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Mark Quartley as Ariel to Simone Russell Beale’s Prospero

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art.
From towards the end of the play, Prospero

Dear friends,

However inadequately, I can’t resist writing about the current production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which I was lucky enough to be able to see on an HD screen at the Folger Shakespeare library last night. It’s astonishing. The producer is Gregory Doran, and Simone Russell Beale, Prospero. Paul Taylor is right to praise highly the play as experienced. Beale is brilliant, but it’s not the best performance of a character by him I’ve ever seen: he was utterly Falstaff in the Hollow Crown series, the best I’ve ever seen. What is remarkable is the production, direction, acting, the way the lines are spoken: what’s called “live motion capture” adds significantly to the experience or enhance some of the effects — at least it does not distract. The set places us inside a ship’s hold as if that’s the universe, with a floor of sand and water all about. The costumes, and body outfits for Ariel are what we expect but Caliban is something new: Joe Dixon is in a disturbing to look at body suit which makes us feel he’s living trussed up in chains around his chest, and the pain and awkwardness has swollen his stomach. His hindquarters (so to speak) are on display and one worries about possible torture. Trinculo is dressed as a Clarabelle clown, complete with horn on his side: Simon Tinder acts like a circus refugee from Waiting for Godot) Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, all the upper class characters are in the usual outfits but that works in context as effective. Michael Davies on the Stratford site writes of all this.

What’s astonishing about this production? I’m a lover of Shakespeare — I’ve read all the plays and poetry, and some of the plays I used to read over and over. When I was just a graduate student, I planned to write my dissertation on Cymbeline — so I especially love the late four romances. I have rarely in life found a production boring or unwatchable — only once in my memory of going to so many (there were years where I went to Shakespeare plays as often as I could in NYC) did I leave at the intermission. I say this to preface that The Tempest is still for me by this time often “sort of expected:” jokes I’ve heard before, a non-plot, so I sit and wait for the poetry and deep feeling moments.

Not this time. Everyone in this play were part of a tremendous sustained effort to make the play entertaining every single minute that passed, and it almost was. Not quite: I did think the masque somewhat overdone: the problem of the masque watched by Ferdinand and Miranda is often one not conquered in productions: I’ve seen puppets; I’ve seen attempts at comedy (undercutting), this production perhaps erred in the direction of too joyous (a wee bit forced). But otherwise the effect is from not just that every line and every pause seems to have been thought through to make it meaningful in a new or interesting way, but the ways in which the stage business was perpetually brilliant, inventive, humanizing. The way they moved their bodies, their use of accents (Tony Jayawardena as as West Indies Stephano, the butler), their gestures, and the tones of complicated complex emotion projected. Joe Dixon was a poignant Caliban. He was given time and space to speak slowly a number of Caliban’s famous speeches with an intense half-grieving gravitas, as when he tells Trinculo and Stephano about the noises they continually hear:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

I was riveted by a sense of intense alert attention paid. The effect is lightened by having Trinculo dressed as a silly clown and Stephano a dim-witted ship’s butler. Jim used to tell me of the creakings we’d hear from our attic, of the sounds when we first moved in (we probably had a rat in the house, at first there were insects, a woodpecker too), that I should not be afraid ,”the isle is full of strange noises …” and we are here together to talk. At the close of the play Caliban retires to Prospero’s cell to be in solitude.


The attempted rape of Miranda is the current subject here …

Taylor thinks it “a dream of David Hockney landscapes.” I thought of the strong originality of Mary Shelley’s hallucinatory Frankenstein. It’s as if Doran and all the designers were determined to match the gorgeously suggestive language Shakespeare uses of his own gifts. They were groups of fantastical dream creatures, each more unearthly and yet part of this spiritual island world than the one before. Some marvelous dancing — from overtly weird faery

to folk and pattern dances in which Miranda (Jennifer Rainsford reminds me of Julie Christie when young) and Ferdinand (Daniel Easton, perfect for the gentlemanly role) participate.

There was therefore much beyond and contextualizing Beale’s deeply effective voice and tone tragic and grave when he broke his staff, said his dreams were now ended, and every thought would end in the grave that evoked in my such a deep-seated sense of healing. Yes healing, if just for the moment of this presence communicating to me — a member of this audience — deep melancholy forgiveness — we do not forget what these men who cast him and his daughter ashore still are — with a desire to give over and die.

But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

I just loved when he said after Miranda was married to Ferdinand, he would at long last tell what his life had been and then “And thence retire me to my Milan, where/Every third thought shall be my grave.” Someone has said to me that there is no pattern for someone who has lived the life I did with Jim to heal my grief. What I can find are presences in the world of thought, feeling, books, acting on films, stages, through music where I find peace because someone has understood. There is no norm for grieving, there is only tiredness, and it was a moment of joy I felt for Prospero because he forgave even if he saw the people were still not to be trusted. Only in the oblivion of the art of forgetting (that’s Samuel Johnson’s phrase) can any peace be found.

No need to miss it if you’ve an HDs screening theater which takes material from Stratford-upon-Avon (often ones which also broadcast HD screenings from the National Theater in London). The interval feature included next coming summer into fall when four Roman plays have been chosen as HD productions, each dealing with some relevant aspect of our political world today: in this order: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus.

