Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘the Met’

Elektra
Klytamnestra (Waltraud Meier) and Elektra (Nina Stemme)

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

StemmeEricOwens

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

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

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

Susan_Neves_as_the_Confidante__Waltraud_Meier_as_Klytaemnestra_and_Nina_Stemme
The confidante is Susan Neves

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

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

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

ElektraChrysothemis

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

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

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

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

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

The Cat

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

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

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

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

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

thewhitecatPangurandthemonk

Ellen

Read Full Post »

radvanovsky-devereux
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:

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

Duchessduke
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).

devereux_met

One of the reviews I read complained about the stage as boring. It is modeled on the Wanamaker theater in London, newly brought back to life (where Izzy and I saw Farinelli and the King last September in London) in all its original later 17th century proscenium stage glory. As in that play, the rest of the cast, here the chorus, acted as an audience to the main action, so suggestively we saw the faces of these nameless courtiers and ladies watching the faces of these too-often named characters. Another friend who goes to opera frequently (in England) says more attention is paid to innovative and allusive production design than even the acting and trying for stars who look right, which nowadays can trump superlative singing. (Deborah Voigt is a perpetual hostess, sings no more because she is deemed too heavy and old for the mezzo-soprano roles her voice suits.)

Metset

Still Eric C. Simpson is surely right when he praises this latest product of the new mode of opera as much for the historical detail, symbolic figures and replications, striking costumes: McVicar has outdone himself and that’s saying something.

figureofskeleton

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.

roberto_devereux_elina_garanca
Garanca singing of her love for Devereux

Ellen

Read Full Post »

SetDetail
A moment from the production — the distancing and then the

KristineOpolais
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:

csm_Kristine_Opolais_and_Maria_Zifchak

We are nowadays used to these pared-down minimalist productions where the inward life of the protagonists is the central action focused upon, so it could not seem as astonishing it is must’ve done 10 years ago. Since I remember one other Madame Butterfly I saw in the 1970s at the City Opera (the usual intricate production design, fussy sets, distracting stage business, objects), I can say this is not a split-second dated. Indeed Minghella’s production is moving to a London theater this summer and I expect will produce several DVDs before the production sees its last performance.

The pared down production and what is left on the stage makes the opera into his utterly inward exploration of a single woman who is deluded into thinking this man loves her:

ActI
Women who were themselves geishas deliver her

butterflybridal

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.

madame-butterfly

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.

WithPuppet

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:

madambutterfly3a

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

Anotherincarnation
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:

Madam-Butterflpuppetry

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).

opera sets_madame butterfly
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.

minghportrait

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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

DIMITRI-PLATANIAS-AS-TONIO-ALEKSANDRS-ANTONENKO-AS-CANIO-CARMEN-GIANNATTASIO-AS-NEDDA
Tonio-Taddeo (Dimitri Platanias) has enabled Canio-Pagliaccio (Aleksandrs Anoinenko) to catch Nedda-Columbine (Carmne Giannasttasio) kissing promising to elope with Arlechino, crisis scene of Pagliacci

Friends and readers,

No I was not in London late last Sunday afternoon, but at a Fairfax independent movie-house, Cinema Art, and by myself with a sparse audience watched a passionately acted and sung Mascagni’s Cavalliera Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Il Pagliacci, a repeat HD screening of a live performance at Covent Garden this past fall. Nor was I in New York City at the Met today at 1 but at an Alexandria City chain movie-house, and with Izzy in a nearly full auditorium watched the live performance today of Bizet’s Les Pecheurs de Perles. Both were superb, both were produced, acted, directed successfully to make them feel utterly contemporary.

What’s remarkable about Le Pecheurs is it was something of a flop in 1863, and now 100 years later it’s not only a stunning success, but had it been done say 20 years ago, the story would have seem absurdly unreal (as it did to Parisian critics). We have a female scapegoat, Leila, a sacrificial virgin whose life-in-death is meant to propitiate the sea-gods, and when she is caught making love with Nadir, the two are condemned to be burned to death. The Met production was aware that everyone in the audience has read in the last few years about the barbaric executions of women for sexual misconduct and of men for what is called treason in the totalitarian religiously-fanatic states of the middle east. Women are enslaved as a matter of course by ISIS, trafficked by everyone else, made utterly to submit or face severe punishment under Sharia law.

Leiladreaming

No longer is there a problem believing this kind of what once would have felt mythic stuff. The program notes talked about Orientalism, but the setting, the shawls and scarves, the city glimpsed once or twice in the background was meant to conjure up the world of Mediterranean Africa and the Middle East.

PrayingKillingScene

And even 25 years ago timidity, decorum, the practice of not acting while singing would have buried the startling core of this opera: the famous intensely yearning lyrical song pledging their faithfulness until death between Nadir and Zurga is deeply homoerotic; the two men are in love. As Polenzani (who projected extraordinary sensitivity, nervous distress too, and sang so well I thought of Pavarotti) said, Nadir is lying to Zurga during the whole of the song. Nadir means to find out Leila and be with her again; he has not given her up at all as he promises.

