Friday, December 31, 2010

Bollywood mini-reviews

Over the past year we watched something on the order of 30 Indian films, but I only wrote about a handful of them. Sometimes they had already been covered in such loving (or excoriating) detail by other writers that I didn't feel I had much to add. Sometimes they didn't seem worth a full-length post. And sometimes life just caught up with me and I didn't have the time.

So here are some capsule reviews of films that, for one reason or another, never got the full-length treatment.

Dor (String, 2006) is well-written, beautifully filmed, and offers two strong performances by its lead actresses, Gul Panang and Ayesha Takia. Zeenat (Panang) learns that her husband faces a death sentence in Saudia Arabia for the (accidental?) killing of his roommate in a guest-worker dormitory. Zeenat's husband can only be saved by the pardon of the victim's widow Meera (Takia), and so Zeenat travels to Rajasthan to try to find her. Along the way she encounters the itinerant actor Behroopiya (Shreyas Talpade), who—after introducing himself by stealing her belongings—comes to aid her in her search.

Panang is fiercely convincing as the driven Zeenat, showing us both her inner strength and her desperation. Takia, previously cast mainly in lightweight comedies like Dil Maane More!!! (2004) and Home Delivery (2005), gives a subdued and nuanced performance as the young widow Meera. The scene where Meera discovers that Zeenat's friendship has an ulterior motive is heartrending, and very real.

The only thing that makes me hesitate with Dor is that, while its surfaces suggest the gritty realism of parallel cinema, as it goes along it more and more betrays its filmi heart. Talpade's character is simply too good to be true, a self-conscious star turn that feels jarringly out-of-place at times. Director Nagesh Kukunoor incorporates multiple references to Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Bunty aur Babli (2005), and in Dor's final moments he directly quotes Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). While I love Bollywood in-references, I think the movie would have been even stronger without these touches. Still, a compelling film about the power of emotional bonds between women.

Two with Kamalinee Mukherjee: Anand (2004) and Godavari (2006)

The best thing about these two Telugu movies is Kamalinee Mukherjee, who is delightful as the confident, independent young heroines. In Anand she is Rupa, a young woman alone in the world who is pursued by two over-persistent lovers. One of them, Anand (Raja), moves in next door and randomly accosts her, and the other, Rahul (Anuj Gurwara), tries to rape her. After Anand saves Rupa by thrashing Rahul in the obligatory fight scene, he then blames her for the attack because she was too friendly with Rahul (!). Writer/director Sekhar Kammula creates a wonderful heroine, and then unfortunately matches her with a woefully conventional, not to say sexist, hero. Despite its charms—Kamalinee's performance, and the closely observed interactions between Rupa and her next-door neighbor Anita (Satya Krishnan) and her kids—Anand felt like it would have been better with a better hero.

Godavari, Kammula's next film, has a slightly different hero problem. Sriram (Sumanth) is travelling by boat down the Godavari River to attend the wedding of Raji (Neetu Chandra), the woman he loves but whose family has arranged her marriage with another suitor. As they float downriver to the temple of Lord Ram at Bhadrachalam, he meets Seeta (Kamalinee). Ram, Seeta, Bhadrachalam—that's not overdetermined, is it? The morose Ram and the plucky Seeta argue constantly, which means, of course, that they're falling in love, even if they're not quite aware of it. Unfortunately in the second half there's an odd incident that makes us doubt whether Ram is really ready to have someone like Seeta—or, really, anyone—in his life.

Seeta is a complex character, very sympathetically portrayed by Kamalinee: she's smart, open, generous, and aware of her own attractiveness, but given to occasional moments of doubt and jealousy. The shots of the river trip and the details of the community life on board the boat are wonderful, beautifully framed by director Kammula, and, together with Kamalinee's charming performance, are the best reason to watch Godavari.

Three with Priyanka Chopra: What's Your Raashee? (What's Your Sign?, 2009), Pyaar Impossible! (Love Impossible, 2010), and Anjaana Anjaani (Strangers, 2010)

Speaking of hero and script problems...

Priyanka may have looked great in the backless, gold-lamé swimsuit she wore in Dostana (2008), but her best asset is her voice, which is low and throaty. As she proves in What's Your Raashee?, though, she's capable of many voices, some extremely grating. Priyanka plays 12 hopeful brides, each representing the supposed characteristics of a different zodiac sign. Watching Priyanka portray 12 different women is pretty enjoyable, but the film gets bogged down in complicated subplots featuring the blandly handsome but distinctly uncharismatic Harman Baweja. Three and a half hours is a long time to spend in his company.

