Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 1

In 1924 the Dada and Surrealist artist Francis Picabia wrote a scenario and designed the sets and costumes for a two-act "instantanist ballet" entitled Relâche (Cancelled), with music by Erik Satie. Picabia planned for the ballet to have an "entr'acte cinématographique," a film shown between the acts. He outlined a series of situations and asked a little-known young filmmaker, René Clair, to direct.

The previous year Clair had directed his first feature film, Paris qui dort (Paris Asleep), in which a group of adventurers wander through a Paris where time has been frozen by a mad scientist's immobility ray. The film's theme and visuals may have appealed to Picabia and prompted his invitation to collaborate.

Entr'acte (Intermission, 1924) consists of two sections: a brief introduction shown before the ballet featuring Satie and Picabia firing a cannon at the camera/audience, and a longer section that was shown between the acts. The film features various kinds of photographic effects (double exposures, moving in and out of focus, stop-motion animation, rapid pans and zooms, positioning the camera at odd angles, slow and reverse motion, etc.). A bearded ballerina doing leaps and pirouettes is shot from below a glass floor; matches crawl onto a man's scalp and burst into flame; Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray play chess on a rooftop until they are washed away by a torrent; a paper boat sails over the roofs of Paris as though they are storm-tossed waves.

A hunter (Clair himself?) shoots an egg, releasing a bird, and is in turn shot by Picabia and plummets from a roof. A funeral procession leaves a church, bounding in slow motion behind a hearse pulled by a camel. The hearse slips the harness and rolls through the streets; as it picks up speed, the members of the procession jog, then sprint after it to try to keep up. Finally, the coffin falls out of the careening hearse; the hunter climbs out, dressed as a magician. Pointing a wand at each member of the procession, he makes them disappear. He waves the wand over the audience, and then turns it on himself. As he fades from view, "Fin" comes onscreen, and then a man (Picabia?) bursts through the screen. He lands face down on a sidewalk; when he is kicked he flies back through the screen in reverse motion.

The provocations and incongruities of Entr'acte clearly influenced other experiments in Surrealist filmmaking. It seems also to have inspired later purveyors of absurdist humor: the funeral procession sequence, with its leaping mourners and runaway hearse, is like a silent Monty Python sketch. Picabia said that Entr'acte "respects nothing except the right to roar with laughter." [1]

Un chapeau de paille d'Italie (The Italian Straw Hat, 1927, adapted by Clair from the play by Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel):

In the opening minutes of Clair's film, a wandering horse munches on a straw hat it finds hanging on a bush in a park. Concealed by the shrubbery is a married woman (Olga Chekhova) having a rendezvous with her lover, a hotheaded Hussar (Vital Geymond). With her hat half-eaten, the woman can't return home to her husband without uncomfortable questions being raised. So the adulterous couple follow the owner of the horse to his home and demand that he replace the hat or face the wrath of the Hussar.

So begins a day in which the horse's owner, Fadinard (Albert Prejean), will be caught in a cascading series of misadventures, not least because it is his wedding day. His unsuspecting bride Helène (Maryse Maia) is increasingly bewildered by his distracted air and frequent disappearances as he races against time to find a substitute hat, while Helène's irascible father (Yvonneck) thinks that Fadinard is getting cold feet.

This must have seemed like time-worn material even in 1928. Clair does enliven the proceedings by incorporating a bit (though not enough) of the surrealistic visual sensibility of Entr'acte: there's a fantasy/nightmare sequence in which Fadinard imagines the slow-motion defenestration of his chairs, and the mass abandonment of the house by the rest of his furniture. There's also a sequence in which, as Fadinard tells the cuckolded husband (Jim Gerald) the story of the ruined hat, the scenes are portrayed as though melodramatically enacted on a theater stage.

But most of the action is shot by a fixed camera that, as Iris Barry has suggested, may have been intended to suggest the style of early movies (the action is set in 1895, the year of the Lumiere Brothers' first film screening). Or perhaps the fixed frame is intended to evoke the experience of sitting in a theater watching the play. Either way, the visually static direction can feel at odds with the comic action.

