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Archive for the ‘visual art’ Category

baldhills
Bald Hills, one of many landscape scenes, where the Bolkonskii family lives

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Marya (Antonina Shuranova) submits to her father, Prince Bolskonsky’s (Anatoli Ktorov)’s instructions in geometry

Dear friends,

During the few months a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies were reading Tolstoy’s novel, and those before when I was listening to the novel read aloud (Books-on-Tape now on CDs), I watched four War and Peace films: three “mini”-series (I put mini in quotations since Bondarchuk’s Russian epic is 507 minutes; Jack Pulman’s exquisite BBC mini-series in 1972, 900 minutes, with the “short” version by Andrew Davies in 2016 clocking in at 6 hours and 19 minutes) and one cinema feature (Vidor’s 1955 Hollywoodized W&P a mere 3 hours and 20 minutes). These are not the only War and Peace films to have been made, but they represent what is available today (plus a 2007 mini-series that turns the film into a romance about Natasha Rostov), what is seriously watchable.

I begin with the one most written about: Sergei Bondarchuk’s truly epic War and Peace, filmed as a profound reaction against the Hollywoodized and Italianate War and Peace, directed by King Vidor, script by Mario Soldati, as a trivializing debasement of a book Russians are deeply proud of, a part of their national heritage. The interaction between these two has been taken as an episode in the cold war. I found the American-Italian film tedious but those interested might like to know you can read the script on-line, and read a brief conversation I had with people who were just reaching adulthood in the 1950s and were entranced by Audrey Hepburn (Natasha) and Vittorio Gasmann (as transgressive rake-male seduces elusive archetype). I’m glad the first film was made, as it led to the Russian gov’t and many individual groups, to say nothing of some spectacular artists in Russia at the time give their all to bring Tolstoy’s novel to cinematic life.

Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is still the most written about of all these and I am aware I shall probably fail to convey the experience, but perhaps a concrete description of its four parts can function to encourage others to attempt this film and (standing warned, knowing what you need to do or be prepared for as you start) overcome obstacles to enjoyment. More than the other two mini-series, you must read the book first. The 1972 BBC Pulman War and Peace almost succeeds in doing without a pre-read (but if you have read the book then you appreciate how extraordinarily the film gets in so many kinds of discourse from the novel). A synopsis will not do. But if you read and then watch and then re-read, the film will enrichen and add much to the book (especially the voice-over which picks up on Tolstoy’s darkest utterances).

Each time I would start a new disk, I admit, I felt un-eager because in the new digitalized version (2003, which is the one you must buy or rent) the faults of the original are on display too (which you need to know about): keep clicking “English” on the first paratexts and you will experience three languages: first, a voice-over narrator (very well done, dubbed in English, keeping you alert to or understanding what part of Tolstoy’s story we are in, and explaining what is the situation you are watching). Then there are the characters “inside” the frame who speak in French (no subtitles but it’s simple short French) or Russian (with English subtitles, not dubbed). The actors at the time respect decorums and are not wildly virtuoso in performances, they are not close-up to one another and the percentage of close-ups is small. Film affects us most deeply through faces — so that is often lacking. But then I would find myself engulfed all over again. The visual and aural create meanings the book can’t get near; it functions as a shooting script.

But then within a few minutes I’d be engulfed again.

The problem all the essays on Bondarchuk I’ve read have is no single or sequence of stills/shots or clips or montages can come near to conveying what it feels like to experience this vast assemblage of seemingly superabundant ever-changed, controlled and appropriate camera work from moment to moment. Scenes of vast and minute maneuvers in battle and horrific carnage (with literary hundreds of people involved for each sequence, thousands over-all) predominate, and for which it is probably most famous:

But Bondarchuk and Vasili Solovev’s script dramatizes just as surely the intimate and varied story-scenes of Tolstoy’s book, in society and at war, indoors and outdoors, between two or a few people, at a table and in crowds and ritual ballrooms and battle line-ups. I love the many atmospheric moments where dissolving clouds over a forest or some landscape or time of day or season are captured — all Woolf-like luminous envelope as life. Here’s a snow-filled shot of the sky and wood in Russian winter:

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And by contrast, where a character stands frozen, prompted to remember his past as a bomb near-by spins and spins about to go off and we get revolving montages of flashbacks of memory; or we are at a savage hunt and experience the terror of the wolf (the POV) before he is (I hope not for real) hacked to death; or characters weep as one lies dying:

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Andrei (Viacheslav Tikhonov) dying and Natasha (Liudmila Saveleva) crying over him

or walk and talk about their philosophical differences, or chase after one another enclosed and amid beautiful plants. There are scenes of social life in vast drawing- and ball-rooms, war councils, the world of the Russian country house and its grounds and smaller houses around it are shown us; wild madness on a battlefield or besieged city:


Sergei Bondarchuk plays Pierre: here towards the end of the film he’s registering the irrationality and inhumanity of the world’s doings

On top of this, highly varied music from symphonies and classical compositions, original mid-20th century music, to folk music, to effective modern sound track accompanies many scenes. So I won’t try but instead tell how the film re-organizes the book into four coherent parts and makes the book’s themes and plot-designs more accessible (or simpler) than Tolstoy. Bondarchuk clarifies Tolstoy, like some neo-classical rewrite of Shakespeare. Bondarchuk has reconceived Tolstoy’s vast book sufficiently so the film carries a condensation and restructuring into four parts and yet seems to leave little out that counts.

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Part 1: Andrei Bolkonskii (140 minutes)

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Anatole Kuragin (Vasilii Lanovoi) and Andrei Bolkonskii (Viascheslave Tikhonov) —

In his study of the drafts of W&P R.F. Christian says Tolstoy began with a low-life vicious aristocratic male, i.e., Anatole, for his hero, and gradually substitutes the intelligent ethical Pierre; in the book as we have it, Anatole seduces Natasha and ruins the secondary hero, Andreii’s life and dies next to him in a war hospital, so it’s fitting the first shot of both should be together as they enter the hollow party of Anna Pavlovna Scherer (Angelina Stepanova)

The story line takes us from when we meet Andrei who is weary of his wife, finds no meaning in the landowning and socializing roles he is given, leaves his wife with his family, and goes off to war only to discover its meaningless cruelties and hierarchical corruption. Within that story we meet Pierre Bezukhov at Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room, and take him past his father’s death, inheritance of vast property, and succumbing to Prince Vassily’s manipulations to the point he marries Vassily’s daughter, Helene, a woman whose amorality and promiscuous sexuality he cannot stand. This is punctuated (so to speak) by the Rostov world: the innocent Natasha, the repressed hurt Sonya, her dependent cousin, the two naive young men, Nikolai (not so naive he doesn’t go after Sonya) and Petya, the corrupt Boris and his sycophant mother, wild dancing on the part of the count, coarse worldliness in the countess. POV is Andrei’s much more often than Pierre’s; and is impersonal in the Rostov and Bolskonskii worlds.

