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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"

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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.

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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.

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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.

Dancing

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Ellen

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

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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.

Leiladreaming

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.

PrayingKillingScene

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.

Pearlfishers

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.

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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.

Zurga

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Kwiecien as handsome and alluring as Jonas Kauffmann

Ellen

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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.

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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.

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Charpentier

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:

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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.

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

Ellen

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Opening scenario to Berg’s Lulu (designed by William Kendrick, directors Luc De Wit & Matthew Diamond

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing about this opera for a few days in order to hear what others who saw or heard it might say, to read reviews and find out about its sources because I had such a mixed reaction to it. First the story, which should be told (because it’s meant to be) crude/ly:

Lulu is a highly paid prostitute, actress, dancer, model kept by Dr Schon a physician who also supports a painter painting her continually. In comes Schigolch, her once abusive beggar father and she gives him money. She is aggressively “in love” with Dr Schon who says he wants to marry a rich socialite.

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Lulu (Marlis Petersen) and Dr Schon (Johan Reuter who also plays Jack the Ripper)

Alwa, the physician’s son enters, enthralled by Lulu, who in the next scene has married the painter who kills himself when told of her past.

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Lulu and painter (Paul Groves)

In the next act, in a ballet Lulu has danced in off-stage, she has exposed her relationship to Dr Schon to his fiancée; and faute de mieux he marries her. A boy scout or schoolboy (who I feared for) comes in admiring them all. An older countess-patroness Geschwitz, a lesbian, also loves Lulu who exploits her. Quarrels ensue, Dr Schon wants Lulu to kill herself so he will be rid of her, and in a fight, she shoots him several times. Son, countess, beggar father, boy scout try to cover up, but she goes to prison. She emerges shattered, thin, in a catatonic state. Son loses all his money in a scene with a crooked banker and investors. She ends up a ragged street prostitute in her efforts to support them all:

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Again, Lulu and Alwa (Daniel Brenna)

She brings men in and out, haggling with them for money; one attacks and kills the son, Alwa, but another turns out to be Jack the Ripper who (after she argues with him for more money) offstage murders her. Ripper returns to knife to death the despairing countess who cries out for Lulu.

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The countess Gerschwitz near the end (Susan Graham)

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As it began, I disliked it because of the grotesqueries, and repellent imagery of a woman’s private parts garishly drawn on allegorical costumes and in flashing shows of light across the stage:

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Lulu as we first see her costumed

But as the whole experience sunk in, or by the third act, while I continued to be distressed by the images of women’s private parts and breasts, I was shaken by the what was happening to the characters especially after the murder of the doctor as a farcical tragedy about the restless misery of personality-less individuals caught up in some maddened nightmare. I could find little to like in the music, hardly any melody, continual noise like hip-hop spoken rock, only the voices were singing and deeply resonant, plangent.

In this desperate crass bleak environment now and again a few yearn for happiness, peace, seem even to have an inkling of what this is: the painter who kills himself; Schigolch, the beggar dependent on Lulu for money sung here by Franz Grundheber; Alwa, Schon’s son; a naive schoolboy; the lesbian Countess. Most spend their hours vaunting themselves, behaving arrogantly or guardedly, coolly, seeking to marry or have sex with the richest most powerful person in the room, mocking other people, lying, cheating: Lulu; Dr Schon also tellingly the serial killer, Jack the Ripper; also an Animal Tamer, an Acrobat, an African Prince, a crooked banker, nameless investors and party-goers, not to omit two allegorical characters, a creepy man and sullen woman dressed in elegant evening clothes:

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By the world’s chances (the play was begun just before and during the early Nazi period when the mark had lost most of its value) and their own venal stupidity in following a Banker who is a stock market crook, they become destitute, whereupon they grimly hang on to anyone who will prostitute herself, in this case, Lulu. The norm throughout is sadomasochistic sex.

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Lulu with a male who is after her — the norm is sadomasochistic sex

Sometimes one person was the bully and the other abject, and then they’d change places. No one ever looked content; cheerfulness is out of the question: dark, intent, intense.