In translating the dialogue-driven play into a silent film Clair devised a series of running gags featuring recalcitrant objects—which include a myrtle plant, a clip-on tie that won't stay clipped, a blocked ear trumpet, an uncomfortable new pair of shoes, a missing glove, and a stray hairpin—that cause their owners recurring problems over the course of the day. But for this viewer, at least, the repeated jokes eventually wore out their welcome. At 105 minutes the film lacks the relentless pace that farce demands. Instead of irresistible laughter, the movie evokes the occasional rueful smile.

Spoiler alert: by the end of the film the straying wife has received a replacement for her half-eaten hat (in a way that we'd predicted in the first moments of the film), the potted myrtle has finally made its way into the home of the newlyweds, the ear trumpet has been unblocked, the bride's father has exchanged his tight new shoes for the cuckold's comfortable broken-in pair (a lewd joke?), and the missing glove has been found (the donning of gloves is also suggestive). . .

The gloves and the shoes

. . .but what about the hairpin? The bride's cousin inadvertently drops it down the back of Helène's wedding gown as she's helping her dress, and it keeps poking her throughout the day. Somehow, though, Clair forgot to wind up this running joke at the end of the film. It would have made the perfect ending: when Fadinard and Helène are finally alone and able to embrace on their wedding night, Helène should have flinched as the hairpin made its presence known once more. The placing of the pin on the nightstand would have been the perfect image of the happy resolution of all the day's distresses. Clair simply missed the opportunity.

Although Clair disapproved of movie adaptations of books and plays, after the success of Un chapeau de paille d'Italie his next film (and last silent feature) would be an adaptation of another Labiche comedy, Les Deux timides (Two Timid Souls, 1928). But it was with his first sound films that he broke through to international success, and they will be the subject of part two of this series.

Next in the series: Sous les toits de Paris (Under the roofs of Paris), Le Million, and À nous la liberté (We shall be free)

  1. Steven Higgins, Still Moving: The Film and Media Collections of The Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Modern Art, 2006, p. 104.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Suggested reading: Misogynist economists edition

Ingrained sexism in higher education, attacks on what is already a flawed voting system, and our willing participation in our own surveillance: yes, it's another cheery edition of Suggested Reading!

Janet Yellen, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

1. Misogynist economists

Alice Wu's senior thesis at UC Berkeley examined the language of posts on Economic Job Market Rumors, a forum "established to share information about job applications and results in each year's hiring cycle." Although the forum is anonymous, from internal evidence the majority of users are economics graduate students and recent Ph.Ds.

In this forum Wu found incontrovertible evidence of gender stereotyping. After analyzing the language of more than a million posts, she found 3600 words that had "meaningful predictive power" to determine whether the subject of a post was male or female. The top five words that predicted whether a post was about a woman were "hotter," "hot," "attractive," "pregnant," and "gorgeous." The top five words that predicted whether a post was about a man (that is, negatively predictive of it being about a woman) were "homosexual," "homo," "philosopher," "keen," and "motivated." (That "homosexual" and "homo" were the most predictive words for posts about men—"lesbian" was #8 for posts about women—says something as well about academic homophobia.)

In case you think this is "just" about language, the American Economic Association's Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession has shown that women are underrepresented in academic economics programs at all levels, from first-year economics Ph.D. students (only one-third are women) to full professors (only 13% are women). As Justin Wolfers writes in the New York Times, this is "Evidence of a Toxic Environment for Women in Economics." And it's not just economics: although for the past two decades a majority of bachelor's degrees have been earned by women, they are underrepresented in many other academic and professional programs, including law, business, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math-related) fields.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. In June 2017 he suggested that "patriotically minded" private Russian hackers may have interfered in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. (Reuters)

2. The hacking of our electoral system, part 1: Russia

Speaking of the New York Times, it recently published a report suggesting that, as the headline had it, the Russian election hacking effort was wider than previously known. The danger is apparently less that vote counts were changed—although without paper trails in many states that may never be determined—but that voter registration rolls can be altered to make it appear that voters aren't registered or have already voted. You would think that hacking of our voting system by a foreign power would result in well-funded and well-coordinated investigation at all levels, but "local, state and federal agencies have conducted little of the type of digital forensic investigation required to assess the impact, if any, on voting in at least 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian hackers."