Things don't improve a great deal in Pyaar Impossible!, where we're asked to believe that Uday Chopra is a software engineer. Uday's really not bad in this; the role of the geeky Abhay forces him to tone down his usually all-too-apparent self-love. Abhay manages to be somewhat endearing, as long as you don't think too hard about his stalking of college beauty Alisha (Priyanka). I also have a soft spot for the picturization of the title song, where Abhay shows Alisha how brutal the dating market can be for nonconformists (though I have news for director Jugal Hansraj and his costume department: Priyanka would have no trouble getting a date in those cool nerd glasses). But despite the best efforts of Priyanka and Advika Yadav, who plays her bratty 7-year-old daughter, the silicon-wafer-thin story—written by Uday himself!—doesn't bear a moment's consideration.

Priyanka finally gets to play opposite a plausible hero, Ranbir Kapoor, in Anjaana Anjaani—only the movie's entire budget seems to have been spent on its stars and location shooting, with nothing left over for script development. (Curiously—or perhaps not—no writers are credited on the film's Wikipedia or IMDB pages.) Akash (Ranbir) is about to jump off a bridge when he's interrupted by Kiara (Priyanka), who is also there to jump. Nothing about this film is surprising in the least: we understand where it's going in the first five minutes, but it takes the rest of the film for these uninvolving characters to catch up with us. In the meantime, their cluelessness and self-involvement becomes ever more irritating.

There is one great moment: Kiara and Akash have agreed to a reunion on the bridge at midnight on New Year's Eve, but he hasn't shown. Dejected, she's turning to leave—and then she hears his voice. In quick succession, about a dozen distinct emotions cross Priyanka's face. It's amazing to watch, but one great moment doesn't make up for the rest of the movie.

Karthik Calling Karthik (2010) is a slickly filmed and atmospheric mystery/thriller with appealing stars in Farhan Akhtar and Deepika Padukone, and at least one catchy tune in Shankar-Eshaan-Loy's "Uff Teri Adaa." But the solution to the mystery is so ludicrous that it reveals the rest of the movie to be the empty exercise in style that it is.

I Hate Luv Storys [sic] (2010): Halfway through IHLS I asked my partner, "Do you notice a lack of chemistry between Imran Khan and Sonam Kapoor?" She replied, "I notice a lack of chemistry between Imran and the camera."

And that's the problem with over-saturating your film with references to DDLJ (1995), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), and many other romantic classics—you invite comparisons between your lead couple and the most charismatic jodis in latter-day Hindi cinema. In comparison, both Imran and Sonam are, well, inert, separately and together. And that's the main problem with IHLS—all the in-references just serve to highlight the movie's own inadequacies. It's early days yet for Imran and Sonam—this is only his fourth movie, and her third—so they may get better. I'll check back in a few years.

Dulha Mil Gaya (Found A Groom, 2010): Speaking of comparisons, Fardeen Khan should make sure that he never has to share a screen with Shah Rukh Khan again. FK's lack of magnetism is always obvious, but it becomes so glaring after SRK enters in the second half that I felt embarrassed for him. The one entertaining moment is "Dilrubaon Ke Jalwe," which deliriously mashes up SRK's and Sushmita Sen's filmographies. Otherwise, this one is for SRK completists only.

Happy New Year to everyone!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Favorites of 2010: Music

A continuation of my Favorites of 2010: Books and Favorites of 2010: Movies and television. As before, my favorites weren't necessarily produced, but instead first encountered, in 2010.

Music

Favorite rock recording: Patti Smith, Twelve. Columbia 87251 (2007).

Twelve is Patti Smith's album of covers, but it sounds and feels like a really good Patti Smith record. Some of the songs were originally by artists with whom she obviously has a strong affinity: Jimi Hendrix ("Are You Experienced?"), Mick Jagger & Keith Richards ("Gimme Shelter"), Jim Morrison ("Soul Kitchen"), Bob Dylan (though the song is a surprise: the born-again era "Changing of the Guards"). Other choices are more unexpected: Tears for Fears ("Everybody Wants to Rule the World"), Allman Brothers ("Midnight Rider"), Paul Simon ("Boy In the Bubble"), Stevie Wonder ("Pastime Paradise"). Many of the songs she includes are so iconic in their original versions that it's an act of daring even to attempt to cover them--only such a strongly individual performer could get away with it. A good companion to her recently released memoir, Just Kids. Thanks very much to Robin for sending this along.

