sessions

At the same time, Lilienstein began to show us the distinct differences in the type of music each of the two major creators, Lennon and MacCartney did, and the growing conflicts and clashes of outlook, how they wanted the group to develop, attitudes towards life (Paul was the more upbeat person, adjusted to realities, imagining stories of families, while John projected anger and despair, and self-doubt). They were fighting over who would dominant, over “ownership” of themselves and the group. In the Abbey Road album we have a group breaking apart: they can make joyful music while they are at one another’s throats. Songs combine the wild despair with the story element as in “She came through the bathroom window.”

Some of their best work came out of this period of raucous interaction. Lennon had become increasingly dependent on drugs; at least he used them to the point he’d come in stoned; he protested against the bowing to commercial demands; MacCartney was more controlled and began to write astonishingly beautiful ballads: “Yesterday,” “All the Lonely People,” “Eleanor Rigby.” “You think she needs you” could be by Brahms. We listened to the evolution of “Let it Be” (one of my favorites) which began with the essential familiar lines but it took a long while for the three who had not made the lyric to accept it, and develop it into a kind of hymn. In their earlier phases.

Lilienstein said single were often the two opposing points of view: one one you had Paul’s “Penny Lane” on the one side (pictorial, surreal reality, memories of happiness as a child, nostalgia for the past, hopeful)

On the other John’s “Strawberry Fields” where he doesn’t want to get out of bed, where life is hopeless and to be avoided, nothing to get “hung about,” easy to live with eyes closed, “It doesn’t matter much to me,”as in his song “Nowhere:”

Sometimes an album would end with a song by Lennon and characteristic of his depression, to be contradicted by the first song on the other side by MacCartney. Lennon’s “I am The walrus” (see below) makes no literal sense, an ode to personal doubt and lack of identity, and is followed by MacCarthney’s “Yes no stop go goodbye hello,” making fun of Lennon as posturing. They were not only increasingly disenchanted with one another, but their careers. George Harrison had up until this point followed these two as a guitarist; as they withdrew he began to fill the gap with a few remarkably great songs (“My guitar gently weeps”). He began with ABA structures, but soon we hear unusual things brought in: Spanish or flamingo music (“I me mine”). He wrote much less than these two, but a couple are among the best songs of the 20th century, like “Something:”


I am aware I may not have conveyed the excitement, and cannot begin to get down the passing remarks Lilienstein made about the music as we went along. Remarkably the four went from “I wanna hold your hand” and “Love love me do” to “Hey, Jude” and “Here comes the sun” in 7 short years. It’s about what happened during these 7 years in the music that Lilienstein accounted for, went into deeply. He has all sorts of tapes, among the more moving was a beautiful tape of “Love is all you need” as surreal; the song not one of those I’ve favored as until now all the renditions I’ve heard were so sentimentalized.

As literary and art so musical creation comes of the author’s lives — how could it be otherwise? Lilienstein told of how individual songs were events in these four people’s lives — he did discuss Ringo Starr less, saying Starr said of himself, he had been so lucky to come along for the ride because he was a very good drummer and worked well with the other three. He told mainly of Lennon and MacCartney’s personalities.

Here Lilienstein seemed to me to be too critical of Lennon’s outlook as if it were wrong but as he talked I realized for the first time that Lennon abused his first wife and other women. Lilienstein played a song, rarely heard, by Lennon about his male jealousy where he says remorselessly he’d rather murder the woman he is with than see her with another man, and he was (I had not known this) violent, ruthless towards people, and domineering over women until he met Yoko Ono. (This is not necessarily a tribute to her moral nature;she was part of the reason for the break-up of the quartet.) I saw Lilienstein meant to register that Lennon never fulfilled his gifts; he was still finding himself when he was gunned down (as so many are in the US). I was after all glad of the condemnation however brief.

He then showed Lennon’s work was the more continually interesting and troubling. His description of “I am The Walrus” as filled with nonsense phrases, unreal words, and just sounds thrown in that Lennon heard as he was composing made the song into a kind of small Finnegan’s Wake:

Almost inevitably then MacCartney came in for the highest praise: he sustained himself, lived longer, as far as we know lived more ethically with regard to other people, kept writing and singing, and a few of his songs are among many people never tire of hearing: Lilienstein seemed to feel Hey Jude was a favorite for re-hearing for most people.

Lilienstein did not go into this but implicit in his talk was the idea the Beatles utterly transformed what rock-n-roll was thought to be, its potentials, its possibilities. At the time there were other highly original groups — who I’d say came out of the ferment of new ideas, radical, and liberating of the 60s: folk (Peter, Paul and Mary), more soft versions of rock-n-roll (Simon and Garfunckel), new kinds of country (Willie Nelson and the groups pf Austin, Texas), music coming from Nashville. So like Shakespeare in the Elizabethan theater, they came out of and were part of a movement, but they were a leading force. Their records sold tremendously, they topped all charts continually. Popular music has not been the same since. The only successful parody I know is from Love Actually: Bill Nighy’s inimitable, irreverent, mock-on-the-sexism, “Christmas is All Around Us” (it’s telling the original YouTube was pulled and there is now a much tamer one, minus the electrifyingly stupifyingly-sexualized girls and salacious gestures of Nighy).

Left out by Lilienstein except at split second moments, was the band’s sexism. They’d never have a woman singing with them one of them said. It’s a strongly masculinist point of view; the stories of young girls fleeing parents are done from the parental point of view. What the girl might have been feeling in her escape beyond a desire to “have fun,” and how she would feel years later when she was thoroughly punished by her society there are no songs about. As I listen to these I feel such sorrow over what I was as a teenager at age 16. My parents had no idea how to help me, nor did I how to help myself.