Ellen

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Mak (Ryan Sellers) and Gill (Tonya Beckman)

Mak (to his wife and the 3 visiting shepherds looking for their lost sheep: Ye have run in the mire, and are wet yet;
I shall make you a fire, if ye will sit.
A nurse would I hire [to groaning wife]. Think ye on yet?
Well quit is my hire — my dream, this is it —
A season.
I have bairns, if ye knew,
Well more than enew;
But we must drink as we brew,
And that is but reason …

Gentle readers,

You still have three days or evenings to get there. Are you down in the dumps and obeying the social conventions to appear all gaiety and cheer? If you can’t catch the theater (live too far away?), not to despair, from photos I gather this production has been done elsewhere so it can move again. Of course I can’t guarantee this inventive staging and lovely music of The Second Shepherd’s Play, as directed by Mary Hall Surface and Robert Eisenstein (music director) now playing at the Folger in DC will do it. Indeed, the reviewer for the DC Theater scene seemed strangely half-apologetic (“though this will not appeal to all tastes” — what, pray tell, does?), so clearly the “magic” he so praised is rare, and the high spirited “originality” another reviewer attributed to the experience (also worrying about the depiction of women as well as something overdone in sentiment), may come across as tepid to our 21st century aggressively explosive film and art experienced taste, but I felt what was so good about it was its quiet human feeling.

Second Shepherd's Play
Shepherds, sheep and musicians

What the anonymous cycle play has been known for since it has been revived from the Townley manuscript of 15th century plays (in which it is found) is how it mixes the ordinary vexed feelings of put-upon serfs (giving full play to their complaints about their lives), farcical comedy and (at the close) with sublime religious feeling. David Siegel provides the story-outline turn for turn. In the program notes I counted 23 songs and dances.

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From an illuminated (with pictures) manuscript

To be all scholarly the author is known or recognized as “the Wakefield master” — who lived in Wakefield (to which I used to go taking at least 4 buses from Leeds in the later 1960s). He wrote the First Shepherd’s Play, and four other “pageants” (this one is sometimes called a pageant because of the ending in a creche scene): The Murder of Abel, Noah and His Sons (probably a comedy), Herod the Great and The Buffeting, as adapted by the great poet-translator, Tony Harrison as one of the Yorkshire Mystery plays, a powerful play where we watch a group of Roman soldiers prosaically nail said Jesus Christ to a huge cross and hoist it up. You can read The Second Shepherd’s Play as well as other plays by this Wakefield Master in an old Everyman paperback edited by A.C. Crawley (Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, Dutton, 1959).

I’ve seen it twice. I remembered a film of the Monty Python group doing this story of a hungry shepherd and his wife stealing a sheep and hilariously trying to pass it off as a newborn baby in the wife’s cradle: Dudley Moore was in it and he somehow made the idea he was “biding” in the fields peacefully deliciously absurd. Upon reading the program notes, Izzy told me she and I had seen it before: 2007, and with Jim, but when they’d done, she said it was very different from that earlier version, and this one “much better.” For a start it was longer, something over two hours with intermission.

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Over the mountain to home Mak goes

What was different was the intermingling of song and dance and puppetry. The one large puppet was the sheep, and he (or she) was done with sticks and reminded me of the way a cat will respond to its beloved staff-friends. Its head was all nudge. At different junctures, for example, after Mak ferrets away the sheep while the three trusting shepherds lie asleep, there is a quick set up of a temporary arch and two puppets representing Mak and the sheep are seen traversing hills and valleys to get back to Gill at home spinning. When the shepherds discover that the baby in the cradle is a sheep and elect to toss Mak in a blanket, a large blanket is suddenly there with a puppet tossed up and down. The three shepherds, Coll, the most articulate (Louis E Davis), Daw (Megan Graves, she was a young Juliet in a Romeo and Juliet play I saw at the Folger a few years ago), and Gib (Matthew R. Wilson) are turned into puppets traversing the snow. This is the kind of thing done in the recent Sense and Sensibility: really taking advantage of the live performance aspect of play-making. There is a rolling machine turned and turned to make high winds of a tempest, and the actors twirl ribbons across the stage to make a storm. You could not do this in a film.

I like Renaissance music very much, and as at previous concerts for the last few years, there were guest artists: particularly felicitious is Brian Kay on the lute, performing love music in a melancholy moving way. Daniel Meyers plays various instruments but I remember best what looked like a Renaissance flute; and of course Eisenstein. The ending in the coming of the angel to tell Mary she is carry the “god-head” — a dea ex machina from the balcony sung by an opera soprano (Emily Noel, who sang two other individual songs)

noel

and the music from the mass (“Gloria in excelsis deo”) was prepared for at the opening of Act II. The play was held off while we had a small concert of very touching music both appropriate to the season and on peculiarly Renaissance instruments (I can’t name them). For me that was the highest moment of the play. Songs familiar (Greensleeves, the Coventry Carol, rounds like Blowe thy horne, hunter) are threaded in along with less familiar and unfamiliar pieces. The titles of the whole lot are reprinted in the program notes.