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Andreii’s father, old Prince Bolkonskii (Anatoli Ktorov) first seen walking through golden autumn woods, and to his side an unexplained string quartet plays music

It seemed to me after a while a deeply poetic part. The emphasis towards the end are these horrific visionary battles but before that, the countryside, the mansions, the sky, water, landscapes of stunning beauty — be it in the snow or in spring, or just aspects of color on the screen. They are there to express a vision of Bondarchuk’s own about Russian which he thinks undergirds Tolstoy’s own more socially-driven matter (and is reinforced by the conversations of Andreii and Pierre). There is some realistic psychology, though the playing is expressive rather than subtle. It’s intensely serious: it seems to trace Andrei’s disillusion and does end on a close-up of his face on the battlefield of Austerlitz where he is left for dead.

Part 2: Natasha (93 minutes)

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Natasha Rostov (Liudmila Saveleva, not a star, but new presence) —

Most people pick the stills of her at her first ball, or enthralled either with Andrei or Anatole; here she is walking in a wood, the bright face of hope for which Andreii falls in love with her

The second part is like an inset novella, a domestic fiction, it is quiet. As Part One focused on Andrei’s story so Part Two centers on Natasha, taking her story from her child-like sexuality with the live-in Boris Smirnov in the garden,and her ecstacy for Sonia (Irina Gubanova) in love with Nikolai, Natasha’s brother (Oleg Tabakov, his role much shrunk). We see her with the Countess her mother (Kira Golovko) in the bed, preparing for her ball, how she fears no one will ask her to dance. We also have the story of Pierre carried on as substory once again: his despair with his wife, her adultery, Dolokhov’s mockery of him, the duel, his returning to his land and finally going to Andreii on his. How Andrei (returned to life, now a widower), is so taken with her that he loves her at first sight and asks her to marry him. Her mother has already brushed off Boris not from reasons of character, but his lack of rank and money.

Unlike the book and unlike the two BBC films or Vidor’s, Bondarchuk’s Andreii quickly realizes he was under a delusion, she is a symbol to him, and not a mature woman (as his wife was not mature and bored him), so his decision to wait in this film for a year is a holding tactic. This helps justify her turning to Anatole in this film. Bondarchuk is stepping back from this male patriarchal vision of the nubile, readily erotically enthralled, yet holding to it. We have her joining in intensely at the hunt, dancing wildly to folk music at Christmas (the uncle playing the violin), and then as the year passes, restless, feeling deserted, wasted, and riveted by a spell the libertine, Anatole, can perform on young women (so Bondarchuk seems to assume). Natasha comes near eloping; stopped with the help of Sonia and Pierre, this second part ends on her humiliation, remorse, begging pardon from everyone, including Pierre (showing up as the ever present kind brother) to ask him to ask Andrei to forgive her and he cannot — he is too rigid a man. Her face dissolves into the sky, and then a vast landscape with “1812” in large letters, and the voice-over narrator comes on to tell us of the irrational stupid waste of what is to come, and the huge armies cross into Russia (if you didn’t watch it, go back to the first YouTube).

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Natasha having bad dreams

The second part contrasts to the other three: it is mostly very quiet, the acting is stylized. A young girl’s life and (temporary) downfall. The narrator functions more centrally here than the other three parts: he repeats his phrases, explicates, provides a depth of feeling; the English dubbed voice is very good; the subtitles too. This is accompanied by beautiful shots; it’s like being in a painting of Moscow, the countryside, especially the long Christmas sequence is appealing. A celebration of Russia, which for me is undermined by the misogyny of making women into sex objects, easily roused unthinking subject creatures.

Part 3: 1812 (78 minutes)

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Pierre and Tushin (Nikolai Trofimov) brave soldier in the book

Our focuses slowly become Andrei and Pierre, one as conventional but disillusioned bitter military officer, the other increasingly shocked civilian. Andreii delivers sonorous meditative despair soliloquies; there are some quiet scenes of him now and again, first framing the phases and then inside them. Pierre is on the battle field like some deer in a headlights,continually more traumatized. The part begins quietly at the Bokonskii home — the scene of the old man refusing to believe Maria and the governess that the French are about to entry their territory, then forced to, and finally dying.

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He does ask Maria to forgive him as he does not in the other two films. These are interwoven with a vast scene of a ball at which the emperor Alexander I appears, and the coming battle is announced. We are at the Rostov home too where the young boy, Petya insists on going out to fight and the countess, his mother is devastated. During the battle we move back and forth from the famous General Kutusov (Boris Zakhava) on one hill and Napoleon (Vladisla Strzhelchik) on another.

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Napoleon is presented as a grim fate (how he sees himself) without conscience or feeling. (Pulman’s 1972 is much more nuanced while blaming him; Davies’s 2016 has him as originally a revolutionary and refuses to forget that; Bondarchuk is closest to Tolstoy). Kutusov cannot at first accept that the Russians have been defeated; he did not want to do this battle and he is crushed to realize they have lost. but then draws victory out of this defeat by realizing in front of us that winning a war is not the same as winning a battle. His business is to save lives and his heroism is to refuse another battle.

At the close of this third part as in the close of the first, Andrei has been badly wounded — worse we eventually realize, and this time he will die, slowly. Nearby a man is moaning fearfully in his death agon as his leg is amputated; this turns out to be Anatole. And across the way Andrei sees Dolohov who seduced Natasha near death. Perhaps this second pairing is too neat parallel — Bondarchuk offers us patterned visuals like this throughout his film (like Shakespeare in his Henry VI plays).