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Sondra Radvanovsky as a ghastly aging Elizabeth in the final moments of Roberto Devereux

Dear friends and readers,

If the play itself, the acting and singing, production design, direction, even most of the costumes (not all) had not been so splendidly pitch perfect, I’d have rested content with Izzy’s take on what we saw and heard yesterday. This is another of these opulent yet pared down presentations. She offers insights into so many of the choices of casting and camera shots by viewing the opera as being done to be part of the New Met Opera Experience on display for most of this year’s operas: The Modern Opera Experience II. While the stills available on the Net are except for a very few resolutely of Sonya Radvanofsky in her most trussed up and be-wigged moments, and concentrate on the heterosexual antagonistic lovers:

Matthew Polenzani as Devereux making up to the Radvanovsky’s creepily over-made up butterfly winged Elizabeth

Marius Kwieccien as the seethingly jealous Duke of Nottingham threatening Elina Garanca as his adulterous Duchess (in corset and shift and underskirt),

what the production did was show the aging woman declining and thrillingly bring back the homosocial pair of males from Les Pecheurs de Perles transposed to the Jacobean world:


It is my argument that Tudor Matter has been so ceaselessly popular because it undermines the usual male stereotypes and rips apart its taboos to show us vulnerable, emotional, woman-like men subject to strong women (see my Tudor Matter: Overturning Gender Stereotypes). This subversion and transgression is so unusual in any where but high opera, it’s no wonder people flock to The Boleyn Girl, Wolf Hall, Henry VIII (where even Ray Winstone crumbles before the onslaught of his obsessive insecurities. Nottingham as played by Kwiech, Devereux as played by Polenzani broke many taboos on the way males are supposed to  be self-controlled, all guarded triumph and conventional domineering strength. There was but one strong woman in this one: Elizabeth, but it’s an opera and must pare down the number of characters. Notably too Radvanosky played the character not as a Machiavellian frustrated malicious old maid (which from Scott on was the way this magnificent queen was seen), nor the recent sentimentalizations we’ve seen (as in Helen Mirren’s film or before her Bette Davis with Errol Flynn in Elizabeth and Essex) but a woman of genuine feeling that has been searingly violated and betrayed and is now shattered, can barely walk, is bald, near death. Radvanosky was not at all ashamed to mime death.

As Izzy remarks, one has to divest one’s mind of much that is known of the real Elizabeth and Essex’s relationship at this point and why she executed him: he was incompetent militarily but he made up for this by networking conspiracy, and he was ambitious. He attempted with a group of understandably rebellious Irishmen to take over England as its leader. But there are more than grains psychological truth in story of Elizabeth’s self-indulgent demands for erotic adoration from her courtiers.  I would now like to re-see Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena with Radvanosky under McVicar’s direction.

Roberto Devereux is (as I”ve just alluded to) the third in what has since Beverly Sills revived the Donizetti “three queens” as a series (Maria Stuarda, ultimately from Schiller; Anna Bolena, the product of an Italian poet from the 19th century working on sensibility romantic poet’s vision of the 18th century). Radvanofsky sang the tragic heroine of all three. The excellent New York Times review by Anthony Tommasini has a slide show and links.

What they have omitted to say though is wherein this opera differs from the other two beyond the sources. It is a deeply melancholy work, the music eerily distraught by end of the second act. Yes, the libretto for Devereux is based on an early 19th century romantic play, itself drawn from a later 18th century sentimental French subjective novel whose ultimate source is La Calprenede; that is, one of these enormously long 17th century French romances where a woman is made into a sort of goddess, who exists to be worshiped and emotionally tortured. But the source of the emotion is Donizetti himself. In the two years before this opera was produced (and while he was presumably writing it), his parents died, his wife gave birth to a stillborn baby and then herself died. This autobiographical origin is the source of the strange beauty of much of the music, even in the less inspired first half. I felt more genuine emotion in it than I ever have before. The translation of the libretto left thoughtful lines one didn’t have to stick to that story to respond to. Not everyone can respond to depth of grief (see James Jorden’s snark in the Observer).


One of the reviews I read complained about the stage as boring. It is modeled on the Wanamaker theater in London, newly brought back to life (where Izzy and I saw Farinelli and the King last September in London) in all its original later 17th century proscenium stage glory. As in that play, the rest of the cast, here the chorus, acted as an audience to the main action, so suggestively we saw the faces of these nameless courtiers and ladies watching the faces of these too-often named characters. Another friend who goes to opera frequently (in England) says more attention is paid to innovative and allusive production design than even the acting and trying for stars who look right, which nowadays can trump superlative singing. (Deborah Voigt is a perpetual hostess, sings no more because she is deemed too heavy and old for the mezzo-soprano roles her voice suits.)


Still Eric C. Simpson is surely right when he praises this latest product of the new mode of opera as much for the historical detail, symbolic figures and replications, striking costumes: McVicar has outdone himself and that’s saying something.



We were in a theater where the equipment has not been kept up, so while most of the time, I disagree whole-heartedly with the reiterated absurdity the HD-Met hosts and hostesses repeat obediently that there is nothing like experiencing these operas in the opera house live (yes, especially when you are at the back of the orchestra or anywhere from the second tier up), this time we were at a disadvantage and may next year go to a different movie-house. A second assumption voiced now and again is that these operas are not staged with the film audience in mind. Patently untrue. The staging is inflected to give the cameras full opportunity to do close-ups at climactic moments, far away shots as the opera say comes to a transition, medium range for allegorical effect. Again it was Gary Halverson who was listed as film director. We’ve one opera to go for this season: Strauss’s Elektra, directed for the stage by Patrice Chereau, a great film director. Doubtless he was chosen for his fame as well as expertise in film.

As we were talking about the opera over our supper later on, I wondered to myself if there is some way I could commemorate Jim’s love for opera that would somehow center on him. Alas there is not except if I regard my continual going now for the third year without him, and plans to keep this up and keeping the writing about this up as originally actuated by him and partly kept up to remember him. He would have loved this one.

Garanca singing of her love for Devereux


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A moment from the production — the distancing and then the

close up: Kristine Opolais

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I saw a re-transmission of the Met HD movie broadcast of the now ten year old production by Anthony Minghella (he directed, influenced the design, costumes) of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly movingly acted and sung by its principals, Kristine Opolais (who I’ve now watched and heard as an equally extraordinarily acted utterly different Manon Lescaut and Mimi in La Boheme) as Cio-cio San, and Maria Zifchak as Suzuki, Cio-cio San’s one loving friend, servant, companion. They were mesmerizing in their earnestness, long-waiting irony, bitterness, and finally absolute pursuit of death:


We are nowadays used to these pared-down minimalist productions where the inward life of the protagonists is the central action focused upon, so it could not seem as astonishing it is must’ve done 10 years ago. Since I remember one other Madame Butterfly I saw in the 1970s at the City Opera (the usual intricate production design, fussy sets, distracting stage business, objects), I can say this is not a split-second dated. Indeed Minghella’s production is moving to a London theater this summer and I expect will produce several DVDs before the production sees its last performance.