Pearlfishers

We can’t say they are homosexual as they don’t act out the intense bonding they have experienced with one another, but all else is in place, for when Nadir is caught making love to Leila, Zurga’s seething fury is not against her but Nadir for betraying him. All the words of Leila’s intense begging of Surga to pardon Nadir in the second act, and Zurga’s desire above all to murder Nadir once he is told that Leila and Nadir love one another demonstrate this.

Pecheurslovers
Before they are caught

So too the ending. What was substituted for years erased Zurga’s sudden turn-round, his setting fire to the city and village, in order to allow Nadir and Leila time to escape the flames. The program notes said the text became “corrupt” and new unauthentic material was worked in; only in the 1970s was Bizet’s original score and the script restored; this was the basis for a critical edition in the 1990s and this Met opera. What happened in these muddled (really deliberately obscured) performances was that the villagers discover Zurga was the arson and he is burned at the stake, or stabbed in the back, and the final scene was a holocaust with yet another trio. In the opera today and as originally written, the ending is Zurga sinking to the ground in grief. He is the tragic figure of his play.

Zurga

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

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

LesPecheurssetbyseasetting

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.

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

Cavalleria-RisticanaDIMITRI-PLATANIAS-AS-ALFIO-WITH-MEMBERS-OF-THE-ROYAL-OPERA-CHORUS
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.

Inlov

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.

SantuzzaTurrido
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.

Cavmotherson
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.

ElenaZilio

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.

Picturesqueoutfits

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

Moderncity
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.

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

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

Kwiecien
Kwiecien as handsome and alluring as Jonas Kauffmann

Ellen

Read Full Post »

CRbegging
“Is it the poor house, yer honor?” (Rod Walters, illustration for Folio Society Castle Richmond)

Dear friends and readers,

This is my fourth and last report of the papers given at the Trollope Bicentennial Conference in Leuven, Belgium (see 1, 2, 3). I combine late Friday afternoon, early Saturday morning (Sept 18th-19th). I was not able to stay for Saturday afternoon, nor J. Hillis Miller’s videotaped talk, on the pleasures of Trollope’s obstinacy, and no one has (as far as I can tell) put a full YouTube up onto the Net, so I will end on an account of some of the questions and discussions that occur after and between sessions. The last panels I was able to hear were Mother (Frances), Irish (or Anglo-Irish) and Formal Trollope (his art and forms).

Frances_Trollope_by_Auguste_Hervieu
Frances Trollope as painted by Auguste Hervieu

Panel 9: Mother Trollope. Helen Blythe discussed specific and general parallels of which there are many between Frances and Anthony Trollope’s fictions. Frances began her career in her 50s, and saved the family from financial ruin, herself from a destroyed life with a half-mad destroyed man by writing a huge number of novels over the years. She began with how the story of an uncontrollably hot-tempered husband in Frances’s One Fault has striking parallels with Trollope’s novel of sexual anxiety, madness and competition for marital dominance, He Knew He Was Right, with its brief reprise, this time with an accent on a secret clandestine relationship, and who gets to control whom in Kept in the Dark. The underlying suggestion is the derivation of these stories from the near-breakup of Trollope’s parents marriage and her flight with Hervieu. (All discussed ably in Helen Heineman’s excellent biography, Mrs Trollope.) Ms Blythe’s theme though was Frances’s use of the “mother’s voice” in her fiction. Frances presents what it means to be a woman or man, and she took this opportunity to connect Helene Cixous’s urging of women to seize the occasions of sexual experience as a core launching pad for novel writing.

Lucy Sheenan also spoke of mothers in Frances’s fiction: while they fulfill their task of producing adults, in character they are alienated, estranged, seek to flee their immediate environment. Slave women are mother machines, but we see in Jefferson Whitlaw a mother who survives by hardening herself and resembles the mothers on Trollope’s factory floors. Women are seen as consummate actresses, containing their energy for revolt inside themselves. Martha Barnaby, at first a widow, and then remarried, is a comic version of mothering who supports a useless husband, saving her deepest affection for her children; we are told the Widow Barnaby will surely write a book defending slavery for money; when she cries we see she is not de-humanized. The mortality statistics of the era reveal agonies of exhausted underfed hard-word dying children; Frances’s factory town is pregnant with wasted bodies: the imagery of the books shows their origin in l’ecriture-femme too.

MichaelArmstrong
Contemporary illustration of Frances Trollope’s Michael Armstrong, Factory Boy.

Greg Vargo and Elsie Michie discussed this maternal groundwork in Frances Trollope’s fiction from other angles. Mr Vargo discussed Frances Trollope’s politically controversial condition of England novels. In 1838 Trollope wrote Jessie Philips: A Tale of the Present Day, showing us the social roles imposed on women through individual researched stories. He suggested Anthony Trollope’s criticisms of Dickens could easily be applied to Frances’s but Dickens’s Oliver Twist ends where Michael Armstrong begins. An upper class woman saves a boy suffering degrading abuse and violence in a factory; he has to leave his brother behind. Advertised in the Northern Star (1859) it was widely read as a Chartist appeal despite her denials. Frances’s novels show survivor guilt; they are contradictory, have convoluted endings, tell tales of emigration.