Favorite classical instrumental recording: (tie)

Joseph Haydn: Baryton Trios. Balázs Kakuk, baryton; Péter Lukács, viola; Tibor Párkányi, cello. Hungaroton 31174 (1989).

The baryton was an 18th-century instrument that falls somewhere between a viola da gamba and a cello in its sonority. In addition to bowed gut strings, though, the baryton had another 8 to 20 sympathetic metal strings that could be plucked by the performer. These baryton trios were originally written for Haydn's patron Prince Nicholas Esterházy, an avid amateur baryton player; Haydn himself may have played the viola part. They are lovely works that generally reach neither for deep profundity nor for spectacular virtuosity, but instead for intimacy and melodic pleasure. One remarkable thing about the trios is that they involve only low(ish) strings, which results in a very rich sound. An utterly charming recording.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Sonatas for viola da gamba and basso continuo. Paolo Pandolfo, viola da gamba; Rinaldo Alessandrini, harpsichord. Brilliant Classics 93362 (2008, originally recorded 1995).

Johann Sebastian Bach's second son, in contrast to his father, is sometimes accused of a lack of profundity. But these sonatas are masterful and expressive works that stand comparison with the senior Bach's own viola da gamba sonatas. At least, in these performances, which involve two of the most brilliant musicians to emerge from Italy's early music movement. This wonderful disc makes me wonder what other C.P.E. Bach treasures I've overlooked.

Favorite classical vocal recording: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: Lorraine at Emmanuel: Celebrating the Lives of Craig Smith and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The Orchestra of Emmanuel Music; Craig Smith and John Harbison, conductors. Avie 2130 (2008).

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's voice was "primally beautiful, rich in tone and true in pitch, warm and deep and wine-dark," as Alex Ross once wrote.[1] If you ever had the privilege of seeing Lorraine Hunt Lieberson onstage, you know what a thrilling experience it was to hear that voice live. And it wasn't just that her voice was gorgeous; her commitment to conveying textual and emotional meaning was total. During the time you'd spent in her company you felt that you had lived more deeply.

This disc documents three concert performances given at Boston's Emmanuel Church: two arias from Bach cantatas, and Dejanira's arias from Handel's oratorio Hercules. At first glance the programming seems a bit odd: the Bach works are sacred, the Handel secular; the Bach is in German, the Handel in English; and the dates of recording are several years apart (the earliest is from 1992, while the latest is from 1999). But this disc holds together thanks to Hunt Lieberson's superb performances. She was once a violist with the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music, and it's easy to believe that she felt a special connection with the ensemble. And with the music: conductor Craig Smith famously founded Emmanuel Music in order to perform Bach's cantatas, and Hunt Lieberson had performed many as both a member of the orchestra and as a featured vocalist. She also clearly loved Handel: she became famous in part for her assumption of the role of Sesto in Peter Sellars' production of Handel's Giulio Cesare at Glimmerglass in 1985, and made a specialty of Handel roles in her recordings with the Bay Area's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Hunt Lieberson's life was tragically cut short by breast cancer in 2006, making even more precious the rare documents (such as this one) of her profound gifts.

Favorite (semi-)opera recording: Henry Purcell, The Fairy Queen. Jonathan Kent, stage director; Paul Brown, designer. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/The Glyndebourne Chorus; William Christie, conductor. Opus Arte DVD 1931 D (2010).

The Fairy Queen of the title is Titania, from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Purcell's music was originally performed as a masque in between acts of a heavily cut performance of the Shakespeare play, and remarkably that is how it is performed here. It makes for a long performance—the running time is 230 minutes, or nearly 4 hours—but in restoring the Shakepearean context the director Jonathan Kent allows Purcell's songs to reflect and comment on the action of the play. And the staging of the musical material is highly imaginative and really fun: I'm pretty sure that Purcell's original score didn't call for giant bunnies to bound onstage and start having sex in a variety of acrobatic positions (the, er, choreography is by Kim Brandstrup). The cast of vocalists (which includes Lucy Crowe and Carolyn Sampson) is excellent and quite characterful. Conductor William Christie's long familiarity with this score is evident in the sparkling playing he draws from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. A wonderful example of how Baroque theater can be reimagined for modern audiences without doing violence to its original meanings.