The pared down production and what is left on the stage makes the opera into his utterly inward exploration of a single woman who is deluded into thinking this man loves her:

Women who were themselves geishas deliver her


Between Act 1 and 2 three years have gone by. We discover he abandoned her and see what these three years have done to her and her friend-companion. During this act she is pressured to marry a rigid male from her culture. Quietly — and alas not emphasized in this production — we see at core she has rejected the roles her society gave her: to be an obedient geisha and then one woman in a harem of a polygamous man. Who would want that? For a short while she thought she found an alternative in Pinkerton. He turns out to be just such a shit towards women as the men in Japan. When he returns early in Act 3, he discovers what has happened and what is his reaction? to flee, leaving his wife to take her child or his son away from Cio-cio San. He refuses to see her or allow her to see him. There are a few slats on stage to suggest Asian walls and doors, a high stairway wide as the stage, and above a screen for light.


Flowers are used — the place is littered with petals the way the air is filled with stars and a kind of fluff.

Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”  Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
After this rare meditative moment towards the end of Act 3, Pinkerton flees the stage

Although Gary Halverson is again listed as film director (how he works with Carolyn Chaos, Minghella’s widow who listed as director we are not told).

I was just overwhelmed by emotions which the acting and the music projected. These while rooted in this particular story could be exaltation, love, grief, anger, despair over many other experiences. This suggestiveness is deliberate. For example at the end of Act 2 when the Cio-Cio-San thinks Pinkerton’s ship is coming into harbor, she, her friend-servant, Suzuki and the puppet for her boy, the three sit in kneeling way ever so quiet, just sit there and the darkness falls. This after the stark grief, anger at the attempt to get her to marry someone else, and other emotions have made the stage seem so noisy.


The bunraku puppetry was part of the mesmerizing effect. It’s a form of traditional Japanese puppetry, strange, expressive, plangent. Probably what was used connects to an American version. Butterfly turns into a small fragile puppet buffeted about:


I would have said well that won’t compare with a real child. I would have been wrong.

Another incarnation where a photo caught the depth of the art

The child puppet is just so expressive and so yearning and so needy and so loving and eager; the people using sticks and dressed in black make his body and fact aching with emotion. His bald head on this wobbling neck made him all the more poignant. There is something so touching about the puppet’s fragile dignity:


The puppeteers also danced and manipulated lovely blue paper birds when Cio-cio San is hopeful at the opening of act 3.

Robert Alagno was Pinkerton and the actor showed himself embarrassed or dull when he denied Pinkerton is to be judged (!) and asserted how the character is innocent and needs to be forgiven. He did seem singularly bland in Act 1 but by the time you are into Act 3 and he turns up only to flee. Anything he does in context seems fatuous. He seems to be an ass, and especially an American ass. The music standing for him is American. When the puppet is last seen it has an American flag, waving at us, as on the other side of the stage Cio-Cio-San more than half crazed, stabs herself to death repeatedly. It is a symbolic indictment of the stupidity and cruelty of US colonialist policy far more effective in its starkness than Miss Saigon (thought the explicit connection of the recent production is important and I do not deny its power and detailed stronger relevance).

opera sets_madame butterfly
The penultimate savage death scene

Since the production is older, there are few reviews of this 2016 staging, which differs significantly only in having Kristine Opolais for the first time, and to her credit, this decade long exposure is said to be revivified because of her presence. The New York Times also reviewed her performance more than anything else. I have the highest respect for Minghella since I read and studied with a class his screenplay out of Michael Ondjaate’s English Patient, which screenplay and film were among several fine works he wrote, directed, created his vision of life through (Truly, Madly, Deeply is another). This older review from 2006 is the best I’ve come across.



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Final Scene, DesGrieux (Roberto Alagno) and Manon dying (Christine Opolais)

Friends and readers,

As a lover of Prevost’s famous story (as written by him), and having been moved by an intelligent and powerful European production of Massenet’s Manon (5 years ago now), Puccini’s Manon Lescaut as produced by the Met was something of a disappointment. It reminded me of an early 19th century French operatic version of Romeo and Juliet Jim, I, and Izzy, saw years ago at Glimmerglass, where until the last act I felt almost nothing and then suddenly at the long death scene where the lover awaken and dying grieve at length I was overcome with emotion at the lyrical beauty, acting, even words (subtitles though they were) of this opera. In this new production at the Met, the very last scene of Manon dying at length in Des Grieux’s arms sent through me waves of identification as I felt them experience her dying, with the music and singing heart-breakingly beautiful as inch-by-inch she despaired and died, and he enacted a deep form of empathy with her.

The whole of this Manon Lescaut exists to get us to this long many phase final scene. Puccini has stripped Prevost’s story of much of its rational or content. All he is interested in are the lovers when they are anguished; how they got there, is irrelevant it seems. Prevost’s original lovers are desperately trying to escape the norms and demands of the ancien regime: Des Grieux’s father wants him to become a priest, and doesn’t care if it would be utterly hypocritical of him. When Des Grieux refuses, the father uses lettres de cachet to imprison him. Prevost’s Manon is much lower in rank than Des Grieux and so unsuitable as far as the father is concerned, first seen in chains, being sent out of France as prisoner. In Massenet Manon is simply lower middle, without dowry, her brother is attempting to force her into a nunnery, but beyond that much of the original 18th century context is kept. In Prevost and Massenet, the two flee together; they are no paragons: he gambles to live, drinks, has had other women, and she deserts him more than for rich old man, but they do want to live lives true to their emotional realities and desires. They fall lower and lower, become thieves, crooks, in and out of trouble with the police, in Prevost finally ending in a desert in Louisiana, looking out on a meaningless horizon (the story is fideist), starved, exhausted, with her falling ill and dying. Massenet has a substitute setting in France for the last gouging into death.