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This is a more stunning depiction of war than I’ve never seen before quite. I have seen effective anti-war films, and late last October Kilo Two Bravo — but it was implicit, focused on incidents, much more narrow. What is terrific about this is the size and scope of the scenes, and the relentless ruthless condemnation of war as horrific, senseless, cruel, utterly irrational at the same time as vast, wildly heroic, chosen. All these people (as Tolstoy says) are not forced. They choose to do this. The final focus scene is the battle of Borodino not far from Smolensk, which led to the scorched earth policy, the fleeing of all middle and upper class people from Moscow, and Napoleon’s defeat because there is no one for him to negotiate with as his army falls apart into marauding. I knew exactly where everything was, what was happening. This is due to the over-voice impersonal narration — invaluable. We meet the great famous Kutusov in his councils, falling asleep at the same time as ever vigilant; he contrasts to Napoleon on the other, at first all square-faced steely-firmness, stoutly glad, but when in Moscow shown up for the petty egoist (this is Tolstoy’s interpretation) he is.

Vast scenes of carnage of all types, sometimes close up, sometimes aerial, sometimes from the side, sometimes full face. Close up of men suffering in so many ways while at the same time they fight on determined like some crazed machines started who can’t stop (the narrator says something like this). The suffering horses, the animals. Canons, bombs, grapeshot, lines of men shooting, the guerillas, bombs blow up everywhere: this is not fakery, they are doing controlled versions; real live generals were consulted, all the Russian hierarchies involved it seems.

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The part has to be watched. It outdoes the battle scenes in Part 1 — so vast and thorough and believable they manage to make it. It is a deep contrast to Part 2 an inset domestic novel.

Part 4: Pierre Bezukov (92 minutes)

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Kutusov quietly grieving after he has had the courage to tell the council they will not try to stop the French from entering Moscow (nor will he try to cut them off as they leave) …

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Pierre during the trek starving frozen from Moscow

So now finally Bondarchuk (he gave himself the hero’s part though he’s not handsome) comes forth as primary story; as in Pulman’s 1972 BBC W&P there is a parallel between him and Kutusov at times. It’s about the horrors of war (yet more), another phase. We see panicked people, fleeing, and go through the scenes of the Rostov’s reluctant and utterly disorganized withdrawal from Moscow, with Pierre’s mad choice to stay in order to find and kill Napoleon. The place catches on fire, he becomes distraught, saves a baby, is captured as a dangerous incendiary, and imprisoned, then almost killed by a firing squad with our viewing the others murdered in pairs so senselessly.

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Moscow on fire — we should remember how this would resonate in 1966 for a Russian audience

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From the execution scenes

The over-voice is frequent: the words come from the beginning chapers where Tolstoy’s words in effect damn these apparently helpless people. Why are they doing this? Why are they slaughtering one another? slaughtering horses? senselessly killing killing killing. Why do they obey the Napoleons of the world? Napoleon admits he must return, is humiliated, and we experience that long trek with Pierre and his new found guru, Platon (the idealistic peasan, Mikhail Khrabov) gradually distancing from one another as Platon begins to die, and ends up shot because he can’t keep up, the pathetic dog howling. The words of the overvoice are grateful that Platon is out of this (Bondarchuk does not use Platon as a mouthpiece for optimism or God’s presence as Tolstoy does). Kutusov seen carrying a weight of immense concern and pity.

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Platon falling behind, the soldiers go to shoot him

The episode concludes towards the end by juxtaposing the long drawn out death of Andreii who the Rostovs unknowingly took with them from Moscow in a wagon, but not naturalistic (as in Davies’ 2016 where we see this), the experience is visionary, intendedly religious. The camera moves up to Andrey’s face and he dreams: he remember his scenes with his father, the land, terrible killing, and we see Natasha there telling him he’s not dying. But he tells her he loves her, he forgives her (the sense of there is nothing to forgive). Visionary sequences of land and sky signalling some powerful God-like presence. It does end quickly after that. After the rescue of Pierre, quickly done, Petya even quickly gotten out of the way in his senseless death (the point here is the mother’s grief and father’s loss, which is too quick, like a caricature). We see Pierre riding through a Moscow being rebuilt and arrives at a house where we find sitting Natasha and Marya (both in black) with little Nikolai (Andreii’s son by his first now long dead wife) by their side. Marya shows Pierre the new boy, and Natasha is there at last grown up in black and we hear the lines how if he were free and a better man, he’d marry her. (Nikolai and Sonia have long been lost from view.) Then Bondarchuk concentrates on visions of the sky and universe as places of oblivion and peace at the close.

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What jarred me at the close is the over-voice suddenly insists life is good, the world is beautiful.

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Still an extraordinary film. Like many others who have seen it, I think it is a filmic realization by one genius accompanied by thousands of willing people of a great book.

A solid ethical perspective, beautifully filmic art, an important masterpiece of film.

This new DVD has a fifth part, features with interviews of some of the original film-makers and actors. You can see the extraordinary seriousness with which the film-makers, production designers, actors, everyone set about their task together.

“One truth discovered, one pang of regret at not being able to express it, is better than all the fluency and flippancy in the world.” –William Hazlitt

Ellen

NB. Blogs on War and Peace to come: the 1972 BBC War and Peace, scripted by Jack Pulman, starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, a masterpiece, follows and is inspired by Bondarchuk; then Andrew Davies’ 2016 W&P follows and is inspired by Pulman and Bondarchuk. Pulman chose some of the same central scenes, Davies some of the same visionary moments.

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thecrown
The ultimate symbol of power

You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain — Richmond, Henry Tudor, RIII

Dear friends and readers,

This week I’ve been watching the BBC versions of the second season (2016) of The Hollow Crown. Three plays (Henry VI, 1-3) at one time, or for a couple of hundred years thought such juvenilia that Shakespeare did not write much of them, seen as incoherent undoable (on the stage) obscure messes, were made to speak home to us in thrilling relevant ways. A fourth (Richard III) once seen as a vehicle for almost camp histrionics, becomes a serious study of how an evil character forms and how such a man gets behind him sufficient powerful people to put him in charge and in the process becomes a haunted crazed warrior-soul. I won’t be dealing with the obvious parallels between the present dire moment in public US politics (and less frightening but still urgent parallels in other countries), but just assume my reader will see them. If you will watch these brilliant abridgments, then read Shakespeare himself (the full texts), and then watch again. If you think I am exaggerating, remember (or I need to tell you) that the wildly-popular Games of Thrones began as a free semi-fantasy adaptation of these Shakespeare’s plays by George Martin (who read them as history of “the wars of the Roses in the Middle Ages”).