Picture Shows: LAURA FRASER as Emily Trevelyan and BILL NIGHY as Colonel Osborne TX: TBA  Following the award-winning success of his adaption of Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, Andrew Davies brings a surprisingly new perspective in his reworking of Trollope's searing novel, He Knew He Was Right. "This is an unusual Trollope" says Davies. "A dark and edgy portrait of a marriage in trouble which feels startingly modern - it's Trollope's take on the Othello story".  A tale of a man who allows his jealousy to become a tragic obsession. The timeless issues of jealousy and marital breakdown provides the backdrop for this compelling story, pitching the demanding and traditional Louis (OLIVER DIMSDALE) against his strong-willed wife Emily (LAURA FRASER),  a thoroughly modern heroine.  Warning: Use of this copyright image is subject to Terms of Use of BBC Digital Picture Service.  In particular, this image may only be used during the publicity period for the purpose of publicising HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT and provided BBC is credited. Any use of this image on the internet or for any other purpose whatsoever, including advertising or other commercial uses, requires the prior written approval of the BBC.
Laura Fraser as Emily Trevelyn and Bill Nighy as Colonel Osborne: Louis’s insecurity and madness is Andrew Davies’s emphasis

Elsie Michie offered a detailed analysis of He Knew He Was Right, showing how the novel channels changes in custody law and custom; how matrimonial cruelty is redefined so it does not depend on physical cruelty. Michie went over contemporary court cases (Bulwer-Lyttons, Caroline Norton) where the husband’s cumulative cruelty over time is at least taken into consideration. Troubled relationships and agency brought into court where legal process takes over. Ms Michie did not look at the novel from a feminist standpoint nor the more recent outlook of Mark Turner, from that of the sophisticated male reader who might see in Osborne a dark portrait of himself. Hers was like the papers earlier in the day on teaching Trollope from the angle this time of Frances Trollope as pioneer for custody and marital reform generally understood.

thumbnail (Large)
19th century depiction of Irish farmers stopping the aristocratic hunt

Panel 10: Irish Trollope. The speakers in this panel were in genuine disagreement. Gordon Bigelow argued Trollope’s Irish novels fail because 1) he failed to find an audience for them; and 2) he never established a set of significant tropes to present his vision through. Mr Bigelow felt many editors today do not think the Irish novel added anything different or significant to the Victorian novel; the Irish experience cannot be adapted to worlds of privilege; plots of abduction, murder, violent cutthroat action are needed. In Landleaguers we have such incidents centrally but otherwise we otherwise see purposeless activities: law gets nowhere (nullified); the hunt (which requires the preservation of the vermin, foxes, the sport was originally set up to kill) does not bring any commnity together except as protest and push-back. Trollope’s usual way is to decode tension inside a created harmony; the hunt cannot work this way because the people doing it are desperate and these is no single unified community to sustain it. There are many such riffs across these 5 novels Macdermots of Ballycloran, Kellys and OKellys, Castle Richmond, An Eye for an Eye, Landleaguers). They thus falter when it comes to speaking for the Irish. Ireland captivated Trollope; it freed him from the imprisonment of stigma, but Trollope justifies things as they are, as he did not in say The Warden where everyone is self-serving.

ElisaTrimbyArdkillCottageAnEye
Ardkill Cottage in An Eye for an Eye (Elisa Trimby illustrator for Folio Society edition)

John McCourt felt that while Trollope’s Irish novels are problematic, there is much richness in them; they are successful Irish art. In the Macdermots we find an attempt to write the language according to 19th century Irish phonetics, with one of its heroes a Catholic Irish priest. It is a penetrating depiction of the destruction of an old Irish family by the Catholic Irish speculating class; Keegan is a disguised version of Trollope himself. (Mr McCourt did not mention how the house is a version of Julian Hills, the father Trollope’s father to.) When Trollope found himself “at home” in Ireland, welcomed, he set about to tell truths; intertwined the Protestant Anglo-Irish with the Catholic Irish, exposed the British colonialist police practices. The theme of hospitality and forgiveness are treated comically in his two Irish short stories, tragically in An Eye for An Eye: Neville, the English officer is the villain; though all the characters use one another. The Kellys and OKellys use the intertwining patterns and character types rich and complicated; the places described vivid with life (from kitchen to race course); we have a murderous brother, with a plangent Irish heroines who is virtuous. Mr McCourt included the two Phineas books in Trollope’s Irish oeuvre; Phineas is kept in surveillance, and thrown out when he tries to become his own man in parliament. Accused of murdering the ultimate trimmer, Bonteen, he learns how much of an outsider he remains, and cannot get himself to accept Gresham’s offer of yet another place among the English. Madame Max like Phineas is an outsider, drained of her Jewishness, can be taken in.

