Sunday, August 28, 2016

Of Such Stuff That Dreams Are Made On

The Tempest is usually categorized as one of Shakespeare's "late comedies," which possess the comic label only in the most limited definition of a comedy as a play with a happy ending. The other one in that category that immediately comes to mind is The Winter's Tale, and everything in that except for the usually unconvincing ending is far from happy.

When done well, however, I find The Tempest to be among the most wonderful of Shakespeare's plays. It contains a wistfulness that makes you think he was truly beginning to see the end of his road and wanted to resolve a whole lot of themes. Yesterday's matinee at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C., which we attended, was done very well. Patrick Page, the Prospero, had a strong, deep voice that exuded the authority Prospero must exercise. Sara Topham moved across the proscenium on harness as a more playful Ariel than usual, adding to the spirited atmosphere as a more feminine Ariel--sometimes I think the part was Shakespeare's venture into creating a unisex role.

Veterans Ted van Griethuysen as Gonzalo and Edward Gero as Alonso were both authoritative, and Rachel Mewbron a delightful Miranda who seemed to use the stage as her climbing wall. Liam Craig and Dave Quay rendered the clowns--Trinculo and Stephano--far more effectively than others I've seen, succeeding in maintaining the delicate balance these fairly large but challenging roles demand.

There was a large ensemble of players who were ostensibly islanders--I found some of their processioning somewhat superfluous but not at all diminishing to the play. Clifton Duncan did as much as can be done with the role that makes The Tempest a "problem play" of the Merchant of Venice or Taming of the Shrew variety. His role as a supposedly undeserving native who is oppressed into servitude by the otherwise beneficent Prospero who forgives all the nobles who deprived the latter of his dukedom and presumably does the same for Caliban--although he never actually says so. Caliban of course is given that great line: "You taught me language; and my profit on't/ Is, I know how to curse./ The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!" So once again Shakespeare puts in just enough to make one feel that he has not imagined Caliban as nothing but a stereotyped "native" (i.e., black) villain.

But the overall spirit of forgiveness that Prospero applies to all the characters--deserving and mostly undeserving, while slowly encouraging the instant lovers, Ferdinand and Miranda, does envelop the play and convey that glimpse of what the playwright was feeling as he finished one of his last plays. "O brave new world" indeed and yes, it was a superb few hours in the theater before "Our revels now have ended".

Friday, August 26, 2016

U. of Chicago Hits Home

"Political correctness" has too often provided an opportunity--real or imagined--for right-wingers to attack academe and other perceived leftist or minority groups but in recent years, the whole approach taken to restrict debate or enable it to be shut out has gone too far.

Now, the school I've always regarded as America's most truly intellectual university--the University of Chicago--has sent out a letter to entering freshmen by its dean, eschewing such artificial barriers as "safe space" and "trigger warnings." In part, the letter stated:

"The letter, signed by John Ellison, the dean of students, states that the university does not support so-called 'trigger warnings,' nor does it cancel controversial campus speakers or condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
"...Critics of perceived political correctness run amok have hailed the letter as a necessary corrective to a culture of oversensitivity on campuses.
"An editorial in the Chicago Tribune praised the letter as 'refreshingly direct,' applauding its commitment to the marketplace of ideas, the implicit endorsement of democratic freedoms, and the sheer feistiness.
"But defenders of trigger warnings and safe spaces have ripped the letter, saying its statements actually undermine the commitment to academic freedom cited as their motivation..."
My reaction is that it's about time someone in academe showed this kind of gumption to stand up for the kind of unrestricted free speech we were accustomed to having when I was in college. The whole point of going to a great university or a small liberal arts college is to expose your own thinking to the greatest minds as well as all kinds of opinions and attitudes that may be contrary to your own thoughts or views. 
Right-wing types have called for banning Huckleberry Finn and other classics and they found themselves joined by leftists offended by use of dialect and offensive terms commonly used in mid-America in the mid-1800s. Whenever some parent demands that a school board eliminate something controversial from the curriculum or reading list, my instant reaction is that that's exactly the book students should be reading to test their minds.
Given that students read far too little today--in this age of cell phones and video games--the idea that they need to be cosseted and protected by trigger warnings is ludicrous. They just need to read more--a lot more.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Forgotten Opera

In today's Times, a Critic's Notebook that featured reviews of two productions at Glimmerglass--Sweeney Todd, the musical, and The Crucible, the opera based on Arthur Miller's play--ended with a quick dismissal of Bard Festival's revival of Mascagni's Iris ("genuine obscurity"), which it compared to The Crucible ("a relative rarity").  

Even by opera standards, the plot as described is beyond the usual limits and sounds totally wild: the heroine is "a simple girl who is abducted and imprisoned in a brothel, where she commits suicide after being cursed by her father."  But I found myself wondering if at least some of Mascagni's likely limited musical talent that generated the resoundingly successful  one-act Cavalleria Rusticana could have produced at least some attracting music. 

Admittedly, there's little basis for assuming anything very encouraging. Years ago, I attended a Washington Opera performance of Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz, which had absolutely nothing in common with Cavalleria.  First of all, in terms of defying expectations, Mascagni, who ended his life (he lived until 1945--he wrote both Iris and Cavalleria, as well as Fritz, in the 1890s) espousing fascism in an effort to win patronage from Mussolini, wrote in Fritz a story set in some hitherto unknown Jewish rural setting that features one oft-performed duet (the "Cherry Song") between a landowner and his servant girl. There's even a rabbi in the cast--a baritone.

My assumption is that Iris has even fewer memorable musical moments than Fritz, but it apparently is performed now and then in Italian opera houses. There's a relatively recent recording starring Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni. And then I consulted the Met's archives, which disclose that between 1907 and 1931, the opera was performed 16 times, with the first performance featuring no less than Enrico Caruso, Emma Eames, and Antonio Scotti. The last, in 1931, was almost as impressive: Beniamino Gigli, Elizabeth Rethberg, and Ezio Pinza!

We probably should discount those casts a bit because the Met in those years was blessed with a seeemingly endless supply of world-class singers. And there's surely no evidence to suggest that Mascagni had a hidden hit here. Some authorities have contended that his partner for the ages, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, composer of I Pagliacci,  the "Pag" with which "Cav" is inevitably paired by opera houses everywhere, was really the bad-luck bearer, in that he wrote some perfectly good operas such as a La Boheme, that soon after it debuted, found itself challenged--and defeated in terms of quality and popularity--by Puccini's masterpiece.

Perhaps we have Puccini to thank even for this revival of Iris, because Leon Botstein entitled the summer festival at Bard at which it was performed "Puccini and His World."

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.