It may be the designers did not have the courage to flash up male private parts (as more shocking and less acceptable than female?), but if this omission was cowardice, the effect was sexist and eerily women-body-hating. But by the time the opera was over I was persuaded the wild use of lights, computer pictures in black and white of anguished, naked, violent, raging figures, sexism, and screens all over the stage, over-the-top theatrical imagery was justified effective expressionist projection of passions kept hidden, coming out only subtly but what drive the world’s overriding social structures.

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The stage

My friend, Fran, supplies the sources, background, artistic milieu: “It is based on, Frank Wedekind’s Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. Wedekind later conflated both works to the five act tragedy Lulu, which I have seen performed and which once seen is not easily forgotten. Apparently it was his original intention to write a single play all along, but his publisher initially got cold feet.

Wedekind was a German who grew up in what was the equivalent of Victorian England, and he would satirize and attack bourgeois capitalism, pseudo-morality, artistic philistinism, prudery and double standards etc. Stylistically he was influenced by Georg Büchner and was, like him, very much ahead of his time, being a precursor of the Expressionism you mention, but also the Theatre of the Absurd and Brecht’s epic theatre, for example. The latter cited both Büchner and Wedekind as direct inspirations and wrote the latter a laudatory obituary when he died in 1918. (Berg’s other famous opera happens to be Wozzeck, originally a Büchner play itself.)

Berg himself first became acquainted with Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box when he saw a private performance of it in Vienna in 1905. Wedekind himself played Jack the Ripper and his later wife Tilly Newes was Lulu. Only closed, private performances were allowed by the censors Wedekind’s work was always falling foul of. There is an available picture of Wedekind playing Dr Schön to Tilly’s Lulu in performances of the Earth Spirit. Berg has a singer doubling the roles in his opera, too.

Berg started writing his own piece in 1927. It was originally to have been performed under Erich Kleiber at the Berlin opera, but shortly after an orchestral piece culled from the existing parts of the opera had been performed there in 1934, the Nazis forced Kleiber to resign and Berg postponed finishing the opera in favour of a violin concerto. His death in 1935 meant the opera remained unfinished until Berg’s music publisher commissioned the Austrian composer, Friedrich Cerha to use Berg’s surviving notes to complete the third act in the 1960s. This version wasn’t presented to the public until 1977 and thus 2 yearsafter Berg’s widow’s death, since she had always opposed the procedure. This three act version had its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1979, directed by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez.”

Izzy, my daughter who came with me, said there are few atonal operas; atonal music was written in the middle 20th century, admired by academics, but never gained a wide audience.

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Lulu with her beggar father, Schigolch (Franz Grundheber)

Fran sent along URLs to two excellent essays: “danger and desire” in the Huffington Post; “modernism in Lulu” from Yale.

I found a couple of favorable and sympathetic reviews of this production: “desperadoes” in the New Yorker; and “the question that stops the opera” in the New York Times.

The talk in the intermissions was not as stupid or hyped as usual which was interesting in itself; Grundheber was intelligent about the opera; others spoke of the difficulty singing it; others were uncomfortable about their characters (Susan Graham). But the question Deborah Voigt (following a script) posed and the New York Times repeats was misleading though it’s what the audience is thought to be left asking: is Lulu victim or victimized? Suggesting some of the actor-singers did not see any larger picture, but instinctively wanted to defend themselves against the idea the opera is unfair to women: Reuter (Dr Schon and then Jack the Ripper) pointed out in reply how Dr Schon was a bad man, guilty and was punished (!).

This makes us look at the female to find punishment or rewards, so erases one of the opera’s strengths: here is no Traviata, no Wagnerian self-sacrificing utterly devoted woman who dies for her men, or seethingly evil femme fatale or witch. Our heroine who began as mechanically aggressive and cold becomes mechanically withdrawn.

