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Archive for the ‘romance’ Category

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Margaret (Daniela Denby- Ashby) first making friends with Nicholas (Brendan Coyle) and Bessy Higgins (Anna Maxwell Martin) (Sandy Welch’s 2004 North and South, Part 2)

yet men set me down in their fool’s books as a wise man, an independent character, strong-minded and all that cant — Mr Bell, North and South

Dear friends and readers,

This past spring I taught a course I called “Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South in context.” Although I had spent over a year with a group of friends reading Gaskell’s short stories and a couple of novellas together on Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo, and had before read and responded intensely to Mary Barton, North and South and Wives and Daughters, I’d never really studied a Gaskell text the way I do when I teach it, and experience (as I do at the OLLIs at Mason and AU) true dialogue in a class room give-and-take. I listened to brilliant readings aloud on CD of Cranford, Mary Barton (Juliet Stevenson for Cover-to-cover), North and South itself (Clare Wille for Naxos) and Wives and Daughters. I wish there were a good one available for the Life of Charlotte Bronte. I could not find one. As with Fielding’s Tom Jones the fall before I also assigned some good essays which I’d never read before either, as we went along. I read Felicia Bonaparte’s half-mad biography too — the more I read Gaskell, the more I came to agree with her, to the point that I agreed Molly had in effect killed herself when she decided to follow Roger’s advice and accept and subdue herself to her new stepmother. The result of this immersion: I feel I got closer to Gaskell than I ever did before.

Paradoxically since North and South is a book that is doing so many different things and has a wide range of topics or subject matters, often but not always from the perspective of someone questioning authority, it’s the kind of book that you need a book to write about adequately. This blog is a series of notes towards such chapters.

To begin with, the book often takes unexpected turns. For example, it opens unexpectedly for a condition of England novel, partly based on the Preston cotton strike and the locks-out. Gaskell first creates lovingly the atmosphere of a sheltered home in an elegant London, where Margaret Hale, our heroine, her sleeping beauty rich cousin, Edith, and the shallow Aunt Shaw, and most of the women around them (it’s a household of women) seem ignorant of the hard realities of life — like the need to make or have access to money to support yourself. We are intent on beautiful shawls and clothes, a coming extravaganza of a wedding, and subtle controlling codes of manners.

When we move to Helstone which our heroine declared was idyllic, we find a pair of parents who hardly share an interest, the father a depressive, anxious, and seeking to throw off his job as a vicar and responsibilities because he has lost his belief in the Anglican system of thought and gov’t, a mother who is incompetent when it comes to anything practical and deeply dissatisfied with her life as affording her no companionship with people like herself; the neighbors around them are desperately poor. When Mr Hale allows his crisis of conscience to become public and insists on moving to the North to an uncertain precarious future as a tutor, what Gaskell emphasizes is how he need not explain himself. What he says goes, no matter how weak a man he is. They repine, but they obey.

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Bessy in the factory when first seen (North and South, Part 2)

In Milton (Manchester), we meet a strange (unexpected) secondary heroine, a dream-figure alter-ego for Margaret, Bessy Higgins, a desperately poor factory worker, dying of a lung disease, and learn the reason her father, Nicholas, Higgins put Betsy in the factory (where she contracted a fatal lung disease), did not leave her where she was in a household sewing was he worried she would be sexually harassed. The gender ideology and practices throughout limit all the women’s choices. The first thing our heroine did in the early phase of the book is refuse an offer of marriage from Henry Lennox, an intelligent sharp lawyer, sceptical, cold (who comes from that hard world and is clearly successful). She found the wedding otiose, but she finds her friendship with Bessy fulfilling. We see her and her mother’s life-long maid cope together over the course of the rest of the book. Dixon is not invisible; where she sleeps, what she thinks and feels shape the novel too. There’s a servant in Mrs Thornton’s household who affects the action, so too Thornton’s sister who marries a stock speculator whose offer of saving himself from bankruptcy Thornton will refuse. The private worlds of women are also the public worlds of men. but we are not simply given a gendered female world as well as the class, industrial/agricultural, economic and religious worlds and conflicts; at each turn the plot-design is set up to thwart the usual expectations.

In each phase of this early part of the book room is left to dramatize experiences of life that don’t usually come up as important in the conventional plot-design. Gaskell here, and again later concentrates on what it’s like to move from one home or place to another, how traumatic this can be. The family will have to live on a small income and find aplace to live they can be comfortable in and afford. Margaret has bad dreams the night before they go off to Milton: these are partly sexual in nature and show that she refused Henry Lennox out of an inability to face her sensuality and sexuality. Late in the book when so many deaths have occurred as to make Margaret’s place and life in Milton no longer viable, she has a similar hard time moving back to London.