Favorite opera performance: (three-way tie)

Mozart and Da Ponte: Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). San Francisco Opera, with Danielle De Niese (Susanna), Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Ellie Dehn (The Countess), Lucas Meachem (Count Almaviva), and Heidi Stober (Cherubino); Nicola Luisotti, conductor. Seen September 21 and October 5, 2010.

In an earlier post I wrote about why Le Nozze di Figaro is, for me, the greatest opera ever written. The San Francisco Opera's handsome Figaro, directed by John Copley, showed how effective a production can be when it pays attention to what the composer and librettist intended. It's set in the late 18th century (the time of its composition), and the sets and costumes realistically attempt to evoke a rural Spanish estate. There were a few missed opportunities—for some reason directors almost universally feel that they have to mess about with the garden scenes, which have no need to be changed—but mainly the action was straightforward and persuasively realized. Of course, it helped to have an excellent cast, with Danielle De Niese as an especially delightful Susanna, and Ellie Dehn as a touchingly vulnerable Countess. So good we saw it twice! (Photo: Danielle De Niese as Susanna; credit: Marty Sohl.)

Handel: Serse (Xerxes). Berkeley West Edge Opera, with Paula Rasmussen (Serse), Angela Cadelago (Romilda), Ryan Belongie (Arsamene), Anna Slate (Atalanta), Sonia Gariaeff (Amastre), Don Sherrill (Elviro); Alan Curtis, conductor. Seen November 21, 2010.

I wrote about this production in an earlier post. A wonderfully ambitious production for a small local company, with a conductor and prima donna of international stature and an accomplished supporting cast. This is exactly what companies like BWEO should be doing: programming under-performed gems in clever productions that make virtues of tight-budget necessities. I hope that the success of Serse leads to future productions of other comic or semi-comic Baroque operas: I vote for Cavalli's La Calisto.

Blow: Venus & Adonis. Magnificat, with Catherine Webster (Venus), Peter Becker (Adonis), and José Lemos (Cupid). Warren Stewart, conductor. Seen October 10, 2010.

I also wrote about this production in an earlier post. Venus & Adonis, like its successor by Purcell, Dido & Aeneas, is a lovely chamber opera that packs an emotional punch well out of proportion to its size. As I wrote earlier, "Magnificat made a compelling case for the work; given its obviously high quality and modest scale, I'm amazed that it isn't programmed more frequently....Thanks are due to Stewart and Magnificat for bringing this unjustly neglected work to life."


1. Alex Ross, "Fervor: Remembering Lorraine Hunt Lieberson," The New Yorker, September 25, 2006.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Favorites of 2010: Books

A continuation of my Favorites of 2010: Movies and television. As before, my favorites were first encountered this year, but not necessarily produced this year.

Books

2010 was for me the Year of the Victorian Novel. For the first time I discovered the pleasures of curling up in an overstuffed armchair with overstuffed 19th-century fiction.

Favorite novel: George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871-72)

In my earlier full-length post on the "three love problems" of Middlemarch I wrote, "its characters are so fully realized that readers will recognize in them their neighbors, relatives and friends—and especially, parts of themselves that usually remain unacknowledged." Eliot writes with an almost painful psychological acuity and unsparingly dissects the emotional dynamics of love and marriage.

Runners-up: (tie)

The novels of Anthony Trollope: The Way We Live Now (1875), Can You Forgive Her? (1865), The Small House at Allington (1864), He Knew He Was Right (1869)

Trollope perhaps has a more conventional view of the roles of men and women than does George Eliot. And it's difficult to decide if the prejudices and conventionality of his upper-class characters are entirely their own, or whether they're not shared to a lesser or greater extent by the author. But if in Middlemarch George Eliot peoples a provincial village with richly drawn characters, Trollope manages to people the entire city of London and several surrounding towns. The only thing more astonishing than the sheer volume of his output—in the decade between The Small House at Allington and The Way We Live Now he wrote 18 other fat novels, plus short stories, essays, plays, travel sketches, and a school textbook (!)—is its uniformly high quality. His female characters are especially vivid, and Trollope makes their dilemmas keenly felt: there are women who love men unworthy of them (Lily Dale in The Small House at Allington, Marie Melmotte in The Way We Live Now, and Lady Glencora in Can You Forgive Her?), women who face family opposition to the men they love (Hetta Carbury in The Way We Live Now, Dorothy Stanbury and Nora Rowley in He Knew He Was Right), women trapped in difficult marriages (Lady Glencora, and Emily Trevelyan in He Knew He Was Right), and women who find no outlet for their intelligence and their passionate desire to make a difference in the world (Alice Vavasor in Can You Forgive Her?). Trollope's fictional world is almost Tolstoyan in the complexity and richness of its characters.