Puccini cut all this out, and we begin with Manon as a beautifully innocent young woman, utterly stereotypical non-entity, Des Grieux, a chivalrous male student (anticipating La Boheme) who fall in love,


though her successful flight from her brother is engineered by Geronte (Brindley Sherratt), a vicious old man who turns up in the first scene (taking the place of Prevost’s father figure). In other words, Puccini robbed the characters of their content, context, complexity, their interest, leaving us with archetypes. The first scene of this production put me to sleep. Everyone was dressed in World War Two clothes and the soldiers were Nazis, but beyond that it looked and felt like some bland cheerful group of tourists at a cafe beneath museum steps.


Only Sherratt’s acting of a seething resentful old man and fine dark voice gave the scene any bite. If Puccini did this because the 19th century audience would not tolerate overt amorality, it didn’t work, as the program notes and wikipedia informed us the opera was thought scandalous and censored.

The production came alive in the second act. Genuinely funny in a self-reflexive way was Eyre’s original way of presenting a now rich and vulgar Manon and her brother, Lescaut (Massimo Cavalletti) as bored silly by the operatic songs and music of her aging and as we have felt mean, spiteful, (and as we discover) vengeful ancient lover-keeper, Geronte (Brindley Sherratt):


When Grieux rushes in and he and Manon become lovers once again,


only to be caught and threatened by said old man, the action on stage was compelling enough. There is even a suddenly evocative song between them. The stage seemed to me modeled on Lulu as there was again a long stairway down with a prison-like door out of which came first the old man, and then a group of Nazi officers who arrested Manon at the orders of her ex-protector. Maybe it was the same set with different accoutrements? (A penny saved is a penny got.) The furniture was all similarly tasteless vulgarly show-offy, though nowhere as graphic or meaningful as in Lulu (which had pictures to go with the setting). Christine Opolais’s dress evoked Marilyn Monroe on a particularly egregiously sexy day.

This use of sets to mirror the later 20th century continued in the third act and last scene. The prison looked like places where people are kept in solitary confinement, not gothic so much as places where senseless injustice is going on. (Welcome to the US or Egypt or a dozen or more other countries in the world, 2016.) Puccini’s Lescaut has tried to bribe a soldier to release Manon to Des Grieux and in this act the soldier fails to help them.


And at this point the opera moved into doing what it was there to do. Our lovers become desperately clinging anguished figures:


They did sing so movingly, and the music began to soar. I recognized in the second act and again here music I’ve heard before. Lescaut is shot (and looks like he is dying), Manon taken aboard a ship for the colonies with other women prisoners (prostitutes, poor women), with Des Grieux succeeding by begging to get the captain to let him come aboard. So now we are with refugees.

And then we are in our last scene, which appears to be a bombed out world. It looks like gigantic pillars of some iron building have fallen this way and that. There is a building still standing where all the glass has been shattered, and our lovers have to stumble their way up and down the columns. Here Des Grieux raises himself to cry out against what is happening (since the empty horizon and desert are gone it cannot be against some Godless wasteland)


He then runs off to find help. She thinks he has deserted her and Opolais’s acting and singing were unbearably despairing, plangent. I lost it and began to cry. And when he returned, we were set for our Romeo and Juliet close.

The reviews of the production have not been generous. Justin Davidson of the Vulture saw the sets as preposterous, making no sense and the second transposition from Puccini’s gutting to WW2 adding nothing. Anthony Tomassini of the New York Times came closer when he suggested the production was trying for a a noir twist. To be fair to Puccini, I found the Met HD Massenet Manon similarly misconceived. Both critics, though, made the same point that my daughter, Izzy, dwelt on as what made the opera finally an extraordinary experience despite the useless transposition, distracting sets, and simplification into shallowness:

The best way to deal with it, perhaps, is to get the best vocal talent available to infuse into the characters all the feeling they can. The Met, thankfully, lucked out when, having lost their original leading man, they managed to get Roberto Alagna to sing instead; he may be a little older than he was when movie theater audiences first saw him, but he can still do passion with the best of them. Plus the younger Kristine Opolais proved able to hold her own with him. The most effective part of the opera was the end, when all the fancy sets and costumes were removed, and they didn’t even attempt to explain where in the world the two characters were, just had them suffer and die and let us be sad over it.

During one of the (long) intermissions, we were shown Eyre talking to Gelb, chief director at the Met (responsible for these HD broadcasts and central in choosing what’s produced at the Met and how). I gathered Eyre was aware that Puccini’s operatic story lacks any raison d’etre that makes sense, and he brought in the Nazi regime in order to give us some outward explanation for the scenes and make the opera relevant to day. Certainly today we see all around us flagrant injustice in the way prisons are run, mocking immorality, worship of luxury, indifference to suffering. The trouble is the content of the characters’ story has little to do with this as we experience it today. I take it the original error in Puccini’s concoction of several strung together scenes was to erase the ancien regime and romanticize, or sentimentalize the characters. What Puccini was moving towards was a realization of his masterpiece La Boheme, and he did that in the following year.

The experience though determined me to be sure and get my tickets for Madame Butterfly, the Met’s next production, exchanged for the re-airing of the HD-film later on a weekday night. I will be away the day Madame Butterfly is broadcast and would like not to miss this pair of effective actors and singers get together once again. I can’t find a still of him acting on the floor, crawling around, letting go utterly, but there is one of her at such a moment:



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Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years

Geoff: You really believe you haven’t been enough for me?
Kate: No. I think I was enough for you, I’m just not sure you do

Friends and readers,

See it twice. You cannot understand the first half until you’ve seen the scene at the middle when Kate (Charlotte Rampling) finally climbs the folding ladder up to the attic of her and Geoff’s (Tom Courtenay) house to look at the album and slides he has apparently been looking at regularly for 45 years, and discovers with an intensely painful sound that Katja, the young woman her husband loved before he married Kate, had been pregnant. Katja died in an accident 50 years ago, so this occurred 5 years before Geoff met and married Kate. Geoff and Kate have had no children, only a series of beloved dogs.

