Monday, July 17, 2017

Jane Austen, 1775-1817


Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, ca. 1810 (detail)

As it is now probably impossible not to know, Jane Austen died 200 years ago on July 18, 1817. I thought I would mark the sad occasion by inviting you to visit (or perhaps re-visit) my posts on Austen, her novels, film and television adaptations of her books, and the some of the writers who influenced her.

Six months with Jane Austen: Last year I spent six months re-reading the six novels she prepared or intended for publication, and wrote about some of their implicit and explicit themes.

Six months with Jane Austen: The plan

"Hasn't enough been written already about Jane Austen?" I wrote, just before adding more words to the millions devoted to Austen and her novels. "Perhaps it's just my impression, but I seem to be detecting a bit of Austen fatigue. . .For some readers her novels may have come to seem too genteel: what relevance can love stories set among the 19th-century British gentry have for our time of seemingly endless war, rising inequality, and human trafficking?

"But war, inequality, and human trafficking were inescapable features of Austen's world as well, and the novels actually say quite a bit about these issues." I outlined my plan to do a post every month on Austen's novels in the order of their publication. In the end there were 11 posts in all, written in the hope "that they may inspire your own reading or re-reading."

Sense and Sensibility: Inheritance and money

"Questions of inheritance are central to all of Austen's novels, but are particularly fundamental to Sense and Sensibility," I wrote. When the Dashwood estate is bequeathed to a male relative, the Dashwood sisters and their mother discover that they are unwelcome guests in what was formerly their home. And over the course of the novel, Edward Ferrars (the undeclared beau of Elinor Dashwood) and Willoughby (the undeclared beau of her younger sister Marianne) are both disinherited. The loss of expected wealth results in romantic crises that bring joy to one sister, and tears to the other.

Pride and Prejudice: The marriage market

"At a time when few women had sufficient means to live independently and divorces were difficult to obtain, the choice of a marriage partner was a fateful one. It was also a difficult one, thanks to a combination of interrelated demographic, geographic, and economic factors," I wrote. "At the beginning of the 19th century only about a third of the population of England lived in towns of 2500 inhabitants or more, and London was the only city with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Most women faced a pool of potential suitors that was indeed 'confined and unvarying.'" As do the Bennet sisters—until, that is, dashing strangers come to the neighborhood of Longbourn. . .

Mansfield Park:

Mansfield Park, an estate built on "the ruin and labour of others"

"In Mansfield Park we learn that Sir Thomas Bertram is the owner of an 'Antigua estate.' Antigua was one of the 'sugar islands' of the West Indies, where virtually all the cultivable land had been converted to the production of sugar," I wrote. "Sugar was the main driver of the slave trade: about two-thirds of all the slaves brought from Africa to the New World were sent to areas of intensive sugar cultivation. . .Mansfield Park has been built with the wealth produced by slaves."

Lord Mansfield and the antislavery movement

That Austen intended the connection with the horrors of slavery to be made by her readers is evident from the name of Sir Thomas' estate. Lord Mansfield was the Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench, the highest court in Britain, and had ruled against slave-owners in two important legal cases that were key to the antislavery movement.

Fanny Price and Dido Elizabeth Belle

Lord Mansfield was also the adoptive father of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of his nephew and a freed slave, Maria Belle. Dido held the role in his household of a "'loved but poor relation,'" and may have been a model for Mansfield Park's heroine, Fanny Price. Fanny has grown to young womanhood at Mansfield Park, and has long secretly loved her cousin Edmund, the younger son of Sir Thomas. But dazzled by the worldly Mary Crawford, will Edmund (and the rest of the Bertrams) ever recognize Fanny's true worth?

Emma: The fate of unmarried women

Emma Woodhouse is "handsome, clever and rich"; as an heiress she has no need (as most women do) to marry to assure her future financial security. But what of the "'immovable plight of the single woman without money'"? Emma, although it is Austen's sunniest novel, offers bleak portraits of three possible fates awaiting women from the genteel classes who lack means: parlour-border (Harriet Smith), impoverished old maid (Miss Bates), or governess (Jane Fairfax).

Northanger Abbey: Women writers and readers 
One way for a woman to gain an independent income was to become a writer. But such a choice was perilous: "it lay on the fringes of respectability, involved a substantial degree of financial risk, and offered only a modest promise of return." Nonetheless, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries women increasingly entered the literary marketplace as writers and readers. New modes of distribution such as circulating libraries made both publishing and reading more economically feasible, and Jane Austen tried to take full advantage of these new opportunities.