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Thornton (Richard Armitage) arguing his side (North and South, Part 2)

Then the book is organized as a series of conversations or debates on ideas that control the character’s behavior and the options their society allows everyone. There is no climax but ideas are debated and we are left to think for ourselves, comparing the ideas the characters have to the dramatic scenes in which the debate occurs and placed nearby. One is about the responsibilities of owners to workmen: these are dialogues about power, about recognizing obligation, about how people regard one another when they are part of groups in conflict. When the book’s romance hero, Mr Thornton, stands up for rigid “political economy” (laissez-faire ideas) and denies he has anything to do with the time allowed his workers when they are not working for him, we see that he is not admitting to his power, but neither he or Margaret, or the workman, Nicholas Higgins, who presents the chartist and burgeoning socialistic point of view of the union, take into account Bessy who we meet in the next chapter. Beyond how ill she is, why she became ill, how she spends her life, there are her religious mystical visions from the Bible which give her what comfort she has. These so irritate Higgins as they are presented as making lived life unimportant, that he produces an atheistic vision of the world, one pessimistic, cynical, grim: how could any good God or rational consciousness have produced this world? The book may be read as a series of tableaux, debates, dialogues, dramatic scenes – or dream thoughts as in the presentation of Bessy, a kind of deep or hidden self for impulses and feelings in Gaskell herself in debate with the scepticism and disillusion of her father, Nicholas.

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Matty (Judi Dench) and Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) read Matty’s brother, Peter’s letters together (Heidi Thomas’s 2007 Cranford Chronicles)

It also drives towards primal scenes that repeat across Gaskell’s oeuvre. For example, the way the theme of injustice in the military, specifically naval world, is brought forward is through primal memeory dream scenes. First, letter-reading — just as in Gaskell’s Cranford where Gaskell’s Matty and her niece, Mary, are enacting Gaskell’s own loss of her brother when he went to sea as a young man. He was the only member of her nuclear family who remained loyal and alive and wrote her letters from far away, encouraging her, a deeply congenial spirit; when he died at sea, the loss was profound. In North and South, Margaret and her mother go over Frederick’s sea-stained letters to introduce why Frederick cannot come home to England ever again. There is another letter scene in he film where Margaret is remembering when they first got news of the mutiny: through her memory’s eye (flashback), we see Mrs Hale frantically tear up the newspaper.

Margaret’s father who himself felt he must buck church authority and lost his position now has to persuade Margaret that Frederick cannot go to court to explain why the men aboard ship mutinied and he deserted (a cruel captain who needled and risked his men’s lives, causing one of them to nearly become crippled, flogged mercilessly for minor infractions): the authorities will support their tyrannical control by never admitting to any wrong. There is no debate here, only another primal scene where Margaret is standing on a train station, attempting to help Frederick flee to London, and they are accosted by an angry embittered man who thinks to turn Frederick in for a ransom. Frederick sees him as insulting Margaret and as drunk, hits him back and the man falls down the steps, hurting himself sufficiently so that he dies soon after. Meanwhile Frederick vanishes into the dark night of the train. The scene at the train station is deep with longing – Gaskell’s dream thoughts well up. No film adaptation of North and South could leave out Frederick, the train scene.

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Margaret’s terror as she realizes she and Frederick are seen and are about to be accosted (North and South, Part 3)

For the rest of the novel Gaskell has Margaret brood over this scene ostensibly because she tells a lie to a police magistrate that she was not there and knows nothing about this man to protect Frederick (“strange, wild, miserable feelings”). She is suspected of a sexually clandestine relationship with a strange man by a possessive Thornton who has asked her to marry him — she refused him too. She is deeply attracted to Thornton and intensely regrets that she seems to have lost his respect. Hated by Mrs Thornton, the mother, for having rejected her son at the same time as Mrs Thornton is bitterly possessively jealousy, Mrs Thornton takes the opportunity of supposedly warning her to frame Margaret to her face as possibly unchaste. What an extraordinary way to present the idea give people power and they abuse it – it’s understood how desertion is bad, and discipline needs to be maintained but it should not be disproportionate, not torture (which flogging was). And how vulnerable Frederick is to someone who wants a bribe. We see how vulnerable women are to perpetual sexual suspicion.

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Osborne Hamley’s death, Squire Hamley (Michael Gambon) and Molly (Justine Waddell) (Andrew Davies’s 1999 Wives and Daughters, Part 4 of 75 minute episodes)

Everyone who reads Gaskell knows that many of her character die. She once joked the best title for her book (North and South was Dickens’s choice) would be Variations on Death. The characters learn about life through their encounters with death. All the deaths are linked to depression too. Margaret’s mother dies of cancer — brought on by stress; Bessy of her illness and wild dreams; Mr Hale of grief after his wife’s death and a sense that he has lost all occupation and meaning when he begins to lose his pupils; Mr Hale’s mentor, friend, and a third man attracted to Margaret (who Gaskell meant to make an older suitor), Mr Bell of an inexplicable but real depression. Early in the novel we are told Mr Thornton’s father killed himself when he became a bankrupt failure from gambling and alcohol. Shortly after the strike is over, one of the workers, Mr Boucher, kills himself, driven by his wife’s grief over her children’s “clemming” during the strike, and his own despair. Gaskell’s belief that death brings people together, makes their individual humanity plain to one another is shown over and over. I tried to get at some of this material by explicating a few of Gaskell’s epigraphs.