The underlying feel — desperately needed for more than 2 hours is a group of people who are trying for a peaceful life where they “turn all to good.” (As I say, there’s a 1970s film somewhere of Monty Python finding this very funny — lucky them.)

Third shepherd to Mak & Gill: For this trespass
We will neither ban ne flite,
Fight nor chide ….

As luck would have it, this week I got my bi-annual copy of the Sidney Journal (34:2 2016) and will wonders never cease (?). Two new sonnets by Philip Sidney have been found (!). To me they sound like him. I like these lines in the first (yes plucked out of context, and re-contextualized):

In humble sorte contented yet am I,
Though in dispaire I dye without regard

I also got my yearly Christmas card from Arthur F. Kinney, a great Renaissance scholar who sends Christmas cards each year to each and every person who contributed an essay to English Literary Renaissance (he must have quite a mailing list by this time — I published but one paper, on a sonnet sequence by Anne Cecil in the early 1990s), and this year he chose to reprint and slightly modernize passages from Milton’s “On the morning of Christ’s Nativity,” and I quote these

No War, or Battles sound
Was Heard the World around,
The idle Spear and Shield were high up hung,
The hooked Chariot stood,
Unstain’d with hostile blood,
The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng …

These lines could be slotted into this play.

The experience brought back memories of when I was an undergraduate just beginning to major in English and read The Second Shepherd’s Play in an Norton Anthology (as well as the great 15th century tragedy, Everyman) and thought how all this is abolished for English majors and certainly for everyone else in most American colleges. I remembered watching the National Theater production of the Yorkshire Mysteries one Christmas for a couple of marvelous hours with Izzy and Laura (then 7 and 14); we would replay it on a video cassette we had taped it onto, and even made two to have a back-up. How joyous and funny the whole thing was. Both cassettes now unplayable.

Somewhere in me too I have never gotten over Christmas at Dingley Dell (Dickens’s Pickwick Papers Christmas) – when I was young my father read aloud to me — so yearn for some re-enactment in that direction. It is, since Jim’s death, not quite out of the question as Izzy and I try for one another. The best way for me is low expectations and minimal joining in (as what is available to a person like me is — or perhaps you too gentle reader). I decorated as far as I could; I send out cards; Izzy and I are going to three events. I was thinking this morning appreciate the use of music reaching out (as in the Folger Consort group) and stay with that, don’t seek anything more.

Jim was something of a musician (read music, would play scores of opera for piano on our piano spinet) and used to say the Folger Consort group was too determinedly scholarly and authentic, and the pre-Renaissance stuff was done dully. Then it was just four aging white men. Two of these people are gone, and now the group hires all sorts of people and are truly creative in their approach, and regularly dare to move well into the 17th century.

jacobruisdaelwinterlandscape-large
Jacob Van Ruisdael (1629-82), Winter Landscape

Ellen

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amour-de-loinpilgrim
Tamara Mumford, Pilgrim, also called the Traveler

Friends and readers,

On Saturday Izzy and I saw, listened to, a strangely still opera: Kaija Saariagho’s L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar), libretto by Amin Maalouf (see review in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini).

There is hardly any action in the 3 hour opera-story. Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye (sung and acted by Eric Owens), a troubadour now grown old, once a poet-singer accompanying the 12th century crusades, now residing in Aquitaine, ailing, in a deeply depressed state, dreams of an ideal woman with whom he can experience fulfilled love. A pilgrim or (as called in the French word Englished traveler) seems to sail/happen by and tells Jaufre the woman he has conjured up exists. Jaufre sets off to meet her.

troubadourpilgrim

Meanwhile Clemence, a countess of Tripoli, in this production dressed to align her with a mermaid (fish-y scale-y dress with a sort of parting at the bottom as if for fins, braided hair) is by magic or some other force aware of or longing for, this coming love. The same pilgrim sails/happens by to tell her Jaufre is writing of her in an ethralled way. This gives her a concrete person to dream of. She is conflicted: sometimes eager, young, and sometimes wary. When Jaufre arrives, he is dying. If this illness is physical we are not told, only that he has dreaded the meeting, experienced such anguish of anxiety, he is near death.

heconfesses

They meet, and while they declare their passion, he also says that he is afraid of life and also of dying. From the intensity of this conflict he enacts a kind of self-suicide. Se weeps that some external force is to blame, then that she is. At the last she decides she will retire from the world to a convent.

The stage when the lights are not on consists of seried rows of benches. When a computerized light show is on against the dark, we see wavering lines suggesting the sea along which everyone moves. The light moves from emerald green, to glooming yellow and white, to blood red, to deep blues. Everyone includes two choruses, one of men who dialogue with Jaufre, and one of women who dialogue with Clemence, who function rather like Sophocles’ or Greek choruses. The lower bodies of these figures are never seen; they seem like controlled slaves who exist for the sake of the numinous central presences. Opera is a deeply conservative form and this allegory is that here — the mood lacks the irony of Samuel Beckett’s figures caught in cans.