A little background in recent performances will help. One scholar-critic says it was in 1953 that the four plays of the Wars of the Roses were staged fully and in sequence for the first time (Brockbank, “The Frame of Disorder”); another dates this back to 1906 (Swander, “The Rediscovery of Henry VI“). Then in 1978-79 Terry Hands staged the Henry VI trilogy (“warts and all”) and the production was a terrific success. Then the 1980s the BBC staged all four plays as closely as possible to what was written by Shakespeare as part of The Shakespeare Collection. I can vouch personally that in the 1970s Joseph Papp in the Delacorte Theater one summer did all three Henry VI plays complete followed by a complete Richard III in repertoire across the summer; on an all-night marathon all four played from 9 at night to whatever time in the morning they ended. Jim and I were there, and I know I slept through some of Henry VI Part 2 and again part of Henry VI Part 3, but saw most of the series, covered by a blanket. Why for so long were these plays not long after Shakespeare’s era thought impossible to have a success with: episodic structure, pageantry, stilted lines (let’s admit it), to say nothing of the foreignness of the story-matter?

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A father and son pair amid the carnage

But with the whirligig of time leading audiences to recognize in the deeply pessimistic content and political insight of these stories, the content attracted once again. The Tudor matter is not a barrier after it has been made so familiar by her recent resurgence of popular historical films and adaptations (especially of Henry VIII’s court). So abridgments began to emerge. A specific pattern can be seen in three compressions: a film-culture Shakespearean, Alan Dessin (Rescripting Shakespeare), was the most helpful in enabling me to understand what we see in this abridgment in his descriptions of three previous condensed abridgments: 1988 ESC by Michael Bogdanov, 1988-89 RSC by Adrian Noble, and 1991-3 OSC by Pat Patton (“Chapter 7: “Compressing Henry VI“). What’s common to them all is the three parts of Henry VI are compressed into two, with Richard III following the same trajectory as Shakespeare’s play, but made shorter, to leave room for location shots, some re-arrangements and additions taken over from the previous plays for connection (in the appearances of Margaret for example) and satisfying climax. It’s much less changed than the Henry VI plays, which may be said to be re-vamped for TV and location shooting too. That’s what we see in this new Hollow Crown, with a few important new emphases or differences. As with the first season (2012) of The Hollow Crown (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, a Henriad so-called), the roles of the women were not so much expanded as given full play, all the original nuances, emphases and pivotal moments played up for all they are worth. Strong women everywhere. Silent women clearly there in the scenes (Doll Tearsheet in the Henry IV plays) given plenty of pantomime. This may be history as Jane Austen suggested “the men all good for nothing,” but it’s not “hardly any women at all.”

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From the powerful memorable performance of Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York pleading for her ne’er-do-well son’s life before the king: she does not sue to stand; she sues for pardon (from the 2012 Hollow Crown series, Richard II)

More to the point these are not “tiresome at all,” nor dull” (Austen as Catherine Morland on history, Northanger Abbey) and not exactly “made-up.” I am persuaded these marvelous Shakespeare series are the old-style BBC mini-series, brilliantly updated marvelously: they keep some of the sterling qualities of the old: lingering pace for inwardness, profound acting, extraordinary dramaturgical brilliance in staging scenes, but to this has been added the way the actors speak the lines. They talk the lines as if they were speaking today’s English and yet they make clear what they are saying by action, gesture, costume, emphasis, nuance. Ben Power, the script-writer has cut astutely, omitting, re-arranging, picking up what epitomizes, what is closest to street or ordinary talk. It’s just astonishing what they achieve by the outstanding performances, saying the speeches so naturally.

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Far shot of garden scene: where the two sides of York and Lancaster pluck the red and white rose

To this has been added, the use of the locations – the locations become actors in effect themselves, each old castle, fortress, field; these are not staged plays as in the 1970s and 80s, but figures in large picture screens where sometimes we have a staged scene but never allowed to become wholly still. The director Dominic Cooke is so alive to how to emblematize, make bodies move, and intersect with one another and yet the added action does not distract. The camera work is as sophisticated as any expensive cinema production, with zoom, medium, far shots at the right moment, and so many close-ups done at interesting angles. I wanted to watch again and again because there was so much to see — and even more in the more mature first Henriad series (which I’ll blog about this quartet eventually too).

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Gloucester (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Talbot (PHILIP GLENISTER), Plantagenet (ADRIAN DUNBAR), Warwick (STANLEY TOWNSEND) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky
Principal male roles: beyond Gloucester, Talbot (Philip Glenister, Plantagenet (Adrian Dunbar), Warwick (Stanley Townsend)

What else? This second series of Hollow Crown (though Shakespeare’s first) is done as a single story. All three plays (originally four) are one continuation. The abridged or compressed Henry VI Part 1 opens with death of Henry V, grief, and declaring a baby king, and then we see an intertitle to 17 years later and a scene where Mortimer, father (Michael Gambon) of the Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (Adrian Dunbar), is dying; Mortimer tells his son, he is the rightful heir. What happened was years ago Bolingbroke wrongly took the throne from Richard II, and Mortimer and his sons were next in line. The camera cuts to Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) a well-meaning boy, with the Humphry, Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) nearby as his protector. We then move to the symbolic scene in rose garden where the Duke of York and his followers on one side, declare the House of York should have the throne, with the Duke of Somerset Ben Miles) and his followers on the other saying they or the House of Lancaster should have inherited after Richard II. Each plucks a rose: white for York, red for Lancaster.

**VIDEO GRABS FROM BBC PREVIEW SITE FOR MOS PICTURE DESK** THE HOLLOW CROWN, BBC SHAKESPEARE ADAPTATION. Hugh Bonneville, playing the Duke of Gloucester, gets murdered while a couple make love during the same segment of the programme. The lovers are Sophie Okonedo playing Margaret and actor Ben Miles
Promotional shot of Hugh Bonneville, as Gloucester, fleeing those intent in putting him in the tower while the couple who brought this about, Sophie Okonedo as Margaret and Ben Miles as Somerset, make love

Looked at from this vantage what we trace is the destruction of the realm under a weak if honorable king, and story of the brutal wars of the roses, starting with York and Somerset’s competition for what Henry VI and Gloucester are not strong enough to hold onto. The compressed Henry VI Part 2 ends with Henry VI, disthroned, without followers, without clothes, distressed, in a kind of nervous breakdown, having lost all his followers and his wife (and relieved to have done so), wandering in the fields looking Christ-like in undergarments (and surely they mean to evoke Ben Whisloaw who played Richard II in Henriad series of the Hollow Crown) as he is dressed closely similarly; both are filmed to look Christ-like. Both are taken to prison, both murdered: Henry VI by the Duke of York’s deformed hunchback seething son, Richard, now Duke of Gloucester (Benedict Cumberbatch just as effective as everyone says) who is (“sudden when he takes something into his head”) rides to the tower intent on killing.