19th-century caricature of the "Gerry-Mander," a Massachusetts voting district drawn to favor candidates of the Democratic-Republican Party of Gov. Eldbridge Gerry (

3. The hacking of our electoral system, part 2: The Republican Party

As the Republican Party has long known, keeping people from voting at all is easier than changing their votes afterwards. It has relentlessly engaged in efforts to suppress the votes of people likely to vote against Republicans. As Rebecca Solnit writes of the Republican Party in Harper's Magazine, "rather than attempting to win the votes of people of color, they attempt to prevent people of color from voting."
I imagined that it was suicide for the G.O.P. to ignore the concerns of people of color, to craft a platform based on white grievance. Surely, I thought, John McCain and Mitt Romney lost their elections in part because a party run for and by white people had no future. But there was a fundamental flaw in my thinking: demographics matter only in a democracy, in a system in which every citizen has equal power and equal access to representation. That equality is threatened today [has it ever existed?], thanks to the Republican Party’s long campaign against those who are likely to vote against them. Today’s Republicans are democracy’s enemy, and it is theirs.
And alongside outright voter suppression comes voter dilution through gerrymandering. Emily Bazelon's recent article in the New York Times details the results of gerrymandering in Wisconsin: while the Republican share of the popular vote in Wisconsin State Assembly elections between 2008 and 2016 has increased from 43% to 53%, their proportion of State Assembly seats has gone from 47% to 65%. The Supreme Court will soon decide Gill v. Whitford, a case brought against Wisconsin's hyper-partisan redistricting, but in the past has declined to intervene in redistricting cases.

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Platon/

4. Facebook is watching you

Who are Facebook's customers? If you answered "its users," you hold a common misconception. Facebook's customers are advertisers; as the headline of John Lanchester's London Review of Books article has it, "You are the product." The more data Facebook can gather about your activities, preferences, income, friends, "friends," etc., the more valuable you are to the company.

And where does Facebook get all that information? You give them most of it. As Lanchester writes,
. . .anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company. In 2014, the New York Times did the arithmetic and found that humanity was spending 39,757 collective years on the site, every single day. Jonathan Taplin points out that this is 'almost 15 million years of free labor per year.' That was back when it had a mere 1.23 billion users.
So if advertisers are Facebook's customers and we are its product, what is its business?
. . .even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens.
If you think that this doesn't have consequences beyond the ads you see, think again. To give just one example, the personal data that advertisers have access to results in personalized prices. When Spanish researchers created 'budget conscious' and 'affluent' online personas, they found that the affluent persona saw much higher prices (sometimes four times higher) than the budget conscious persona for the same goods and services. This is not just about being a smart consumer: even when the only difference between personas was location, quoted prices differed by as much as 166 percent.
It's sort of funny, and also sort of grotesque, that an unprecedentedly huge apparatus of consumer surveillance is fine, apparently, but an unprecedentedly huge apparatus of consumer surveillance which results in some people paying higher prices may well be illegal.
And how "unprecedentedly huge" is Facebook? Here's a list of the internet sites with the greatest number of monthly logged-in users: Facebook (now more than 2 billion), YouTube (1.5 billion), WhatsApp (1.2 billion), Messenger (1.2 billion), WeChat (890 million), and Instagram (700 million). YouTube is owned by Alphabet (Google), and WeChat by China's Tencent. Facebook owns the rest.

If you're under any illusion that Facebook exists (in the words of its mission statement) "to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together," Lanchester's article is essential reading.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Magic Flute

The entrance of the Queen of Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), 
designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1815.

How is it possible not to like Mozart's The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte, 1791), perhaps his most beloved opera?

As a measure of that universal appreciation, Die Zauberflöte is Mozart's most-performed opera by far, and in the 2015-16 season was the second-most-performed opera worldwide by any composer, according to And the fairy-tale-like story has sparked the imagination of many visual artists. In the mid-70s Ingmar Bergman made a famous film version (performed in Swedish); in the early 2000s Julie Taymor directed a colorfully syncretic production at the Metropolitan Opera (performed in English); and more recently William Kentridge has created a production involving his striking animated projections.(Samples of all of these and more are easily findable on YouTube.)