What is the audience to make of this? I might as well say up-front I thought the computerized technology overdone and because you can do a thing (make the stage into something near art film) doesn’t mean you should. I have recently heard music very like that of Saariaho: atonal, dissonant, each line differing form the other, many idiosycratic sounds, yet somehow peaceful, idyllic, a troubled pastoral. All three principals sang beautifully, especially fine was the Pilgrim. Until the second act, though, the lines in this opera were archetypal in content, utterly generalized. Set to Charlotte Smith’s complex poetry, the lines had thoughtful meaning to express. Similarly, Detlev Ganert’s music seemed set to a text of complicated many issue-d despair.

In the second half, though, we did get meaning, e.g., from the words Juafre spoke, the sensitive troubadour has been traumatized by life itself (so violent, so contradictory to him) and (once again) prefers death. He also yearns for compensatory beauty in return for the horrors he’s seen and done while “in the orient,” citing place names from Middle Eastern countries which played a part in the crusades or are mentioned in the chronicles written by men about their experiences in the crusades or Constantinople.

You can, and I would be inclined also to see the opera as an exploration of levels of depression and despair. The afflicted person tries to throw off by maintaining a belief in an impossible goodness, kindness, love. Jaufre suspects he is deluding himself; his dream cannot be realized. It is only real from afar. That’s why he does not want to experience this love close up. When he does see her, overcome by her beauty after all, he nonetheless is already near death. It’s too late to make a change.

Some further art context would be the Arthurian corpus. Voigt did refer to the lovers as a Tristan and Isolde at one point in her intermission talk. The depiction of the lovers was strikingly like my memories of a specific text, an 1890s fin-de-siecle French rendition of Trisan and Iseult by Joseph Bedier. Mark doesn’t have much of a role in Bedier. Bedier may be read in a beautiful English translation by Hillaire Belloc. The deeply reactionary meaning caught up in this enthrallment by sex was explicated in once famous book by Denis de Rougement: Love in the Western World, except Bedier is not into Christian apologetics: rather all in life seeks erotic ecstacy. From Celtic twilights of melancholy to the sublime transcendance of Wagner, it’s a perverse worship of self-annihilation, melting away into sensual pleasure to an extreme of self-destruction and death. For my taste there was too much squirming eroticism, or (alternatively) naive idealism of the ripe virginal maiden in all this:

l-amour-de-loin-susanna-phillipsclemence

While the opera also takes its resonance from texts by Tennyson, Sara Teasdale (a poem from Guinevere) and movies like Bresson’s Lancelot, Eric Rohmer’s Parzival, perhaps Boorman’s Excalibur (a Hollywoodized version); there is a counterforce, warrior-like memories at least caught up in place names and very occasional action. The cities chosen by the pair of creators include Antioch, the old world around the Mediterranean leading to Jerusalem. Though our troubadour seems to have never fought, he and the Pilgrim are sombre with the knowledge of something intransigent, wary of something “out there” which all seek to elude. Jaufre is also the wounded fisher-king, exiled or taken along as suffering figure at wars. The male figure who carries within him the evils and wretchedness of the world, and dies of this: I thought of Amyntas as dramatized in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.

rarephysicalmoment

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I was much moved by the second half; there was far more psychological content in the words; death seemed to me portrayed to some extent realistically: as a drawn out agonized process. Tides of grief wash over everyone. The intense rejection of anything close up by the troubadour. The huge iron contraption seemed to me perfect for some construction site, an over-the-top exhibit of angularity and abstraction and computer light show was now less in evidence. The three principles were at the bottom of the benches and and camera focused on them in various levels of close-up. It would have been too abrupt, too sudden, too somehow melodramatic to end abruptly with Jaufre’s death, so there was a lingering strongly controlled slow fade-away.

Can we place this in a more immediate and political context — in my experience operas written more recently (where I’ve seen a few at Castleton Festival in Virginia) are meant to resonate with today’s culture. An FB friend of mine, Tom Dillingham, caught

an interesting William Blake sighting’ or reference … During the intermission … Deborah Voigt interviewed the great Placido Domingo about his having taken on the role of Nabucco in Verdi’s opera of that name. Domingo commented on the complexity of the character and said that his name is also Nebuchadnezzar, and then mentioned that William Blake “the greatest of painters in England” (that’s close, anyway, to what he said) had portrayed Nebuchadnezzar as a kind of man/beast, crouching on all fours. The admiration of one great artist for another is always worth noting. Perhaps I should refrain from noting a certain evocation of a contemporary menace.

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Blake’s Nebduchadnezzar

I won’t refrain. The opera figures retreat in the face of fear, sexual engagement and reality. Ours is a hard world people with the wherewithal retreat to dreams like this from.

There is another great piece of music and lyrics that matches this one, as serious and allegorical as Saariaho and Maalouf’s and brings out the underbelly of this opera. Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

The lyrics say what needs to be listened to, not just said, and acted upon, and a much seasoned-performer like Smith’s nervousness in front of this over-, opulently dressed crowd just make so much stronger how much this song’s concrete causes needs be heeded … I’ve not been so deeply moved by a performance or song in a long time.

You choose which one you think comes closest in this dire moment, the well-behaved decorous allusive myth with its diversity of casting or the accosting of what the blue-eyed son has done.