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Rather all the characters are remnants of a terrible world outside the claustrophobic spaces we see them in, thrown out of some whirlpool of imbecility just outside the door. They come in staggering. Were it not for the screens, the acted areas would be small dark bare places. The one scene where we see the crowd, at the close of Act 2 in this production, is when the investors follow the banker about; just like the investors of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, they are greedy, indifferent to what their money was put in, ignorant of the workings of money and deluded. The opera is important: produced on such a scale for prestigious place says something: the content that is here pointed to is the extraordinary frankness with which sexuality is dramatized, how this prefigures other relationships. If you have not had anything like these experiences as a viewer you might be put off. What was implied about sex was the most troubling aspect of this production.

Finally, it’s remarkable to realize how modern we think this opera is and yet it’s 80 years old. That suggests modernity hasn’t penetrated the mainstream arts very much. Among the women in the class at American University I teach, two women said they had gone to the opera: one (like Izzy) left after the first act, and (like Izzy) thought the production misogynistic: the woman pointed out that we saw Lulu jump on the doctor, Lulu wrap herself around him, Lulu as animal and not the doctor. The second woman in my class left after the second act, and complained (like me) of the drawings of woman’s private parts thrown up on the screens as “repellent,” and said she did ask herself, why there were no men’s private parts? When Izzy left, I got up to sit elsewhere as a couple behind me had been quarreling with someone else over their seats. Three women behind me asked if I was leaving like my daughter. I said no, just moving away from the quarreling people. They looked relieved and asked me what I thought of it. I said, well I want to stay to the end to see how Lulu is treated when a prostitute. One of these women then said she found it compelling; the second said it was relief not to have these self-sacrificing virtuous heroine; another (echoing my silent thought) that she was tired of Traviatas. On face-book when I briefly described the opera, one woman said it “sounds pretty dreadful.” Another that she was glad she would have no chance whatsoever to see it.

The one male I did talk to about it commented: “A shame nobody does Jeffers’ version of Medea anymore. He turns Medea into a hero.” He was referring to the great American poet, Robinson Jeffers. A woman poet friend just said she liked the opera.

So, did I enjoy it? no. Would I go again? no. But I’ll remember it. When I’ve read Euripides’ Medea, I’m with her until she insanely kills her children.

Ellen

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Sonya Yoncheva (as Desdemona, she played the scene as a woman facing death)

Dear friend and readers,

This was my first opera for this HD Metropolitan opera season, and on the whole I was glad I went. I learned that Otello is not a popular opera when it has not got spectacular stars: all around me seats were empty; the auditorium was less than half full.

It was a revelatory experience in an important way too. For the first time of any production of Otello I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few) the key singer-actors were directed to act out the meaning of the words of their songs. I had never before realized how different is Verdi’s inward conception of Desdemona from Shakespeare’s: Verdi’s heroine is not an odd (improbable) combination of sophisticated teasing Venetian lady who rouses Othello’s jealousy with her playful ways and yet a poignantly puzzled innocent when called a whore; this Desdemona’s soliloquies in the third and fourth act are that of a woman who knows she holds a high place and is being abused by a man crazed with hatred for her; violent and murderous. In the last two songs, her song and then the final wild erotic disaster she expects death, she is waiting for it, facing it. Yoncheva was brilliant in this part of the opera. She sang beautifully too. I was very moved by the willow song and final acting out of death, grief, anguish (which words were in English subtitles).

Aleksandro Antonenko is however not a subtle actor and it was a great loss choosing a white Italian man instead of a black non-Italian so that central themes and happenings are unexplained (beyond the jealousy, why Cassio is chosen over him and he is recalled). People doing this opera must make it their business to find a black male singer for the part; look about for non-stars if their are no stars available. Perhaps you’ll find someone new and great. Or don’t do it. Blackface on a white man is an insult to black people when they are thus excluded from a part dependent on the whole penumbra he must endure as a black and old man (Othello is much older than Desdemona). But someone had instructed Antonenko to enact the meaning of his lines. There was no dignity, but there was no ludicrousness; he was scary: this was an exploration of male sexual insecurity and murderous violation.

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Aleksandro Antonenko as seething within

Both he and Zeljko Lucie were acting out ruthless misogyny together, and in 2015 the allusion was to honor-killing and its milder varieties of female destruction in non-Muslim countries. The sense of Iago as this site of malignant evil, all envy, resentment did not come out, nor did anything homoerotic between them.