Only then can you grasp, feel the build-up of emotional pain in both halves of the film, their repressed ideas as they spend Monday through Thursday together, leading to that climb, and then after the viewing Geoff’s return from a reunion forced on him (“Fucking endless” he calls it), at long last some talk between them about how this previous relationship has sown distrust and a comparative perspective between them, and the final anniversary party where at the height of the supposed joy Kate throws off Geoff’s arm and looks out at us with a look of such betrayal as to leave me breathless, wordless, all the while I know she may be wrong. It may be that Geoff found her enough even if she thinks she has been enough for him and that her idea he does not feel this is a form of self-flagellation. This is a story about the complex experience of long-term marriage.

One review, Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, has come near to doing justice to the depth and complexity of emotions dramatized in this story; but most say almost nothing, Ebert’s column carried on by others, or like A. O. Scott in the New York Times, too melodramatic, seeking some kind of climax. For the source in a David Constandine story see Stephen Dalton’s “Berlin Review.”

A central theme and set of insights is into the perpetual effect of memories in a relationship, as powerful even if never openly admitted to. The first time I went I found the experience salutary: Rampling and Courtenay teach us how self-control prevent us from the utterly counterproductive act of suicide when facing all that old age brings, how empathy is an achieved state of mind, made with steely effort out of kindness to the other and to ourselves.

Another of its undercurrents which rise to the surface, there all the time, not memory, is a deep discomfort, un-home-yness that has been part of this married couple’s life from its start. She smells a perfume in the air she thinks is one Katja used and she has never spoken of this until now. For 45 years she held her peace. He shakes his head.

The second time was cathartic. The two had discussed memories in ways that suggested he at least had striven to leave a somewhat false impression about the importance of this previous relationship, and she had lived with this cover-up. It was only in the second time as the film opened I realized the framing sound of snaps and a black screen were registering Jeff’s visits to the attic to look at the old slides of his possible pre-honeymoon in Switzerland Alps with Katja 50 years ago; I now could understand the coming of a letter from the Switzerland authorities that Katja’s corpse had been found led to Kate’s easy “finding” of a guidebook for Geoff that Geoff had put in the garage because Katja’s death had never been far from her (or his) memories and consciousness. I felt breathless with recognition. You don’t have to have the same particulars of memories.

Filmszene "45 Years"


The story line is simple. We begin on the arrival of a letter on a Monday morning of a week whose Saturday night is to culminate in an anniversary party for our hero and heroine. The POV is Kate’s (Rampling): Kate is in every scene and we see Geoff (Courtenay) through Kate’s eyes. However Haigh’s script (with its suggestions of other times and points of view) and Courtenay’s acting transcend Kate’s perspective so we experience his too.


The movie moves slowly proportionately imitating how we feel over each day’s routines. As each day is over the screen goes black and an intertitle of a typed day of the week appears. Tuesday Kate goes into town to look at possible presents for Geoff. Kate cannot get herself to buy Geoff an expensive watch. While in town she meets one of her true long-time friends (life supplies few of these), Nina (Geraldine James) and it’s in Kate and Nina’s conversations it’s confirmed what we had suspected from Kate’s dialogue with a vendor that Geoff is reluctant to go to his and her anniversary party this coming Saturday night. Kate is not keen herself on parties.

In the cafe

It’s through Nina we discover how Geoff is intensely put off by hypocrisies of social life, and Nina’s conversation enables us to grasp Geoff’s half-articulated disillusionment with what happened to the idealists he knew as a young man. Coming back from his reunion he reports “Red Len” now has a banker grandson, spends his days playing golf in an Arab emirate. He and Katja had been part of a generation who saw as courageous refusing to cooperate, who resisted being co-opted into middle class life and occupations after university. We learn that Kate looks upon such “bravery” as delusional and cowardly. That Nina still resents how in public Geoff had called her a fascist when she said “Thatcher had not made such a bad job of it.” Nina takes Kate to buy a dress; tells Kate that Kate must not give up the party, that Nina’s husband, George, had protested against their anniversary party and yet wanted it. It’s Nina who supplies a board of photos of Geoff and Kate over the years made up of snaps taken by friends on various occasions. Nina is the good woman friend lucky women hold onto over the years. She’s ordinary and good-natured: we see her encourage her husband in his latest fad of ukulele playing: if it add a note of jolliness, what’s the harm — it irritates Geoff how everyone goes on about this playing as if it were good.

Haigh imitates realities of older people’s lives. Nina and Kate spend time helping people twenty years older than themselves on a pleasure excursion boat. Nina is encouraging a daughter who lives with her to try a new profession as a photographer while the daughter (and apparently a grandchild) lives with Nina and George after the break-up of a marriage. I liked little touches: how the dog protests when Kate brings down the rickety ladder and climbs it up to the attic. My cats dislike when I bring down my ladder and climb up to my attic and can be heard walking about from the ceiling below.


Geoff and Kate are shown to have much satisfaction in life: they live in a beautiful suburban countryside in southern England; they are retired, read together. He cannot drive any more but she can and ferries him to where he wants to go. On the Wednesday night they remember happy moments and dance and try to make love late at night. He does not quite succeed and feels bad: we have learned he had a “bypass,” open heart surgery five years ago and is frail and should not smoke. He begins again after the letter arrives. Over the course of the week Kate finally allows herself to realize, to face that Geoff goes up to the attic to look at photos of Katja and the album regularly. He would go to Switzerland to retrieve the body if he could: Kate discovers this by going into town after he goes alone by bus and comes home late. But he has faced that he can hardly walk in town, much less climb a Swiss mountain to where her body lies. Courtenay speaks five moving soliloquys, two in bed, one with Kate by his side — they reminded me of Laurence Oliver’s final eloquent meditation in Brideshead Revisited just before his character’s death.