So how is it possible not to like The Magic Flute? Let me count the ways:
  1. The libretto is racist. The libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder features Monostatos, a "blackamoor," who is portrayed as cowardly, impulsive and lustful and who tries to rape the heroine.
  1. The libretto is misogynistic and sexist. The Queen of Night represents darkness and evil while her male enemy, the philosopher-priest Sarastro, represents light and wisdom. And Sarastro tells the abducted heroine Pamina (daughter of the Queen of Night) that he won't allow her to return to her mother because without male influence they will inevitably go astray: "A man must guide your hearts, for without him all women tend to step out of their proper place."
  1. The libretto is hypocritical. When Pamina begs Sarastro not to punish her mother, whose actions have been motivated by "the pain of losing me," he tells her that "within these sacred portals revenge is unknown" and "enemies are forgiven." At the end of the opera—spoiler alert!—the Queen of Night, her Three Ladies and Monostatos are swept away and plunged into "eternal darkness." Forgiveness is sweet.
  1. The dialogue is spoken. In recitative (words that are half-sung, half spoken, with instrumental accompaniment) the music can emphasize or ironically comment on the words, anticipate or echo themes, and become part of the musical as well as dramatic structure of the opera. Spoken dialogue, instead of being part of the musical flow of an opera, is an interruption of that flow. And particularly for home listening, long stretches of dialogue in German are not an appealing prospect for those of us who aren't fluent in the language.
  1. The hero is a tenor. Prince Tamino is a tenor role, and if you're a regular reader of this blog you're already aware of my feelings about tenor heroes.
My hesitations about the opera seemed to place me in a distinct minority, though it was not a minority of one. The composer and critic Jan Swafford reports that his reaction on first hearing The Magic Flute was "I hated it." More of his reactions: "The story of Prince Tamino and his journey to love and wisdom appeared to me unmitigated flapdoodle. . .out of date. . .moronic. . .supposedly amusing. . .tedious. . .the whole thing struck me as hopeless."

My reaction was never that negative, but I had seen Bergman's film and wondered why it was so deeply appealing to so many. What was I missing?

Then last week I found a recording of the opera, the version conducted by Otto Klemperer in 1964, which features Gundula Janowitz as Pamina and Lucia Popp as the Queen of Night. If you've seen my posts on Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs or on orchestral versus piano lieder, then you know that Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp are among my favorite singers.

As soon as I took this recording home and put it on the stereo, what I had been missing was immediately apparent: Mozart's sublime music. To my surprise and delight, Klemperer omits the spoken dialogue. It is easy to fill in the missing action (the booklet libretto is complete), and without the dialogue you get to immerse yourself in two hours of peak Mozart. This recording was made when both Janowitz and Popp were at the start of their careers: Janowitz was 26, and Popp, who was, of course, playing the role of her mother, was 24.

Here is Janowitz performing Pamina's aria "Ach, ich fühl's" from that recording. Tamino has taken a vow of silence as one of three trials he must undergo to prove himself worthy of Pamina's hand in marriage. But Pamina thinks his refusal to speak means that he is spurning her, and her heart is broken:

The words:

Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden,
Ewig hin der Liebe Glück!
Nimmer kommt ihr Wonnestunde
Meinem Herzen mehr zurück!
Sieh', Tamino, diese Tränen,
Fließen, Trauter, dir allein!
Fühlst du nicht der Liebe Sehnen,
So wird Ruh' im Tode sein!
Ah, I feel it, it has vanished,
Love's happiness is forever gone!
Never again will the hour of bliss
Return to my heart!
See, Tamino, these tears,
Flowing, beloved, for you alone!
If you no longer feel the longing of love
Then I will find peace in death!

And here is Lucia Popp performing the Queen of Night's aria  "Der Hölle Rache," in which she urges her daughter to kill Sarastro:

The words:

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
Tot und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!
Fühlt nicht durch dich Sarastro
So bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr.
Verstossen sei auf ewig,
Verlassen sei auf ewig,
Zertrümmert sei'n auf ewig
Alle Bande der Natur
Wenn nicht durch dich
Sarastro wird erblassen!
Hört, Rachegötter,
Hoert der Mutter Schwur!
Hell's revenge boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro by your hand does not feel
The agony of death,
Then you will no longer be my daughter.
Forever you will be disowned,
Forever you will be abandoned,
Forever will be destroyed
All the bonds of nature,
If Sarastro by your hand does not feel
his life's blood draining away!
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother's oath!

