Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’

The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Eric Owens as the Flying Dutchman

Dear friends and readers,

Are you someone tired of over-produced plays, movies, operas? This opera has one set, a proscenium arched rectangle which serves as backdrop for ships, the port, houses, places for dancing, and ghostly sequences. Are you tired of scenes where you are continually distracted from the characters’ personality, situation, engagement with other characters? This production leaves you to experience for lengths of time the central psychological state of each character alone and as they are in contact with others all aria long, framed by occasional eruptions of the male and female choruses. You are given a chance to savor the characters’ and the music.

Christiane Libor as Senta

OTOH, if you are tired of symbolism, of 21st century interpretations of older material, this production will not serve as a relief. For me the quiet use of costume, prop, and pictures (set designer Giles Cadle), not to omit the racial composition of the cast to suggest that the Dutchman is not just some Gothic Wanderer, male outcast wandering amid seas, but a cynosure of the black slave of last century and the exploited and destroyed and angry and brooding black man of today made the production more meaningful.

Owens’s performance a few years ago as Alberic the dwarf in a kraken rage intended to evoke black men’s rage was repeated here — only he is not in a rage so much as as profoundly melancholy and in need. The use of red (=blood) ropes to entangle him was part of this. The drawing that Christiane Libor as Senta is so taken by reminded me of so many depictions of black men in the 19th century either as slaves or sharecroppers or stage minstrels:


With Oscar Wilde (“contradiction is the bugbear of little minds” said he or something like that), I don’t mind contradiction. So somewhat startlingly to me who have endured so many outrageously masculinist (not to use a worse word) Wagnerian operas, as we neared the ending where Christian Libor as Senta dressed in fire-engine red is about to board the ghost ship, to follow her dutchman about for life, out came a row of whorish (from their make-up and centuries of stereotypical wigs, outfits, leering expressions, exposed breasts) frightening-looking women. They reminded me of the women imprisoned forever in Bluebeard’s Castle in the recent HD Met production of of Iolanthe & Bluebeard’s Castle. Instead of being asked to condemn Senta for her sudden withdrawal from the Dutchman, we were asked to identify with her justifiable fear. The words in the surtitles of her change-of-heart aria to Erik, whom she had been engaged to before her father was seduced by the Dutchman’s gold and had deserted, referred to her long knowledge of Erik and how much affection they had known:

Jay Hunter Morris as Erik dressed as white southern gentleman (might have been a slave-trader from his costume)

I heard someone remark on how Senta’s father (Daland, sung by Peter Volpe) would have seemed to someone in the later 19th century acceptable and understandable, and how we saw him today as absurd, naive, over-bearing, a fool to give his daughter away like this; as with the HD Met opera, this one production attempted to address this shift in values on behalf of a women’s autonomy, and in a similar spirit. Only this heroine was strong and would not become a hag accused endlessly of infidelity. This did not quite work as the feminist interpretation of Iothanthe and Bluebeard’s Castle did not work because neither are true to the opera’s libretto or music.

This opera is about a deep longing for death, for surcease; this is Tennyson’s poetry longing for rest from too many of the world’s demands and imprisonment. The Dutchman longs to die again and again and is death he says. At the close of the opera, dressed all in white, Senta flings herself into the waters to drown. She is so distraught at the Dutchman’s fate she wants to join him in death itself now too. I cannot find any photos of this scene so will refer to the reader to expressionist drawings of this final moment of the opera:


A couple of people around me agreed the opera was “well-sung.” There was no intermission so no let-off in build-up. A woman nearby declared it “perfect in every way.” No more detail than that. It was directed by Stephen Lawless and there are two different conductors listed. For myself I admit I thought some of phases of the male and female choruses dull (as obvious as Oklahoma in early versions): too much simpering sentiment over women cooking and sewing and admirable manly males.

A typical choral scene of men

The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Women with spinning wheel in front

It required patience somehow for me to sit through some of it.

Nonetheless I felt good I had gone when I read in my playbill that this production was modeled upon or similar to the one done at Glimmerglass in summer 2013. I went because Jim had bought tickets for he and I to see a Flying Dutchman at Glimmerglass during the later part of the second week of August 2013. He had bought for a concert as well as Camelot. He also got two lovely rooms for us in a boarding house by a lake. We never went. By that time the cancer had metatasized into his liver for over a week and he could hardly walk from one room into another. He knew by the last week of July he would not make it but did not know why. I can’t replicate what we would have known, nor bring him back to enjoy what he would have been engaged by. But I went partly on his behalf, in his place even if I am now half a person.

I suspect he might not have liked this production that much. When we went to a recital by Owens, he said Owens could not let himself go enough, not allow himself the inherent variety that was in him because of his black identity and memories. Had to remain noble. It was probably the symbolic direction because in Porgy and Bess Owens was remarkably many-sided and brilliant.


I recommend going if you live nearby or if the production moves to where you live, or if it’s aired, turning on the TV or your computer to watch.


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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.


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):


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:


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.


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And I am blown along a wandering wind,
And hollow, hollow, hollow all delight.”
And fainter onward, like wild birds that change
Their season in the night and wail their way
From cloud to cloud, down the long wind the dream
Shrilled; but in going mingled with dim cries
Far in the moonlit haze among the hills,
As of some lonely city sacked by night,
When all is lost …. Tennyson, Death of Arthur

Rene Pape (Gunemanz), Parsifal (Jonas Kaufmann), Kundry (Katarina Dalayman)

Dear friends and readers.