A little rewind: Shakespeare wrote the Henriad, the one the BBC did four years ago first, even though chronologically the Henriad comes second. Henry VI-Richard III were written 1590-93 and more or less in a row, while Richard II, Henry IV 1-2 and Henry V were written 1595, 1597, and 1599 respectively The Henriad is the more mature, and in numerous ways the more subtle, psychologically full and philosophically suggestive and varied but its story came first. Today we’d say Shakespeare wrote a four play prequel to his successful four play trilogy. But the second four plays were written as two or three stories: the story of Richard II is so separate in feel and time from the stories of Henry IV and V, a different man played Bolingbroke who became Henry IV (Roy Kinnear in Richard II; Jeremy Irons in Henry IV). The Henriad’s hero in Richard II never comes back in the other three plays. All the important characters in Henry VI Part 1 come back in Parts 2 and 3 and Richard III (even the murdered ones as ghosts).

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Henry VI (TOM STURRIDGE), Margaret (SOPHIE OKONEDO) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky
Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) and Margaret (Sophie Okonedo) meet

So in this trilogy there are two major characters across all the plays: Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou (played by the terrifically effective Sophie Okonedo). Henry VI dies before the third play, Richard III begins, but his absence allows one of the Duke of York’s sons, the eldest, Edward (Geoffrey Streatfield) to take the crown. The conflict across the plays is between Henry VI and the Duke of York for the crown, with a sub-conflict between the Duke of York and Duke of Somerset. When Margaret murders after torturing and humiliating the Duke of York) towards the end of Henry VI Part 2, his place is taken by his three sons, the other two being Clarence (Sam Troughton) and Richard of Gloucester who becomes Richard III in the course of that third play. This is part of Shakespeare’s over-arching 4 plasy but the clarity with which we can see it is not.

Further clear patterns emerge from the abridgment: We see over-arching story has smaller stories within it. In Henry VI Part 1 we have the action-adventure or war tragedy of the destruction in battle of warrior-hero, Talbot (Philip Glenister) and his son played against the tragedy (and it is played that way in this rendition) of the deluded or visionary (take your choice) Joan of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan), who first wins for Philip of France, then captured, is imprisoned, tortured and burnt at the stake. That’s the first 3/4s of Henry VI Part One. The last quarter, deeply movingly we have the downfall of the noble, innocent Humphry of Gloucester brought partly about by the ambition and crazed delusions-madness of his wife, the Duchess Eleanor (Sally Hawkins) touchingly called by him Nell. Henry VI ends with Nell taken away in chains, and Gloucester’s hacked-to-death murder in the tower. In Shakespeare’s original the murder of Gloucester comes somewhere in Henry VI Part Two.

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Keeley Hawes as the Widow Grey take with Geoffrey Streatfield as Edward, Duke of York, soon to be king

The new or compressed Henry VI Part 2 gives us the anguished romantic love of Margaret for the treacherous Somerset and his destruction in battle in the opening sequence; the quick romance of the proud widow Grey (Keely Hawes) more or less bullied by Edward into marriage near the end of the second third; and in the last Margaret taking the role of the helpless Henry VI as the lead of Henry VI’s forces against the sons of York, and her heartbreak when her son, Edward, is dismembered and killed before her very eyes by the York brothers. Shakespeare’s Richard III had the clearest original line: it is the story of how a tyrant personality takes power: inside though a smaller arc is the erotic bullying of Anne (wife of Edward) by Richard of Gloucester into a sadistic marriage in Richard III, and this is given more play by silent scenes of Anne, montages. We see Warwick change sides because Edward married beneath him, an Englishwoman, and did not let this uncle engineer an alliance with the French king’s daughter; we see the brothers’ rivalry played out, the downfall of Buckingham (captured fighting against Richard and instantly butchered).

The clarity of the patterns in the Henry VI plays especially are the product of the abridgment. They are not clearly laid out in Shakespeare’s plays, which include other stories: Jack Cade’s rebellion comes to mind. Richard III is linked in firmly to Henry VI by the use of flashbacks.

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Laura Frances-Morgan as Joan of Arc calling for battle above ramparts

Some particulars I really admired and then I’ll have done. In this new Henry VI Part One I was especially moved by the performance of Bonneville as Humphrey; the build-up of his fatherly relationship with Henry VI, Sturridge’s ability to convey what seems a disabled personality, a weakness beyond the character being a good man who is non-violent, not manipulative, so pathetically out of his depths with these people, led by his adulterous corrupt wife, Margaret to listen to evil advisers. Power arranged the script so that Dame Eleanor’s playing around with magical effigies (putting pins in dolls looking like the king) became a salient accusation in the onslaught against him. Sally Hawkins does the distraught and disturbed personality as she did Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Miles as Somerset gave off a depth of memorable sensuality; Dunbar as the Plantangenet tenaciously re-directed again and again to want to take the throne. The death of the Talbot becomes another instance of how the ambitious destroy the good (he is not given enough funds for his army by either Somerset or York (we see Somerset being massaged refusing the money). Sophie Okenedo is extraordinarily mobile from one extreme emotion to another. Finally, the way Joan of Arc is played we pity her: she does not look to any gods but faces a mirror as she begs for her life — which is startling allowed by Shakespeare’s words.

I concede Henry VI Part Two is a little in danger of being mistaken for Full Metal Jacket at times. Maybe in Shakespeare’s original with the extra stories the space of the play would not be taken up by so much brutal violence. At the same time, what made the play work (each part can be seen as an individual playlet in the way BBC mini-series usually are) is how Shakespeare here is streamlined to give coherent shape and trajectory. Power and Cooke organized the 2 hours around battles. In the first hour or half of the unit we have a series of battles where first York and Somerset’s men are at one another until these two are beheaded, Somerset is casually crushed to death, then beheaded; York by contrast killed deliberately viciously. Then in the second hour a second series of brutal encounters where York’s sons, Edward and Richard, with Clarence at first having switched sides to Henry VI and Warwick, having returned to his brothers, fighting the forces nominally around Henry VI, actually Margaret (again Odenoko terrific), Warwick, and the few older men left loyal from Henry V, Exeter (Anton Lesser) for example. (This hanger-on from a previous reign reminded me of Bush senior’s most evil men, say Cheney, having a central place in Bush, the son’s administration and today still making phone calls on behalf of Trump to pressure congressional Republicans protesting against the the head of Exxon at the head of the state department).