In the character of Northanger Abbey's heroine Catherine Morland, Austen gently satirizes her own teenaged taste for Gothic novels. There is a mystery at Northanger Abbey, to which Catherine is invited as a visitor, but "that mystery. . .has its roots not in some lurid crime, as originally imagined by Catherine, but in ordinary human failings: greed, self-deception, anger." Catherine will learn that her love of the sensational colors her imagination perhaps too strongly, but this does not call the value or pleasure of reading into question. As one of Austen's most appealing heroes, Henry Tilney, tells her, "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid."

Persuasion:

The British Navy at war
Jane Austen's sailor brothers
Of Austen's novels, Persuasion is the one "most profoundly affected by war." Several of its characters have been directly touched by it. Admiral Croft is a hero of Trafalgar; and his brother-in-law Captain Wentworth is home on leave after the Battle of Santo Domingo in 1806 when he proposes to Anne Elliot. Elements of the characters and careers of Captain Wentworth and his friend Captain Harville seem drawn from the wartime experiences of Jane Austen's sailor brothers, Francis and Charles: Francis, for example, was home on leave after the Battle of Santo Domingo in the summer of 1806 when he got married.

The naval prize-money he has won through his almost suicidal bravery enables Captain Wentworth to seek a wife once peace is apparently at hand in the summer of 1814. But eight years after Anne was reluctantly persuaded to withdraw her consent, it is doubtful that Wentworth will be interested in renewing his addresses to the "gentle, wise, and steadfast" woman who still loves him.

Favorite (and least favorite) adaptations

A survey of 18 film and television versions of Austen's novels, including favorites such as the 1995 Persuasion, musts-to-avoid such as the 2007 Mansfield Park, and unexpected delights such as Kandukondain Kandukondain, a Tamil-language updating of Sense and Sensibility. This post also includes my final thoughts about the richly rewarding six months spent in the company of Austen, and a list of works by passionate scholars that were consulted in the writing of the series.

Jane Austen's predecessors: A continuing series on the authors who influenced Austen. A selection from this series of the writers whose works are significantly echoed in hers:

Fanny Burney:
Jane Austen's favorite novelist

In Northanger Abbey the narrator extolls three novels by title; two of them were written by Burney. And plot developments in Northanger Abbey echo aspects of Burney's Evelina, Cecilia and Camilla.
Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?
In Cecilia the heroine is mortifyingly rejected by the family of the man she loves, Mortimer Delvile. Austen herself may have experienced something similar when she and a potential suitor, Tom Lefroy, were abruptly separated by his family.

Cecilia later accepts Delvile's proposal, but almost immediately regrets her consent. "Yet to disappoint Delvile so late, by forfeiting a promise so positively accorded; to trifle with a man who to her had been uniformly candid, to waver when her word was engaged, and retract when he thought himself secure,—honour, justice and shame told her the time was now past." Jane Austen faced a similar crisis when she accepted the proposal of a close friend's brother. Like Burney's heroine, though, Austen summoned the courage to withdraw her consent. Perhaps these parallels to her own experience were one reason she felt that Burney's novels expressed "the most thorough knowledge of human nature."

Sensibility and sense: Camilla and Jane Austen
"Camilla, like Pride and Prejudice, follows the fortunes of five young women entering the marriage market in a small village in rural England." In Camilla there are also pre-echoes of Emma and Persuasion. But Austen also "recognized that the time of the novel of sensibility was past," and satirized it in her "Plan of a Novel according to Hints from Various Quarters."

Elizabeth Inchbald: "Do not read on—or be forever scarred": A Simple Story

Rehearsals for a performance of Elizabeth Inchbald's play A Lover's Vows, a translation and adaptation of German playwright August von Kotzebue's Das Kind der Liebe (Love Child), play a key role in Mansfield Park. So we know that Austen was familiar with Inchbald's work. It's not known whether Austen read Inchbald's novels, but in Inchbald's A Simple Story, "a beautiful and headstrong young heroine. . .disregards the admonishments of an older male mentor figure." I wrote that this "may sound familiar to readers of Emma."