I don’t want to say don’t miss Francois Girard’s production, for that would imply I fear it will disappear and be replaced by the ritualistic, militaristic Catholic-Christian over-produced (crammed set) bogus history-filled (through ceaseless stage business lest the audience be bored) versions I’ve seen. I wish they would vanish.

Nor do I want to over-praise a production the 2nd act of which presents women’s sexuality as evil, destructive, with scenery being a huge pool of women’s vaginal blood (well water, gliserin and food dye pumped in from behind a scrim), and all but one of the women standing bare-footed in the water with their wild long hair over their faces. They and Kundry were supposed holding long poles under a spell of the villain-dwarf, Klingsor (Evgeny Nikitin), which when broken, become spear-like penis weapons they seek to kill with.


Yet except for this (a big except), Girard’s production reminded me of the way Arthurian literature has been allegorized in the later 19th century and our time — say Tennyson or Sara Teasdale (wrote as Guenever) T.S Eliot. I have read Chretien, Wolfram, Malory and at moments it reminded me of these. Of movies it was closest to Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. These stills from the 1974 film which belong to same kind of terrain:

Robert Bresson-Lancelot du Lacblog

Bresson’s Guenevere


Bresson’s Lancelot

At one level or its most basic, the Met HD Parsifal is an allegory of depression, of human kind living minimally in deep sadness over the crimes and wrongs everyone has committed, grieving over this. No endless stage business. So as so little outward action went on you had to be contemplative of the tableaux. If you make all the talk of evil and sin mean the violence, brutal exploitation and daily cruelty on earth, then it’s an opera for our time.

We were in the still point of the world, in the 1st and 3d act, the edge of planet earth which seems to be a wasteland, scorched. The costumes were meant to evoke a universal humanity: when Jonas Kaufmann came out in the 3rd act and looked up at the two other main characters on stage at that moment (Katarina Dalayman as Kundry and Rene Pape as Gurnemanz), with a soft, plain, vulnerable look in his face, his hair greyed, the worn blue jacket, ordinary black trousers or hobo-kind of clothes, and began to sing, it was the high point of the opera for me.


He and all the others were people on the earth, Everyman, Everywoman, with little money. Men on chairs. Anti-luxury — that a blessing in opera whose houses have come to be imitation ancien regime or corporate palaces and whose sets are often celebrations of status, wealth. Acts 1 and 3 had the women in dark outfits with veils; Kundry had a glittering dress but it was not a luxury ball gown, more like a heavy overcoat-bathrobe:


She matched the women at the edge of the earth:


In the middle vaginal blood scene, she was in a white nightgown, failing to seduce the virgin-like Parsifal:


Peter Mattei acted Anfortas, the man carrying the wounds of the earth, very well and did the difficult job of singing in the postures of a achingly crippled man:

Music Peter Mattei

There was no filler. No militarism. What a relief. The ritual carried out using black boxes and minimal chairs. Insofar as Francois Girard could, he eliminated familiar Christian symbols. This was not quite a pagan-earth grail. No one was clothed in “white samite, mystic wonderful” (line from Tennyson). Rather props seemed to come from a lot of used iron ware turned black with age.

I’ve read that Wagner meant this opera to be Buddhist and in Eric Owens (he was host)’s interview of Girard, Girard mentioned this:


I know little about Buddhism so did not recognize the allegory out of the set and the actor-singers’ actions. Maybe Gurnemanz was the top Buddhist? I saw a parallel with Mozart’s Masonic Magic Flute. The Queen of the Night is all evil and her women her instruments; Mozart males in the temple are good, rational, as a community must keep apart from women and women be “tamed.” So this Parsifal emerged as rooted in the same thought & feeling system.

The beautiful singing and acting helped deflect the worse aspects of the allegory and symbolic scenes:


It was frank. Again as in all these HD productions, for the first time I could understand the plot literally — even if in this one the action was enigmatic, not rational. As I wrote above, maybe using vaginal blood pools was over-doing it in the central act but now I see how the opera has sex with women as evil. It’s more than masculinist: women are shunted to the side; women face backwards; women are enslaved by their sexuality as controlled by an evil dwarf but it is their sexuality that is this great danger.

The irrationality of assuming evil in the world is mystic and irreparable (see Bob Dixon) was also offset by Kaufmann, as a man who acted so compassionately, lovingly, tenderly in very gesture by Jonas Kaufmann (the way he put his hands on Kundry’s head):


Jim says he is every kind of tenor: Helden tenor, someone who can sing Werther. And his voice-character is so touching (a singer’s voice-character trumps his action-character in an opera).

No he was an “innocent” — the production preferred to translate as “fool” what should perhaps be better named naif (naive). And he was a seeker, on a quest maybe to find his true parentage and identity.

I did wish it were shorter. I found fascinating the scene changing behind the curtain really revealing — the hard work putting the flats together, the screen for lights to be reflected on, great big square boxes to pump blood in and swosh it out through hoses. Still, Wagner’s Parsifal as done by the Met is too long. Six hours including scene changes is too long to sit through. I admit I began to get a headache towards the end.