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Kyle Soller as Clifford

Between these two series of battles, or threaded through them are the sudden alliances, treacheries, confrontations which emblematically bring out themes. Shakespeare’s original plays and this abridgment too works by repetition and emblem: the excruciating deaths of father and son, the son dying in spite of the father’s protest, the father in effect betraying the son by having taught him to murder and seek hateful revenge. This begins in Henry VI Part 1 with the deaths of Talbot and his son together, and now in Part Two we have at least four such scenes, two close together. The one which carries across the play is that of Clifford (Kyle Soller, outstanding presence here) seeking violent revenge for his father’s death. This is Shakespeare’s anti-war allegory. War as a value destroys men who love one another; they behave in utterly counterproductive ways. The depiction of Henry V and VI does not fit this trajectory but across the Henry IV plays (1 and 2) Northumberlands treachery against Henry IV extends to manipulating his son, Hotspur, and then managing to keep from his son that Henry IV offers a truce, so that Hotspur is led to his senseless death. Hotspur might have chosen the course of action anyway as war as a way of life is what he was taught, but actual cause is a father’s betrayal and lies. The theme is developed at length and maturely in this later double play. One might say the relationship of Bolingboke as Henry IV with his recreant son, Hal (Tom Hiddleston) is a father-son comeuppance for Bolingbroke, and Hal’s choice of Henry IV as his father rather than Falstaff (treacherous and cowardly as he is, selfish, without any sense of responsibility or care for others) feels to be a tragic loss of companionship, a lesson in necessary betrayal.

One can regard as threaded in between the two sets of battles also when the Widow Grey is brought before Edward to ask that her property be returned to her son, before you know it Edward is wooing and offering to marry her when she refuses to be his whore while a delegation unknown to him is making up a French marriage, which delegation, including Warwick regards this conduct as betrayal, shameful and they move back to Henry VI’s side of the board. And so the battles begin again. Gradually too York’s youngest son, Richard emerges, Cumberbatch just electrifying as Okonedo as Margaret, steals the show each time he is on the screen. Henry VI Part 2 ends with a shot of Margaret in a dungeon in the tower, a chain around her neck, jerking madly at it, screaming I a queen, I am a queen.

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Judi Dench as the aged Duchess of York: the tragedies of this world imprinted on her face

I can’t do justice in the paragraph or so left to a few particulars of Richard III. I’ve known before through reading all the plays (yes I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and some of them a number of times, taught four: Richard II, Hamlet, Othello and The Winter’s Tale), and seen so many so many times that the great jump in ability, capacity, genius, Shakespeare makes is suddenly to throw into a full consciousness of a single man and make us stay there. He had not come near this before. It’s worth noticing fully that the consciousness he first chose was not a good man or highly intelligent thoughtful type, say Humphry of Gloucester (who is still only seen within for a couple of albeit long speeches, or Hamlet. No. A forerunner of Macbeth. It is the peculiar take in this one that all the lines that can be played up as showing deep psychological distress and disturbance and insane resentment and revenge (how hateful is revenge says Mozart in his opera play of Idomeneo) are drawn out, emphasized by the body Cumberbatch has had built around him. We can’t sympathize with this disabled unloved creature because he is so sneering, disdainful, cruel, lying in all his ways, but the lines are there. He feels a twisted remorse – or Cumberbatch makes us feel that fuelling his nonetheless attack-mode thoughts and actions. When he meets Judi Dench as his mother, the Duchess of York now grown old (Lucy Robinson plays the role in Henry VI Part 1) he does convey he is hurt she never loved him as she conveys that upon looking at his deformed body she was disgusted.

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Close-up of Cumberbatch as Richard

The action takes us through the steps by which this Richard rises to power, wins people over to him one by one (out of greed, sometimes fear) and then alienates them, one by one. Most of them he manages to murder, but not all. (Therein lies our hope, those of us who are making analogies with Trump’s rise today that not all are murdered and slowly a group emerges who find their vital interests so threatened they raise an army around Henry Tudor.) The father-son theme is brought back. At the end Stanley terrified that the son he had been forced to leave behind in order to do the right thing, flee Richard of Gloucester and enlist Richmond, Henry Tudor, this son is seen walking over the hill. A great moment of hope and joy as they hug.

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Cumberbatch as the warrior Richard

At the end when the army which has gathered round Henry Tudor marching forth against the army Richard III can still amass, we have yet another of these ferocious brutal set-too between men hauling axes, clubs, broadswords, dirks (is that the term), and not far away others shooting dead arrows, the blood and guts and horror of the scene is obscured by rain and mud. It comes down to someone unseating Richard from his powerful horse (and we are made to feel how important being high up on a horse is) lands him in the mud. (In the Making of the Hollow Crown the filming of this part was discussed as very hard on the actors.) As they battle it out, and Henry Tudor wins, partly because Richard III is exhausted after his nights of harassment from ghosts and his own tormented mind, Henry Tudor downs him –- with help from Margaret who is suddenly there with a small mirror which shines a light blinding Richard’s eyes for the important few seconds. “My horse my horse a kingdom for a horse” is shouted coarsely and hoarsely, not as irony (Laurence Oliver’s take) but as a man in desperate need of a horse. Tudor comes from the back and hacks, and when the man lies prostrate, pushes a sword through his body, and blood squirts all over the mud and rain. The declaration is then: the tyrant is dead. Now we can all sleep in peace. (Well we here in the US and perhaps across the world can no longer sleep in peace. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose sleep has been ruined by hideously poisoned tweets.)

The film does not actually end on him, and there is a penultimate beautiful coronation ceremony where once again this iconic cleaned up hero is married to an iconic blonde, this time her grim mother (Keeley Hawes) standing to the side.
And then the final scene: the mad Margaret, impoverished, filthy, crazed, lookin down at the grave in which all the bodies are being thrown.