Jan Swafford ultimately had a Magic Flute conversion experience. He writes that "Today I number Die Zauberflöte among the dozen or so works of art that in my experience represent the highest, most potent, most moving things human creativity can achieve. . .Now as the curtain comes down I am usually dissolved in tears. Few works affect me more."

At least so far, I'm in no danger of being dissolved in tears at the curtain of The Magic Flute. (That does happen to me infallibly at the conclusion of The Marriage of Figaro, which remains, in my view, Mozart's greatest work.) But I now appreciate to a far greater extent the sheer beauty that Mozart poured into this opera. Of course I had known its famous arias, but hearing the complete music for the opera revealed that it is filled with wonderful ensembles. From Bergman's film, here are the Three Ladies rescuing Tamino and then arguing over him: (the scene ends at 14:10)

(Britt-Marie Aruhn, Birgitta Smiding, and Kirsten Vaupe are the Three Ladies; they are accompanied by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eric Ericson. Wagner's Rhinemaidens are obviously the Ladies' granddaughters.)

And as is also true of Cosi fan tutte, another late Mozart opera with a problematic libretto, the depth of feeling expressed by Mozart's music complicates the plot and contradicts its misogyny. Sarastro may assert that women need a man's guidance; Pamina's emotion-filled aria and her rejection of her mother's burning desire for revenge tell us that she is fully capable of feeling and acting on her own behalf. Schikaneder's Magic Flute may be racist, sexist, and at times silly or incoherent; Mozart's, I've come to realize, is a deeply humane and ravishingly gorgeous. No wonder everyone admires it; and now, at last, Klemperer's recording has enabled me to hear why.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Sacha Guitry

Sacha Guitry (pronounced, I think, GHEE-tree) was a well-known French playwright, librettist, actor and theater impresario between the wars. Perhaps the closest English-speaking equivalent would be someone like Noël Coward, although Coward could carry a tune. (Guitry, despite his resonant baritone speaking voice, apparently couldn't: his role in André Messager's musical comedy L'amour masqué (1923), for which Guitry wrote the libretto, was a speaking one.)

But despite his renown on the stage, up until the mid-1930s Guitry had not been very active in film. Of course, movies were silent until the late 1920s; perhaps, like Kathy Selden in Singin' in the Rain, Guitry thought that "acting means great parts, wonderful lines, speaking those glorious words"—his own, of course.

By the mid-1930s two changes had occurred: film sound technology had improved, and Guitry had married the young actress Jacqueline Delubac, who convinced him to try his hand at the new medium. He began to make up for lost time, writing, directing, and starring in a dozen or so films in the five years between 1935 and the declaration of war with Germany in late 1939. Gaumont Films and the Criterion Collection's Eclipse Series have released a selection of his movies from the 1930s, and they're a mixed bag.

Le roman d'un tricheur (The Story of a Cheat, 1936): A curious thing about this film, Guitry's fourth sound feature and the earliest film in the Criterion Collection, is that it is almost entirely narrated. Even most of the dialogue scenes have a voiceover instead of diegetic sound. The layers of metafiction are made denser by the opening sequence, which introduces the actors and technical crew, and by the frame story (the Cheat is writing his memoirs, and the story takes place in flashback). Amusingly, as the Cheat sits in a café and begins writing the story we are about to see, the music we hear on the soundtrack turns out to be provided by a strolling violinist in the café. Guitry could not be signalling the constructedness of his tale any more clearly.

As a young boy the Cheat is left orphaned and alone after his family dies en masse after eating a meal of freshly-gathered but, alas, poisonous mushrooms. Having stolen money from his family's grocery store earlier that day so he could buy some coveted marbles, the Cheat has been forbidden from eating any of the special treat and so is the lone survivor. "Yes, I was alive because I'd robbed the till. Did that mean that the others had died because they'd been honest? As I fell asleep that night in the empty house, I formed an opinion about theft and justice which may seem rather paradoxical, but which 40 years of experience haven't altered." We watch those 40 years of experience unfold, as the Cheat quickly realizes that thievery and deceit are the basis of the social system and the fortunes of the respectable rich, and determines to get his share.