FredwalkerVagants1868 (Large)
Fred Walker, The Vagrants, 1868

Claire Connolly meditated the image and uses of lanes in Trollope’s Irish fiction. The new systems of carriage transport and work like Trollope’s for the post office were revolutionizing and connecting the roads; these improvements represent a means of controlling people as well as the power of the British state. Good roads benefited the landowning classes; its corollary is a national school system to replace local (forbidden Catholic) hedge schools. Yet roads are where bad encounters happen; in the Macdermots they are black, desolate, muddy. Thady flees to a band of ribbon-men in the hills. Trollope remembers Scott’s Waverley and Maria Edgeworth’s Irish novels; in Kellys and OKellys the roads are part of a public network, even if we find starved, dead, mutilated bodies (Castle Richmond) along the way. In some moments roads are where people are hanged; Father John avoids walking on them after Thady’s execution. Trollope described travel in Ireland as having people acting with warmth, geniality, but it is also harsh: Ccrpse-like women and dead babies are found alongside the road. She said “these are scenes of potential connectivity and dangerous failed infrastructure. They reflect social change, lived realities.” She even brought geological time in Ireland in.

At this point the day came to an end and people went off to have dinner.

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

74Pallisers919MadameMaxwaitingbyWindow
Lady Glencora (Susan Hampshire) and Madame Max (Barbara Murray) waiting for Phineas to return from London to Matching Priory after his acquittal (Palliser 9:19, scripted Simon Raven, from Phineas Redux)

Panel 11: Formal Trollope. I heard the first two papers of the day. Claire Jarvis’s “Almost Trollope” traced Trollope’s uses of the word “almost,” which she found were in one novel “almost 285 times. She close read the typical sentence forms and content in which this word occurs. Trollope becomes a kind of Henry James novelist, with Trollope also preferring incident to event. Almost a reference to something not quite happening, to being at one remove, to not completing something, to sheering away from violence (characters are “almost angry”). “Almost” signals a narrative attention, carefulness. It signals detachment, deflation. There has to be something uncanny in creating enveloping realism; a schism at the heart of the novels. Phineas is “almost silenced;” he “almost” sets down his office; Mary Flood “almost” reads his letters. The narrator therefore can’t see the letter. He is not sure of the vividness of something; the word captures an energy just out of reach. Lady Glencora “almost hesitates” as she is fleeced or cheated or nearly run away with by Burgo (nearly). D.A. Miller says there is no need for police in Trollope or for the reader or Trollope to take sides; we don’t care about who wins, the point is to collude in the surveillance in order to embed yourself. But does Finn not fear his desire to kill Bonteen? and need to exorcise this by re-enacting the murderer’s walk. He “almost” killed Mr Bonteen. It’s an unfinished murder as Emilius is dismissed from the narrative. At the level of the sentence Trollope offers us depth through eluding us.

Daniel Wright’s paper analyzed Trollope’s formal logic in his narratives. He argued Trollope’s famous dictum that the novelist should get all his meaning into his sentences, and leave none out, and be totally transparent is a fantasy. But as a goal of his novel’s craft we begin to see he wants the sentence to be a transparent medium at any rate. He wanted certainty (not almosts). He sought ease for the reader, directness himself, clarity as a way to rivet the reader. George Eliot practiced a contrasting art with her desire to escape the vigilance of the reader, her multivalent use of language, with subtle shades of suggestive meaning.

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

74Pallisers47Chiltern7
Phineas (Donal McCann) and Lord Chiltern (John Hallam) sharing a bottle of champagne in their club as they become friends (4:7, scripted Simon Raven, from Phineas Finn)

Speaking in general, the talk afterward was mostly in praise of the papers or the person speaking (yes): no surprise as this was a conference made up even largely of people who had spent years reading and/or writing and researching Trollope. There were far fewer graduate students, Victorianists and mid-level career people as well as fewer people from the Trollope society than there had been at Exeter. Even if the organizer kept saying how Leuven was so available to the all the world, it’s not. Many people had to make three connections at least to get there, had traveled many hours and it had been expensive. If you lived in the UK in 2006, you had only to take the train (or drive); from Ireland you could ferry and then take a train.

So, on Ordinary Trollope (Panel 1) The person who argued that Melmotte could not have gotten away with what he managed, cited a good deal of legislation 1856 the Limited Liabilities Act, 1874 the Fraudulent Trustees Act, and that no one objected to the thesis. Francis O’Goorman did say that TWWLN could be regarded as a proto-thriller. Someone asked about the 1844 Bank Act which made the UK banks the only legitimate producers of bank notes, and these had to be backed by bullion. Trollope was interested in what backs up a bill, in the person who co-signed. Deborah Morse offered the idea that Trollope maintained deep feelings about his personal life and experiences across the decades and these were poured into his novels.

For Political Trollope (Panel 2) Helen Small had cited many particulars of the Beverley election, and many reform bills to stop bribery, describing a number of individuals beyond Henry Edwards; there were questions about this material. To me the more interesting ones were conceptual. Who stood for negative and for positive liberty in Trollope’s Phineas Redux? People asked Mr Aguirre about the Eyre controversy (the indiscriminate punitive slaughter of native people in Jamaica). Trollope was for uniting the world, but for what purpose? (was a question I tried to ask and didn’t get a chance). Someone asked (politely) how can you say Trollope pro-northern, and pro-abolition, and yet not bring in as contradictory how he wrote about the post-emancipation problem as wrecking the US economy, just like Carlyle (with the same insinuating inferences)? Mr Aguirre fell back (so to speak) on suggesting that (for Trollope?) “colored people” as they were then “could not help society move into progress.” Of course the reply which was not forthcoming is (as impolite, pressing too much), progress for whom?