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Gilda (Diana Damrau) and Rigoletto (Zeljoko Lucic) coping inside 1950s be-finned car (Rigoletto at the Met)

Elsa von Brabant (Annette Dasch) and Lohengrin (Jonas Kaufmann) coping among soaked wheat shafts (Lohengrin at La Scala)

Dear friends and readers,

Full disclosure: usually I like re-settings. I have enjoyed each of our local DC Source Theater (director Clara Huber) updatings of Mozart by a rewrite of the libretto and re-staging of the opera. It made the Mozarts more understandable in our terms. Of the few Euro-trash doings of opera I’ve seen (on HD screens), all but one rightly I thought undercut the reactionary nature of the numinous personages in the opera play; Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni turned the providential pattern of Mozart’s play into a story of despairing refuge. I was deeply stirred by the abstract re-staging of Traviata with the acting of Natalie Dessay. But the change has to be genuinely thought out; it cannot be done just to attract a younger audience (as I suspect the new Rigoletto has been) or out of embarrassment (which I think was the reason for resetting Lohengrin out of 10th century raw beasts and crudities). The money motive and the vanity motive have to be downplayed if art is to transcend the realities of its concrete situation and players.

So not all re-settings, no matter how at first allegorically seemingly right (sleazy, mean Vegas for Rigoletto), and physically preferable (primitive swamp, duelling in Lohengrin) work out. For the Rigoletto the altered placing was too specific, called too much attention to moral irritants and absurdities in Verdi’s opera (the Duke “sure a dreamboat“); in Lohengrin the original words referring to things in the 10th century kept were out of whack with the singer’s 19th century clothes & environment. This is the most charitable lesson one can take away from this past week’s two HD operas.

Each time I’ve seen Verdi’s Rigoletto (about 3 before this) I’ve wept copiously as Gilda lays dying and Rigoletto begs her not to leave him all alone, not to die. This time I couldn’t quite; there was something slightly risible about Damrau and Lucic doing their scene over and in the trunk of a 1950s cadillac. I thought to myself they had to practice not to fall off. I had also been jarred into paying attention to the actual happenings of Rigoletto partly because the language had been partly updated.

When Gilda rushes from the duke’s lair where she had been abducted and then seduced into having sex with him, I realized for the first time this was a post-rape scene. If she were a virgin (something the subtitles still insisted upon), it must’ve hurt, there must’ve been coercion. She certainly seemed upset at having been tied up and put into a sarcophagus and dumped into a man’s room. By rights Rigoletto should have rushed her to the police. It will be said that in terms of the re-setting Rigoletto as comedian side-kick of didn’t dare offend duke as casino owner but these were not the terms upon which the man was suffering. Further what an ass she was. Not only she but in the next act, most unlikely Sparafucile’s prostitute-sister, Maddalena (Oksana Volkova) who declared how much she loved this shit Duke (Piotr Beczala):


There seemed something wrong in the fun Piotr Beczala was having as the relaxed Dean Martin type when he was more than a cad; a continual heartless rapist who had ordered the local police to murder a sheik outraged by his daughter’s sexual spoiling. As a 21st century audience we still could have felt for a father whose culture made him take loss of virginity as the equivalent of a young women’s destruction and his shame forever, but then we were being asked to take it as fun, as trivia because the “rat-pack” as the Met introducers and discussions in the intermissions persisted in calling Frank Sinatra and his friends’s famous nightclub life together. The setting had the paradoxical effect of calling attention to the problems in Verdi’s conception. Lost were what made the story despite this ultimately dismissive treatment of women as people moving nonetheless.

What might be a valuable lesson in compassion, a source of identification in our autonomous lives was ridden over. The re-write called Rigoletto a Quasimodo at one point. That’s right. Hugo and then Verdi had made the aging fool a hunch-back, a de-formed disabled man who had taken on a vicious and spiteful carapace partly because of the way he’d been treated by others. Lucic had the slightest high shoulder, the slightest limp, his jester status slightly unfortunately not forgotten by his absurdly brightly-colored variegated sweater:


Rigoletto as usually staged shows a man all alone; the words of the libretto which insist on the unusualness of his having no family around him but Gilda were kept and this condition of isolation, of this one girl being all his home, his security, his peace (usually she is envisaged in a garden apart from the court) was lost. He cries “non lasciarmi”. The Met understandably had kept the original Italian libretto, and not only did Lucic and Damrau sing with exquisite beauty, strength and psychological distraught tragic feeling, they made the Italian come out clearly.

Most crucially, neither of the principles had changed their decades-long understanding of their characters one iota. During the interviews in the last HD performance (the interviews in one HD opera have now become an ad for the upcoming one) Lucic said emphatically his character believed the curse of the wounded father of the first act (in this version an Arab man who Rigoletto mocked by putting a towel on his head); a 16th century man as understood by 2 19th century ones would have. But not a hired comic in a 50s nightclub. Lucic said with overt irony and explicitly as if he had no idea what director, Michael Mayer had been talking about, he was to be “Don Rickles. Jim told me this comic is said to have made laughter out of the most vicious impulses: he would pick and ridicule a customer at one of the nightclub tables in front of everyone else, causing most people there (who comes to such a scene) to laugh derisively. Diana Damrau was even more unable to see any change she could make in her character. In one of her interviews she came close to saying as the best praise she could come up with that new production had not ruined the opera or her character for her.

While I watched I felt that not a lot more than these two central characters be re-thought had needed to be done to make the switch in setting function in some new way. Beczala clearly had made the leap into relaxed cad (as he showed in his interviews too); the use of the chorus girls did have the effect that many say Euro-trash is meant to: it undercut the solemnity with which this pro-elite form usually takes itself and diminished him physically too: the audience could be heard laughing as the girls made these faces, arched their bodies and brushed him with their feathers:


But by the end of the opera and on the way home I realized the the serious core of the piece had been trivialized. The Met people are anything but feminists and it’s the last thing they’d want to do to make the audience take this rape seriously so rather than think about that they decided to take the whole situation as so much gay decadence. What were the lives of Dean Martin (whom one of the courtiers, Marullo, was got up to look like)? I began to wonder if Sammy Davis Junior (whose photo was flashed during intermission) gave to black American causes. Jim assured me Davies quietly had; he had, like Obama, been half-white, in his case Jewish, an outsider on several counts, as he was slightly deformed and small for a man.