Kate has been asked to list music to be played at the anniversary party, and some of these 60s hits are heard across the film. The music functioned the way it had for Last Orders: as ironic commentary, reinforcement. All these years when Kate has heard one of Jeff’s tapes, “I only want to be with you” sung by Dusty Springfield, she has felt he was remembering Katja. The Turtles “Happy together” has been an exercise in self-doubt. Geoff is on best behavior all Saturday to show he does love Kate and wants to go to the party: he brings her tea in the early morning, scrambles eggs for them for breakfast, walks with her and their dog for the first time all movie long, leaves a present of a necklace for her. So she sits down to play music for the first time it seems in years at her piano. It might have been Sibellius but I am not sure. She grieves as she plays. One the way there she apologizes to Geoff for not buying the watch. He says that he does not like to know the time anyway. Throughout the film when given an opportunity he makes kind remarks to her. He tries to tell the truth: when she asks him if he would have married Katja had she not died, he says yes and repeats it; but then when she asks if he’s lying and they had married, he says no, it was a pretense so they could travel together. He is honest. This hurts, but it is better that way.

At the high point of the party Geoff is expected to get up and give a speech. This reminded me of other films where the male gets up and speechifies but never the female (Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma had Mark Strong talking but not Kate Beckinsale as Emma) and I remember how when Jim retired at a party given for us two, he spoke and I didn’t. I didn’t want to but maybe I’ve been trained not to. When I got an award this November I had to read a short few lines I wrote for myself and then was intensely relieved to leave the limelight. He is relieved to sit down and as he has told her earlier he depends on her strength to get him through and kisses her hand:


Geoff and Kate had danced at their wedding The Platters: Smoke gets in your eyes.

I experienced a deep wrenching when she discovered from the photos in the attic that Katja was pregnant and again at the close. As I watched them under strobe lights though my Jim is dead, and he and I had been married 44 years and he died 3 days after we were together 45, and he and I will now never know such moments however ambivalent (anyway we never had the friends to invite to such a party) — I could take it. Tt was when Kate pushed Geoff’s triumphant hand away and looked at the camera with such ghastly alienation and the music blares out the Moody BluesGo Now, I lost it, and had to leave the auditorium lest I cry out hysterically. It was indeed time for me to go now. I could escape. (The particulars of my story, the pain of these half-remembered memories, the half-lies has a different source.) Kate cannot escape her past and the “important choices” (as Geoff puts it in his speech) she made long ago, and she is holding on firm and enduring life as it has presented itself to her since, as is Geoff as her loving or at least peaceable companion. Their orderly existence is based on solvency, insight and shared acceptance. But it is also based on living with deep disillusionment, loneliness. Remember him sitting on that bench in the town smoking away when he knows to smoke is to kill himself.


The mise-en-scene is so quietly pleasurable. The photographs of southern English countryside are understated so alluring. The pace makes one feel one is experiencing this world. She does her own dishes. He takes books out of the library on climate change and geography. There is one oddity: no one has a cell phone; no one sits and looks at a computer. I know that people in their sixties, 40+ years married are often as constant interacting with others on their devices as younger people. This lack may have its source in the story adapted.


The foolish Oscar ceremony is coming up soon, and I’ve listed in another blog the four superb films in movie-houses I’ve seen in 2015: Mr Turner, I’ll Dream of You, Mr Holmes, and Kilo Two Bravo (on TV Wolf Hall). These are my candidates for awards. As I drove home, I tried to list the most recent profound films I’ve seen these actors in: Rampling in Night Porter and Sous la Sable; Courtenay in Little Dorrit, Last Orders, The Dresser, Geraldine James in Jewel in the Crown and She’s Been Away.


This is one of those for 2016 I will remember for a long time to come and recommend going to see — who says a film can’t be as complex and ethical as a novel?


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Nadir (Matthew Polenzani), Zurga (Mariusz Kwiecien), Leila (Diana Damrau), climax of Les Pecheurs de Perles

Tonio-Taddeo (Dimitri Platanias) has enabled Canio-Pagliaccio (Aleksandrs Anoinenko) to catch Nedda-Columbine (Carmne Giannasttasio) kissing promising to elope with Arlechino, crisis scene of Pagliacci

Friends and readers,

No I was not in London late last Sunday afternoon, but at a Fairfax independent movie-house, Cinema Art, and by myself with a sparse audience watched a passionately acted and sung Mascagni’s Cavalliera Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Il Pagliacci, a repeat HD screening of a live performance at Covent Garden this past fall. Nor was I in New York City at the Met today at 1 but at an Alexandria City chain movie-house, and with Izzy in a nearly full auditorium watched the live performance today of Bizet’s Les Pecheurs de Perles. Both were superb, both were produced, acted, directed successfully to make them feel utterly contemporary.

What’s remarkable about Le Pecheurs is it was something of a flop in 1863, and now 100 years later it’s not only a stunning success, but had it been done say 20 years ago, the story would have seem absurdly unreal (as it did to Parisian critics). We have a female scapegoat, Leila, a sacrificial virgin whose life-in-death is meant to propitiate the sea-gods, and when she is caught making love with Nadir, the two are condemned to be burned to death. The Met production was aware that everyone in the audience has read in the last few years about the barbaric executions of women for sexual misconduct and of men for what is called treason in the totalitarian religiously-fanatic states of the middle east. Women are enslaved as a matter of course by ISIS, trafficked by everyone else, made utterly to submit or face severe punishment under Sharia law.


No longer is there a problem believing this kind of what once would have felt mythic stuff. The program notes talked about Orientalism, but the setting, the shawls and scarves, the city glimpsed once or twice in the background was meant to conjure up the world of Mediterranean Africa and the Middle East.


And even 25 years ago timidity, decorum, the practice of not acting while singing would have buried the startling core of this opera: the famous intensely yearning lyrical song pledging their faithfulness until death between Nadir and Zurga is deeply homoerotic; the two men are in love. As Polenzani (who projected extraordinary sensitivity, nervous distress too, and sang so well I thought of Pavarotti) said, Nadir is lying to Zurga during the whole of the song. Nadir means to find out Leila and be with her again; he has not given her up at all as he promises.


We can’t say they are homosexual as they don’t act out the intense bonding they have experienced with one another, but all else is in place, for when Nadir is caught making love to Leila, Zurga’s seething fury is not against her but Nadir for betraying him. All the words of Leila’s intense begging of Surga to pardon Nadir in the second act, and Zurga’s desire above all to murder Nadir once he is told that Leila and Nadir love one another demonstrate this.