Gopnik’s essay in the New Yorker was quoted on Monk as a mouthpiece for Trollope’s political vision (at its best?) Lauren Goodlad replied that with the whigs losing out (the liberals), Trollope feared a Disraeli take-over. Prof Skilton spoke of The Fixed Period as a satire on coercing people for “their own good,” and on utilitarianism. H.M.S Bright: the ultimate weapon is to destroy the whole country with one shot. Did Bonteen represent the new reliance on a technological world? someone said the regional and provincial worlds wanted machines too: they made for great wealth for some. Laura Goodlad asserted that we must see two Trollopes: “a different man writes the political writing, non-fiction and autobiography.”

Onto the Psychological/Epistemological Trollope (Panel 3): This was one of the panels where there was “almost” (to use a Trollopeian word) no time to say anything afterward. More than one of the papers had gone over the time limit. So I am left to voice my own objections to parts of Prof Polhemus’s paper. The thrust of the argument was Trollope was in effect in his fiction questioning and undermining marriage. I’m not sure about the latter, but the real problem in the paper (as I saw it) was he justified Trollope in salivating over women’s sexuality, especially the stories in the canon where an older man dominates a young girl (this is the thrust of his book Lot’s Daughters). Andrew Davies in his film adaptation saw this as the center of the Palliser-Lady Glencora marriage itself. How dare Sir Roger demand Henrietta marry him in HKHWR? Clara is at a severe disadvantage and doesn’t begin to know that love is conducted a series of negotiations in public. The arguments present women as gaining something in the “Editor’s Tales” and in this novel as compliant which is flat contradicted by the picture: Jael drives a nail through Sisera’s head. I wondered how Effie felt about Millais’s portrait of her sister — I would not have liked that if it had the meaning suggested. I wanted to ask if this is feminism? Feminism has become the unspeakable and dread word so a protest against sexuality presented in this light could (as it was in the 1960s) be seen as priggish, when the problem is the female powerlessness.

ayalafront
The Dormer residence (which they lose) in Ayala’s Angel (Folio Society illustration)

I was surprised that he had not brought up Ayala’s Angel where we again have a portrait of an artist that alludes to Millais: I asked him about it later. It’s a Proustian book, half-defending erotic enthrallment, but it also exposes the indifference of the artist to his family (especially on money matters), and approves of sexuality in art as a pleasure when it’s controlled by conventional marriage patterns.

The Technoscience Trollope session (Panel 4) had to be cut short as the president of the Irish College was coming to speak to and welcome us, and then we segued right into the Printed Trollope (Panel 5) which ended in a “launch” of the graphic novel, Dispossession. Useful questions were asked of Simon Grennan and David Skilton during their talks so (given it was so late) there was no need for further talk. I regretted there was no questioning of Prof Skilton about what he was pointing to when he suggested people are not reading the words in front of them when they read Trollope’s Autobiography.

Both the first two panels on Friday (Teaching Trollope and Australian Trollope, 6 and 7) ran over time. There was a brief moment where someone asked Mark Turner about the effect of seriality and he replied that modern younger adults “stick with it,” and that it’s a form of reassurance (against I’d say chaos and death). It’s become a crucial way people experience a cultural event. On my paper, I regret earnestly that I had no sense of what anyone thought of my paper for real: you do get hints and suggestions by the talk afterward. I was congratulated kindly by Prof Polhemus and thought that Laura Goodlad was talking about my paper when she objected shortly after I finished to these “literalist” kinds of readings. I had worked hard and hoped mine would be a contribution since I was invited to come. I worry that my range was too broad, my references too dense. But I have put the text online if anyone wants to read it slowly.

The response to Modern Trollope (Panel 8) was quiet astonishment and appreciation — or so I thought. I had heard some squawks (in protest) to Prof Kincaid’s satiric burlesque of literary scholarship and his (more earnestly delivered) radical critical reading and indirect comments on the present audience as typical of a scholar’s conference. Prof Kincaid replied to one comment that “reading is a professional set of agreements; not all agreements are bad,” but awareness of them controls our behavior. He was suggesting we should admit to this and to the ludicrousness of some of our “discourses” to those outside the world of these parameters. Maybe we should listen to those who talk very differently about reading and Trollope. Someone said that Elizabeth Bishop’s protest poem (in effect, from its 1950s political content) drew out aspects of Trollope’s personality the mainstream reader finds it difficult to discuss, much less try to understand. She and Frances Trollope both defied the hegemonic (macho) male and upbeat viewpoint. John Bowen saw Trollope as enacting insensitivity to fool us. I loved the passages Mr Caddia had quoted.

