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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:

DevereuxNottingham

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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Bob Hoskins as Harold Shand

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Helen Mirren as Victoria (1979 The Long Good Friday, directed by John Mackenzie, written by Barrie Keefe, produced by Barry Hansen)

Dear friends and readers,

No one can re-boot this.

I try not to use hyped terms but am driven to one to convey the experience of this film even today: astonishing; this is an astonishing film. Made in 1979, released Nov 1980, even before the Thatcher era got underway, a gangster film (it was felt) was the appropriate vehicle for capturing how Margaret Thatcher saw the UK, what she wanted to turn the UK into, her own aggressive menacing role. Shand is Thatcher too.

The Long Good Friday is as edgy as Breaking Bad; I’d call it all edge:

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Just before letting the assault weapons and bombs off

Its violence is as viscerally shocking

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Slaughtering by accident, Jeff (Derek Thompson) whom Shand loves like a son

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Shand orders all his franchise owners beaten up, hung like meat from hooks in a garage

Other older films that have transcended their time that come to mind: Robert Wise’s 1960 The Haunting. Both have perceptive voice-over commentary worth taking the time to listen. I mention this one because its means are so original and for the time the story. The Long Good Friday is utterly conventional in outline, including Mirren’s part as the gun-moll, mannered trophy wife.

What makes the experience on this level is Bob Hoskins. He transformed himself into this half-crazed deeply emotional man — a member of instance of the type Marlon Brando played. Also James Cagney who felt less controlled, more wild. Hoskins played with real subtlety or projecting power and also thought so that his face seemed to exude rage, anguish, retribution, indignation that he, this businessman, this patriot, he who was going to put Britain on the map was to be fleeced, cowed, forced to pay money to the IRA as a terrorist organization supporting itself by a protection racket. I have seen him as effective as Florio in the TV film made of Middleton’s Changeling.

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About to be told he has to knuckle under

The music for its time daring: it’s a rolling, whirling pop rock, hard, percussive, lots of horns, with a band whose teams included John Williams. Raucous fun. For fun these people like to drink, live luxuriously, have beautiful sex partners, and blow one another up in cars on the race track. We’ve grown used to these equations. The film’s open attitude towards sex was not seen until a decade after the 21st century: of those murdered one of most sympathized with is a homosexual man.

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the partner picking up an innocent (a young Kevin McNally) who will be murdered and carelessly thrown out of a car

What catapults the film into 2015, gives it a gravitas and political complexion is it turns out the “enemy” trying to destroy our protagonist-hero’s empire is the IRA here a terrorist Irish gang trying to extort large sums off this empire to fund itself. Our hero is usually successful in stamping out (literally) all opposition, but here he meets his match. He is told at one point, just give in, these people are “not interested in money, they are political” [whispered in a hysterical hushed kind of way), “fanatics” (equated, with a screech).

They are matched or behave just as the characters in the film who are members of the US gov’t, British politicians, other businessmen, Irish men too, all gangsters, all of them inside a competitive circle of violence. (As contrasted to Breaking Bad where the police are good guys.)

The role of women as mourning, weeping in graveyards, fiercely in white rages themselves, spitting at men’s faces so familiar from the Godfather begins here

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On first watching it last week, I suspected it was part fable, but no it was true that in the IRA funded itself by terror tactics. Here is Helen Mirren in an interview about the film on the occasion of the film’s 35th anniversary. My friend Fran remarked:

Glad you enjoyed the film, Ellen. It made a big impression on me at the time and not only because of the great, nuanced character acting by Bob Hoskins in particular and its intelligent, mulit-layered and sometimes darkly humorous script. As you say, it’s a very edgy, very atmospheric film.

Up till then I hadn’t been aware that one of the reasons the IRA was so resistant to peace talks was neither religious not political, but rather the fact that they were in on a lot of the local crime and protection rackets and didn’t want things to change and lose all that. I wasn’t sure how much was fact or fiction, so asked a client of mine at the time, a young, non-violent, Catholic separatist from Belfast and he said this aspect was very true. If you had a local business or pub and paid them off, for example, you were safe from attacks.

The background to the making of the film also fits in with a few recent threads we’ve had like censorship. Its release date was delayed because the man whose company financed it, Lew Grade, a commercial TV magnate, wanted it heavily censored, massively cut and Hoskins‘ Cockney accent dubbed over (!). After a lot of wrangling, the film rights were eventually bought back and the film was fortunately released in its intended form.

You mention Mirren’s role being conventional for the most part, but she had to fight every inch of the way for it to be developed and given more weight, which fits in with the piece Diane linked on the marginalisation of women in film.

I’m just now reading an excellent book on the history of British Television Drama by Lez Cooke, which goes far to explain how this kind of explosive, socially conscious and nuanced art emerged on British TV and films in the 1980s; an area also covered in depth using specific (other) films, in Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (the title of a powerful documentary), an anthology edited by Lester Friedman. There are 6 substantial essays on Thatcher-era and ideology films: most of them critical-evaluative of her.