Before they are caught

So too the ending. What was substituted for years erased Zurga’s sudden turn-round, his setting fire to the city and village, in order to allow Nadir and Leila time to escape the flames. The program notes said the text became “corrupt” and new unauthentic material was worked in; only in the 1970s was Bizet’s original score and the script restored; this was the basis for a critical edition in the 1990s and this Met opera. What happened in these muddled (really deliberately obscured) performances was that the villagers discover Zurga was the arson and he is burned at the stake, or stabbed in the back, and the final scene was a holocaust with yet another trio. In the opera today and as originally written, the ending is Zurga sinking to the ground in grief. He is the tragic figure of his play.


How conscious was Bizet of this? French writers of the 19th century were not innocents. Eve Sedgwick wrote a remarkably insightful book on this disguised gay plot in her Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire on this phenomenon. The configuration of the two men with the interface of the female between them is glimpsed in Carmen, with the baritone or Zurga role, the bull-fighter, Jose the tenor whose mortified jealousy drives him to murder Carmen, the sensitive tenor or Nadir, and Carmen a mezzo. Jose or the Nadir character is the tragic figure of Carmen, not the woman. Jim and I once saw an adaptation of Carmen where the opera was done from Jose’s perspective, and today’s performance of Les Pecheurs put me in mind of that sequel or post-text opera. But if Bizet may have known what he was doing, and others what they were watching, like movie critics today who complain when movies don’t fit an aggressive three-part action structure but follow a female pattern of cyclical movement, so the 19th century critics felt there was nothing happening in Les Pecheurs. It was “a fortissimo in three acts.”

Not today. Penny Woolcock (a British name to conjure with) was credited with the production; a Matthew Diamond (I can’t remember his name and it is not repeated anywhere after you see it on the scroll) directed it for live cinema. The sets were effective, moving from fisherman’s wooden platforms by the sea, to dream visions


to a city that looked like Naples circa 1950, to Zurga’s office (where he has a computer, smokes, a TV, phone and paces) and back again, with a city in the background. The storm was conjured up by computer technology so we saw an ocean take over the stage; acrobats were seen swimming in the sea to stand for fisherman. A fisherman’s work is dangerous. Both men sang brilliantly. I found Danrau strident, not melodious, but she enacted the part with bravura and believability.

Izzy was much moved by the final quiet moment of Kwiecien on stage: her blog-review finds the setting to be more closely modeled on Sri Lanka and the rituals against climate change in this contemporary mix of the newly found great opera.


Dimitri Platanias as Alfio (who will become the incensed jealous husband) in Cavalliera Rusticana

Before last Sunday I had seen Cav & Pag with Jim at least twice (with Pagliacci once done with another one act verismo opera) before I saw it again last year with Izzy in an HD Met performance, where an attempt was made to present Cavalliera as a feminist play, all sombre colors with the action directly contradicting the words and sometimes the music. The HD-Met Cavalliera Rusticana made no sense; their Pagliacci was done vividly, with excitement, but too grotesquely as a carnival comedy, it was a coarse performance even if effective.

One problem with seeing this pair is one arrives with the expectation of not being over-excited because it’s almost old hat. The real fun of this new Les Pecheurs de Perles was we didn’t know the story, the phases were a surprise, I had no idea it was homoerotic, and the ending especially broke stereotypes effectively. Yet I was moved by the old pair — as was a woman sitting me who remarked on it. She said she had not expected to be so stirred.

There is a thorough and detailed review of this production, especially musically online by Robert Hugill. What I’d like to add is how effective it was to treat Pagliacci from a feminist standpoint: Damiano Michelietto was remembering Fellini’s 1954 Italian film La Strada, where an itinerant street performer buys or marries, and beats and destroys his clown-mentally disabled wife. Giannasttasio-Nedda’s hair was made up to look like Gelsomina’s, Antonenko as Turrido in Cavalliera reminded me of Zampanò.


Nedda is harassed by Tonio, terrified (rightly) of Canio, is in love with Taddeo, really in love with him and he with her. Here is a rightly favorable review.

Santuzza (Anne Maria Westbroek) hoping Turiddo (Aleksandrs Anoinenko) will come back to her and leave off his affair with Alfio’s wife

Presenting Pagliacci in this light made Cavalliera more feminist too: rightly Anna Marie Westbroek as Santuzza is a victim. First the two productions were linked. The village was the same with the murder of Turiddo in Cavalliera occurring the morning, and the murder of Nedda in Pagliacci the afternoon. The same villagers were seen in both; a poster advertising the play within a play of Pagliacci is seen in Cavalliera. The two men doubled the parts of Turrido-Canio and Alfio-Taddeo. Only the lead sopranos were fittingly different: the parts opposed, the kind of soprana different.

Mama Lucia (Elena Silio) as Turiddo’s mother

In this production, Santuzza attempts to make a friend of Turiddo’s mother and as in the script does not succeed. But during a lull in the action in Pagliacci, Santuzza is seen in the front area before the auditorium with Turiddo’s mother, now grief-striken. So the two operas are intertwined. The two women find comfort in one another; in this production Santuzza is pregnant with Turiddo’s child so the pair become a kind of Naomi and Ruth without (an erring) Boaz.


For me it worked. The costumes were right, especially the picturesque melodamatic ones of the play within a play in Pagliacci, evoking 19th century melodrama and novel types.


It made the contrast with reality more ironic and effective. The settings too struck a symbolic chord:

Turrido found dead — this symbolic town by a movie-house matched the symbolic middle eastern city of Les Pecheurs

They did seem to cut scenes from Cavalliera, thus making it seem more like filler, a kind of framing for the afternoon ferocity. In the production Izzy and I saw last year, Cavalliera seemed much the inferior work, but I’ve seen productions where it was done so beautifully lyrically and pathetically and with real rage (on the part of Alfio) that it overshadowed Pagliacci.