There was not enough time after Mother or Frances Trollope (Panel 9), but the talk after the “Irish Trollope” (panel 10) was long, meandering but of real interest as fundamental questions arose about how we define and de-limit Trollope. I was too tired to get down details by that time — mostly Irish politics today, some comments on Thackeray’s books of touring in Ireland. The following morning I could not stay beyond the “Formal Trollope” (Panel 11) as we had to make our cab to get to our train, to get to the first of two planes, before we were to reach another train.

So, if this reaches anyone at all with the power to make Hillis Miller’s lecture on YouTube available to all on the Internet, I hope that person or people can and will do the right thing.

In the meantime I thought I end on a poem mentioned by Claire Connolly (but not read aloud) in her “Lane-ism” Eavan Boland’s “The Famine Road.” Trollope insisted that the gov’t should not simply give food or help to the starving Irish in 1847 but that the starving people work on these useless roads (lest they get used to not working for money, lest they “disrupt the “economy” by bypassing capitalist networks), and there are scenes of this roadwork being done in Castle Richmond where Trollope portrays these people semi-hostilely:

The Famine Road

‘Idle as trout in light Colonel Jones,
these Irish, give them no coins at all; their bones
need toil, their characters no less.’ Trevelyan’s
seal blooded the deal table. The Relief
Committee deliberated: ‘Might it be safe,
Colonel, to give them roads, roads to force
from nowhere, going nowhere of course?’

    ‘one out of every ten and then
    another third of those again
    women – in a case like yours;

Sick, directionless they worked; fork, stick
were iron years away; after all could
they not blood their knuckles on rock, suck
April hailstones for water and for food?
Why for that, cunning as housewives, each eyed –
as if at a corner butcher – the other’s buttock.

    ‘anything may have caused it, spores,
    a childhood accident; one sees
    day after day these mysteries’

Dusk: they will work tomorrow without him.
They know it and walk clear; he has become
a typhoid pariah, his blood tainted, although
he shares it with some there. No more than snow
attends its own flakes where they settle
and melt, will they pray by his death rattle.

    ‘You never will, never you know
    but take it well woman, grow
    your garden, keep house, good-bye.’

‘It has gone better than we expected, Lord
Trevelyan, sedition, idleness, cured
in one; from parish to parish, field to field
the wretches work till they are quite worn.
then fester by their work; we march the corn
to the ships in peace; this Tuesday I saw –
out of my carriage window, your servant Jones.’

    ‘Barren, never to know the load
    of his child in you, what is your body
    now, if not a famine road?’

Not only the people under the gun but the animal life should bear some witness. When I came to the end of my reading for my paper, I found myself at the close of Trollope’s Australia where he goes hunting and he and the others gun down kangaroo. How horrible, how truly terrible was the behavior of Trollope and his fellow hunters. Trollope records the traumatic distress and crazed behavior of these animals under such an assault, and also their tenacious love for their young. How I wished that the kangaroos had been able to kill the men with their guns (yes I did) who were ferociously terrorizing them so as to elicit frantic savage helpless self-protection and then murder them.

We killed, I think, seven in two days, – and had other runs in which we lost our prey. The ‘old man’ kangaroo when hard pressed will turn round and fight the hounds, – or fight the man who comes up to knock him over. And he fights with great power, inflicting terrible wounds with his fore paws. In New South Wales I saw a kangaroo which we were hunting catch up a terrier in his arms, and carry the little animal in his embrace throughout the run. He was not, however, able to hurt the dog, who, when the affair was over, seemed to come quite undismayed out of his difficulty. And I saw also a female kangaroo, when the hounds were after her, throw her kid out of the pouch in which she carried it. On that occasion the kid was killed and the mother escaped. They will carry their young one as long as it is possible for them, and then throw him out almost without losing a stride (Anthony Trollope, Australia and New Zealand, from “Sports” 741).

Miss Drake

buvelet
Abram Louis Buvelot (1814-88), Australian landscape (much idealized)

Read Full Post »


One of Renee Fleming’s stand-up numbers: it’s of a magical child who has left the singer: “how could you leave me alone” the refrain – stop and click and listen ….

Dear friends and readers,

When today while Yvette and I were watching the HD opera broadcast of the latest new HD production, Lehar’s The Merry Widow, starring Fleming as Hanna, I recalled to mind one night years ago. Jim and I were in a live audience somewhere and had been listening to a live act on stage of male rock-n-roll well-known singers; they ceased, and Pavarotti came on stage and began to sing. It was startling, just felt like he was knocking you off your seat. Jim began to laugh aloud so superior were they to all this noise, microphones and all. We were in the first row, and I may have imagined it but I thought he caught Pavarotti’s eye for a moment.

Renee-Fleming-in-The-Merry-Widow
Fleming early in the first act — in the later scenes her many changes of costumes included no widow’s weeds

So too after I don’t know how many minutes of trivial supposed funny dialogue (some of which thudded badly or was not pointed enough, especially between Sir Thomas Allen as the count, and Mark Schowalter as the winking perhaps gay servant, Njegus), and Fleming was brought on. Kelli O’Hara (playing the count’s perhaps unfaithful wife) was just pathetic in comparison, her voice one reedy stream, until towards the middle of the third act she came out with a can-can costume amid the chorus of Broadway dancers and did a powerful effective wry playfully sexy number

OHara

What depth of feeling was pulled out of this production (and there was some) was mostly the result of Fleming’s songs, Fleming’s singing when she intones “The Merry Widow Waltz” and “Off to Maxim’s” her voice vibrates with alluring trembling trills. She just outdistanced them all. I fell to crying three times, real crying, the yearning for romance, and the lied refrain “how could you leave me alone” just entered into me.