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Zeljko Lucie as a man in a leather coat against glass boxes

It was two men in sheer destructive wrath — with a woman as their joint target. So this was another of these 21st century interpretations of an opera at the Met as about violence against women. This became and is an opera about a version of honor-killing. “It is the cause.”

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When the men duel, women standing nearby are hurt by their daggers and the women gather about the wounded woman.

The rest of the experience was disconnected. Antony Tomassin (New York Times) explained this as a function of the odd sets, flat lack of activity, a lack of any original thought in the physical directing of the actor-singers; and David Salazar (Latin Post) wrote the problem came from how the actors were let to wander about, stand in crowds or mostly avoid one another. I’d add Roderigo was not acted out; he was a dull nothing, not a thug, not low class, just there; Dimitri Pittas as Cassio looked the part (gay, elegant) but he was given hardly anything to do. Emilia (Jennifer Johnson Cano)had a moment where she is abused (hit) by Iago when he snatches the handkerchief and will not return it; she is loyal and loving to Desdemona but beyond that and her beautiful dark blue outfit and lovely sonorous voice, she too was a cypher. Ditto with all the Venetians.

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The sets were explained during the intermission by Es Devlin (set designer): in Boito’s letters he told Verdi that Otello was a prison in a glass-house. I’m not sure what Boito meant by that: easily shattered? an egoistic nightmare of his own making? But Devlin determined to have glass houses sliding on and off the stage against a dark stormy sky, red blood universe (matched by one of Desdemona’s 19th century style flouncy stiff dresses). I’m not sure they added anything; indeed they seemed to distract attention when the characters slinked about. Perhaps a bare stage with indications of tempest and then a few pieces of symbolic furniture would have been as effective.

I was on my own as I have now been for several of these operas. Since the audience was so sparse and people near by unfriendly. This is increasingly true in these movie-houses with HD operas or plays as the newness of the experience wears off; people have ceased applauding for the most part too. I was free to feel Jim’s absence — the silence around me — and experience Yoncheva’s scene about facing death and enduring it as what he did and what I will do in turn when my time comes.

I grieved too. Jim died with my arms around him, loving him, I will die alone. Recently I’ve had strains in my chest and my right arm grows weaker and weaker. I sometimes find a coffee cup heavy to pick up. I will not let the hospital and medical people attack me with their surgeries and then treat me with an indifference which depends on shaming me into compliance. Instead like him once he saw what the surgery was and recognized this medical establishment’s small behavior, he brought death on, faced it on his own terms. In Verdi Desdemona does not beg for life, for another moment more the way Shakespeare’s Desdemona does.

I thought had the opera just had the opening dark blue sky with its wisps of cloud (computer generated) all around that bed the scene would have scenically more meaningful. This version of Verdi’s opera when it’s most alive is about love as death. The last part is about facing and doing death.

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Susan Herbert, a salutary woman’s mockery on the nonetheless deadly Othello

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There was something beyond the opera worth going to see: one of the intermission films for the first time (finally) explained the role of the man whose name has appeared as HD director for every HD Met opera I’ve seen and never heard mentioned at all: Gary Halvorson. The film was presented as “celebrating” (the mode on these broadcasts is over-speak) ten years of HD broadcast: well according to him, he marshals all the cameras and computer controllers together to photograph or film the opera from the most effective angles possible; it takes weeks of synchronizing themselves and their equipment with the slightest changes of beat, or movement or sound, several people working at once with several screens going at once. Each time a live broadcast is actually done, he begins work at 6:30 am with some of his crew there already and as the day progresses with this or that different group, during the broadcast alert at every second with the others round this tables of computer until the moment the HD broadcast ceases. The implication was that this movie-director is just an overlay; the opera itself has not been plotted so as to be cinema-shaped. I doubt that, but I don’t doubt that this is what the man literally does, what I doubt is the lack of cooperation from the “real” director implied.