The late novels of Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro (1899) and Memorial de Aires (Counselor Aires' Memoirs, 1908)

Six months ago I wrote a post on Dom Casmurro; after The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas I think it's Machado's strongest novel. But I have a special affection as well for his last book, Memorial de Aires, translated by Helen Caldwell as Counselor Ayres' Memorial (University of California Press, 1982). In a series of diary entries we follow Aires' observations of the slowly blossoming romance of a beautiful (and somewhat reluctant) young widow, and his elegiac reflections on love and the passing of youth. The final passages of this slim story beautifully crystallize Aires' melancholy acceptance of time's erosive power on memory and the emotions. The book is a masterpiece in miniature.

Favorite non-fiction book: (tie)

Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin, 2009)

I posted about Zadie Smith's "smart, insightful and beautifully written" essays earlier this year. "Dead Man Laughing" affectingly describes the death of her father and their shared love of British comedy, while "Middlemarch and Everybody" inspired me to pick up Eliot's wonderful novel for the first time. Changing My Mind is now out in paperback.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, 2010)

In the summer of 1967 the 20-year-old Patti Smith arrived in New York City with $32 and a battered copy of Rimbaud's Illuminations in her pocket. By chance she encountered Robert Mapplethorpe, and the two began a romantic and artistic partnership that transformed both of their lives. Just Kids is written in an autodidact's style which is direct, genuine, unsentimental, at times incantory, and like her music, utterly compelling. The book won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction and is now out in paperback.

Next time: Music

Friday, December 10, 2010

Favorites of 2010: Movies and television

The end of the year tends to put one—or at least me—in a reflective and retrospective mood. What follows is a list of my favorite movies and television from 2010; books, music, and art will be included in my next post.

Please note that these are not movies or TV shows that were necessarily created or released in 2010, but rather ones that I first encountered in 2010. As you'll see, almost all of these favorites date from years or decades earlier.

Bollywood 2010

Is it just me, or was this a pretty dismal year for Bollywood? I found myself following the examples of Memsaab, Beth, and Bollyviewer in turning primarily to Bollywood's Silver and Golden Ages for my viewing pleasure.

Favorite Bollywood movie: (tie)

Seeta aur Geeta (1972)

What a delightful movie! Hema Malini is adorable in a double role as twin sisters separated at birth. Seeta is raised to be a properly submissive daughter in a rich household, but her greedy relatives cruelly exploit her. The spirited Geeta is raised by a poor family and becomes a street performer with her partner Raka (Dharmendra). Of course the twins get switched, their respective families get big surprises, and many catchy R.D. Burman songs (and a few tight slaps) ensue before everything is sorted out. If for some reason you haven't yet seen this charmer (directed by Ramesh Sippy and written by Javed Akhtar, Satish Bhatnagar and Salim Khan) put it at the top of your list.

Sadhna (1958)

Yes, this classic from Yash Chopra's older brother B. R. is a tawaif-with-a-heart-of-gold story. But the great performance of Vyjayanthimala as the courtesan Champabai, the wonderful songs of N. Dutta (music) and Sahir Ludhianvi (lyrics), and the film's powerful indictment of the exploitation and oppression of women, make this a very special experience. As always, I'm lagging behind in my discovery: see Memsaab's post on Sadhna from two years ago, which is beautifully written and filled with screencaps of M.N. Malhotra's gorgeous black and white cinematography.

Favorite Bollywood soundtrack: Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)

This movie is full of wonderful music sung by the great Mohammad Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. But what makes this one of the greatest soundtracks ever are a series of qawwali competitions where the performances just keep getting more brilliant with every exchange. Rohan (music) and our friend from Sadhna, Sahir Ludhianvi (lyrics), outdid themselves; this film has almost too much great music to take in. And if that's not enough, you get to see the songs picturized on Bharat Bushan, Madhubala, and the sparkling Shyama and Ratna.