Gaskell quotes from the 4th chapter of Job. “Man that is born of women is of few days and full of trouble.” First half insists that all nature renews itself, but the individual person does not come back. “A tree may sprout again, a flower. Question is where does his “ghost” go? Job wishes to hide himself, everything washes away, ends on how man grieves and mourns. No answer given. She quotes Wordsworth. People tend to remember these things how they want to. Traditional one would be from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (Book 5)

What though the sea with waves continuall
Does eate the earth, it is nor more at all:
Nor is the earth the lesse, or loseth ought,
For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto an other brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.

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Margaret in mourning (North and South, Part 4)

But Gaskell’s references are to sceptical works. At one point she alludes to Byron’s poem called The Island; or Christian and his comrades. It’s a satire on Pilgrim’s progress and Robinson Crusoe rolled into one. I read aloud the whole of the epigraph for the chapter (33) from the poem by Henry King is one of the most moving poems in the English language I know of where a spouse mourns the death of another. Exequy is a funeral rite or ceremony. There’s a stanza where he says he will soon overtake her and that’s what he lives for

Stay for me there, I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay;
I am already on the way,
And follow thee with all the speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed.
Each minute is a short degree,
And every hour a step towards thee.
At night when I betake to rest,
Next morn I rise nearer my west …

I loved the ending of the book. Yes Gaskell was forced to cut and probably would have given us far more of a courtship for Thornton and Margaret. But look at what she didn’t cut, what she took out time to dramatize. There are the debates between Mr Thornton and Mr Bell, with Mr Thornton emerging sympathetically as the person openly taking life seriously. The second is the development of a relationship of respect and friendship (for what else is it) between Thornton and Higgins, however improbable. Gaskell shows how comforting Margaret finds it to be alone, not to have to answer to anyone, she finds herself growing firmer and she can tell herself if only Thornton weren’t so cold and they could be friends, she could live with his not knowing – what she can’t see is he feels he must be cold or he will allow his feelings for her to surface and he’s had enough too. She reads Francois de St Sale, the passage is French is from one of these religious meditative books people, especially women read before their were novels. Disguised as religious exhortations, they are often about coping with depression and seek to help someone all alone, no one to talk to, they had no language with with to discuss depression without blaming someone as having done wrong. She sits on the beach at Cromer looking out at the sea and thinks again. When she returns to London, she refuses to give up all her time to the rituals of shallow social life, and instead becomes a female visitor Gaskell writes: “she had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought, that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it and she tried to settle that difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.” I daresay for the modern reader the first idea (utterly merged) will get a strong “none,” and the second seem to lack enough sense of pleasure. In one of her letters on the ending of the novel in swift romance, Gaskell suggests that the relationship could easily “go smash,” and has the last words of the novel Margaret’s remembering she will have to deal with Mr Thornton’s mother.

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A dream-like moment of Margaret in Helstone (North and South, Part 4)

Lest we read the book too hopefully there is more primal matter: Gaskell also brings us back to Helstone (to show how it’s again changed), also a re-enactment of her childhood brought up in county by her single aunt Lumb and disabled cousin. Gaskell takes out time to tell the story of how Margaret discovers that the neighbor of one woman she visits boiled a living cat until it died in an agon of pain while drowning. Why: the neighbor was afraid her husband would be angry as she gave his clothes to a fortune teller. The story is even worse in this sense: the woman telling it is not indignant and horrified for the cat, no she’s just bothered that it was her cat. Gaskell sees the horror that people are too – what they are capable of. She puts it down to ‘a want of imagination … and therefore of any sympathy with the suffering animal.” When one attributes the vast evils people do or tolerate to a failure of the imagination it seems so mild a thing to say, but this failure is central.

I hope this series of notes on the novel has conveyed something of its nature (the kinds of texts it offers), the sources of its power and content too. I strongly recommend watching Sandy Welch’s film too. North and South is, as are all Gaskell’s texts, deep l’ecriture-femme, whose forms, motivations, and greatness are not well understood. Feminist criticism talks generally about this faultline in books, but hesitates before specific examples. I’ve presented a specific 19th century example which passes muster in the male worlds of publishing and respectable books as a condition of England novel about a series of outwardly objective themes.

Ellen

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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:

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

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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:

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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).

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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.)

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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.

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Garanca

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.

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Garanca singing of her love for Devereux

Ellen

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A moment from the production — the distancing and then the

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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:

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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:

ActI
Women who were themselves geishas deliver her

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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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:

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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).