THE ADVENTURES OF ELMO IN GROUCHLAND, director Gary Halvorson, on set, 1999. (c)Columbia Pictures
Gary Halvorson, previously a TV film director — very much a promotional shot

It was a cold day in Alexandria today, the first real cold this fall. I had bought myself a new soft light blue wool sweater and a woolly yet light weight jacket-coat, high neck, long sleeves. I needed them both and pulled them tight against me. I wore a light purple scarf wrapped around my head with its ends twirled about my neck, and my usual thin violet gloves. I got into my car, started it and turned on Simon Vance reading aloud Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

In the silence.
Now again.
Typing this.
Clarycat
sharing my chair.

Ellen

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The whole cast: Carolyn Burke, Jordan De Bona, Harry Lester, Katie McManus, Carli Smith

Dear friends and readers,

Would you believe in the wilds of Falls Church (driving back you pass streets where there are no lights and sidewalks are unwanted for vast stretches), a New York song fest. In the case of the Folger Theater, one can hope the production will go elsewhere, but in this Creative Cauldron (as the stage theater produced and directed by Laura Connors Hull calls it), there is little chance precisely these five people will get together again to sing and enact this set of songs. There was no money for any fancy stage furniture, the set was a minimum. As one reviewer of the program/stage event says, this production of “The World Goes Round,” is intimate cabaret at its best — dependent on the individuals, their capacity to sing or talk a song through, a few props, a piano and saxophone and the costumes.

I thought the actor-singers conveyed a deep sense of the underlying romance of several of the songs as well at the same time as scepticism and disillusion. A wry tone colored the most upbeat songs, a sense of the necessity of putting on pizzazz. Individual numbers: “Money, money,” “cabaret,” “A Quiet Thing,” and the whimsical New York ones, “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,” “Sara Lee” (cakes). Carolyn did “colored lights” so touchingly, Jordan as a dancing body (flexible, graceful) and can enact ironies. He does the pathos of “I don’t remember you” and its jokes (he disappears) my friend recognized “Mr Cellophane.” I never heard of it before. They do numbers as pairs, trios, women with women:

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They don’t quite get the New York accents right in “Class” (“How lucky can you get”) and when they ended on “New York, New York,” they did right not to imitate Sinatra too closely. Songs from Chicago. Cabaret. Katie McManus belts out numbers Ethel Merman style; the group does exhilaration too.

We do “all that jazz” at the Dance Fusion workshop most days. One night in the 1980s Jim and I woke around 2 in the morning, put the TV on and watched the movie. Here’s a montage of Fosse:

So rush out if you live within range (October 1-25), go and see and hear them, we need more of this kind of thing in the remote outposts of Fairfax county (Falls Church is alongside Fairfax county — I know it’s all confusing, but then I’m told it’s one of the richest counties in the US so why should they want anyone to know how to get about in it?). It was I who suggested to my friend, Phyllis, we go to this particular show: afterward we went back to her flat and drank wine, talked and looked at her art work — she’s a painter. I drove home by myself near midnight — the first time I’ve been out at that time of night and by myself for years, now listening to Simon Vance reading aloud mesmerizingly Mantel’s riveting Bring Up the Babies.

Jim delighted in Kander and Ebb songs at Signature and would talk of the effective voicing in their lyrics whenever they were threaded in.

Ellen

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The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Eric Owens as the Flying Dutchman

Dear friends and readers,

Are you someone tired of over-produced plays, movies, operas? This opera has one set, a proscenium arched rectangle which serves as backdrop for ships, the port, houses, places for dancing, and ghostly sequences. Are you tired of scenes where you are continually distracted from the characters’ personality, situation, engagement with other characters? This production leaves you to experience for lengths of time the central psychological state of each character alone and as they are in contact with others all aria long, framed by occasional eruptions of the male and female choruses. You are given a chance to savor the characters’ and the music.

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Christiane Libor as Senta

OTOH, if you are tired of symbolism, of 21st century interpretations of older material, this production will not serve as a relief. For me the quiet use of costume, prop, and pictures (set designer Giles Cadle), not to omit the racial composition of the cast to suggest that the Dutchman is not just some Gothic Wanderer, male outcast wandering amid seas, but a cynosure of the black slave of last century and the exploited and destroyed and angry and brooding black man of today made the production more meaningful.