I must not leave out that this is only the second opera mounted in the whole of the Metropolitan Opera’s history to be by a woman; it is also only the fourth to be conducted by a woman: Susanna Malkki. My great grief is the first woman who won the popular vote to be president of the US is not the president tonight who could have heard it. Instead we have a man/beast who has promised to continue the horrors pictured by Dylan. Dylan deserved the Nobel, though perhaps he should have been there to accept it, and gotten it for music (and someone else for literature), I don’t mind. Patti Smith’s singing more than made up for anything awry.

Ellen

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The LA and Kennedy Center cast

Dear friends and readers,

I’m told that Ivo Van Hove’s New York City production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which rightly received rave reviews as a production, though not as a play, when it played in New York is not attracting the full house it should at the Kennedy Center. Granted, I was row H on the side (next to a friendly couple who had also bought at the last moment); but all around us were empty seats. So I write to urge everyone who has a chance to see this production (no matter if other actors, at any rate in this case all superb), if it comes near to you. It speaks to our dire situation in the US gov’t today.

It’s not that the play concerns immigrants but its core depiction of Eddie, as a rawly emotional deeply resentful sexually sick white male (Mark Strong in NYC, here Frederick Weller of Center Theater, LA repertoire group) at the center. The story is this: Eddie’s childless wife, Beatrice (Andrus Nichols, Center Theater) has invited two male relatives from a starving place in Sicily, Marco (Alex Escola, Center Theater) and Rodolpho (Dave Register, Russell Tovey did this part in NYC) to sneak illegally into the USA to do hard labor on the waterfront. Eddie is all generosity, offering bedding (a place on the floor of an extra small room), meals, but is more concerned with his niece, Catherine (Catherine Combs) who wants to take a job outside the home. He claims to want her to stick to her studies, but since these are not college, but stenography and typing alone, whose intention is to enable her to take a job, he is on weak ground. She wants to work for money badly, to be independent.

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The London production

A fierce struggle ensues in which she wins but we see with many concessions to his male pride: he is in a continual vigilant posture towards her: why is that skirt so short, why wear high heels. She is continually trying to placate him. Marco is there to get money to send home to a wife and four children, which he duly does, but Rodolpho is unattached, and he and Catherine begin to go out and fall in love. Eddie is incensed, and becomes aggressively hostile at first just to his niece and wife, sowing doubt about the man’s motives and character. He loathes that Rodolpho can sing like rock star, that he can cook, he sews, and begins to say explicitly Rodolpho is there to marry Catherine so he can become a citizen and then desert her “for the big time.” That’s why Rodolpho wants to take Catherine to Broadway, not because the movies there are fun, or plays, or lively street life. He insinuates that Rodolpho is gay, “not right” (he does not use the word pervert but we feel it in the air). He becomes ugly before Rodolpho. Beatrice moves from mild expostulation over his trying to keep Catherine a baby and without a job, to withering insinuations that Eddie is “in love with” his niece. Eddie does not appear to register this until near the end of the play when he gasps out in intense insult that Beatrice thinks he has incestuous (he does not use that word either — having a limited sexual vocabulary) longings.

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New York City

What makes for the two hours of emotional turmoil and anguish is how everyone in the play is so chary of Eddie’s feelings, so respectful of him who by the second is bitterly complaining he is not respected in his home, and making life a misery for them all. A horrible scene occurs where Eddie coming upon Rodolpho and Catherine alone in the house after they have obviously been half-naked physically assaults them both – by first hugging Catherine painfully and kissing her, and then doing the same to Rodolpho. The latter is taken as an ultimate insult; but Eddie jeers that since Rodolpho didn’t throw Eddie off successfully that proves “he is not right.” He will not hear of an engagement; he becomes livid when Catherine wants to leave; when the marriage is set, he will not come and forbids his wife to go out of the house or he will never let her in again (this harks back to before the later 19th century when husbands had a legal right to throw a wife out). We have an intense scene where she begs to be let to go to the wedding and when he will not give permission, tells Catherine after Catherine urges her to come, she will not. Not that she dare not. But she will not disrespect or hurt this man, something Catherine is continually telling him she does not want to do. Also how grateful she is to him as his niece for all the years of fatherly tender affection and care (which he did not owe her). She also half-believes his suspicions about Rodolpho.

The play is framed as a play. It’s done inside a kind of arena on both sides of which are audience members. There is an intermittent narrator-storyteller confiding male who speaks to the audience, the lawyer, Alfieri, whom Eddie comes to consult at intervals. The second form of suspense emerges when half-way through Eddie begins to think he will inform the immigration authorities in order to get the two young men sent back to Sicily. But he goes to Alfieri to consult about more than that: the point of their dialogues is Eddie continually wants Alfieri to do by law what the law refuses to condemn, or even pay any attention to. The law will not act to prevent Rodolpho from marrying Catherine. It will not act to prevent Catherine from leaving his home or make her obey him. The law will not punish Rodolpho for being “not right.” Nor Marco either — for anything but being illegal immigrants. The point these dialogues bring out is how this white male wants things as his right he has no legal right to. I leave it to my reader who will remember the election of a deeply corrupt white male for president whose major constituency was just such people as Eddie (and probably Beatrice too). The lawyer as a role functions very much like (anticipates) Robert Bolt’s The Common Man in his A Man for All Seasons (another play to read and watch this winter of our distress; Michael Gould reminded me of Corin Redgrave.)