Made in the depths of the Great Depression, The Story of a Cheat offers no homilies about honesty or hard work; quite the opposite: ". . .after stealing huge amounts, I turned honest, and went completely broke." Its cynicism, though, is presented with irony and charm. This was my favorite of the four Criterion films, and is definitely the place to start (and perhaps finish) if you want to explore Guitry's movie comedies.

Les perles de la couronne (The Pearls of the Crown, 1937): This is one of those "following a chain of characters" films, the template for which was established by Arthur Schnitzler's play La Ronde (1897, made into a film in 1950). The pearls of the title are a matched set of seven, four of which wind up adorning the Crown of England. The film investigates the fates of the other three pearls as they pass from hand to hand over the centuries.

The story seems mainly to be an excuse for Guitry and his regular ensemble to dress up in costume and play the roles of historical figures (including a sequence with Arletty in blackface playing the Queen of Abyssinia). As in The Story of a Cheat there is a frame story and narration (this time with Guitry and Delubac playing themselves), but everything in The Pearls of the Crown is handled in a clunkier way. And the story's conclusion is deliberately anticlimatic. This is some people's favorite Guitry film, but I'm at a loss to understand why.

Umm. . .

Désiré (1937) depicts desire that ignores distinctions of class. It features the lovely Delubac as Odette, the longtime mistress of a preoccupied minister of state (Jacques Baumer). Odette, taken for granted, begins having erotic dreams about her newly hired valet de chambre, Désiré (which literally means "desired").

We learn that Désiré has been dismissed from several previous positions because his mistresses found him sexually irresistible. I'm not the best judge of male attractiveness, but that the valet is played by the paunchy middle-aged Guitry in an obvious wig stretches credulity. Although we learn that Désiré is 38, Guitry was over 50 and looks even older; Delubac was more than two decades younger than her husband. Guitry had played the role of Désiré onstage ten years previously, but he was 42 at the time; Odette had been played by his then-wife Yvonne Printemps, who was in her early 30s. So in the stage version, perhaps, the idea of Odette fantasizing about her valet was more credible.

The film has some clever upstairs-downstairs juxtapositions as the servants obsess about their employers, and vice versa. And there's an amusing sequence where we peek into the dreams of the members of the household (the lady of the house dreams of Désiré making advances to her, while her maid (Arletty) dreams of wearing her mistress's fabulous gowns). But not only is there Guitry's obvious vanity in casting himself as a universal object of desire, the movie concludes with his character giving his mistress a lengthy harangue about the wisdom of leaving feelings of mutual (but impossible) attraction understood but unspoken. The big closing monologue seems lifted without alteration from the play, and it leaves a sour taste.

Quadrille (Foursome, 1938): A talky and stagy infidelity comedy that once again obviously originated as a play (which had premiered only a few months before). It has some funny lines and the considerable charm of the elfin Delubac, but those elements are not quite enough to make it recommendable.

Quadrille concerns the erotic chaos sowed in the settled, not to say stale, relationship of middle-aged newspaper editor Philippe (Guitry) and his live-in mistress of six years, the actress Paulette (Gaby Morlay), by the arrival in Paris of the handsome Hollywood actor Carl (George Grey). Delubac is Claudine, a newspaper reporter and Paulette's sensible friend and confidante, who tries to patch things up between Philippe and Paulette after Paulette impulsively spends a passionate night in Carl's hotel room. From the professions of the characters you can probably guess how the couples ultimately rearrange themselves, apparently to everyone's satisfaction. Quadrille and Guitry's other comedies acknowledge desire and sex outside of matrimony (or even monogamy) in a way in which American films of the period were forbidden by the Production Code. Why, though, we should care about the romantic indiscretions of any of these characters is never made clear.