Owens’s performance a few years ago as Alberic the dwarf in a kraken rage intended to evoke black men’s rage was repeated here — only he is not in a rage so much as as profoundly melancholy and in need. The use of red (=blood) ropes to entangle him was part of this. The drawing that Christiane Libor as Senta is so taken by reminded me of so many depictions of black men in the 19th century either as slaves or sharecroppers or stage minstrels:

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With Oscar Wilde (“contradiction is the bugbear of little minds” said he or something like that), I don’t mind contradiction. So somewhat startlingly to me who have endured so many outrageously masculinist (not to use a worse word) Wagnerian operas, as we neared the ending where Christian Libor as Senta dressed in fire-engine red is about to board the ghost ship, to follow her dutchman about for life, out came a row of whorish (from their make-up and centuries of stereotypical wigs, outfits, leering expressions, exposed breasts) frightening-looking women. They reminded me of the women imprisoned forever in Bluebeard’s Castle in the recent HD Met production of of Iolanthe & Bluebeard’s Castle. Instead of being asked to condemn Senta for her sudden withdrawal from the Dutchman, we were asked to identify with her justifiable fear. The words in the surtitles of her change-of-heart aria to Erik, whom she had been engaged to before her father was seduced by the Dutchman’s gold and had deserted, referred to her long knowledge of Erik and how much affection they had known:

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Jay Hunter Morris as Erik dressed as white southern gentleman (might have been a slave-trader from his costume)

I heard someone remark on how Senta’s father (Daland, sung by Peter Volpe) would have seemed to someone in the later 19th century acceptable and understandable, and how we saw him today as absurd, naive, over-bearing, a fool to give his daughter away like this; as with the HD Met opera, this one production attempted to address this shift in values on behalf of a women’s autonomy, and in a similar spirit. Only this heroine was strong and would not become a hag accused endlessly of infidelity. This did not quite work as the feminist interpretation of Iothanthe and Bluebeard’s Castle did not work because neither are true to the opera’s libretto or music.

This opera is about a deep longing for death, for surcease; this is Tennyson’s poetry longing for rest from too many of the world’s demands and imprisonment. The Dutchman longs to die again and again and is death he says. At the close of the opera, dressed all in white, Senta flings herself into the waters to drown. She is so distraught at the Dutchman’s fate she wants to join him in death itself now too. I cannot find any photos of this scene so will refer to the reader to expressionist drawings of this final moment of the opera:

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A couple of people around me agreed the opera was “well-sung.” There was no intermission so no let-off in build-up. A woman nearby declared it “perfect in every way.” No more detail than that. It was directed by Stephen Lawless and there are two different conductors listed. For myself I admit I thought some of phases of the male and female choruses dull (as obvious as Oklahoma in early versions): too much simpering sentiment over women cooking and sewing and admirable manly males.

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A typical choral scene of men

The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Women with spinning wheel in front

It required patience somehow for me to sit through some of it.

Nonetheless I felt good I had gone when I read in my playbill that this production was modeled upon or similar to the one done at Glimmerglass in summer 2013. I went because Jim had bought tickets for he and I to see a Flying Dutchman at Glimmerglass during the later part of the second week of August 2013. He had bought for a concert as well as Camelot. He also got two lovely rooms for us in a boarding house by a lake. We never went. By that time the cancer had metatasized into his liver for over a week and he could hardly walk from one room into another. He knew by the last week of July he would not make it but did not know why. I can’t replicate what we would have known, nor bring him back to enjoy what he would have been engaged by. But I went partly on his behalf, in his place even if I am now half a person.

I suspect he might not have liked this production that much. When we went to a recital by Owens, he said Owens could not let himself go enough, not allow himself the inherent variety that was in him because of his black identity and memories. Had to remain noble. It was probably the symbolic direction because in Porgy and Bess Owens was remarkably many-sided and brilliant.

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I recommend going if you live nearby or if the production moves to where you live, or if it’s aired, turning on the TV or your computer to watch.

Ellen

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