I think in the case of Rigoletto we were better off being left alone in quieter staging, abstract, old-fashioned — as Ronald Blum says the best moments were when the principles were on the stage alone; if the terms of what happened were not to be changed, you should not make the setting neon-lit 20th century. If you update it specifically, you must update the meaning of the action too. Some of this was recognized by the audience. The people we were sitting next to agreed with us (and others) that the actor-singer for Sarafucile (Stefan Kocan) was brilliantly effective. Much younger than the rest of the central cast, he really enacted a nasty coarse thug, as ready to kill for money at a moment’s notice as he was filled with a sense of his own rich luxurious elegance:


Having a bartender listen to Rigoletto morose broodings was effective. Maria Zifchak as a egregiously corrupt guardian-Giovanna out of some 1940s comic noir film was funny and effective in the same way Stephanie Blythe as Madame Ulrica had been earlier this year in Un Ballo en Maschera. Maybe they needed to stage the production as a 1940s movie, a reflection of how reality was understood not what any reality had been. I did enjoy those costumes and a couple of the minor performers where an imitation of a star or type as seen in movies was intended.

Jim said the problem in both cases was in the opera itself.

This certainly felt true as we watched Lohengrin at the West End Cinema (DC movie-house, not far from Foggy Bottom Metro station). This time the action was mythic, and it seemed to me Claus Guth was trying to make sense of its contradictions in modern terms and it just wouldn’t do. This was another opera that would have been better staged as simply and barely as possible.

This photo with a different Elsa (Anja Harteros) comes from a rehearsal shot

At first I thought we were to take the action as Lohengrin or Elsa’s bad dream (see story). There were extras dressed as a young Elsa and her brother (whom she is said to have murdered) wandering about in Act I; at every opportunity Lohengrin was laying on the floor as if asleep. But as things progressed, I could see that wouldn’t work, and eventually the opera became about a wedding night that just went all wrong. Elsa (Annette Dasch) couldn’t adjust to not knowing who her husband Lohengrin (Jonas Kauffman). Well in real life what woman would? As with the Met Rigoletto production the people looked the roles; Kauffman so handsome and Dasch pretty, young, with flowing hair. but this was patently not real life as having them get themselves soaked and also go on about a swan no one had seen (like many another producer Guth just eliminated any attempt at an artificial swan) made clear.

The libretto had not been changed so Guth’s re-staging had nothing to do with the words. In the original play, the second act opens with the evil couple, Friedrich von Telramund (Tomas Tomasson) and his wife, Otrud (Evelyn Herlitzius) in bed together, having just fucked after coming home from some raucous drunken festival. Guth had them sitting at desk, trussed up like modern politicians in suits that were militaristic. Otrud’s outfits reminded me of Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits (while running for president) or Angela Merkel today (the German chancellor). So the parallel with the bad wedding night for the good couple was lost and nothing gained as modern day politicians do not duel with one another so the scene in context made no sense at all:


Watching the sword-fight I was therefore alerted to them being performing singers who were up to this sort of training and gymnastics on a stage.

In other words, if the myth is silly (and misogynistic as the idea is women should be content to obey and know nothing), it doesn’t help to break the suspension of disbelief altogether. During the intermissions I had become reminded that La Scala as an Italian theater and this was opening night and patrons were not altogether pleased that Wagner instead of Verdi had been chosen. If this production failed in the live theater and was at moments ridiculous to the audience in the movie-house it was not the fault of the principles. As Martin kettle (who describes the sets too in the Guardian) says, Kauffman especially has a haunting voice and manner, Evelyn Herlitzius was theatrically effective as an ambitious woman:


Tomasson was a figure out a Michael Haneke movie about rigid Nazis (e.g., The White Ribbon). Again I enjoyed more minor character roles: Rene Pape as a solemn official was what is called luxury casting.

In a sentence: these productions had the effect of pointing up problems in the operas.


I cannot say I was bored at either production; they were lessons in what one can and cannot do to older operas whose stories or themes have become unacceptable (embarrassing), outdated (the duke rapes Gilda and this is not “rat-pack” amusement) or I fear (in the case of Rigoletto as a disabled person) uncomfortable.

The Lohengrin setting at times was meant to look like a stage, to be self-reflexive (this seems to be a favorite motif this year). My favorite piece of the setting for Rigoletto were the chandeliers: they were exactly the same ludicrous artificial ones as in the real theater, but here the self-reflexivity seemed to me to mock the whole event. They are mechanical and go up and down. It was apparently felt chandeliers could not be done without in the palace the opera house was supposed to be; OTOH, you could not have them too elaborate or get in the way of seeing.

Operas were in the 19th century staged for people with money who wanted to be flattered into thinking themselves as rich and powerful as the people on their political and social stages. I’m all for exposing this worship of rank, wealth, the misogyny, reactionary nonsense, religious stupidities of myths. But it’s not easy to do with intransigent material when you also desire to please and attract an increasingly larger modern audience.