The feature on the DVD — a full hour – is worth watching, a paratext in itself about how they made the film, the techniques. Macenkie said he had James Cagney in mind when he thought of the core character of the film: the conception of Harold Shand. A man whose inner self and world is attacked and how he will not bend, yield, thniks he can beat out the terrorist group, persuade the businessmen and politicians. He finds he is wrong on all counts. Helen Mirren is truthful that she did not change her role that much, and had to fight for what she got; but she is active in the film — yes as hostess, smoothing Shand’s way, enabling him to be middle class, but an extraordinary moment is probably one that was created while shooting: after Shand has (see the still above) traumatically for himself murdered by accident his young son-like partner (rather like Rafe Sadler to Cromwell inn Wolf Hall more than Jesse to Mr White), Shand is in such a rage he rushes out to kill another man, and she comes out of the car where she has driven up, stands before him, runs after, pulls at him and he drags her on the grounds, up she gets and inserts her body in the way of his killing another friend, and all four physically intensely with two men on either side.

It’s an unforgettable sequence which I snapped because I thought it showed another aspect of this film: the spontaneous free-floating use of the camera, the director’s confidence to let people act out, and its ensemble nature:

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She holds tight until he calms down

She vindicated herself in the role of the cop in Prime Suspect many years later. I don’t know what was her greatest role; she attempted so many parts, but I’d opt for her most memorable role as the abused beautiful wife in Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover, a shocking taboo-horror breaker.

In the feature Mackenzie makes it explicit the film is meant to embody Thatcher like ideas, especially in Shand, and they do go over the IRA part of the plot. A terrorist organization they say opposed to a capitalist thug. That’s the “two sides.” They don’t assert explicitly that the IRA was a protection racket was. Are content to imply this. I don’t have an idealization of the IRA but did not know they made money as thugs and gangsters. They do talk about the black humor of the action, motives of people, and desperate ending where Shand is driven off by an IRA assault-gun toting hit man. Pierce Brosnan who went on to have a commercially successful career remarks the ensemble nature of what they did: he didn’t have to learn any lines.

The title refers to the day the story takes place. Good Friday. Shand’s mother goes to church, and we see her there inbetween shots of the first two murders: the young man, the homosexual partner. London is beautifully filmed in color, without cliched icons. Mackenzie projects an opulence on the docks for Shand and his wife, and he says he looked forward to the coming buildup. The shots are some of them picturesque and glittering:

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The feature also tells the story of the cowardice of the BBC as well as the American attempt to utterly emasculate (wretched connotations, but what can one do) the text. Hoskins brought suit; it was Hoskins whose career was on the line — it was also sheer snobbery on the part of the BBC and American TV company who were embarrassed by his accent. Hoskins could have destroyed himself utterly by suing. Ronald Colman’s career never recovered when he sued, though it’s true the studios were all powerful in the 1940s. Hoskins just was found and discovered and became a know great actor sheerly on the strength of his talent — and of course social abilities too. Mirren came the trained upper middle crowd even if she likes to try to connect herself to gangsters … She wouldn’t had she really been part of such a family.

Here’s Roger Ebert:

Shand is an evil, cruel, sadistic man. But he’s a mass of contradictions, and there are times when we understand him so completely we almost feel affectionate. He’s such a character, such an overcompensating Cockney, sensitive to the slightest affront, able to strike fear in the hearts of killers, but a pushover when his mistress raises her voice to him … He’s an operator. He’s a con man who has muscled his way to the top by knowing exactly how things work and what buttons to push, and now here he is, impotent before this faceless enemy. “The Long Good Friday” tells his story in a rather indirect way, opening with a montage of seemingly unrelated events, held together by a hypnotic music theme.

And Screen Online

For while Hoskins’ Harold Shand’s gangland empire is recognisably in the mould of the notorious Kray brothers’ 1960s reign, his brand of ruthless, thrusting capitalism makes him an archetype, albeit an exaggerated one, for the Thatcher government’s enthusiastic sponsorship of individual enterprise (in a bid for legitimacy, Shand calls his domain the Corporation). This parallel is reinforced by Harold’s choice of London’s then still largely derelict Docklands area for his ambitious business project – anticipating the massive investment that transformed that region during the 1980s.

Like Berg’s Lulu, this is contemporary art, speaking to us today. What then was the difference? Mackenzie and Keefe’s film has a felt moral perspective; the characters display affection, loyalty, tenderness towards those they are bonded with (admittedly only a few); so too Breaking Bad. And neither is misogynistic.

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The famous ending of White Heat (1951) where cornered at last, Cagney sets fire to an explosive tank and goes out crying “Top of the world, Ma!”

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While his fierce mother’s view of him is a driving force within the character, the most memorable gendered moments are the menacing tensed fights between Cagney and his wife-moll, Virginia Mayo, who seeks to escape him when in his downfall his behavior terrifies her

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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Lulu and painter (Paul Groves)

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

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Again, Lulu and Alwa (Daniel Brenna)

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

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The countess Gerschwitz near the end (Susan Graham)

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

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Lulu as we first see her costumed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The stage

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

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

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

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

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

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Lulu with her beggar father, Schigolch (Franz Grundheber)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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

Dear friend and readers,

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

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

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

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Aleksandro Antonenko as seething within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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