As Izzy and I left Les Pecheurs de Perles we said how nice to be surprised at an opera for a change. We remembered how Jim had looked up who was singing in a production of Don Giovanni as an HD-Met opera we saw now 4 years ago. Kwiecien was Giovanni and he had hurt himself on the Net (strained his back) and it was feared he would not make it. He did, if only to be in the filmed version (going out “to the world”). Jim would keep up as to what was happening in a cast; when we arrived he’d know the history of the previous opera productions. He would have enjoyed the Cav & Pag I saw last week. We thought he would have loved this Les Pecheurs de Perles. She and I both missed him this afternoon.

Kwiecien as handsome and alluring as Jonas Kauffmann


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Italian Recreation by Antoine Watteau

Dear friends and readers,

Last night The Folger Consort, put on a truly enjoyable concert of 18th century music appropriate for the winter season, “The Season Bids Us.” It consisted of four pictorial (in the 19th century way of music) Four Seasons (Scherzi Armonici sopra le Quattro Stagioni dell’Anno) by an early 18th century French composer variously called Antonio or Mr Antonio at the time. The Folger gave his name as Giovanni Antonio Guido; born 1675, from Genoa, studied violin in Naples from 1683; was employed at the city’s Conservatory, paid as a copyist, a violinist in the Royal Chapel and moved to Paris in 1702. There he became successful enough to end the head of the Duke of Orleans’s musical establishment. He was painted by Watteau.

Antonio by Watteau

The four movements of Four Seasons, each have subheadings which suggests a story, and the Folger Consort group printed four French poems (with facing English translations) which correspond to the changes of story line in the music. You can follow along from mood descriptions of the season, to events occurring in the natural world among animals and people (including a fierce hunt where the poor stag is destroyed no matter how hard he tries to escape).

The consort used to consist just of four older (white) men; it’s now about 10-12 people, some young, women, African American. The older men are still playing their harpsichords, recorders, older violins, cellos, and period instruments I can’t name; the new people have older instruments too, but also modern violins, cellos, horns.

For this concert and I can see those coming next year each time a “star” instrument performer is hired. This time it was the stunningly good Julien Chauvin. He can play that instrument wildly and it becomes alive with feeling. They also had a soprano with a beautiful voice, Rosa Lamoreaux. Between the first two seasons she sung carols using the Christian mythic story by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a French composer active in Paris in the middle to later 17th century.

Born in 1643, Charpentier’s father was a scribe, and he spent time studying in Italy under the composer, Carissimi. He too ended patronized by the French aristocracy, given an apartment by Marie of Lorraine in the Hotel de Guise. As wikipedia says, “prolific, versatile,” he is said to have “produced compositions of the highest quality” in many genres, among these oratorios, motets — and Christmas pastorals. He is best known for music composed for Moliere’s plays and company of actors. He kept his autographs and they are now in the Bibliotheque National so his work is known. He was music director at a Gothic style chapel Sainte-Chapelle for six years where he is said to be buried, but there is no marker. The program notes quoted him from near the end of his life:

I was a musician, considered good by the good ones, scorned as ignorant by the ignorant … since those who scorned me were more numerous than those who lauded me, music became to me a small honor and a heavy burden. and just as at my birth I took nothing into this world, I took nothing from it at my death.


The consort matched traditional carol words to some of his melodies, with deft dance rhythms, folk tunes. The songs are playful; one ruefully feels sorry for the apparently cuckolded Joseph. Another is universal in spirit about the new year. Some of the translations were very Baroque in imagery and feel; others influenced by William Cowper-style verse:

From Spring: there was a shepherd and shepherdess song:

The Shepherds by Watteau

From Summer

The air sets fire to itself: Phoebus in his brilliant course
Has already met Leo in wrath.
Zephyr disappears, the burning countryside
Leaves no birds to sing excepts the cuckoos …

The stag, horrified, sees no escape.
He flies, attempting in vain to escape death.
His power leaves him, he cries of his defeat,
He surrenders to the conquerors who deny him mercy

From Winter

The season of freezing fog saddens Nature,
The weakened sun escapes before our eyes
To the animals, the soil offers in place of grass
Only snow and icicles that are found in every place.

You can find read the program and all the songs on line here:

The whole thing was done so unprentiously, without pomposity, people coming in, setting themselves up, playing and singing, and taking a few bows after that I wish my one on-line YouTube about it didn’t have the bit too much hype (or ad stuff here and assertions about this ritual time) but since I am not good at describing muisc, you do see the group, hear a bit of it, the soprano and the main violinist:

Pericles is still on at the Folger theater and the audience was probably too large for the Folger Theater, so it was held in a church across the street, the American Lutheran Church of the Reformation. The main nave is beautiful: simple, very Renaissance in the use of wood decoration, the forms across the ceiling reminded me of women’s headdresses. Four Christmas tree with white lights, wreaths without any ornaments.

Most of the time Jim and I did not go to the consort because (he said rightly) they were dull about 10 years ago or so, the four men just using religiously the instruments of the time, sticking to the way a song might have been done. Once in a while though they would break out. I remember seeing a delightful rendition in the small Folger theater itself of Milton’s apparently stern Comus: it’s a play meant to be done in an aristocratic house by children. For that they did hire actors, and had extra more modern instruments — after all it was mid-17th century, 100 years after the “official” Renaissance.

I see coming up in spring, “Playing with Fire,” a consort similarly inventingly combining different kinds of instruments and players: made up of fanstasias, dances and and tunes from Shakespeare’s plays; and in late Spring, Shakespeare and Purcell; music from the Fairy Queen and surely other works will include Dido’s song, “Rememember me but forget my fate,” and settings of Shakespeare by Purcell.

My neighbor-friend, Sybille, was with me. She is also a widow, her husband also taken by the cancer epidemic (in his case a devouring pancreatic cancer). Downstairs they had had mulled wine and various sweetbreads. We’d had some, and since she brought her car, it was an easy drive home. I would not have gone but for her.

I was much moved because this is the first time since Jim died I found myself having the kind of theater and music experience Jim used to find out for us regularly. I came home near tears and write this morning to record this renewal of dear memories through an experience. Also to tell of what this Consort has now become.

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750, Netherlands — to represent the later 17th century)


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