Cats making music
Mee-ee-ow …


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Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert)

Jean (Pascal Greggory) (2005 Azor Gabrielle)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve a film to recommend for those who want to understand what it is to be in a relationship (as it’s called nowadays) with someone else: to be intimately involved daily, emotionally, physically, socially, with economic and psychological dependence with someone else in all the ways we call being in a love attachment where you have promised exclusive loyalty. How people cope with the fears, demands, dangers, boredom, intriguing puzzle and inevitable mystery, and need for support is the subject of Gabrielle, Patrice Chereau and Anne-Louise Tividic’s film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s short story, “The Return.”

It’s mesmerizing. It holds you in a kind of still fascination because of its intensity and this feeling you don’t know quite what is to happen next as both people are suddenly breaking with conventional controls or taboos (or at least we are made to feel they are) so they may break out at any moment and do something startlingly revealing, violent, scary, humiliating, touching, funny, whatever human beings can do, perhaps short of eating or killing one another. We are not scared and can watch on, do not feel we will be violated in our emotions because we don’t feel at any point they are horrifyingly violent or hate one another. They never do leave a minimum of courteous respect. And the breaking out is limited. When the two really go at one another with an intensity of traumatic feeling, what happens is they shout and physically struggle with one another to the point of messing one another’s clothes all up and crying in staccato bursts. That’s about as far as it gets. But it is enough. It is real.

Its effect depends on the norm of the film, the distanced self-control:

Stylized framed shots:

The film’s narrative: a man (he is meant to be any man in his position) has been married for 10 years. He and his wife seem to be living a comfortable contented bourgeois life. First prologue: as Jean (his name) walks home (slightly earlier than usual, finding himself in a working class crowd tightly packed in the train, on the street) we watch a mental flashback. We see his continuous successful social life with his wife, their “Thursdays,” where Gabrielle (her name) reigns as cool queen at the head of the table and the conversation with all around her and among the guests themselves is Proustian wit, soliloquys against vulgarity in the the arts (by the man who turns out to be her lover), chitchat.

He watches her

She socializes

Jean arrives and the house is quiet. He sees a note which he appears to approach with intense trepidation (shots of him coming at it from this and that angle). The note says Gabrielle is leaving him for good, has a lover. Jean loses it almost immediately and without her there begins to crack up; he then remembers himself, becomes conscious that he is making a sort of spectacle of himself (there are servants in the house) and closes the door to his room. He then he hears someone coming in. We see a veiled woman in a coat slowly climbing the stairs, and making her way into his room. His wife has returned. The text upon which Patrice Chereau (director) and Anne-Louise Trividic (writer) have based their movie is by Conrad and is called “The Return.”

The ensuing 90 minutes is mostly an intense battle of emotions, talk that goes on and on becoming more real and direct about how the two have felt about one another from the time they chose one another (and why they say they did) until their lives together now. Then the last 10 minutes or so shows them the following Thursday night at first holding up (repressing before others the truth about their relationship), but then going mad and wild in front of these supposedly civilized friends to show their profound anger and distress and accusations until one-by-one and then more hurriedly, a group leave. We discover who is the lover (the husband’s editor on the journal he works at).


Then that night right afterwards he attempts rape, does not go through with it, then she turns and says she is willing to make love, and has her maid take off her corset, put her in a slip and robe and lays down before him on the bed. Then after a slow burn and finally getting on top of her (with all his clothes), he can’t manage it. She says something like we’ll talk again in the morning. an inter-title suggests it’s morning now and the room are lit with morning light. We see now him in the street walking quickly away. The inter-title says he leaves never to return.

Throughout voice-over and inter-titles are used.

I watched this film because of the volume my essay on Trollope was published in, Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation, ed Burnham and Pollock. The other essay which was strongly praised (besides mine) by Kamilla Elliot was by Gene Moore, “Making Private Scenes Public: Conrad’s ‘The Return’ and Chereau’s Gabrielle.” Moore says Conrad’s tale focuses on a uncomprehending husband who is mocked; in Conrad’s story the wife is nameless. Moore also says the film focuses on the wife, and has been ignored by Conrad critics (mostly male I’ll guess). In a 35 minute feature made up of interviews with Chereau, Huppert and Greggory, Chereau says his film is about the husband’s falling to pieces, shattered carapace and then what we see; his vulnerability. He is no fool in the film; he surmised she was gone (we feel) upon seeing the note; sex (we learn from their dialogue) has not been good for years, never been good. Chereau insists this is a timeless situation — within the context of nuclear middle class families so say European arrangements since medieval Europe and until today, I’d agree and I’d agree he does transcend this particularity as the two people dig deeper at another and slowly go wild from within.

But the film is also clearly about the wife. She is named. She is continually under the camera’s scrutiny. The camera is him staring at her.

The writer is a woman: Anne-Louise Trividic. Chereau kept referring to Anne. The feature had Isabelle Huppert talking about her role just as much as Pascal Greggory about his and Chereau about the film. I’d say this is one of those rare films where we get a woman’s take on a man’s work, and the woman, Gabrielle, explains what Conrad was getting at: the husband in the film keeps asking the wife why why why did she return and she has a hard time explaining this point. Over and over. She does say that the lover she got (the editor) was someone that she feared she would sink into and give all he wanted and never hold back ever, nothing. I find that beautiful and true of sexual loving: when the couple really love tenderly it can make the books or film flower (Winston Graham’s Demelza and Ross Poldark are this way); when one of the pair is cruel, this kind of loving is profoundly destructive for the other (what would happen to Richardson’s Clarissa if she married Lovelace). But Gabrielle fears it, she fears what the man would do with it — in the salon conversation she says in the prologue you don’t need to know anything about other people to enjoy their company, in fact it’s best to keep a distance. The lover is a man who complained about vulgar art but is clearly very vulgar himself, animalistic somehow: we see he loves to eat, drink, smoke cigars, is intensely sensual as the trussed-up husband is not.