In an article in the New York Times film critic Dave Kehr called Guitry "one of France’s greatest filmmakers, fully the peer of Jean Renoir and François Truffaut." I'd have to say that I don't share Kehr's enthusiasm. On the evidence of these films Guitry does not rank in the company of the director who made Grand Illusion (La grande illusion, 1937) and The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, 1939). In fact, for me the great discovery of the Criterion series was Delubac, who almost makes even Guitry's lesser films worth watching.

Neither is Guitry the equal of another contemporary French filmmaker, René Clair, who is perhaps the more apt comparison. Look for a post about Clair's early films in the near future.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Chastity Tree: Martin y Soler's L'arbore di Diana

Nikki Einfeld (Diana), Christine Brandes (Cupid), and the Sarah Berges Dance Company (the Chastity Tree),
in West Edge Opera's The Chastity Tree.

What was the most popular opera in Vienna during Mozart's lifetime? You might guess his Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), Don Giovanni (1787) or Cosi fan tutte (They're all like that, 1790). Lorenzo da Ponte wrote the libretti for them all, and today they are among the most-produced operas in the world (Figaro is #8, Don Giovanni #9, and Cosi #15 over the past five years, according to Operabase).

But at the time they were written, none of those operas came close to the success of  L'arbore di Diana (The Tree of Diana, or as West Edge Opera's director Mark Streshinsky translates it, The Chastity Tree, 1787) written by Da Ponte for the composer Vincente Martin y Soler. By 1792 L'arbore di Diana had received 65 performances in Vienna, while another Martin-Da Ponte collaboration, Una cosa rara ([Beauty and faithfulness are] A rare thing, 1786) had received 55 performances. Mozart's most popular opera, Figaro, had received 38—a respectable success, but only enough to rank as the seventh-most popular opera of the time.

In his entertaining but untrustworthy memoirs, written 35 years later, Da Ponte stated his belief that L'arbore di Diana was "the best of all the operas I ever composed. . .it was voluptuous without overstepping into the lascivious." [1]

This is wrong on two counts. In my view the best libretto Da Ponte ever wrote was Figaro, although the excellence of the original Beaumarchais play might also have had something to do with its high quality. And as for L'arbore di Diana being voluptuous without being lascivious, clearly Da Ponte didn't anticipate director Mark Streshinsky's approach in his West Edge Opera production (seen August 12), which was broadly and audaciously camp.

The bawdiness began during the overture, when the dancers of choreographer Sarah Berges' company, representing the Chastity Tree, take the stage wearing "fruits of extraordinary size" on their chests. The "fruit" resembled nothing so much as a giant golden breast with an enormous pink nipple, which lit up on occasion. (By the way, the description "fruits of extraordinary size" is from Da Ponte's Memoirs. [2]) The deliberately over-the-top costumes were by Christine Cook, who was clearly given carte blanche.

Malte Roesner (Doristo) with members of the Sarah Berges Dance Company

In Jean-Francois Revon's set (the only aspect of this production where a less-is-more aesthetic could be said to prevail), the Chastity Tree cleverly suggested the industrial surroundings of the Pacific Pipe Company warehouse that is West Edge Opera's new home this season—yet another example of this adventurous company's ability to make a virtue of necessity.

In his memoirs Da Ponte explained the function of the Chastity Tree:
If the nymphs of that goddess were chaste in deed and in thought, as they passed under the tree, the apples began to glow and shine and from them, and from all the surrounding branches, there issued murmurs and sounds that harmonized in a melody of heavenly sweetness. But if any one of them had sinned against the sanctity of that virtue, the fruits became blacker than coal, dropped upon her head, or on her back and disfigured her face, bruised her body or broke her limbs, the punishment being proportionate to her crime. [3]
Into her garden the goddess Diana (Nikki Einfeld) has brought the rustic Doristo (Malte Roesner), who is supposed to guard the tree. He's far more interested, though, in romping with Diana's nymphs: the cautious Chloe (Kathleen Moss), the eager Britomarte (Maya Kherani), and the curious Clizia (Molly Mahoney).

Cupid (Christine Brandes), the God of Love, has become affronted by Diana's ostentatious chastity and wants to defeat his arch-rival. He seduces Doristo by dressing in outrageous drag, and recruits two shepherds, Endimione (tenor Kyle Stegall) and Silvio (the "other tenor" Jacob Thompson) to aid his plan. After being struck by Cupid's arrow, Diana falls in love with Endimione, but her oracle (Silvio in disguise) then demands that she herself undergo the test of the Chastity Tree. . .