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Margaret among the hundreds of dead — final closing stills of Hollow Crown

I felt astonishing how dark Shakespeare is at the very outset of his career. This quartet made into a trilogy are his first known plays. People so rarely today (they used to in the later 19th century when biographical criticism of Shakespeare was common) talk of his relationship to his plays: but here he is at the beginning of his career emphasizing the tragedy of sensitive good people (he develops Hamlet out of that), and the attack on the ambitious, power-hungry as deeply untrustworthy (Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra say) stays throughout the career.

Ellen

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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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Frank (Tobias Menzies) listening to Rev Wakefield (James Fleet) arguing he must give up Claire and go on to Oxford (Both Sides Now)

Wakefield: It’s fashionable in this modern age to dismiss the idea of good and evil, but there is evil, and it finds purchase in good men by giving sin the sweet taste of ecstasy. The Nazis drank from that poisoned cup, thinking all the while they were slaking their thirst with the sweetest wine.
Frank: Are you suggesting that I have been drinking from the same cup?
Wakefield: Evil has but one cup. They drank long and deep. Yours was but a sip.Make it your last. Turn away from the darkness that beckons you, and go back into the light.
Frank; You mean leave Inverness.
Wakefield: Aye. Go back to Oxford. You start your life over.
Frank: And what of Claire?
Wakefield: Let her go, just as she has let you go.
Frank: So you believe that she left with the highlander of her own volition?
Wakefield: Have you ever read Sherlock Holmes, Frank? Marvelous books. One point he makes, when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

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Jamie in a favorite spot since boyhood, over-voice mediation for episode begins (The Reckoning)

But the truth is, I’d forgiven everything she’d done and everything she could do long before that day. For me, that was no choice. That was falling in love … I should have been happy that the MacKenzie clan wasna about to tear itself apart and that I’d repaired my relationship with Colum and Dougal. But I wasn’t. The rift with Claire was an open wound that would not heal. I needed to do something, make a decision, choose a course of action. But what? (a meditation there from the middle and 3/4s of the way through the episode)

Dear friends and readers,

In her book on the Descendents of Waverley, Martha Bowden writes that modern historical fiction fuses romance, fantasy, and embodies history through novelistic elements; it’s an intersection of past with present or realism which enables the reader to experience the past as if we were there. It invites us also to think we could have been actor in the past, bringing the future into existence, and are rooted in the past through our ancestors too.

Amy Elias (Sublime Desire) and Martha Bowden (Descendants of Waverley) reveal a paradigm for the kind of historical romance Outlander draws upon (whether book or film): modern historical fiction and/or romance is written with an awareness of the essential unknowability of the past at the same time as there is this intense desire to go back to the past and experience it intimately. Even in such a plainly realistic and conventional historical fiction, Winston Graham makes this point central to his Forgotten Story (set in Cornwall, 1898), The Grove of Eagles (Cornwall, 1580s) and The Four Swans (Cornwall, 1790s). Post-modern historical fiction does this with its embedded histories in the past, its ironic self-reflexivities. This too is what time-traveling permits. It’s a spiritual questing to reach the irretrievable: “There is a yearning that resembles the yearning for mystical knowledge.”

This desire for some grand experience is centered in an event that erupts unspeakably and re-erupts; it’s a reaction formation against the trauma of history; it is continually deferred, it is awesome, strange, beyond comprehension, with an emphasis on the irretrievable for all involved. Is this not the way Outlander works? At the close of the first season we were on a boat with Jamie (Sam Heughan), Claire and Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) bound for France, for Claire, to try to stop the battle of Culloden as ever taking place:

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As the second season begins (“Through a Glass Darkly”), Claire is sudden groaning with despairing trauma; she has been lifted from the time of Culloden to 1948, and cannot know who won. We have skipped Culloden — and so has she. Her questioning and research into learned tomes cannot reach the names of the individuals who played such a large fole (fictionalized); she agrees to become Frank’s wife once again with the vow not to try to know what happened, to give up her connection to the Scots rebellion:

clairegroaning (Through a Glass Darkly, Season 2, Episode 1)

whathappened (ditto)

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Claire groaning at the center of her return to the stones, circa 1948; demanding frantically of the 20th century man who won Culloden; researching the Reverend Wakefield’s library with Mrs Graham (Tracy Wilkinson) by her side (ditto)

By the end of the second season (Episode 13, “Dragonfly in Amber”), we have still not yet been at the battle; we move to 20 years on, meet Jamie and Claire’s grown daughter who is told but at first disbelieves who her father was, but no Culloden. According to Martha Bowden and Amy Elias and others the mother of all these can be found in the later eighteenth century women’s gothic history/romance by Sophie Lee (The Recess) and of course Ann Radcliffe. I see Daphne DuMaurier’s dark vision as everywhere in Outlander as I see Walter Scott’s invention of a new self-conscious controlled genre.

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I return to Episode 8 and go on to 9 of Season 1 of Outlander in our journey through this mini-series, and these turn out to be an an extraordinary pair of episodes of Outlander, from this Bowden and Elias perspective. Both are (I now see) pivotal to the whole series, which project just this sort of romancing and playing with sublimity. Season 1, Episode 8, Both Sides Now continually moves back-and-forth between 1945 when Frank Randall is persistent in seeking for an explanation from the police and anyone else as to where his wife, Claire (Caitrionia Balfe) has vanished; and 1743 when Claire, after the shock of the violence she finds she must not only endure, but watch “her” side (the British armed forces and some renegade Scots), murder as ruthlessly, tries to reach her own century with where her status as a woman is so immeasurably raised that she can as a matter of course feel safe, something not true in the middle 18th century.

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— Frank by the stones, desolate, following Mrs Graham’s story, calls “Claire!” (opening stills of Both Sides Now, Season 1, episode 1)

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She unnerved, frantic rushes up, presumably hearing his voice, and calls to him, only to be captured by the British, (ditto)

It’s this movement back-and-forth, with history across times becoming one, not so much as a continuum, as the two specific times occurring at the same time, and in both cases the characters cannot know what has happened to them, they cannot explain what will happen, and they try to at the same reach and stave off the eruption of the sublime.

For the mini-series self-conscious fitting into modern historiography in fiction, we have in Both Sides Now a continual paralleling so that the doppelganger is not just Tobias Menzies as Frank and Black Jack Randall. The young woman in 1945 who lures Frank to a dark alley in Inverness where he is set upon by thugs, and nearly murders them is a type of Claire who unknowingly lures redcoats to ambush Claire and Jamie twice in the same episode and is taught to arm herself and murder others attempting to murder her.