But she also says they need to face what they are, what they have been. That’s the real answer: she returned in order to face with him what they have become. She left the note in order to stage the scene. She wanted to break out. She did not want this lover but to change her life with the husband.

Gene Moore says that the film makes private scenes public and is about the violation of social rules – in particular the house has a bunch of female servants who march in and out during all this trauma, serve dinners, cook, undress and dress the wife. Moore’s thesis is very odd. He really seems to think this film is about the psychological abuse of the servants. This is skewed. It is true we are in a house of servants, and watch them hearing the master and mistress fight. We see them in the kitchen as the quarrel is going on. We see them serve the pair dinner, put the food on their plates. We see the maids help Gabrielle take off her clothes and put on her slip and robe. At one point she talks to one of them who is identifying with her and this maid for a moment seems to try to interpose herself between the master and mistress.

But surely this is missing what is the point about this more marginalized material. First there are no male servants about. No valet. No butler. The servant world of this film doesn’t make sense. Why should they be all women and perpetually cooking? Why does it take three women to undress Gabrielle? Tividic is showing us a woman’s world and this male flailing himself in it.

Further, the women servants do not seem embarrassed. There was a limit to how far the couple did reveal themselves, especially in front of servants. The most intimate talk and sudden frantic gestures and actions occur when the servants are gone. Jean stayed mostly dressed and when Gabrielle offered herself up to him she still had on her lovely silk slip and was laying in the rich red robe, as a sort of blanket wrapped about her

In his most distresed moments he remains well-bred, the courteous gentleman who tries not to insult other people, not to interfere with them:

A rare shot in the light

The husband and wife are not abusing their servants. This is not a film about servant abuse, though it is private life made public for us. Jean and Gabrielle have abused themselves, alienated themselves from themselves and one another for such a long time, that they are almost not alive for real.

She leaves and then returns to break this spell. But he cannot face what she is come home to face and he flees. It’s too threatening to his delicate poise, too emasculating. He cannot face his vulnerability to her.

This is a rare subtle film about a power struggle in a marriage where both are intensely oppressed by the routine of life demanded of them. That’s why we open with him coming home from work in that crowd. Why the action is sandwiched between the stifling performative social life. He is trying to understand this within the context of speechless rage and despair, the wounded cuckold. She is mute with a sort of helpless longing, but not for the vulgar editor.

I was so stunned by the dialogue. I wished I had the screenplay so as to read it carefully — as one does a novel. Chereau and Moore say the words of the screenplay are far different from the story. Conrad’s story is short and mostly narration. This film is long and the dialogue twists and turns and keeps up.

When I snapped the shots you see here, I discovered most came out very dark; that the film was shot in shadows. It does begin in black-and-white; when the first revelation occurs (she returns), it moves into color. It goes back and forth between black-and-white and color. It ends in black-and-white as he flees. This gives us a feel of the past frozen before us. I was thrilled by many shots showing Huppert’s beauty, and how carefully Chereau caught the husband’s cracking up with taste. The shots are like pictures, framed, very stylized, artificial. Chereau talked about his cinematographer, Eric Gautier; like Francesco Mereilles, Chereau has had one person he relies on consistently and he knows how central this man is to his films.

I’d love to read an insightful study of this film. Jim tells me Chereau is famous for a Wagner ring he did in the 1970s where he took Shaw’s analysis of the opera as about capitalism seriously. Chereau (like Francesca Zambello’s direction of Das Rheingold) dressed the actor-singers in 1920s evening clothes. That works very well.

Huppert’s career has been just a brilliant one. Chereau says he chose her for the role after he watched her in the film adaptation of Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher. I am just so drawn to her performances and the types she plays in all her films. I have written about The Piano Teacher and Claire Denis’s White Material

I don’t remember seeing Pascal Greggory before. He seems to me to be able to break away from the usual demand most other actors are unable to rid themselves of: that they keep up a hard invulnerability masculinity which only cracks occasionally so that their understand of vulnerability is never explored. An actor I’ve seen recently who can break this taboo at length is Martin Freeman as Watson in the new Sherlock.

I will go on to explore a another of the films that the finer film studies in Victorian Literature and Film thoroughly examined. I know that Louise McDonald’s take on Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is spot on, but I would like to try Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter.


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Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried against the paper-mache dragon

Dear friends and readers,

We saw the re-play last night. We enjoyed it: I only feel asleep briefly during one of the interminable conversations setting forth what happened before the opera opened (why then have two previous? because, Jim told me, this was written before the first two), who was who. All sung and acted subtly and effectively. The best thing about the opera itself for me is for the most part there is little action; it’s a pastoral at heart, with a young man appearing, talking, wandering about, about three acts quickly done (murders, killings) and then orgiastic sex at the close. These do not take up much time and the music is then allowed to be so leisurely, lyrical, meditative.

Wotan (Bryn Terfel) bullying the now craven dwarf-father, Mime (fake, Gerhard Siegel)

I was alive to it as a Nazi story though: the way to become a man is to kill; evil is some mystic force making inexplicable hating monsters. Stand here mean. And the portrait shots of Morris could come from the violent film, The Gladiators:

Do read Bob Dixon on male adventure stories and the popular fantasies distributed by the publishing establishment, made movies of (Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, Ursula Le Guin’s religious paranoias). Or the hero can find a sleeping beauty (originally a rape story) and have sex with her. I was surprised at the virulent hatred of the parent, but then I remembered Kalus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, an eye-opening explication of the roots of fascistic thinking (the word is becoming over-used lately I know). It’s not true that he argues macho masculinity simply comes from fear of women. Siegfried does know no fear until he sees a woman. I admit that. But it’s more fear of weakness, of empathizing, of sympathy, of emotion, family life; the young man is to follow appetite. (See Michael Rothberg, “Documenting Barbarism: Yourcenar’s barbarism, Theweleit’s Male Coup,” Cultural Critique [1994-95]). Isn’t this over-reading what is a baby-child like story? dragons to be killed and birds as mothers who take you by the hand (wing) and lead you to joy? But it’s not a baby-story, not when such money is put into it and it’s played before thousands across the globe.

Mime, the false father with the broken sword (Gerhard Siegel again, an important character, there a lot)

All this was mightily deflected – and it was a feat — by Jay Hunter Morris’s remarkable performance. He played the whole thing as the most innocent (witless one critic described the character) of eager boys. Total sweetness — and if he hated his father (Mime, the ugly dwarf), well then the father was a false one, deserved to be hated and had hated him, indeed stole him from his mother (Sieglinde), acted out silently at the opening of the opera. His continual self-deprecation and stance of wonder at all he was seeing almost did the trick — helped along how quick and rare any action was, swift. Blood was red light running across planks going up and down. Morris kept up this persona in his interview with Renee Fleming. I’ve read again and again in film studies how a single actor at the center of a story who is allowed to dominate it can make a huge difference. I saw that in Natalie Dessay’s Traviata.

But note: it’s hard to find close-up stills of Morris with that baby-look look of wonder on his face, so awkward, clumsy, unaware that makes him appealing on stage and in interviews.

There was some fall-out. Against this young man in his (what? later twenties is what he looked? early 30s at most), Deborah Voigt was too old. She looked like his grandmother, not his aunt. Heavy heavy make-up, tight tight sleeves, much exercise, an auburn wig, a corset-like slip, and still she was a woman more than twice his age too viscerally. She tried her best and acted the part well, but she can seem a daughter to Bryn Terfel’s Wotan because Terfel is older. It is not common for such a young man to be given such a central role so early in his career.

Fire amidst the greenery

What more to say? the planks. The light show. It was appropriate and the machine obviated the need to have different settings and scenes. Writhing forests, human-faced trees which turn into snakes, bodies which seem to emerge from the earth, the fires and at the close a landscape of burnt blue, dessicated (appropriate enough of you think of this as an opera for our time and then what fracking is doing). The computer technicians made a lovely bird out of light computer graphics and behind the scenes an exquisitely melodic soprano voice was heard. Still those planks did keep going up and down, they creaked and I felt I was watching a group of people made to run up and down and around dangerous cement columns. It might have made sense had this been a military raid or some modern version of a temple where the threatening “terrorists” (as all enemies are now labelled by those controlling the insides of gorgeous modern spaces like to do) are effectively kept out. But it was not. This was supposed to be a natural pastoral forest turned wasteland.

The hat Terfel wore and held and twirled (as “Wanderer”) was to me the best prop and piece of costume in the whole production

This is the only still I could find with the hat and it’s not perched perkly on Terfel’s head in quite the jaunty way that helps

The audience was small. Jim need not have worried we would not get there in time for seats. The Hoffman (it’s in Alexandra City, off Eisenhower Avenue) where we go proved itself once again utterly indifferent to its customers. The tickets all said 6:00 but the management had decided since then to make the movie begin at 6:30 pm. So many of the few people there came way too early and had nothing to do and nowhere to go in the sterile noisy palace outside the auditorium (which soon after cleaned began blast the space with ads). One man told me some of the tickets for Valkyrie were printed Tuesday when the movie had played on Monday; so he was cheated of seeing his favorite Wagner opera. A woman nearby as we were walking said she had had the same experience. I civilly commiserated and hoped they got their money back.

Nickel-and-diming. In the hour and one half where there was no line in front of the concessions (it was Wedneday night) enabled me to discern you can buy coffee at this theater. I discovered that the sugar and milk are not placed nearby so the customer can take as many packets as she pleased. Oh no. You must ask for how many you need, and then they are dispensed. The coffee is poured for you too. The new policy is to put the printed program telling the story, names of singer-actors, and opera-makers and how many intermissions online. You must yourself print it out and thus pay for the paper and ink.


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Brunnhilde (Deborah Voight) and Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris)

Dear friends and readers,

Well, we saw this opera yesterday — all 5 hours and 50 minutes of it.
Some of that was intermission — 2 of about 25 minutes each. A few
scattered thoughts and notes:

I just was overwhelmed — totally won over — when the death of
Siegfried sequence began. It became at once magnificent and yet I burst into tears. The culmination effect could be really felt. Its large simplifications worked. I loved Voight’s performance as the strong selfish woman betrayed. And Jay Hunter is just so appealing. He reminds me of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival — reading about Siegfried even if I know that Wagner was this rebel, on the barricades and have read Shaw on the Ring, the part always seemed Nazi, stupid, militarist, but Hunter pulls off a gay innocent and lovingly noble Parzival so well-meaning my heart goes out to him. Several of the singers, in fact all who had major roles with some nuance did it intelligently and at this close a number of threads and major characters over the four operas were metaphorically brought back.

Over supper we found ourselves trying to remember the other 3 operas & saying perhaps it was justified to have all 4 in a row. Jim said Wagner had created these operas over 30 years. Wagner began with writing an opera on Siegfried’s death and with so many deaths in these operas, he thought he ought to explain how the death had come about and so wrote an opera on Siegfried; then he felt he needed to account for Brunnhilde, and before you know it, he needed a prologue. When he’d finished these librettos, he wrote the music moving forward, from first to last.

But nevertheless, and until then I occasionally fell asleep. To me Wagner music was beautiful until then, most of the time endlessly flowing concert music with the characters’ presences, stories, and songs forming an accompaniment. In previous or traditional operas the music is the accompaniment. But until it became so resonant and seemed to capture depths of sublime tragedy, it was simply background and the psychology and story and dramatic techniques of Wagner as librettist don’t hold me. His idea of a blocked staging is to have two characters stand there and sing at length at one another. The story seems something a 10 year old could read in an action-adventure book. Lord of the Rings is a book for older adolescents. I’m not alone in my dissatisfaction, but admit mine is not based on the music but the piece considered as a play or mythic story told through opera.

In a movie — which this was — costume is of enormous significance in conveying character and meaning. I’d forgotten Wendy Bryn Harmer (Gutrune here) was also the young woman who was sold in Das Rheingold (very painful that, the way she was so abject): most of the images of women are wholly masculinist dreams and their outfits showed this. Actually I didn’t like the costumes of the men much either. Jim called it all rags and rocks. I remember thinking Wotan’s lock of hair over his eye plastered down absurd. This time Siegfried’s costume felt just (I had neutral response) and so too Gunther, Hagan, Gunther but Brunnhilde’s dress looked like schlock from Klein’s — it was probably chosen to de-emphasize Deborah Voigt’s age: she hasn’t a young woman’s body any more so they made her breasts very flat. Wendy Bryn Harmer’s steel bra over a nightgown was just what a man might ludicrously find covers all symbolic grounds (strong and aggressive as well as sexy), but it was indicative of most of the images of women in these plays, not thought through. In one interview LePage said he didn’t want the “heavy German” imagery, but yet wanted to be traditional. So the costumers didn’t know what to do with the Germanic tribal imagery but didn’t think how it reads and although they want to get rid of it and they could have nothing to substitute.

A few years ago we saw a production of Das Rheingold by Francesca Zambello where the all the characters were in 1920s outfits from movies (rather like people on a cruise) and it worked very well. Actors do better when an audience is full and responds intelligently to the play.

Then mise-en-scene and shots. The machine just didn’t cut it. (See Izzy’s blog on undulating planks accompanying the beautiful music, Deborah Voight and Jay Hunter.) We were to think the world was coming to an end and it was more like a suttee. It’s a light and sound show; after all a staged opera is not a movie and Gelb has to give up the idea having computer and being movie-like is dragging opera into the 21st century. The opera as movie is still being staged and that cannot be upstaged. We need to see sets which included grand houses, inside and out, forests, mountains, huge slabs of lighted-steel are no symbolic substitute.

To some particulars: the Rhine maidens. I noticed the first opera had them sliding all the way down & in the interview we were “treated” to the fear they had of this, and how one of them had to be coaxed even with a harness. They did go from top to bottom. This time they went maybe less than 2/3s and no harness. Jim said that if you paid attention they would slide down one plank and climb up another consistently. Each of them. So he guessed one plank had been greased to slide down easily. We never did see the whole of their bodies until they came for bows. I didn’t like that we were supposed to be amused at the Rhine maidens’ fear in one of the interview films. I read somewhere Deborah Voight was almost badly hurt by that machine. And there were stunt men and women where possible. Why should they risk anything either is my feeling.

When interviewed, Eric Owens (a great Alberic, the angry and therefore evil dwarf) said he would have to go to the gym before May (when all four operas are done in a row — to get in you must buy for all four and there is a very high ticket put on this).

There is no illusion on these sets that what is happening mirrors some reality off-stage and the occasional effective large artificial simulacrum (like the iron horse below) was rare.

An irony horse was pulled along by Siegfried with some unexplained ropes helping from the curtain

As to how the opera functions in our world as performance and DVD, Jim reminded me that though Wagner has been coopted by the fascists backed by military fleets of people with deadly weapons, he was originally a man on the barricades. Shaw pointed out Gotterdammerung is an allegory on a world gone wrong which needs replacement. All authority figures ought to be made deeply suspect and a number who came here regularly have killed themselves. We should see what is happening as anti-capitalist fable (as Shaw said). But I felt in this (and other productions I’ve seen) we are invited to contemplate the spectacle of enviably powerful characters inflicting pain and misery on one another with no haven or reform in sight. We are asked to study the religion and respect it. We are to luxuriate in the gods’ silly quarrels. No community worth the word in sight. It’s a police state with a powerful machine to back it up and make its prisons:

The amassing of the male chorus around Hagden (Hans Peter-Konig) does resemble the ruthless use of brutal policing in most states on the globe.

I did like how when all were taking their bows, Jay Hunter shook the hand of the prompter. A telling customary omission: I had never seen anyone do that before. So clever Deborah Voigt followed suit. Hunter presents himself as the country boy with Texas accent far more than he probably is, and it is part of his act to shake the prompter’s hand. There is someone just under the stage, crouched, ready to help any and all actors enact their lines.

I should acknowledge that Izzy was deeply engaged throughout by the music and opera in front of us as really (though less visibly) was Jim.


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