Favorite non-Bollywood movie: Tokyo Story (1953)

An elderly couple (Chishu Riyu and Chieko Higashiyama) make a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the big city to see their children and grandchildren—only to discover that no one has any time for them. A radiant Setsuko Hara, the couple's daughter-in-law, is the only one who treats them with kindness; but we can see that her own life is cruelly constrained by her poverty and widowhood. Director/writer Yasujiro Ozu takes this simple story and creates a masterpiece of restraint in which details of the characters' lives and emotions are slowly unveiled. As rich an experience as reading a great novel.

Favorite English-language movie: Flushed Away (2006)

We're big fans of Nick Park's Wallace & Gromit series, but somehow we missed this Aardman Animations feature when it came out. Maybe the comical adventures of rats in the London sewers didn't sound all that appealing at the time. Flushed Away turned out to be hilarious, with sight gags and movie references coming so fast that it's difficult to catch them all. And the characters are voiced by actors Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellan and Bill Nighy.

Favorite TV show (on DVD, of course): Middlemarch (1994)

George Eliot's Middlemarch is an 800-page novel, but this excellent BBC/Masterpiece Theater series—written by Andrew Davies of Pride and Prejudice fame—manages to include virtually every major incident in the book (and many of the character-revealing minor ones). A wonderful cast, and of course fabulous costumes and locations, make this another great BBC adaptation.

Runner-up: Glee, Season 1

I wrote about Glee recently; since that post we've continued watching the first season. The story lines are getting ever more absurd, the quality of the music is wildly uneven, and it feels like the last third of the season is just marking time until the big finale. It still manages to be utterly addictive, though.

Next time: Books, music, and art

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Handel's Serse

When I heard that Alan Curtis would be conducting and Paula Rasmussen would be starring in the Berkeley West Edge Opera's production of Handel's Serse (Xerxes, 1738), I was astounded. Curtis is one of the world's foremost conductors of Baroque music, and together with his period instrument orchestra Il Complesso Barocco has made more than a dozen full-length recordings of rarely-performed Handel operas such as Deidamia (1741), Tolomeo (1728), and Floridante (1721). If you're looking for a great place to acquaint yourself with both Curtis and Handel opera, I highly recommend Amor e gelosia: Handel Operatic Duets featuring the beautifully intertwined voices of Patrizia Ciofi and Joyce DiDonato.

Paula Rasmussen is Serse in the only available DVD of the Italian-language version of the opera; her conductor is Christophe Rousset with Les Talens Lyriques, and her co-stars include Sandrine Piau, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Patricia Bardon and Ann Hallenberg. Here's a clip of Rasmussen from this Dresden Semperoper production, performing Serse's exquisite opening aria "Ombra mai fu":


And yes, Serse is singing to a tree, which immediately suggests that Handel intended for the opera to have a less-than-fully-serious tone. Thanks to that unusual mixture of comic and serious elements Serse came in for some criticism in Handel's time. The printed libretto contained a note To the Reader which alerted its first audiences that the story contained "some imbicillities" [sic], though those imbecilities were largely derived from Herodotus' account of Xerxes in his Histories. And Charles Burney, in his A General History of Music (1789) wrote that the libretto "is one of the worst that Handel ever set to Music: for besides feeble writing, there is a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery in it..." In Handel's time, serious and comic elements in opera tended to be strictly separated: an opera was either seria or buffa. Handel, however, mixed the serious and the comic in operas such as Agrippina (1709), Partenope (1730) and Serse, looking back to the 17th-century models of Monteverdi and Cavalli, and anticipating the Da Ponte and Mozart operas of the 1780s.

With a conductor and lead singer of international stature, this fall's BWEO production of Serse (seen November 21) promised to be a landmark. But as I was settling into my excellent seat—the 600-seat Performing Arts Theater at El Cerrito High School is quite intimate, an ideal venue for Baroque opera—I noticed that this three-act opera was being presented in only two parts, and that nearly an hour of music had been cut.

Worse was the program note from BWEO artistic director Mark Streshinsky, which unfortunately I had the leisure to read before the curtain rose. First he mentions his conception of Xerxes: "He has an absolutely brilliant military intellect, he is prone to outbursts, he's evidently obsessed with botany, and he has no clue as to the personal feelings or emotions of the people around him. I suddenly thought to myself: 'This guy has Aspergers's [sic] Syndrome!'" Of course this diagnosis is not only anachronistic, it's unnecessary—after all, isn't Xerxes the absolute ruler of the Persian Empire, and wouldn't that explain sufficiently his disregard for other people's feelings? But then Streshinsky continues, "Un-doctored, Handel operas are a great challenge to a director and to an audience....Cuts and, in this case, a re-configuration of Act 3 do wonders for the plot, avoiding several moments that make me think 'Huh?'"

While the conventions of early 18th-century opera may be unfamiliar to modern audiences, a heavy directorial hand can make things less rather than more comprehensible. Cutting and re-arranging Handel's work not only does violence to its musical and dramatic integrity, but the disjointed result can drag, rather than flow. As Handel scholar Winton Dean has written, "The organization is so taut, and the equilibrium between the musical, dramatic and scenic components so nicely balanced, that almost any cut weakens the design. As a result, the duration appears longer, not shorter, when cuts are made..."* And any director whose response to an opera is "Huh?" should probably think about staging a different opera. So it was with a sinking heart that I awaited the opening chords of the overture.

It quickly became clear that Streshinsky's production was going to be bright, bold (Lucas Krech's lighting design washed the stage backdrop with intense pinks, oranges and blues), modern, and broadly campy. Here's a taste of the approach: Serse's aria "Io dirò che l'amo né mi sgomentarò" (I will say that I love her); the observers are Xerxes' brother Arsamene (countertenor Ryan Belongie) and the servant Elviro (bass Don Sherrill):


(Set by Liliana Duque Piñeiro; costumes by Romy Douglass.)

Camp is the default approach to Baroque opera by directors who don't trust the musical and dramatic material to hold the audience's interest. The danger with such an approach is that as the director strives for cheap laughs he can obscure or undercut the moments of genuine feeling. But this kind of comic approach can also work—as David McVicar's Bollywood Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar, 1724) has shown—and it did so here, pretty delightfully.

Xerxes falls in love with Romilda, the brightly soubrettish and very game Angela Cadelago. Romilda, though, already has a secret lover: Arsamene. Here is Cadelago singing Romilda's aria "Nemmen con l'ombre d'infedeltà" (No shadow of unfaithfulness):


The burly Elviro garbs himself in highly unconvincing drag in order to convey a clandestine love-note from Arsamene to Romilda; but the message gets intercepted by Romilda's gawky, lovelorn kid sister Atalanta (the wonderful Anna Slate), who uses it to try to snag Arsamene for herself:


Meanwhile, Xerxes' dumped fiancée Amastre (rich-voiced contralto Sonia Gariaeff) shows up in male drag (all the cross-dressing is in the original, by the way) to keep an eye on Xerxes. Many love complications ensue before all the proper couples are sorted out in the end.

Musically, the evening was a bit mixed. The singers were generally excellent, especially the four principal women (Rasmussen, Cadelago, Gariaeff and the wide-eyed Slate, who practically stole the show when she emerged from under the heaving bed on which Romilda was trysting with Arsamene). Under Curtis' direction the instrumentalists (some of whom were moonlighting from well-known Bay Area Baroque ensembles) gave a strong account of Handel's great score. Highlights included Rasmussen's glorious "Ombra mai fu," her duet with Gariaeff, "Gran pena e gelosia," and Gariaeff's mournful solo aria "Cagion son io del mio dolore". Mention should also be made of Gilbert Martinez's fluent and amusing harpsichord continuo playing: at one point an all-too-familiar arpeggio indicated the ringing of a character's cell phone.

But the cuts to Handel's music were quite extensive. Some arias were cut entirely, and others lost their B sections and/or da capo repeats. Cutting the repeats of da capo arias not only makes them shorter, but less meaningful. In a da capo aria the first section expresses an emotion, and then the second section a contrasting emotion. When the music of the first section is repeated, we return as well to the first emotion, only this time it's inflected with the second emotion. Cut the second part and the repeat of the first part, and those nuances disappear (and the characters' emotional responses get flatter and less complex). However, given that Streshinky's production was aiming more at comedy than pathos, the cuts weren't as damaging as they might have been in an opera like Alcina or Ariodante.

The success of this production suggests that the Berkeley West Edge Opera might want to look at some other ironic or comic Baroque operas, such as Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), Cavalli's La Calisto (1651), or Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728). I think they'd have a chance of being as crowd-pleasing as this winning, clever and highly enjoyable production of Serse.


* Winton Dean, "Production style in Handel operas," in The Cambridge Companion to Handel, Donald Burrows, ed., Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 253.