Things are brought to an explosion when Eddie does inform the authorities and an official comes to the house to take Marco and Rodolpho to jail. Eddie has needled Marco that if he does not go home soon, he will find his wife has more children than she had when he left. A ridiculous contest over who can lift a chair with one arm from one leg has gone on where Eddie cannot do it, but Marco can. Marco then emerges viscerally as he calls Eddie a “rat” and tells him he is responsible for the starvation of his children. He leaps to murder Eddie. He is prevented and taken to jail. Alfieri plays the reasonable voice: he comes to jail to pay bail and enables Rodolpho to go out and (if he wants) marry Catherine before his hearing comes up; but he will only help Marco is Marco promises not to murder Eddie. Again he must tell Marco that the law will not help him either.

The play starts slowly and the actors say their lines so slowly I thought they were actors playing actors playing New York City 1950s parts, getting the accent right, the gestures, the time. But if this is so, it moves more rapidly and becomes smoulderingly emotional with the actors becoming the people and the pace becoming frantically emotional by the end.

The play is peculiarly significant for this terrifying political moment where we now see how easy it is for the US republic to slide into a dictatorship because at the grief-stricken final moment, the lawyer – however reluctantly, however ruefully — justifies Eddie. Alfieri says he mourns for Eddie, he feels for him, everyone was so right to care. A tableau of Beatrice holding onto Eddie like a Madonna with Christ in her lap with all the characters in intensely held characteristic postures all around her is the play’s final moment. In the language of conventional normalizing cant criticism, even including the dripping condescension of critics towards Death of a Salesman in the earliest productions, Ben Brantley intones that finally “Bridge is an imperfect work, awkward in its aspirations to timeless grandeur. After all, it is framed by the self-conscious recollections of a Brooklyn lawyer, who speaks as ponderously of inexorable fate as any Greek chorus ever did.” But not a word about what is wrong in words meaningful to viewers or readers today.

Lyn Gardner of The Guardian comes closer: “This is not just somebody else’s family tragedy. It speaks directly to us and suggests that there is an Eddie Carbone lurking in all of us, just as there is a vengeful Electra and a blind Oedipus.” Really? in women too? How is Catherine a vengeful Electra? Jordan Riefe of the LATimes gets yet closer: “While as his brother Marco, Esola is a brute at rest for most of the play until finally stirred to action. In the end he becomes Eddie’s match — the roaring embodiment of injured ego masquerading as paternal (or in Marco’s case, fraternal) protection.” There is an acknowledgement that it has not been Marco all play long causing the problem, but none that the ego is white male.

We should not be surprised at the lifting of a veil in another direction. After all, what do some people say the very central concern of Death of a Salesman is? Avoiding the insistent explicit economic message that Willie Loman is being thrown away after a lifetime of hard work, with barely enough to survive on (that social security that Paul Ryan is now exulting he will at long last privatize, hand over to Wall Street and thus destroy), people quote Linda’s pathos: “He was so wonderful with his hands,” the ne’er do well rake son, “He was a happy man with a batch of cement; Biff at least tries: “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.” But again and again I’ve heard the play summed up as “Attention must be paid,” we are not paying enough respect and attention to this man.

Well we are paying attention now. He is getting back at last. what is remarkable and important about this production is the lawyer’s remarks feel so perverse.

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Mark Strong as Eddie (who also played the torturer in George Clooney’s Syriana, a political recreation of wildly savage Jacobean drama as film) at Lincoln Center fierce with dark rage, lecturing everyone else

See it. Feel it. Then think about it (see my Post-mortem). I read that what happened in a New York City theater when our present gay-hating vice-president elect provocatively came to see Hamilton found himself unsurprisingly lectured and told he is supposed to represent all the diverse peoples of the US. This is a clever distraction on the part of Trump (who does not meet with reporters now, only issues lying distorting demanding tweets) so that the top story is not how he had paid $25 million to squash the suit of the defrauded students who went to his university. He is now making money hand-over-foot in his hotels, and will probably rake in enough in the next weeks to cover that easily.

No, go see and then read this play instead. it made me and some around me tremble.

Ellen

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Shylock (Matthew Boston) about to extract his pound of flesh from Antoine (Craig Wallace)

Dear friends and readers,

Although Izzy and I got to Aaron Posner’s District Merchants, a daring adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice directed by Michael John Garces, at the end of its run, I write a brief review to recommend going to any revivals, or other productions of this new play you might hear of. It’s a triumph made out of indictment, empathy and humor.

Posner has taken up the challenge of a play whose plot-design is anti-semitic, by making the anti-semitism of all the characters but Shylock’s daughter an explicit issue: Shylock self-consciously argues his rage comes out of an alienation forced on him, reinforced by his hurt at how his daughter has been taken from him.