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Or (another parallel) as Frank learns of the legends of the stones from Mrs Graham, so Claire distraught is taught to use a hidden dagger to protect herself.

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Mrs Graham telling Frank

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Claire listening to Jamie

The world of Inverness in 1945 grows out of the world of the Highlands in 1743. Both are historical periods, for World War Two fits Scott’s criteria of 60 years since. Both nightmares of death and destruction.

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Jamie telling Claire he must punish her because it’s expected and she will therefore not forget next time that the lives of everyone depend on her conforming — note that in this scene we see them through a gird of bars (The Reckoning)

Season 1, Episode 9, “The Reckoning,” the quiet reversal of gender roles undergirding the romancing of the series is brought out explicitly: so rare as to be nearly unique for at least the last couple of decades, the over-voice and narrator of this episode, thoughtful, inward, self-reproaching, self-exploring is not that of the female, but of the central male of the series: Jamie. As 9th episode opens he is meditating in just the same way Claire did at the opening of Episode 1 (Outlander):

Strange, the things you remember. The people, the places, the moments in time burned into your heart forever while others fade in the mist. I’ve always known I’ve lived a life different from other men. When I was a lad, I saw no path before me. I simply took a step and then another, ever forward, ever onward, rushing toward someplace, I knew not where. And one day I turned around and looked back and saw that each step I’d taken was a choice. To go left, to go right, to go forward, or even not go at all. Every day, every man has a choice between right and wrong, between love and hate, sometimes between life and death. And the sum of those choices becomes your life. The day I realized that is the day I became a man

One cannot over-emphasize how unusual it is to find a man speaking this kind of meditation, providing melancholy retrospective assessments and confiding plans. In the first episode of the second season Jamie is experiencing terrifying nightmares about Black Jack Randall who had whipped, raped, sodomized, almost destroy Jamie’s hand, branded him, broke his spirit in the two concluding episodes of the first season. It’s not a coincidence that this is the (for many women readers) infamous episode where Jamie beats Claire, spanks her hard with whip. What is happening is Gabaldon and her team of film-makers are moving between gender behaviors for both Jamie and Claire

So, at the same time as Jamie is our thoughtful semi-depressed narrator and meditator, as in many of the episodes where Claire narrates, is melancholy, questing and presides (so to speak), it is here Jamie who concocts the plan to rescue Claire, Jamie who tries to “clear the air” with Claire, almost (not quite) with no avail

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He tells her she is at fault for the British capture of her and danger to the men because she disobeyed him

Claire: Christ, Jamie, I went for a walk!
Jamie: I ordered you to stay put.
Claire: I don’t have to do what you tell me to.
Jamie: Aye, you do. You are my wife.
Claire: Oh, your wife. Your wife. Oh, you think I’m your property, don’t you? You think I belong to you, and you can’t stand for someone to have something else that belongs to you.
Jamie: You do belong to me, and you are my wife whether you like it or not.
Claire: Well, I don’t like it! I don’t like it one bit! But that doesn’t matter to you either, does it? As long as I’m there to warm your bed, you don’t care what I think or how I feel. That’s all a wife is to you, something to stick your cock into whenever you feel the urge. Let go of me, you you fucking bastard!
Jamie: You foulmouthed bitch! You’ll no speak to me that way! I went to ye at Fort William armed with an empty pistol and my bare hands. When you screamed … Ye’re tearing my guts out, Claire.
Claire: I’m sorry. Jamie Forgive me.
Jamie: Forgiven.

It is Jamie Frazer (to give him his clan name) who persuades Column to return the gold that Dougal Mackenzie (Graham McTavish) and Ned Gowan (Bill Patterson) have been gathering along with the rents to fund the Scots rebellion. In his Jacobites, Frank McLynn tells us the Mackenzies were a clan who held out against Culloden; that their clan leaders were cautious and remained led by ties to lower Scottish landlords. (It is also true that there were quiet “traitors” to the Hanoverian cause among the British nobility, or people with Jacobite and French and catholic leanings, so the Duke of Sandringham as characterized in the series is within the realm of historical probability.)

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Colum Mackenzie (Gary Lewis) incensed against the gathering of funds for a rebellion by

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Dougal Mackenzie, Ned Gowan, Jamie Frazer

In Both Sides Now, the triangles of Jamie-Claire-Black Jack/Frank where Black Jack desires Jamie, Jamie and Frank desire Claire and she both of them begins to take on the nightmarish pairing of Black Jack and Claire in Jamie’s mind so that when in the 16th episode of the 1st season (“To Ransom a Man’s Soul”) Jamie sees Claire coming to nurse or make love to him, she turns into the lurid violent sadistic Black Jack. When the second season opens, “Through a Glass Darkly,” and Claire has landed in 1748, for her Frank turns into Black Jack. In the last third of the episode, when Frank’s hand turns into Jamie’s and Claire stepping off a plane to come live in Boston as Frank’s faculty wife becomes Claire stepping off a ship on the Normandy coast, Jamie is having nightmares where Claire turns into Black Jack.

As to the adumbration of explicit gender reversals, and romancing, in the penultimate scene of The Reckoning, upon returning to Castle Leoch, Jamie is confronted by Laoghaire with whom he had an understanding. She loves and expected him to marry her, and demands an explanation in the very glade that she seems to know he has loved and spent much time in since a boy.

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Laoghaire Mackenzie (Nell Hudson) accosting Jamie

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Jamie left in his glade-landscape after Laoghaire leaves

She is the aggressor offering her body to him, swearing he and he alone will be her lover, and he must tell a truth that he married Claire not just because Dougal told him to, but because he wanted Claire and now loves and will remain faithful to her. This will bring on her attempt to have Claire branded a witch and burnt. The last scene of the episode ends with Jamie swearing he will forgo tradition and never “chastise” Claire again, her saying yes to having sex with him again, and another of these (to me) alluring love-making scenes during which she threatens to cut his heart out if he does hit her and he demands she nonetheless call him master:

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The strong eroticism of romance

But then they find — uneasily — Laoghaire’s “ill-wish” (a set of hard twigs and branches tied together with thongs) under their bed.

History fused with romancing, at the center a historically sublime (horrifying crucial event of war) whose enactment is ceaselessly deferred.

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Modern photograph of Culloden battlefield

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:

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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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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mama Lucia (Elena Silio) as Turiddo’s mother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kwiecien as handsome and alluring as Jonas Kauffmann

Ellen

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