Nikki Einfeld (Diana)

Streshinsky mounted a riotously colorful production that highlighted—at times, perhaps, too insistently—the salaciousness implicit in Da Ponte's libretto. What made it work was the fine cast who gamely embodied Streshinsky's concept and, no matter what they were enacting onstage, sang splendidly. There was not a weak link; particularly noteworthy were Malte Roesner's robust baritone as the randy Doristo, Kyle Stegall's lyrical tenor as Diana's crush Endimione, Maya Kherani's bright-toned Britomarte, and Nikki Einfeld's fierce Diana. Einfeld also looked smashing in Diana's floor-length sequined gowns. (I'm not sure how one would hunt in such an outfit, but never mind.)

In a pre-concert talk Streshinsky aptly compared the music of Diana to a cross between that of the Queen of the Night from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute. 1791), for its wide range and formidable coloratura, and Fiordiligi from Cosi fan tutte, for her anguished emotions as she finds her heart contradicting her vows. [4]

Here is a sample of Diana's music from the 2009 production of L'arbore di Diana from the Gran Teatre del Liceu, with Laura Aiken as Diana, accompanied by the Gran Teatre del Liceu Orchestra, Harry Bicket, conductor:

Da Ponte's words:

Teco porta, o mia speranza,
l’alma mia, che vien con te,
e la grata rimembranza
d’un ardor che vive in me.
Fosti il primo, e il solo or sei
bel desio di questo cor,
e a cangiar gli affetti miei
sfido il fato e sfido il cor.
Vanne, caro – ah, ch’io mi sento
dal tormento lacerar!
Torni, torni il bel momento
che ristori il mio penar.
Take with you, my dearest,
my soul, which follows you,
and the sweet memory
of the ardor that you have aroused in me.
You were the first and remain the only
desire of my heart,
and I defy fate and Love
to change my feelings.
Go, my darling!
Oh, the agony!
May the day soon come
when my suffering comes to an end.

Although Aiken's voice is not, to my ear, ideally sensuous as Diana—the role would have been perfect for a young Lucia Popp—this will give you a sense of Martin's sound-world.

Einfeld dispatched Diana's difficult runs with fire and brilliance, but also made profoundly affecting "those sweet melodies of [Martin's], which one feels deep in the spirit, but which few know how to imitate." [5]

One who did know how to imitate them was Mozart, who recognized good tunes when he heard them. There are numerous musical and narrative parallels between Mozart's operas and L'arbore di Diana. Because Mozart is familiar and Martin is now virtually unknown, I couldn't help but hear in Martin's writing echoes of Mozart. But perhaps it would be equally true to say that in Mozart we can hear echoes of Martin. (In Don Giovanni's supper scene, Mozart paid homage to the composer by having the onstage band play an aria from Una cosa rara.)

Sheila Hodges, author of Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart's Librettist (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002) has written that the libretti Da Ponte wrote for Martin lack "the depths of character-drawing, refinement and poetry which Da Ponte achieved in his operas for Mozart." This is true enough, and it's also true that Martin's music is not as sublime as Mozart's. But it features "no end of tender melodies"; his "impulse runs to lyricism rather than dramatic intensity." [6] Conductor Robert Mollicone led a vivid performance of Martin's score by the WEO Festival Orchestra, among whom were recognizable some moonlighting members of well-known Bay Area ensembles.

West Edge Opera's bold production is a very welcome introduction to the work of a composer who seems ripe for rediscovery. The final performance of The Chastity Tree will take place August 19 at 8 pm; for more details see the West Edge Opera website.

  1. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, translated by Elisabeth Abbott from the Italian, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1929, pp. 177-178.
  2. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, p. 177.
  3. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, p. 177.
  4. The comparison may have been suggested by Roy Jesson, "Martin's 'L'arbore di Diana,'" The Musical Times, Vol. 113, No. 1552 (June 1972), p. 552. 
  5. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, p. 174.
  6. John Platoff, "A New History for Martin's Una cosa rara," The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 12, Issue 1, 1994, pp. 94-95.