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Shylock’s refusal to allow Jessica to go out among non-Jews estranges her

He is thus given more specific reason for resentment as he believes there was a conspiracy among these characters to remove his daughter from him — as well as take the money he relies on to live. Posner sets the play in the District of Columbia during re-construction (Ulysses S. Grant is president) and re-imagines all characters’ interactions and personalities along analogous lines so as to dramatize equally unjustifiable racism, class snobbery and disdain, and by extension hatred of the other in whatever form cruel emotional violence may take. Antony is now Antoine, a free black and prosperous businessman.

I found myself wishing Posner could have made one of the character a stray Islamic person. I was also puzzled as to why he did not include homosexuality as in fact Shakespeare’s play not so hidden text is the displacement of a semi-betray of Antony’s love by Bassanio so as to get enough money to court and marry the richly endowed Portia. The RSC production of The Merchant last year brought this out. The new play is clearly not bothered anachronistic thought, so why erase the original play’s depiction of thwarted repressed homosexuality?

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A choral moment with Lancelot (Akeen Davis) to the fore

Still, given the recent massacre at Orlando (which included hatred of gays, of latinos, a man who abused his wife and was himself Muslim), it’s a remarkably timely re-write, and part of the strong response the audience gave to the play came out of the whipping up of hatred and fear we’ve seen in present political campaigns in the US and UK. There was even an unintended frisson in the theater when Lancelot become an ex-slave servant of Shylock, after having been asked by Jessica to help her run away from her father and steal his money and jewels (very dangerous for him) asks himself the question, “To leave or not to leave.” Posner could not have foreseen how that would resonate just after Brexit. Ryan Taylor wrote of how heartening such a production feels.

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There is a star-gazing scene where two different levels of time are brought together: Bassanio (Seth Rue) and Portia Maren Bush) at the back, Jessica (Dani Stoller) and Lorenzo (William Vaughan) at the front

I don’t want to give the impression the play was simplistic rhetoric or even crude; except towards the end when Posner seemed not to know how to end his play, and had too many soliloquys of hurt, distress, anger, the experience is not preach-y. Like a number of the appropriations of Jane Austen novels into films set elsewhere and in modern times I’ve seen, he follows closely the outline of Shakespeare’s play where he can, omitting excrescences like the choice of caskets ritual, and developing much further the meeting, courting, and wooing scenes between Jessica and Lorenzo become a southern country boy on the make.

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Jessica and Lorenzo

We see Portia growing up under a kind of tutelage by Nessa (Celeste Jones)

Portia and Nessa

Scenes of funny (and painful) wit when Bassanio overcome by honesty in his love for Portia, tells her he has been passing for white and is half-black. She herself has been training as a lawyer at Harvard (in Boston) by dressing as a man.

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Bassanio proposes to Portia, blurts out the truth about himself, Nessa looking on …

The different characters are given depth by having them as the play unfolds tell us their pasts. Chris Klimek found the whole mix “marvelous” and sobering. Jeannette Quick does justice to the complexity of what’s satirized (for example, lip-service to progressivism) and the way the different levels of memory, story, and interaction veer between “ridiculous hilarity and despondency.”

It makes us rightly criticize Shakespeare’s play. Posner probably means it as a sort of correction. We see Shakespeare’s Shylock from this renewed humane angle, from the world seen from below (except for Portia all identify as potentially and really outcast, powerless, reviled). At the same time I have to admit that after all when Posner does include Shakespeare’s lines, they stand out as having more purchase on why we must renounce insensibility to the sufferings of others, for our own sake show how dangerous is sowing mistrust, wrong and dangerous violence for violence. We must be merciful to expect mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech is hurled at the audience. Lines from Shakespeare here and there raise and complicate the play’s perspectives. I especially liked how Antoine refused to accept rescue through a quibble — because he reminded me of Trollope’s Mr Harding who wanted to be morally right and justified. So Shylock could have killed Antoine, but at the last moment, the stage goes dark, and we learn at its close Shylock suddenly turned and walked away.

Quick and Barbara Mackay describe the suggestive symbolic setting (Tony Cisek) : an attempt was made to make us feel a civilization and place under make-shift construction, with columns (one still wrapped), ropes with hooks (suggesting ships). There was a real attempt to give a feel of what DC was like in the later 19th century: mud, much of it empty; that it had been a place where free black people lived before the war. I found the costumes a fun combination of musical-hall stage 1890s, accurate women’s dress and today’s fashions. Lots of music: a banjo, percussion, spirituals. Life has charm, it is good.

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Another proposal scene

Posner has done this kind of adaptation twice before: the “excellent Stupid F—ing Bird (an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull) debuted Woolly Mammoth in 2013); Life Sucks (or the Present Ridiculous Situation (an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in 2015).

I had not thought until writing this review how appropriate this play was as a choice near Independence Day, July 4th, and will now link in Frederick Douglas’s famous speech: “What to the Slave is the fourth of July,” as read by James Earl Jones.