Somehow the love story between the two aging principals, Nathan Gunn as Danilo and Fleming does start to move us gradually — alas Fleming’s face and neck are starting to show her age and she is uncomfortably stiff when dancing just a little or being pulled back to be kissed; Gunn is none to lithe. The waltz music helped — on the way home Yvette began to hum or sing the musical line; how lovely her voice sounded.


A finer rendition than anything in this production: Placido Domingo (he sings with delicacy) and Ricio Martinez, Rio, 2014

Towards the end of the second act the rousing dance numbers begin, some by the men in a kind of mock chorus: what is it that makes women so strange — and yes, not to be trusted (that stereotype duly trotted out). Gary Halvorson, the director for live cinema (never mentioned in any of the increasingly hyped interviews), took all the right shots. It was fun to watch the stage change from a garden to Maxim’s while the curtains remained open — through keeping our attention on the dancers as all around them the props and settings moved.

merryelaboratestaging

Susan Stroman, whose origins as a Broadway choreographer were repeated too often (as well as her and everyone else’s endless awards), nonetheless deserved credit for the risqué nature of the dancing which was suggestive as well as exhilarating.

merry-widow-MET-operahouse
The production’s hard-working dancing grisettes — in 19th century France grisettes were also hard-working women, sometimes milliners, or seamstresses who made ends meet by quiet prostitution on the side (it paid for your lodging)

At its best moments this operetta is a slightly heavy-handed but effective comedy with occasional brushes with romance that can still, just, reach us.

So, mark another highly conventional opera done traditionally for HD (“embalmed” said one critic). I remarked to Yvette that we were told before the broadcast began 37 school districts from around the US were watching. Before the intermission, the lack of any actuating believable emotion made for tedium. But after well-timed performances and “mistakes of the night” kind of humor also kept things going. Perhaps they could have used a bit more stylization. It’s too much to hope for re-thinking and making it contemporary (which they might have done in a European house — who knows?)

Merry-WidowstorytellingOpera

I also thought (once again) of Downton Abbey. Was this not the same kind of pastiche, pastoral of upper class life, where hardly anyone can be seen doing anything transgressive for real, though they are all running about as if they are about to; where we are told the characters need huge sums of money because their “country” is threatened by bankruptcy, but far from deprivation, all there is in sight is luxury. In the house on camera shots, Yvette spotted the dress circle seats she and I had occupied while we saw the Death of Klinghoffer — at considerable more expense and effort.

It is grating how each time a hostess begins her major spiel for money to an HD audience, she emphasizes that no matter how wonderful the experience of this broadcast, it is nothing, NOTHING, to being in the house. The obtuse tastelessness and dishonesty (for the movie experience is in some ways far better and interesting, except for the irritating false upbeat pseudo-depth talk in most of the interviews) of this is matched by the reality of opera as an elite entertainment; if occasionally it crossed your mind (as it did mine in this production) to wonder about the parallels between street life in Austro-Hungarian cities in 1905 to street life today in New York or other cities across the US, it became harder to push the thought away. Capitalist bourgeoisie at play. Satieted rhythms in the songs.

When I cry at these movies for real, I find the people near me get uncomfortable quickly. People can bear very little reality. I could go on about the falseness of this stereotype of the merry widow. But Lehar was not a fool, and the story concerns a very young woman, a farmer’s daughter, poor, married off to a very old man who died on the honeymoon. If she marries, her fortune reverts to her husband. And in life in the 19th century widows often could not control who would inherit their money. So no possibility of grief? and yet these haunting lyrical lines recur starting at the end of the first act.

I’ll be teaching the Poldark novels and film adaptations (now we’ve got two!) this coming March at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University, and browsing the catalogue discovered a course in the Met opera seasons (apparently given regularly) where the practice is to watch those Met operas available on DVD not made into HD broadcasts (this year The Death of Klinghoffer, called “controversial”). Discussion then includes HD broadcasts as a comparison plus local operas (complete with a few guest speakers). An effort is made to discuss those operas not broadcast: I hope it is not on behalf of the idea that we must see the opera live to experience it most wonderfully as after all they are going to be using DVDs but rather to look into the choices and the different kinds of presentations HD-broadcast leads to.

Inrehearsal
Kelli O’Hara and the dancers during rehearsal — seen in a previous HD-opera as part of an intermission

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Anothercast
Michael Volle as Hans Sachs (with a different soprano in the role of Eva than the production we saw today)

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d record that Yvette and I spent 6 long hours watching Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (to give Wagner’s opera its full title) today at our local HD movie-theater. Neither of us hardly ever drowsed off — I observed a number of people half-dozing at times. Two people in our row left after the second act. It was an utterly unimaginative production not quite rescued by the intelligent acting and realism and singing of Michael Volle.