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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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Ellen

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From the frontispiece: Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza with Garrick

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Just one of many many meditative stills: Aidan Turner as Ross looking out at the world with a characteristic expression

Mem’ries like voices that call on the wind.
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Whispered and tossed on the tide coming in.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Voices like songs that are heard in the dawn,
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Singing the secrets if children unborn.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Songs like the dream that the bal maidens spin,
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
T#aving the song if the cry if the tin.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Dreams, like the castles that sleep in the sand,
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Slip through the fingers or held in the hand.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Dreams like the memories once borne on the wind.
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Lovers and children and copper and tin,
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Secrets like stories that no one has told.
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Stronger than silver and brighter than gold.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.
— M. J. O’Connor [sung as voice-over by Eleanor Tomlinson]

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been some eight months since my handy list, Poldark: the new incarnation and the Old. I’ve not forgotten Graham’s roman fleuve as a historical turn as this past fall I repeated a course on the first four novels I’d given the previous spring, and over the winter break wrote another paper for a panel on 18th century films, this time on “Poldark Rebooted: 40 Years on.” I finished that a couple of nights ago and when the ASECS conference is over will be publishing it, probably here on the Net on a blog part academic and part popular on 18th century topics.

To some extent I found out what many already knew: I studied the Onedin Line, a companion book as well as watched the first years’ series; and I read Diana Gabaldon’s first Outlander book and watched the first years’ series too. Yes the 1970s Poldark is partly modeled on Onedin Line; some of the departures from Graham’s book form parallels to Onedin. It’s no coincidence that a chief heroine of the first or 1971 season of The Onedin Line (often cited as a model for the 1975 Poldarks) also gets pregnant outside marriage, refuses to marry the father of her coming baby, and offered the choice of abortion, the streets or the baby’s father, marries a man not the father of the baby. The spiritualized landscape and mythic identity of Outlander is at least comparable (if not a source) to the new Poldark. An 18th century Scottish Laird and 20th century English nurse are repeatedly filmed in one horse against spiritualized landscapes of castles where megalithic stones are magical; so too the new Poldark has countless montages of Ross alone or with Demelza horse-riding against meaningfully heightened landscapes:

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The actors are quoted and we see the whole cast rehearsing too:

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I found enormously enlightening Lez Cooke’s history of British TV film. All four series fit into patterns Cooke describes. 40 Year re-bootings are all the rage. There has been an astonishing revival of respect for historical fiction and historical film, one adumbrated in the original Poldark series. There is a kind of thrill in watching the “old” Ross (previously the chivalrous Stewart Grainger type turned Che Guevara) turn up as the fiercely authoritarian judge standing off against, seriously threatening the “new Ross, e.g., where Horsfield reworks a scene using lines from the book to have a different feel where Robin Ellis now returned to play the Reverend Halse, an aging icy magistrate responds bitingly, ominously to Turner as Ross:

“Halse: “No doubt the common people you mix with have blunted your faculties as to what may or may not be said in polite society.”
Ross: “No I agree they alter one’s perspective, sir … have you ever been in a jail sir it’s surprising the stench thirty or forty of God’s creatures can give off when confined to a squalid pit without drains, water, physicians care.”
Halse: “The matter of your performance at Bodmin jail has not gone unnoticed, sir. There will be shortly be a meeting of the justices of whom I should say I am one … You offensive young drunkard. You’ll be hearing from us presently.”

“Have a care, sir [from an earlier scene].”

It seemed to me from reading Cooke the Rosses symbolize different eras.

I don’t want to go over my paper’s theses or various detailed comparisons until I’ve returned from said conference so thought I’d mark this occasion by bypassing the film so to speak to recommend a book I found a great help: Emma Marriot’s The World of Poldark, one of these “companion” books sometimes published alongside respected and popular TV mini-series. Like others, this one functions as a substitute screenplay: the story of the film is told chapter by chapter.

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The real scripts the actors studied

These are not synopses of the books as they often change the emphasis from the original text, as well as literal details. Each section of the book though corresponds to some phase of the two novels following their order (more or less).

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From the mini-series: Dr Choake (Robert Dawes), the banker Pascoe (Richard Hope) and Ross

The actors told of their conception of their character: a couple appear to have read the books, but particulars repeatedly follow a line of behavior in the film or changed conception of a character as distinct from the books which are nonetheless the source. They also invoke their own understanding of the relationships between character: Turner says that Ross likes Demelza because he trusts her (thus her deceit over Verity shakes him intensely), she doesn’t perform a role, and he sees himself as taking care of her.

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The originating relationship

Heidi Reed’s talk of Elizabeth Poldark’s relationship to Demelza is revealing not so much because it’s so unlike the book but because she reveals how she cannot resist seeing these historical characters as somehow unreal: like a fan of a Jane Austen book she talks about Elizabeth “as just perfect.” Reynolds’ portrait of Emma Hamilton was the model for her as a type. Biographies of actors and filmographies suggest an attempt was made to find fresh faces, people not well known or associated with too many famous and similar characters. While Ruby Bentall as Verity talked about the character as found in the film she was one of several who seem to me to have read the books.

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Verity and Demelza, becoming friends (from the book)

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This is from the mini-series itself: a favorite moment for me: as I loved the section of the book Ross Poldark where Verity and Demelza bonded so I enjoyed this scene (I have myself danced these dances, first learned, practiced and then enjoyed them)

Everyone was then to fit in as an ensemble, only the costumes for Margaret were “over-the-top.” Each person reading will have his or her favorite portrait and section: I liked Luke Norris’s ideas about his character (he “attends to the poor and whoever is in need, and is tireless in his work”), and feel better about the replacement for Richard Morante than I had

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There is a strongly progresssive agenda at the same time as high romancing. Like others, the book is also a kind of scenario offering the vision of the story: through pictures (drawings made by the staff, contemporary prints and paintings); using long suggestive quotations & passsages from contemporary histories (18th century histories of Cornwall, with citations, titles, dates); contemporary proclamations. There are genuine mini-historical essays on issues dramatized in the series: the criminal justice system, poaching, mining (from Roman to 18th century times, with emphasis on large economic forces), prisons. They will print an 18th century painting of the seashore, then a large clip from one of the paratexts of sweeping cinema views and then we see the cast [photographed on the same seashore cliff (colors enhanced by computer technologies)

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Essays on “Domestic medicine” (items called “putrid sore throat”), how money worked (again issues itemized in bullet fashion with explanations) and gambling too; smugglingv(how widespread). Many photographs of the locations and buildings used. An sort of essay by the composer about the music he created. Chapters from the production and costume design people, wigs, characters portraits with a cornucopia of photographs of the actors and actresses in and out of costume. I’ve picked out just a few representative examples of plethora of materials generously (the book is not enormously expensive) made available:

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John Opie, The Peasant Family, said to have provided inspiration for Demelza’s costumes — there are a number of reprints of less-well known (French, Italian, prints of soldiers in uniform) and famous paintings (by Gainsborough, Reynolds) which served as models for visuals of costume and character representation.

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Contemporary fortune-telling cards — some of the contemporary visual paraphernalia used

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Some of the drawing boards

This particular companion shows respect for history and Marriot tells a great deal about the film-maker’s aims, the teams’s sources, the genre of the film as envisaged for an audience. Marriot’s text explained a number of features of the first season that puzzled me: why these new Poldark episodes, individually so much longer than the 1970s films seemed to have much less time for the secondary stories: the idea was to establish a group identity and have many scenes of ritual and local work, three weddings replace complicated individually psychologized stories.

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many silent sequences with some incantatory speech, Phil Davis as Jud warning Turner as Ross who determines not to listen:

Tis in the blood your father‘d say mining tis in the blood … the vein of copper ‘tis the bread of life  . . . eat sleep live and breathe it, she’s your salvation and your downfall, make you bold, many a friend did break and many more will follow … Tis a fool’s game … twill end in tears … your father died before his time … So his mining did for him… Well he won’t be the last neither, if he were here today he’d tell you not to make the same mistake

There is in this new series use of epitomizing dramas in order to project an archetypal reality, with an emphasis on folk culture (as in the original poem spoke by Tomlinson above). They didn’t want to make a film which would be seen as a re-make of the previous.

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The new Nampara

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Recreation of surface mining

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Interiors re-done at Corsham, the town used for Truro

I learned the names of all the different creative people, their past history, conception of their role and how they went about making their materials.

My experience of this book has made me appreciate the series much more; after reading it and re-watching the new series, I found I understood and liked it much better

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A cross-section map invented for (the fictional) Wheal Leisure which we see Ross (Aidan Turner) poring over

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Demelza’s cloak, whose color fits into the color palette of the series

Ellen

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The best moments are the quiet ones: characters walking and talking, so here are Mr and Mrs Bates off to work (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggart)

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Mr Moseley in the village square self-reflexively selling tickets to come see ….

Mr Carson: “Do other butlers have to contend with the police arriving every 10 minutes?”
Answer: No, but most are not part of moribund mini-series.

Friends and remarkably patient readers,

Despite outbreaks physiological and psychological of intense distress, surely you’ve noticed we are on our way to as happily ever after as human beings ever know:

I take out my crystal ball developed out of not-so attentive watching (I would open a book and take bets only that I don’t understand betting):

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Our princess Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is going to marry the self-indulgent drone Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) and run Downton Abbey efficiently as a cross between a tourist attraction and generous farm rental site; Barrow will become head butler and spend his declining years indulging all Lady Mary’s children; our secondary heroine Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) will marry Bertie Pelham (Henry Haddon-Patton, a double-moniker there) despite Lady Mary’s final spiteful attempt to use her knowledge that Marigold is an illegimate child. Pelham is not a prince in disguise, but he is not the total shit Lady Mary had hoped. Mr and Mrs Bates (the one truly aggressive man in the series and his very long-suffering wife) will have that baby, which will be healthy and retire to their property to become prosperous landlords. Lord Grantham will not die young because Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) is just too soothing and complacent a presence to allow an early death once Violet Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) despite her Methuselah-like great age settles down to supporting Miss Dencker (Sue Johnston)’s matching spite and Spratt’s stamp-collecting habits (Jeremy Swift).

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A single housekeeper, skeletal staff, and “day help” will replace “downstairs”

Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) will show yet more extraordinary patience as she endures married life with that self-indulged prig of the patriarchy, Mr Carson (Jim Carter) who is not capable of going to bed without looking to see if the sheet corners are expertly done nor eat if his dinner is not eternally hot and as exquisitely cooked as if he were a Shah of Saudi Arabia. Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) will marry Mr Mason (Paul Copley), bringing to his tenant farm her dowry of her property. Now married, a highly educated Daisy (Sophie McShea) and Andy (reading and writing too as the best of them, certainly no one knows pig theory better) will come to live with them.

Have I left anyone out? Tom Bransom (Allen Leech)’s fate is as yet obscure. Isabel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) have been granted an intermediary in the person of an astonishingly kind prospective daughter-in-law (what I can’t figure out is how she can marry that vicious son of his?).

While I just know in the longer run Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) will marry Mr Moseley (Kevin Doyle) who will become a teacher in a school (he takes a test next to Daisy in Episode 6), there is another bit of a twist and turn down the road as it seems after all she had some feelings for the crook who arranged his theft in such a way as she went to prison. Both such good souls, they will work it out.

How easy some of them have it now? Lady Edith’s interviews of prospective women employees are without tension? No rivalry whatsoever. How is it that this newspaper is so easy to run?

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What a gentle time of it they all have

As to Talbot, are there no aggressive males left on the planet? When with Lady Mary, he behaves as if he were in school assembly.

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In Downton Abbey only servants are harshly treated …

So why are we carrying on? in this excruciating slow motion? (For recaps see Anibundel: 5, Who would have thought the old man had so much blood?, 6: Downton Abbey as Antiques Roadshow lacks information). Because the ratings were so high and potential audience and money from advertisers were too tempting.

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On Episode 5: I admit to being a viewer whose emotions have at times been deeply engaged with these characters, so when the hospital debate came a crisis with Violet’s coercing Neville Chamberlain himself to come to luncheon in the hope he will not permit the local hospital to be amalgamated to a county-wide organization and yet another of these tension-filled meals became too much for Lord Grantham — and his ulcers burst. What a comment upon 6 years of these dinners and luncheons, not to omit the occasional strained breakfast. I found myself distractedly distressed, tears running out of my eyes, to see this man coughing up huge goblets of blood.

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Lord Grantham’s ulcer bursts — he has clearly had enough (Hugh Bonneville enters fully into the role assigned every time, DA 6, Episode 5)

So the first time I watched, I was started into upset, and my emotions rose strongly; but if a movie has real depth in it and has earned belief, adherence, the second time through should be stronger as you notice more. Alas (almost), the second time through I felt indifference; the contrived nature of the scene once the shock wore off and especially since Fellowes had relied on this melodrama. I read somewhere that the genuine shock on Elizabeth McGovern’s face came from her gown, face and hands being spattered with the false blood from across the room. That was not supposed to happen and you can do only so many takes with such a scene. In the event, they did two takes only. I could see how it neatly ties up with the hospital debate in such a way as the Dowager must lose, but I felt that a sensitive fine actor (Bonneville) who let himself go into the part was exploited by this use of him.

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Mr Moseley helps Miss Baxter put on her coat after she has learned her ex-lover has pled guilty thus sparing her a confession of her complicity on the stand

As to Miss Baxter’s continuing agon, with the ever compassionate sensible Mr Moseley (who can put things into perspective with the joke — do you want me to go back and see if he will plead “not guilty”). What saves this series is not the humor (which is often not funny) but that continually as an undercurrent and some times rising to the surface (in coughed up blood?) are tensions, strains, disappointment, conflicted desires beneath the tranquil surface of life for these privileged lucky characters.

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Downton Abbey | Series Six We return to the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey for the sixth and final season of this internationally acclaimed hit drama series. As our time with the Crawleys begins to draw to a close, we see what will finally become of them all. The family and the servants, who work for them, remain inseparably interlinked as they face new challenges and begin forging different paths in a rapidly changing world. Photographer: Nick Briggs HARRY HADDEN-PATON as Bertie Pelham
The people on line are beginning to think somehow one group waiting has been favored over another, and the staff is doing what they can to push out such thinking from their minds.

On Episode 6: One of my favorite PBS shows has long been the Antiques Road Show on PBS as done in Britain; there is an American version, but for me not as much fun as these visits to large country houses and estates. And I have come to expect as a matter of course, that detailed knowledge of the most obscure objects will be forthcoming.

Taken as a gentle satire on the usual display of conjectured (they are careful to say it’s conjectured) information with prices that make the sellers unexpectedly happy, Episode 6 was worth a watch. There was a mild pleasure to be had in seeing how people really don’t know the facts wanted (or bogusly invented). Lady Edith couldn’t say who was in the picture; Cora, Lady Grantham did not know why one set of imitation shields over a fireplace had not been carved with any letters but over there was a bona fide Reynolds.

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She never thought to ask why the shields are not carved — the false importance such tours give to brick-a-bracks, making them numinous because “gazed at” in this ritual way is felt

Robert: “What on Earth can we show them to make it worth their money? Lady Grantham knitting? Lady Mary in the bath?”

The dialogue where a tourist boy stumbles into Lord Grantham’s room to ask why he doesn’t get somewhere much more comfortable to live a bit heavy-handed but not all that improbable — if you think children are not alive to class and how rich people live differently. Mine and I knew by kindergarten.

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Lord Grantham will soon tell the boy he lives this way because that’s what he is used to

What was registered was Fellowes’s looking askance at those people who come to gawk; and his quiet sneer that to keep such places going you have to let people in who envy a style of life they have misapprehended as exciting but who are really endlessly thinking of whether their egos have been assuaged.

Downton Abbey | Series Six We return to the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey for the sixth and final season of this internationally acclaimed hit drama series. As our time with the Crawleys begins to draw to a close, we see what will finally become of them all. The family and the servants, who work for them, remain inseparably interlinked as they face new challenges and begin forging different paths in a rapidly changing world. Photographer: Nick Briggs MAGGIE SMITH as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham

Miss Dencker comes near to be fired for too much loyalty. When Dr Clarkson (David Robb) defected, she accosted him. He writes a letter of complaint to the dowager. So we see whose feelings count. Whose life matters. The Dowager’s response is not gratitude. What? did Dencker think she had a right to be loyal. to have any feelings at all? On the spot, the Dowager will fire her. The way Dencker holds on is to threaten to tell the Dowaer that Spratt hid his crook-nephew, so Spratt must go upstairs and ask for her reinstatement. When Spratt succeeds (so quickly it’s probable the Dowager did not want to sack Dencker), far from promising never to threaten again, Dencker says she will use short blackmail whenever she has to.

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Thomas Barrow contemplates suicide as his utterly selfless teaching of Andrew Parker is sleazily misread (Rob James-Collier and Michael Fox, DA 6, Episode 6

Thomas is beginning to have had it. After all these years of faithful service and self-control on his part, he is still not trusted enough so that if he strikes up a friendship with a footman the first thought all have is he’s buggering him. And he is continually nagged to find a job where he might have something useful to do. Had this been imitative of life either he or Andy would have said he was teaching Andy to read.

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Lady Edith and her suitor stroll through St James Park — or is it Kensington Gardens we are to suppose we are entering into (Episode 5)

So what have we gained from Episodes 5 & 6: And they all headed to live happily ever after despite the occasional strong strains

I did remember this poem while watching some of the quietly strained moments amid the engineered systematic indifference of most to most between characters who pass through much splendor and have who at times have something to me:

Musee de Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
— W. H. Auden

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Mrs Crawley facing Lord Merton’s persistence registers on her prudent face fear of what her marrying Lord Merton might cause them to experience

Ellen

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A close-up

Friends and readers,

More than week late, because before writing my tribute I wanted to re-watch a few of my favorite films, all of which Alan Rickman worked in centrally; but with two good longish clips and a good trailer, and a whole YouTube movie, I add my voice and this blog to the many many paying tribute to Rickman’s acting career and what we know of his private life. Catherine Shoard’s fine obituary in The Guardian does justice to the variety of roles he played on the stage, in movie-houses, on TV; Michael Quinn tells more of his life and describes his mesmerizing qualities in The Stage.

What can I add? Not much I fear because I never saw him on stage, only read about his startling first performance as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, and much later as Hamlet himself. He and Helen Mirren did not receive rave reviews as Romeo and Juliet:

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But as Valmont with Lindsay Duncan as Madame de Merteuil, they made Hampton’s play, Les Liaisons Dangereuses a modern classic.

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Duncan and Rickman in Les Liasons Dangereuses

Years later Rickman played again with Lindsay Duncan, this time in Private Lives.

Nor did I see him in many of his movies and films: he worked for money and fame, as in Die Hard where against Bruce Willis he seems to have played a role equivalent to that Mark Rylance pulled off recently with Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies. The witty European or Britisher against the he-man macho male pro-American ideologies, undermining them a little (the subversion is very slight). Rickman was not above the Sheriff of Nottingham in a successful Robin Hood either.

He often was chosen for or himself chose parts which called for steel, for self-control, abstinence in the self and enforced on others, the punitive and competitive, quiet aggression from the insinuating interviewer Slope in Barchester Chronicles (later cast out):

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to an earnest well-meaning daring politician Eamon de Valero in Michael Collins:

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Part of this thread in his typology led to his reprises as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films.

I saw more of the film adaptations, romances, and in my experience and those I’ve talked to his interpretation of a character in a book deepened, changed readers’ conceptions of the character and even book ever after, charged the presence with melancholy, edginess, menace — self-retreat, keeping back. As a lover he made me swoon, but he was also complicated, the man of sensibility, unsure of himself, disillusioned, all giving and he was convincing as all loyalty

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As Colonel Brandon reading meditative poetry to Marianne in Sense and Sensibility

Now for me (as for Emma Thompson who wrote the screenplay), Colonel Brandon is the hero of Austen’s novel. He and she were good friends: they played the older couple whose marriage is on the edge but just manage out of compassion and understanding to hold together in Love Actually.

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Thompson and Rickman as husband and wife going through ritual of opening presents with one of their children

The last two nights I watched The Winter Guest, Sharman MacDonald’s play turned into a film and directed by Rickman, featuring Emma Thompson and her mother, another actress, Phyllida Law, as mother and daughter, two widows; and Song of Lunch, Christopher Reid’s poem, where he again played with Thompson.

I discerned a kind of repeating theme or thread, not as obviously or directly autobiographical as Woody Allen’s but there in the finest of his films. In these again and again he is a man angry at the world, or isolated from it, and turning on himself so strongly that he estranges himself and others from himself, bitter about what he is doing in the world. This is part of his Slope character; it’s part of the comedy roles. Sometimes he smiles and snarls dangerously as he looks out from within this core. Sometimes he saves others who are suffering similarly as in Truly, Madly Deeply; he enables Juliet Stevenson, as Nina, his widow to let go of him all the while he does not want to let go of her. The poignant image is of him on the other side of a window, a glass cut off from his beloved. The film has several parallel characters, David Ryall as George, a widower; Bill Patterson as Sandy who loses himself in work. Here is the opening segment:

I usually dislike these movies where characters are seen as part of an afterlife, and since reading Lucy Morton’s Ghosts: A Haunted History that even a majority of people believe in ghosts (!), but this one no. What transcends in the film is not so much that Nina has learned to live on her own, but his simple way of talking:

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Iconically Jamie in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991)

He describes his life with Nina thus:

Well, talking was the major component! Uh, uh, we, you played the piano – and I played and we both played a duet — something, I can’t remember … and you danced for about three hours until I fell asleep, but you were fantastic! — and then we had some cornflakes and when we kissed – which was about — eleven o’clock the following day — we were trembling so much we couldn’t take off our clothes.

Here is how he accounts for his motive in coming back to “the earth:”

Jamie: “Thank you for missing me.”
Nina: “I have. I do. I did.”
Jamie: “I know. But the pain, your pain, I couldn’t bear that. There’s a little girl, I see this little girl from time to time, Alice, who’s three, three and a half, and she’s great, everybody loves her, makes a big fuss, but she’s not spoiled, well she wasn’t spoiled, and she was knocked over, and her parents, and her family, the friends from kindergarten — she used to go to this park — and she was telling me, she, they made an area in the park, gave the money for swings and little wooden animals, and there are these plaques on each of them, on the sides of the swing, the bottom of the horse. ‘From Alice’s Mum and Dad. In loving memory of Alice who used to play here.’ And, of course, Alice goes back there all the time. You see parents take their child off the swing and see the sign and then they hold on to their daughter so tightly, clinging on for dear life, the capacity to love, people have, what happens to it?”

In Song of Lunch, he plays an editor who is aging badly, a failure as a poet, who has asked the woman he lost to another better writer (both aging well), to lunch. He cannot even stop his self destructing for the hour, cannot pull back when confronted by her. Watch the movie, listen to the eloquent poetry:

In The Winter Guest Thompson’s character is a female version of someone threatened this way, pulled back by her mother

It’s as if Rickman had this on-going dialogue with himself.

In Richard Curtis’s edition of his screenplay of Love Actually, Rickman answered a series of silly questions. Among his answers: the actress he loved first in the movies was Jeanne Moreau; his “favorite romantic movie of all time,” The Philadelphia Story; his favorite Christmas song, “Merry Christmas” by John Lennon

Alan Rickman died relatively young of cancer, another person cut off by this spreading epidemic. He and his family have chosen not to say what kind of cancer, but it seems to have been one which devoured him quickly: one person who saw him used the word “terrible” of how he looked at the end; and others who knew what was happening and were close suggest his death was a release. A terrible irony to this sad end. How many people have to die, at how many ages, in what short span of time before some empowered active group of people effectively demand true fundamental research?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Kwiecien
Kwiecien as handsome and alluring as Jonas Kauffmann

Ellen

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