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Antoine remembers his past too

Ellen

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Klytamnestra (Waltraud Meier) and Elektra (Nina Stemme)

Friends and readers,

Perhaps I should just direct readers to where Virginia Woolf wrote, who could watch the story of Clytemnestra today and not side with her? she had probably read also Euripides’ version, though her “On Not Knowing Greek” centers on the anguished madness of Sophocles’ Electra. It’s in Euripides’ play the cowardly superstition of Agammenon choosing to burn Iphigenia comes out most strongly against the eloquence of Clytemnestra.

The problem is Strauss’s opera is said to be based on Hofmannstal, about whose version I know only what I read on wikipedia. In any case this too is a side-track as the last opera of the season was presented as Chereau’s parting gift to us — he’s another devoured at too early an age by the spread of cancer. (See my blog on his film adaptation from Conrad, Gabrielle.) All the reviews emphasize Chereau’s shaping presence. We are given specific details for each character and actor-singer by Anthony Tommassini but no sense of what Chereau’s actuating idea might be. To say it’s expressionist is to say nothing. Expressionist of what?

A cursory glance at the promotional stills tells it. A sad tale of the anguish of women in the context of our punitive public world. Dysfunctional family, super-bloody, says Bruce Scott. Except the murder occurs off-stage; only at about 2/3s the way through does Eric Owens as Orestes show up, and he’s catatonic, overwhelmed by the women, seeking comfort, effeminized like Hercules among the women:

StemmeEricOwens

In any case he forgot his axe. That’s in the script. Unless the subtitles distorted the dialogue. Elektra is alert enough to notice.

Agamemnon, a tenor (here identified as a weak voice) only enters the drama near the close, and he’s done away with by a single knife thrust by Pylades. Orestes slinks off to the side. I saw no blood. The major presences are all women. The chorus is mostly women prisoners, women slaves, women who ready murdered bodies, a rare old man here or there. As far as I could tell the singing was superb; I liked best Owens’s voice; what melody I heard came from him. The women are too pained.

Chereau has returned the Hofmannstal rendition into a stark contrast, an adamantine stubborness between a mother and daughter who will not listen to one another, because, well, would it help? A conflict that in inward and cannot see to the source or will not admit it. What they have to say is in this Hofmannstal is as uncomplicated and unnuanced as Woolf’s essay on Sophocles’ play suggests. I was surprised that nowhere in the subtitles is Klytamnestra given words to justify herself. She treats her daughter like any cognitive therapist. No references to the past please. “What can I do to restore your sleep?” Elektra answers a sacrifice could free her from these intrusive nightmares. “Who shall we kill?” asks Klytamnestra.

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The confidante is Susan Neves

“Why you, mother,” and the daughter proceeds to imagine Orestes hacking her mother to death.

Klytamnestra exits, all silent dignity. Did I mention, Klytamnestra is dressed in a beautiful outfit with beads in good taste?

Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis has the usual thankless task, Ismene-like, to worry herself over conventional expectations not met: like not getting a chance to marry and have children. Gee. No wonder her face is frozen:

ElektraChrysothemis

Give in, she urges Elektra, give over. Then we can leave this prison, have clothes appropriate to our rank. Except in his case Elektra, a figure comparable to Antigone, a parallel experience Izzy and I saw at the Kennedy Center last spring, seems unconcerned with what she’s wearing. She cannot forget her grief, rage, terror. Stemme plays the role as a woman gone insane.

The contrast between the stories and the productions can help instruct us. The Kennedy Center design turned Sophocles’ Antigone into (or it is) a deeply anti-war, anti-totalitarian, humane statement where love did matter, could have flourished. Juliet Binoche played the role as a brave loving woman, speaking principle, speaking family passion, and yet all poignancy, oh the pity of this death and mine too. There are flashes of sanity about in the Antigone, even in Creon who becomes a quietly tragic figure. None of that in this opera. Stemme played it right as woman gone insane, a heart of darkness. “Hit once more, strike again.”

There is no sunlight on Chereau’s stage; it’s all grey steel and cement. The servants sweep and bring in water in buckets and sprinkle it about. This season and previous ones the Metropolitan Opera-goer has gotten used to stages that are prisons where torture chambers are suggested, people in impoverished garb, everyone cowed. It was another opera filmed by Gary Halverson, but here one felt that he was filming another man’s work.

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The poster for the opera — “Electra” “neglected, suffering, blunted, debased” yet “Clytemnestra is no unmitigated villainess” (from Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek”)

We have too many references to cats on the Internet, but for once the vulnerable nervous proud, guarded weak predator, in this case in a poem offers a hint how to read or take this last experience of this season:

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought horne.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

— by Marie Louise Kaschnitz (1901-74), translated by S.L. Cocalis

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

Perhaps an antidote is in order: Strauss has three operas where picturesqueness and nostalgia (Der Rosencavalier, a pastiche), a self-conscious return to 19th century style Edwardian comic heroine’s text drama (Arabella, libretto Hofmannstal) and a subtle self-reflexive meditation on opera framing a love-in-death myth (Ariadne auf Naxos) are the mode. All highly artificial. Play-acting. I’ve seen them all — with Jim, sometimes Izzy with us.

And the point is, things need not be this way: treated with kindness, cats react quite differently

thewhitecatPangurandthemonk

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).

devereux_met

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.)

Metset

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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