OperaMichael Volle

Speaking for myself I found the second act charmed me by the touching and human psychological interactions of the principle characters, especially the Volle as the older intelligent witty passionate complex character of a cobbler Hans Sachs genuinely in love with Eva (Anne Dasch in the production we saw), the daughter of his friend) who herself seems torn between Sachs and the lifeless stiltedly acted and (it mattered) unattractive Johan Botha as a supposed dazzling Knight-poet Walther von Stolzino.

village

The scene is a street in a picturesque fairy tale German-like town, Hans is making shoes for the coming wedding of Eva and whoever wins her as a prize in a coming singing contest, and along comes a master-singer, Johannes Martin Kranzle as an emasculated over-sensitive and therefore mocked suitor-contestant Sixtus Beckmasser intending to serenade Eva at a window. Some of the wall of music in this and the third act swooningly as well as some of the comic singing and hammering away by Volle appealed to me, was amusing. Also the overt theme of how valuable original poetry which does not follow rules or conventions is (Wagner thinking of himself) appealed to me as well as some of the romantic lyrics (a leider-like song attributed to and sung by the Knight-Poet Walther).

Renee Fleming’s interview of Volle showed him to be a deep feeling singer who had given a lot of thought to his role as a man in love with a much younger woman who gives her up (as he foresees he will be a Mark to her Isolde). The interview of the production design person who talked of this 1990s pre-computer set, watching it put up, and then a rehearsal of the dancing (Kelli O’Hara as lead, Deborah Voight interviewer):

MerryWidow

and an interview with a costume designer for the coming new production of The Merry Widow starring Fleming were entertaining.

Had Jim been alive he’d have certainly been there; I remember half-sleeping through a Meistersinger next to him where he stayed up for all of it I’m not sure where. He would have understood and listened to the music as Yvette seemed to.

Jim joined the Wagner Society of Washington DC here in DC shortly after he retired and envisaged us going to its lectures and concerts and yearly full weekend get-aways; and was bitterly hurt when after a second year of going to all its events, supporting it with money, we were clearly at the last moment excluded from their weekend (they held onto his check for it, some $500 until a week before when he said they must have at last had enough people for this event so they need not include us). He had thought here was a semi-popular cultural group we could attend, pretend to belong to. What was wrong with us I’ll never know — I did talk a lot on the one weekend we attended to a hired photographer-historian who shared my political outlook; maybe this was frowned upon. Maybe we weren’t important enough in any way. The snobbery of this society and the way the leaders behaved sycophantically to the supposed civic or political or cultural leaders of this or that place was without awareness. I was aware of how the fascism of Wagner, his anti-feminism (by the women there) was just ignored in all the talks about Wagner operas. I bring this experience up to expose this Wagner Society of Washington DC for doing that to him, and also show how much he was willing to endure to participate in the music of Wagner with the occasional person who knew something about it.

I’d like to think he might have agreed this production was hopelessly dull; the first act of the masters arguing over the coming contest was without drama — even Renee Fleming, the hostess could find nothing beyond vague hype about how “special” and “wonderful” this Wagnerian production was as she talked to the dull Kranzle and at least honest Dasch (she admitted the part was small, the psychology simple). In his filmed interview Levine kept going using the same contentless words. The third act went on for an interminable 2 hours: each of the major characters visits Sachs before the contest begins and while the interaction leads to the climax, each phase not only went on repetitively, but predicted the over-long heavy-handed climax with its gestures of gaiety, priggish self-righteousness at someone not wanting to join something, scorn of weakness and then insistence of how important it was to respect even conventional guilds and Germanness.

For me the HD film close-ups and surtitles made this another first time to see and understand an opera I’ve watched before and really gotten little out of. I was surprised to discover that Yvette didn’t like the second act: she thought it could have been a lot funnier. Very “uninventive.” She too felt it could have been half as long.

Not that anyone who matters in making new productions of this opera will pay attention to this blog, but I’ll still make the suggestion it needs not only to be wholly re-designed using modern symbolic staging but someone needs to take seriously its riveting interest is the erotic relationship between Eva and Hans. Wagner’s words do not call for Hans to act avuncular; and she asks him to marry her more than once and seems to prefer him to this suitor of hers in the third. Almost the whole of the first act could be eliminated, whole sections of the third, and if it cannot be cut, at least the mockery of Beckmesser could be cut down, made less snarky (he’s a kind of Mr Moseley character for anyone who watched Downton Abbey). There was no undercutting of the intense patriarchy of the male roles, but Karen Cargill, an Irish soprano as Magdalene, sister to Eva, showed some comic gifts:

nuremburgtwosisters

Yvette and I caught sight of the dress circle we sat in when we were at the Met in mid-November, and she said she liked that she could now imagine where the various places filmed were in relation to what we had walked through.

I wonder when these opera companies who broadcast through HD will admit that filming for audiences makes them change how these operas are directed. The one person never interviewed in any of these productions is the person called “the live HD director,” this time Matthew Diamond. It is egregiously obvious that blocking and entrances and exits and choreography is done with movie needs as well as in-house stage limitations and sets in mind.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »