Monday, July 11, 2016

The Latest LeCarre

The history of translating John LeCarre novels to the screen--either to the movies or to TV--has been unusual. There were the great BBC tv series productions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People with Alec Guinness as a masterful Smiley and fantastic support by Ian Bannen, Ian Richardson, Roy Bland, and many others, with Sian Phillips turning up at the very end as Anne. More recently, there was a good movie of Tinker, Tailor with Gary Oldman playing Smiley. And we should not forget the great performance by Richard Burton as Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold quite a few years ago.

There've been others but I haven't seen them. Yesterday I saw the latest, Our Kind of Traitor, another in the post-Cold War LeCarre novels. It's now commonplace to say that LeCarre has never recovered from the end of the Cold War but actually, his imagination on display for all these years does him credit. This time he gets one of his innocents--civilians who find themselves ensnared in the doings of LeCarre's undercover world--a couple, actually, who find themselves trying to help a desperate Russian who has somehow ended up on the wrong side of the Russian mafia.

At least the powers that be in Whitehall and the Circus do ask the right questions, viz., what is Britain doing getting mixed up with a Russian money launderer anyway? I confess that apart from Ewan McGregor as the innocent professor and Damian Lewis as the MI-6 agent, I recognized none of the British cast. Having admitted my ignorance, let me now say that they are all, including the familar face of Stellan Skarsgard, often seen as a Russian or Scandinavian, terrific.

The film as a whole is a good spy adventure and has the usual intrigue at all levels. The in-fighting and efforts to right old wrongs within the "Service" remain the most compelling aspects of the plot, even more than the flight to get away from the Russian mafia goons. I don't think LeCarre suffers so much from the end of the Cold War as a difficulty in coming up with the great canvases of the Smiley days, including the novel of those days that was likely too long and too complex to make a great film: The Honourable Schoolboy.

Surprising Jane Austen

There’s not much worth seeing on the big screen this summer. Or so it would seem. Occasional gems like Genius, previously lauded here. But last weekend, I caught a feature which is close to ending its limited-release distribution: Love and Friendship, directed by Whit Stillman.

This delightful romp is based on a Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan, and features Kate Beckinsale and a wonderful crew of British actors, with Stephen Fry and Chloe Sevigny the best known but appearing in modest cameo roles. The intrigue Austen was so expert in capturing concerns a widowed lady’s machinations to find a new husband for herself and a first one for her unmarried daughter in order to insure that they both have means of support in Georgian society (18th century England) where fortunes, country houses, and city residences were all solely within the control of well-off men.

Lady Susan is a schemer par excellence, and given the varied motivations but often equally meretricious circles in which she travels, we end up being more sympathetic to her as a lovable sinner than otherwise might be the situation. The director has done a clever job of familiarizing us with the diverse cast of characters and their motivations by presenting them in old-fashioned panels at the start, categorized both by their location—usually, which country house where they are located—and relationship.

We often forget that Jane Austen was writing in the early days of the development of the English novel. She was influenced by the very first novelists—Richardson and Fielding—and began in the style used then: epistolary, or a novel in letters. This novella was one of her first works, although not published for many years, and was written in that style.

Her perceptions of the way the different characters behave are filled with plenteous use of irony and wit. It is not at all surprising that as is usually the case in her works, the women almost always have a far more penetrating insight into both character and what is actually occurring than the men, who while ostensibly totally in charge of matters relating to fame and fortune, are frequently clueless as to the machinations going on around them.

All of this is beautifully portrayed in this marvelous film. Many parts of it, and certainly many lines, are completely irresistible.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Two Geniuses

The movie, Genius, which we saw tonight, refers in its title to the writer Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. His other two novels, The Web and the Rock, and You Can't Go Home Again, were published posthumously. I haven't read any of them. The movie has made me intent on reading Wolfe, though, although I'm not yet sure which novel it will be.

Wolfe wrote long, very long. The movie is about how a great literary editor, Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's, recognized Wolfe's genius--he had previously discovered Fitzgerald and Hemingway--and in a torturous process taking months and then years, edited Wolfe's more-than-1000-page products to more accommodating 600+ pages each. They got great reviews and the second novel was a best seller.

The movie depicts Wolfe's tumultuous, regrettably short life and focuses mostly on his relationship with Perkins, who had five daughters and was a rather strait-laced Puritan type who commuted to New Canaan, Conn. Much controversy still exists over whether Perkins's editing did Wolfe justice. Wolfe himself did abandon Perkins, apparently resenting the frequent attribution of credit to the editor. The prolific late literary scholar, Matthew Bruccoli, brought out the unedited version of Look Homeward, Angel in 2000, claiming that it better presented Wolfe's true genius.

Whether Perkins was Wolfe's savior or weakened his style, Wolfe doubtless suffered more from his posthumous editor, Edward Aswell of Harper & Brothers, to whom Wolfe delivered his last two novels before dying at Johns Hopkins in 1938. Aswell, it now appears from more recent scholarship, savaged Wolfe's very rough drafts and worse, inserted much of his own text into the novels. Wolfe's work has declined in popularity, it has been noted, although in 1958, Look Homeward, Angel was adapted for Broadway and played 564 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

All this aside, the movie is terrific. Colin Firth captures Perkins's personality as Jude Law does Wolfe's. The actresses Nicole Kidman as Wolfe's lover, Aline Bernstein, and Laura Linney as Perkins's wife, also add to the delight of the picture. Much of it was shot in Britain--in Manchester and at Pinewood and Shepperton, the two huge British movie factories. While the film does show the real train gates at Grand Central, incidentally, when they proceed past them to the platform, they are showing us, it would appear, some British train shed, perhaps Manchester's, but not the real inside of Grand Central's platforms. Just a train buff talking.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Mezzo for All Time

I'm tempted to travel out to Santa Fe this summer, yes, for the opera, and yes, even though we managed to make it out there to the opera for the first time last summer. It was delightful even though none of the operas were perfect. Just watching the sun set over the mountains behind the main stage is enough reason to want to go back soon.

But this summer they are reviving Samuel Barber's Vanessa, the rare modern opera that has been revived quite a few times since its 1958 premiere at the Met. Now one prime reason I'd like to see this opera would not be satisfied by a trip to Santa Fe, but probably not by any place else either. Rosalind Elias, long-time adornment of the Met's mezzo roster, created the role of Erika, which she played to Eleanor Steber's title soprano role. It's of more than mild interest that the title role was written with Callas in mind, only the diva turned it down, saying Elias's mezzo part was better!

Ms. Elias is likely the only principal connected with that premiere almost 60 years ago who is still extant. She was interviewed by Opera magazine in its July issue and the story was a delight. As a very young singer, she lucked out by being offered a major role in a new production--a new opera, no less. And she dared to tell the imperious Rudolf Bing, then the Met's general manager, that she thought she should have an aria written for her part as well.

Bing was known to cater to singers he liked and clearly she was one of them. He called Barber right then and said, "Sam, Rosalind is here and has something to ask you." And lo and behold, the great Samuel Barber wrote one for her, a good one too: "Must the winter come so soon?" which has become a recital hall staple. Elias remains the sole Erika in Met history, having sung the role in each revival. She has also sung the role of the Baroness, originated by the wonderful Regina Resnik.

Elias was always lucky, it seems. In the 60s, she sang Zerlina, the first mezzo to do so at the Met since the 1880s, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf no less, who was getting on and not in good form, and who almost freaked Elias out, until Geraint Evans took Elias by the hand to get her away from the legend's problems. 

It's wonderful to recall that Elias starred in the first Met performance I ever attended--a student performance of Carmen in 1958, when I was in junior high and went on a school excursion to the old house on 39th Street. Just being in the amazing old building was exciting and now I realize what a trouper Elias was and why Bing must have liked her--here she is singing student performances, albeit of the opera with the greatest mezzo role, while in the same season singing the premiere of Vanessa.

Barber's opera, with libretto by Gian-Carlo Menotti, is now revived enough to be more than a curiosity. Should I be unable to make it to Santa Fe this summer, it's being done in the late fall at the Wexford Festival in Ireland.

Friday, June 17, 2016

12 Innings and a Requiem

Didn't intend to bracket these two events together but so it goes. Wednesday afternoon into the evening (as it turned out) was getaway day against the Cubs for the Nats, each club leading its division and the Wrigleys boasting the best record in baseball. We had taken the opener, dropped the middle encounter, and now needed the 3rd to make up for losing all four back in Chitown last month.

Strange game in that Strasburg gave up a solo homer in the top of the first and then Nats came back in the bottom of that inning with a score from third on a wild pitch. Then no score until the Nats put it together in the bottom of the 8th to lead by a bare 2-1 going into the 9th where the bullpen promptly gave away two to give the visitors the lead. 

Key steal in the bottom of the 9th set up a Ramos RBI to tie and off we went into extra innings. Another exchange of runs brought us into the 12th and after Michael A. Taylor got on, 37-year-old Jayson Werth smacked one off the right/center field wall to set off the speedy Taylor around the bases from first to score the walk-off winner.

By the 8th, of course, the starting pitchers were gone and it was effectively a whole new ball game, played by tired players waiting to get out of town--in the case of the Nats, to the Coast for series against the Padres and Dodgers, and then the Brewers, coming home eventually to face the ill-performing Mets, who still present the best pitching staff in the majors.

But Friday night we were at Strathmore, definitely the nicest music hall in town with the best acoustics, to hear Marin Alsop lead the Baltimore Symphony in Verdi's Requiem, which I'd never heard before. It was a marvelous performance, with the Choral Arts Society serving as the massive chorus and our friend Phyllis Kaye's friend Elizabeth Bishop singing beautifully in the mezzo role. Actually, all the singers were terrific and the orchestra overwhelming.

Given that it was Verdi, there was plenty of operatic sturm und drang. All in all, a nice week, proving that that other Baltimorean, Mencken, may not been right in scorning opera in English as being as sensible as baseball in Italian--here we had a requiem in Latin and baseball in the many lingos spoken by today's diverse crew of players. Actually the game wouldn't have been complete without an umpire chucking Rendon out after he protested a called third strike in whatever language such outbursts occur these days.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

End of the World

You might feel, after the 5 1/2 hours of Twilight of the Gods, or Goetterdaemerrung [literally, "getting darker of the gods"], the 4th and last opera in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, that it ends in this fine Washington National Opera production with a whimper not a bang. The production of course is non-traditional, and is itself a critique of the detritus and destruction left by our modern industrial society, so dealing with Wagner's stage directions for the final scene are going to be difficult in any case.

He called for the Rhine to overflow its banks and the world, especially Valhalla, home of the gods, to crumble. I've seen at least three previous productions of this opera, two of them quite traditional, and they only could approximate those demanding orders. I do remember getting a charge out of buildings coming down, either onstage at the Met or Covent Garden in London. Brunnhilde brings about the redemption of the world as she rides her horse, Grane, into the flames of the fire started to burn Siegfried's funeral pyre. The Rhinemaidens drag the chief villain, Hagen, to his death by drowning as his final cry warns everyone else to keep their hands off the Ring.

The staging of this scene was not too close to any of those overwhelming objectives: no overflow, no crumbling buildings, and no horse. So to me, it fell a bit flat although I enjoy seeing new conceptions of most operas, including The Ring operas. And this cavil should not obscure my conclusion that Francesca Zambello's production (co-produced with San Francisco Opera) is the best-staged Ring I've ever seen.

Catherine Foster was a glorious Brunnhilde and Daniel Branna a fine Siegfried, as well as Eric Halvorson playing Hagen as well as anyone I've seen.The other singers were also excellent, in their acting as well, including Jacqueline Echols as a Rhinemaiden and she was the Forest Bird in the preceding opera, Siegfried, and Jamie Barton, an up-and-comer who was one of the Norns as well as one of the Rhinemaidens. She won the Met national auditions a few years ago.

Hearing the leitmotifs, or themes, associated with each of the characters or ideas or moods makes these operas as wonderful musically as they are. The most famed leitmotifs are Siegfried's, Valhalla, the Valkyries', the Sword, the Ring, the Spear, the Nibelungs, and Siegfried's Horn Call and Funeral March, the last a great orchestral piece itself from Goetterdaemerrung as well as Siegfried's Rhine Journey in the first act.

One unusual aspect was that the first acts of these last two operas, which tend to be slow, as is the first act of Die Walkure, the second opera, played very well and held my attention dramatically as well as musically, although one very accomplished musician whom I ran into at this last opera pointed out that drama is not a terribly strong point in these operas, even if they are often referred to as music-dramas. The final acts of the last two operas instead seemed to drag a bit, despite their rather dramatic content: Siegfried's awakening Brunnhilde from her deep sleep in Siegfried and the death of Siegfried and subsequent end of the world as we know it in tonight's opera.

And lastly, one judge friend I encountered suggested that the big problem of the opera tetralogy and for Wotan, the king of the gods and the main character in the first three operas, is lawyers. Wotan somehow had made all kinds of treaties and contracts that are imprinted in runic letters on his spear and these circumscribe his ability to take actions as he sees everything leading toward the end of the world as he knows it.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Dragons and Compacters

You don't usually hear even passionate Wagnerites carry on about the third opera in The Ring of the Nibelung: Siegfried. This is a long opera without much of the excitement of Die Walkure and the amazing music in the final opera, Goetterdaemmerung. But Francesca Zambello's amazing production for Washington National Opera injected some energy into this often-lagging interlude--if you can call a 5 1/2 hour opera an interlude.

We first meet Siegfried, the hero of heroes but also a classic Wagner innocent, in what looks to be a beat-up trailer he is inhabiting with Mime, the dwarf who for reasons unclear was the one who raised him after his parents were gone: Siegmund in the great battle with Hunding that was the start of the downfall of the gods, and Sieglinde, after giving birth to Siegfried. He is rightly suspicious of Mime, who is only caring for him so that when he fights Fafner, now a dragon, and recovers the ring and its accoutrements, Mime will be on hand to relieve the not-so-smart Siegfried of the spoils.

But the only characters whose plotting is more unsuccessful than Wotan's or the gods' generally are the Nibelungs, the dwarves. Alberich stole the Rheingold, forged the ring, lost it through trickery to Wotan and Loge, and still turns up in this opera aiming to get it back. Mime, too, is short-sighted. These characters, as it happens, also are perhaps one of the most serious pieces of evidence that looms, albeit unclearly, of Wagner's anti-Semitism at work. His descriptions of them as ugly, misshapen, greedy, less than human--even in the somewhat cleaned-up surtitles, does for a moment make you think you are hearing Der Sturmer brought to life. And add to that their role as the thief of the sacred Rheingold and using it to forge a ring that will enable them to rule the world.

But no one has ever said that Wagner is an unmitigated blessing. I do think too of Deems Taylor's short chronicle--The Monster--of all the miserable aspects of his personality and his behavior and then the inspired conclusion that the glory of his music means that everything in the indictment doesn't really matter.

Zambello's envisioning of the dragon as a huge trash compacter is superb, and when Siegfried kills the dragon and Fafner, now returned to his original status as a giant, falls out and has a death scene, you start to sympathize for the not-so-smart giant, who craved the gold when Wotan refused to yield the beauteous Freia to him, and is now dying as the last of his race.

The forest bird whose chattering Siegfried understands after tasting the dragon's blood is played in a charming manner by Jacqueline Echols. In my vinyl recording of the Ring, no less than Joan Sutherland played the role. Wotan's encounters in the last act with Erda and Siegfried were also better than I had recalled from previous productions--the old Met traditional production of the late 20th century by Otto Schenck and the recent cumbersome mechanical one by Robert LePage.

The singing quality has been high throughout but the biggest disappointment to me after what had been an amazingly enjoyable Siegfried was the famed last scene where the title character finally reaches Brunnhilde after charging through the ring of fire (not seen). Usually the tenor is exhausted from his hours of singing while the soprano is fresh as she has been waiting all this time. After the famous laugh line by Siegfried: "This is not a man!", the scene really dragged. Brunnhilde obviously needs some time to awaken after 18 years asleep but coming after all this anticipation, the scene fails to live up to expectations.