Charlotte Lennox: The Female Quixote

Jane Austen read and enjoyed The Female Quixote, writing to her sister Cassandra that "it now makes our evening amusement; to me a very high one, as I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it." Arabella, the heroine, takes the French romances she reads to be literal, to the confusion and puzzlement of those around her. "Austen seems to have modelled Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, in part on Arabella; both characters have perhaps immersed themselves a bit too deeply in the worlds of their fictional reading." However, while on the surface The Female Quixote would seem to join in the condemnation of novel-reading by susceptible women, there is a subversive subtext: Lennox "suggests that women, in order to be fit for marriage and domesticity, must be 'cured' of their imaginations."

Samuel Richardson: Clarissa on a smartphone

The dashing and charismatic rake Lovelace woos, abducts, and ultimately rapes the heroine Clarissa, who then wastes away until she dies. This monument of 18th-century literature "clearly influenced Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), in which the naïve heroine is subject to the aggressive pursuit of Sir Clement Willoughby, and Jane Austen's Elinor and Marianne (ca. 1795, later to be reworked in narrative form as Sense and Sensibility) in which the youthful Marianne is courted by the duplicitous Willoughby."

Charlotte Smith: "What have I to do now but learn to suffer?"

In Celestina, the orphaned heroine is raised (like Mansfield Park's Fanny Price) in the home of a wealthy relative. And, as in Mansfield Park, a son of this family falls in love with her. "His name, perhaps familiar to readers of Sense and Sensibility, is Willoughby." This is only one of multiple parallels between Celestina and several of Austen's novels. And is it a coincidence that a character in Smith's The Old Manor House asks of another, "'Why has she invincible pride, and obstinate prejudice?'"

Tracing Austen's influences does not diminish her accomplishments, but magnifies them. Although it's clear that she borrowed elements from other writers, she transformed them, creating characters that are more subtle, complex, and recognizable than their models. To paraphrase Ben Jonson on Shakespeare, Austen's novels are "not of an age, but for all time."


Watercolor of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, ca. 1804

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Four last songs

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss's Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) were written when he was in his eighties, in declining health, and confronting mortality. But these songs are not filled with grief, but rather a kind of poignant acceptance.

In the aftermath of World War II Strauss and his wife Pauline had been allowed to leave a devastated Germany and move to Switzerland. There in the spring of 1946 he copied Joseph Eichendorff's "Im Abendrot" (At twilight) into his notebook. The poem describes two weary travelers resting at the end of a long journey; clearly it had a deeply personal resonance for Strauss as he and his wife approached the end of their lives together.  (For the text in German and English please see the end of this post.)

Perhaps because their living situation was so unsettled it took Strauss two years to set this poem to music. At some point he decided make "Im Abendrot" part of a larger song-cycle. After finishing the orchestral score of "Im Abendrot" in May 1948, he composed three additional songs over the next few months setting poems by Herman Hesse: "Frühling" (Spring), "Beim schlafengehen" (Going to sleep), and "September." This final song was finished, fittingly enough, in late September. Richard Strauss died a year later in September 1949, and Pauline just eight months afterwards. Neither lived to hear the first public performance of Vier letzte Lieder on 22 May 1950.

Vier letzte Lieder is not Strauss's title; it was created by his publisher Ernst Roth, who also determined the published order of the songs (the composer left no indication of song order). The most coherent thematic sequence would seem to be "Frühling," "September," "Im Abendrot," and "Beim schlafengehen," moving from spring to autumn and from twilight to sleep, but to my knowledge they have never been performed in that order. Roth published them in the order "Frühling," "September," "Beim schlafengehen," and "Im Abendrot"; this is the order that makes the most sense in terms of scoring (lighter to fuller), length (shorter to longer), and the progression of keys (C minor to E-flat major). It is the order that most performances follow today. [1]

Pauline was a soprano, and Strauss may have had her apparently remarkable voice in mind when he composed this cycle. The music is a supreme test of a soprano's art. The songs range over two octaves, reaching down to Middle C, the lowest note many sopranos can sing, and up to just a half-step below high C. They demand the ability to sing long, spun-out phrases, but at the same time to make the words understood over the sound of a large orchestra. The necessary combination of power, lyricism, security throughout the range, subtlety, sensitivity to the words, and breath control is rare.

I have listened in detail to ten different recordings of this work by seven different singers (plus several others that I didn't choose to write about here). Of course, there can be no definitive version of these masterpieces; each set of interpreters will bring different perspectives to the songs' realization. And a listener's response to these works will also necessarily be highly individual. So I don't expect universal agreement with the opinions I express below. In ascending order of my preference of performer:


Kirsten Flagstad

Kirsten Flagstad, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler (1950)

This is a tape of the premiere performance (or more probably a rehearsal, since there is no applause) at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Strauss had specifically requested that Flagstad sing the first performance of this work. She was a renowned Brünnhilde and Isolde, and though by the time of the premiere she was in her mid-50s, her voice was still relatively powerful and largely secure (though the tape captures a few wayward notes). Furtwängler's tempi are generally fast, perhaps too much so in "Frühling." The sound quality is muddy and there is a good deal of hiss, crackle, and other distortion, so I don't recommend this recording as an introduction to these songs. But once you are familiar with them it's fascinating to listen to the first interpretations.


Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Ackerman (1953)

Schwarzkopf was a well known lieder singer and was famous for her attention to the text. Her voice, though, can be a bit of an acquired taste: in particular, she has a tight vibrato that I sometimes find obtrusive. The recording is clear, but the mono sound is somewhat flattened and the orchestra is rather recessed. These songs are a farewell to remembered pleasures—the seasons, a lifelong love—but Schwarzkopf's approach (and vocal quality) is more austere than sensuous. My notes on relistening to this recording say "these performances require completion from the ideal version in your head."

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by George Szell (1965)

This recording is in stereo, and the orchestral sound is much more lush and present than in the 1953 version.  However, Schwarzkopf's performance not more attractive: the vibrato is still prominent, and she struggles in her lower range (even sounding a bit off-key to me in places). And Szell takes the final song, "Im Abendrot," at a tempo that feels sluggish.


Renee Fleming

Renée Fleming, with the Houston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach (1996)

A bit of a surprise. Although I very much enjoy Fleming's Strauss Heroines album, also conducted by Eschenbach, I hadn't expected to like this recording as well as I do. Those for whom Fleming's occasional tendency to scoop up to notes rather than attack them at pitch is infuriating, or who demand precise German diction, should probably avoid this release. The rest of us can enjoy Fleming's rich, full voice, which was pretty much at its creamy best in this period. She is more secure in her lower range than either of the singers mentioned so far, and to my ears her vibrato is less obtrusive. Eschenbach favors slow tempos; while clearly he wants us to luxuriate in the sheer aural appeal of Fleming's voice,  "Im Abendrot" almost comes to a standstill near the end. Fleming manages the extraordinary breath control required, but the result is finally just a bit too slow for my taste.


Kiri te Kanawa

Kiri te Kanawa, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis (1979)

Kiri te Kanawa's voice has a prominent quick vibrato that is somewhat similar to Schwarzkopf's tightly focused sound, but she is more tonally secure here than Schwarzkopf was in the Szell recording. Like Schwarzkopf, her lower register is not particularly rich-sounding. Davis (or his engineers) highlight some of the details in the scoring that aren't as audible in the Szell recording, and his tempi in every song are faster than Szell's. But these versions don't convey much of a feeling of poignancy or autumnal reflection; to this listener they are lovely without being especially moving.



FRÜHLING

In dämmrigen Grüften
träumte ich lang
von deinen Bäumen und blauen Lüften,
von deinem Duft und Vogelgesang.

Nun liegst du erschlossen
in Gleiß und Zier,
von Licht übergossen
wie ein Wunder vor mir.

Du kennest mich wieder,
du lockest mich zart,
es zittert durch all meine Glieder
deine selige Gegenwart.
SPRING

In gloomy crypts
I long dreamed
of your trees and blue skies,
of your scents and birdsong.

Now you lie revealed
in gleaming adornment,
bathed in light
like a miracle before me.

You know me once more,
you invite me tenderly.
Through all my limbs quivers
your blissful presence.


Lisa Della Casa

Lisa della Casa, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Böhm (1953)

This was the first commercial studio recording of the cycle, and as Michael Kennedy writes in his survey, "A generation learned to love this work from this recording." [2] It's easy to hear why. Della Casa's voice has both "silver purity of tone" (Kennedy's words) and a touching quality made even more so by the singer's restraint. Just two years after making this recording she made her role debut as the Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, a role that requires precisely these qualities. Karl Böhm's tempi, although among the quickest of any recording, rarely feel rushed, and the songs lose none of their emotional impact. In the original version of this recording the songs were given the order in which they were performed by Flagstad at the premiere: "Beim schlafengehen" is first, and Autumn ("September") comes before Spring ("Fruhling").



SEPTEMBER

Der Garten trauert,
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert
still seinem Ende entgegen.

Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.
Sommer Lächelt erstaunt und matt
in den sterbenden Gartentraum.

Lange noch bei den Rosen
bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh,
langsam tut er die [großen]
müdgewordnen Augen zu.
SEPTEMBER

The garden mourns,
the rain falls coolly on the flowers.
Summer shudders
quietly to its end.

Leaf after golden leaf
drops from the high acacia tree.
Summer smiles, amazed and weary,
on the dying dream-garden.

Long by the roses still
it lingers, yearns for rest,
slowly it closes its [great]
weary eyes.


Lucia Popp

Lucia Popp, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti (1977)

Lucia Popp has an almost ideal voice for these songs. Her sound is gorgeous, and at the same time she is very alert to the text, but not in a mannered or over-emphatic way. This cycle was recorded in concert and was issued on DVD (it is viewable on YouTube). Solti takes an approach similar to Böhm: "Im Abendrot" takes only six minutes (compare to Eschenbach's nearly nine minutes with Renée Fleming). But as with Böhm, there is no lessening of emotional impact; at the end of "Im Abendrot" Popp has tears in her eyes, and you probably will too.

Lucia Popp, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (1993)

These were Popp's last recordings. In 1993 she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and when she recorded these songs about mortality she was probably all too aware of her own impending death. Although her voice is perhaps not quite as youthfully fresh as it was in her earlier recordings of the cycle with Solti and Tennstedt, it is infused with even more profound feeling. However, Thomas is so determined to avoid sentimentality and maintain brisk tempi that I think he misses some of the expressive opportunities in the music. Still, these performances are treasurable.

Lucia Popp, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Klaus Tennstedt (1982)

Tennstedt's tempi are on the slow side, but they don't feel overly indulgent. Although the slow speeds may have presented technical challenges to Popp, she performs the songs with a lyricism, tenderness and a hint of vulnerability that are irresistible. Simply radiant.



BEIM SCHLAFENGEHEN

Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht,
soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.

Hände, laßt von allem Tun,
Stirn, vergiß du alles Denken,
alle meine Sinne nun
wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Und die Seele unbewacht
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief und tausendfach zu leben.
GOING TO SLEEP

Now that the day has made me weary,
My ardent longing is to be
kindly enfolded by the starry night,
like a tired child.

Hands, cease all your labor;
brow, forget all your thoughts.
Now all my senses
only yearn to sink into sleep.

And the soul without constraint
wishes to soar free in flight,
so that in the magic circle of night
it may live deeply and a thousandfold.


Gundula Janowitz

Gundula Janowitz with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan (1974)

This was the performance that first made me fall in love with this work. Janowitz's voice has all the power and lyricism and range the songs require. The first time I heard her gorgeous melisma taken in one breath on the word "Vogelgesang" in the first stanza of the first song, "Frühling," I was stunned. Karajan's tempi are on the slow side, but it gives the listener time to revel in the lush sound of the Berlin Philharmonic and the superb singing of Janowitz. Utterly ravishing. If you only want to own one version of these great works—and I hope I've convinced you that one version is not enough—this would be my recommendation.



IM ABENDROT

Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gesangen Hand in Hand,
vom Wandern ruhn wir beide
nun überm stillen Land.

Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft,
zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit,
daß wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede,
o tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde –
ist dies etwa der Tod?
AT TWILIGHT

Through hardship and joy
we have walked hand in hand,
now let us rest from our journey
as we look out over the quiet countryside.

Around us the valleys grow dark,
already night is falling.
Two larks alone still soar
as though dreaming, into the fragrant air.

Draw near, and let them flutter about,
soon it will be time for sleep,
lest we lose our way
in this lonely place.

O boundless, silent peace,
so profound in the twilight.
How weary we are of travelling –
is this, perhaps, death?

Update 26 June 2017: In a previous version of this post the positions of Renée Fleming and Kiri te Kanawa were reversed.



  1. The "Four last songs" are not actually Strauss's final lied composition. In November 1948 he completed a setting for soprano with piano accompaniment of a poem by Betty Wehrli-Knob entitled "Malven" (Hollyhocks). He sent the manuscript to the soprano Maria Jeritza with the dedication "Der geliebten Maria dieser letzte Rose!" (To my beloved Maria, this last rose). The manuscript was found among her papers after her death in 1982, and the song was premiered by Kiri te Kanawa in 1985.

  2. Michael Kennedy, "Richard Strauss: Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)," in Song on Record: 1. Lieder, edited by Alan Blyth, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 334.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Bollywood and beyond mini-reviews


Finding Fanny (2014) and Piku (2015): Two road-trip movies with Deepika Padukone

Finding Fanny wants us to remember that in any adventure it's not the destination that matters, but the journey. If you don't find this message to be stunningly original, then on your own journey you may want to steer clear.

Ferdie (Naserrudin Shah) has kept a torch burning for decades for his first love, Fanny. When the letter in which he confessed his feelings to her is returned undelivered after 40 years, his young friend Angie (Padukone) decides that he needs to find Fanny and tell her his feelings in person. Angie, widowed on the day of her wedding to Gabo (a very brief cameo by Ranveer Singh), recruits a motley crew including her mother-in-law Rosie (Dimple Kapadia), randy artist Don Pedro (Pankaj Kapur), and Savio (Arjun Kapoor), who has nursed a hopeless love for Angie since childhood, and who happens to own a (barely) running car.

As I've noted previously, it's a thin line between whimsical and annoying, and for me Fanny crossed that line repeatedly. The film's attempts at black humor are jarring, and Dimple Kapadia's prosthetic rump (and the relentless attention paid to it by Don Pedro and the camera) is demeaning. Wikipedia defines a shaggy-dog story "as an extremely long-winded anecdote characterized by extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents and terminated by an anticlimax or a pointless punchline." That's a pretty good description of writer/director Homi Adajania's movie. Although this household finds Deepika Padukone to be always watchable, ultimately Finding Fanny strains for both humor and pathos.

Speaking of straining, Piku is a road-trip movie that asks the great Amitabh Bachchan and his excellent supporting cast to spend 90 minutes making constipation jokes. Screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi's story, such as it is, is about learning to value legacies from the past and to enjoy the moment. Or to put it another way, it's not the destination that matters, but the journey.

Once again Deepika is the best thing about the movie. This time she plays an exasperated career woman accompanying her irascible father Bhashkor (Bachchan) on a road trip to their ancestral home in Kolkata. But for this household even Deepika's presence wasn't enough to rescue Piku from its relentless focus on Bhashkor's bowels. And yes, constipation is a metaphor. If you don't find this stunningly original, then you may want to let it go.



Fan (2016)

SRK's performance in a dual role in Fan is astonishing. He is creepily effective as the unhinged Gaurav, an obsessive lookalike fan of the Bollywood superstar Aryan Khanna (SRK again). Gaurav has built his entire life and identity around his screen idol; of course, disillusionment must follow, and Gaurav must punish Khanna for not living up to his expectations.

We've seen SRK play deranged characters before. In fact, Gaurav is a bit of a mashup of two of his early characters: Rahul, the psychotic stalker of Juhi Chawla's "K-K-K-Kiran" in Darr (Fear, 1993), and Ajay, the revenge-seeker in the thriller Baazigar (Deceiver, 1993). If you remember those movies you'll know that Fan isn't likely to end well for Gaurav.

Even more remarkable than his uncanny performance as Gaurav, though, is SRK's Khanna. It wouldn't seem to be much of a stretch for him to play a driven actor who has worked his way up to superstardom through a relentless work ethic; after all, Khanna's story is SRK's. But what's surprising is that Khanna's affable, charming persona is shown to be just another role that he assumes when necessary. It's a striking (and demystifying) portrayal of the pressures and constraints of stardom.

When rising Bollywood hero "Sid Kapoor" (Taher Shabbir, who is made up to look like Hrithik Roshan, and whose name evokes Ranbir Kapoor, one of whose early successes was the movie Wake Up Sid (2009)) says that Khanna's days as King of Bollywood are done, Gaurav cons his way into Kapoor's trailer and violently extracts a video apology from him. Instead of being grateful, as Gaurav believes he should be, Khanna has Gaurav arrested and beaten. Gaurav's excessive love turns to a burning desire for revenge.

The second half of Fan does powerfully convey how trapped Khanna feels by a monster he has helped to create, but it also devolves into lengthy chase scenes and fights. SRK is utterly convincing as both characters, and the fight and chase scenes must have required some skillful filmmaking. But in the end the thrills become wearisome. Fan is for SRK fans only.



Heaven on Earth (2008)

This is the fourth film in writer/director Deepa Mehta's Elements series, after Fire (1996), Earth: 1947 (1998), and Water (2005). Given the renown of the first three films in the series and the presence of Preity Zinta in the cast, it was a bit puzzling/concerning that the final installment was never released in theaters or on DVD in the US (at least, not so far as I've been able to determine).

One reason might be the relentless grimness of the story. A marriage is arranged for Chand ("Moon," played by Zinta) with Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj)—and the opposing elemental qualities of their names (heaven versus earth) is obviously not by chance. Clearly their marriage is primarily a financial arrangement between the families. Rocky lives with his parents and adult siblings in Toronto, and the frigid winter landscape is mirrored in his treatment of Chand: from the first he is distant and cold.

That coldness soon becomes violent when Rocky hits her in front of everyone in the household. (Although I have to say that the incident that triggers Rocky's violence does not seem consistent with Chand's character.) No one intervenes, of course; the beatings continue, and increase in frequency and intensity. Chand is later told by her sister-in-law (Ramanjit Kaur) "That's just the way Rocky is."

The scenes of Rocky's violence are very difficult to watch; the acting and filmmaking are all too effective. Soon, like Chand, we start to flinch every time Rocky comes into the room. There's a scene where Chand and Rocky start arguing while she is ironing clothes, and thinking about what Rocky (or Chand) might do with a hot iron was sickening. Mehta doesn't go there, fortunately.

In addition to having to watch Zinta's character repeatedly get brutalized, there are a couple of other aspects of the film that didn't work very well, at least for me. The first is the film's switch to black and white in certain scenes: the logic behind the change was not immediately apparent on a first viewing, and so the switch felt somewhat arbitrary. The second is the fantasy/magical realist element involving the conjuring of a cobra, who then begins to live in the family's backyard (and take sympathetic human form, as in the feminist fable of a few years earlier, Paheli (Puzzle, 2005)). It doesn't help that some of the special effects look artificial in a way that doesn't seem fully intended. So despite Zinta's excellent performance and the film's undeniable effectiveness I don't think I'll be in any hurry to experience Heaven on Earth again.



Parched (2015)

Tanishta Chatterjee, who was the best thing about Road, Movie (2009), is also the best thing about Parched. She plays Rani, a widow living in a Rajasthani village and trying to get her son Gulab (Riddhi Sen) to pay attention to his new bride, Janaki (Lehar Khan), for whose bride price she has mortgaged their hut. Gulab would rather get drunk and visit brothels, and to do so he steals the money Rani has saved to pay back the mortgage. Meanwhile Rani's neighbor Lajjo (the excellent Radhika Apte) is being violently abused by her husband and turns to Rani for comfort. When the travelling nautch show of Rani's old friend Bijli (Surveen Chawla) arrives in the village, tensions erupt and the lives of all four women will be radically changed.

What was most compelling for me was not writer/director Leena Yadav's rather heavy-handed messages but the relaxed scenes between the women—which were funny, touching and occasionally bawdy—when they're finally able to get away from the (sexual and other) demands of the men around them. A telling sequence occurs when the women take a day trip together; when they return, Gulab complains that he hasn't had anything to eat all day: he is literally incapable of feeding himself.

In many places, though, the film feels almost exploitative. There are pole-dancing numbers, topless scenes, a Tantric (hetero) sex scene, and hints of lesbian attraction. As the hints of lesbian attraction (and the film's incendiary ending) might suggest, Parched seems to allude to Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996) more than once. But for me Mehta's film is far more subtle, more thoughtfully structured, and ultimately far more moving. Still, the performances of Chatterjee and Apte in particular were excellent (and brave), and I'll definitely be seeking out more of their films.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Suffering for art: Opera, books and Bollywood

Beraud, After the Misdeed

After the Misdeed, by Jean Béraud (detail), ca. 1885-90

It hasn't escaped my attention that central to the art by which I am most powerfully engaged—18th- and 19th-century British literature, opera, and Indian films—is suffering. And, primarily, the suffering of women.

Opera

Opera begins with women's suffering.

The first opera by most accounts is Jacopo Peri's Dafne (1598), in which the title character flees an attempted rape by the god Apollo. The first opera whose score survives complete is Peri's Euridice (1600), in which the title character is bitten by a snake, dies, and is taken to the Underworld.

The story of Euridice and Orpheus was also the subject of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607), often described as opera's first masterpiece. The second masterpiece was the same composer's L'Arianna (1608), which contained opera's first hit song, "Lamento della ninfa"—Ariadne's lament after she has been abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos:



(The words by Ottavio Rinuccini in translation: Hear me, O Love, [she begged the heavens] / What happened to the faithfulness that traitor swore? / [Unhappy woman!] Return him to me, but as he was. / If you cannot do this, then kill me; / I cannot bear this torment."
Montserrat Figueras with La Capella Reial de Catalunya, directed by Jordi Savall.)

That opera's first popular hit was a lament is fitting: Women's suffering has continued as a frequent theme throughout the history of the form. What follows are the ten most performed operas internationally over the past five years (according to Operabase.com), in descending order, with the fates of their heroines:
  1. Verdi's La Traviata (The Fallen Woman, 1853): the courtesan Violetta finds love but dies of consumption.
  1. Bizet's Carmen (1875): the free-spirited heroine is stabbed to death by her rejected lover.
  1. Puccini's La bohème (The Bohemians, 1896): the seamstress Mimi finds love but dies of consumption.
  1. Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791): Pamina is imprisoned, threatened with rape, believes she has been abandoned by the hero, and contemplates suicide.


(Kathleen Battle performing Pamina's "Ach, ich fühl's" from the 1991 Metropolitan Opera production conducted by James Levine.)
  1. Puccini's Tosca (1900): the heroine fights off an attempted rape by her enemy Scarpia, killing him in the process, and then leaps to her death when she realizes that her lover has been executed on Scarpia's orders.


(The words by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa in translation: "I lived for art, I lived for love, / Never did I hurt a living soul! / . . .In the hour of my grief / Why, why, o God, / Am I repaid in this way?"
Angela Gheorghiu performing Tosca's "Vissi d'arte" from the film by Benoit Jacquot, with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Antonio Pappano.)
  1. Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1904): the 15-year-old Cio-Cio San is married to an American sailor, but when she discovers that he has abandoned her she commits suicide.
  1. Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786): the Countess Almaviva laments the loss of her husband's love and is fearful of his violent jealousy. Meanwhile, her lady's maid Susanna is being sexually coerced by the Count.


(The words by Lorenzo da Ponte in translation: "O Love, give me some relief / From my sorrow, from my sighs! / Either give me back my beloved / Or let me die."
Renée Fleming performing the Countess Almaviva's "Porgi, amor" from the 1994 Glyndebourne production with the London Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink.)
  1. Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1816): Rosina (later to become The Marriage of Figaro's Countess Almaviva) is held a virtual prisoner in the home of her elderly guardian, who plans to force her to marry him against her will.
  1. Verdi's Rigoletto (1851): after one night of passion Gilda substitutes herself for her inconstant lover the Duke, and is stabbed to death in his place.
  1. Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787): the title character sexually assaults Donna Anna in her bedroom and Zerlina, a peasant bride, on her wedding day. A third woman, Donna Elvira, has been seduced and abandoned; although she rages against Don Giovanni she remains hopelessly in love.
The French critic Catherine Clément has written that "on the opera stage, women perpetually sing their eternal undoing." [1]

18th- and 19th-century British literature

The list of 18th- and 19th-century British novels with suffering heroines is long. To name just a few:
  • Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), the heroines experience attempted (and in Clarissa's case, perpetrated) rape; in her misery Clarissa wastes away and dies.
  • Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796): the heroines are repeatedly beset by men whose aggressive and importunate actions threaten the women with disgrace and ruin. Believing themselves abandoned by the men they love, each of the three heroines falls into a near-fatal delirium.
  • Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847): the heroine flees across a storm-lashed moor to escape her deceitful lover Rochester. When night falls, exposed without shelter to the cold, rain and wind, she nearly dies.
  • Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1859): Laura Fairlie's domineering husband stages her death and imprisons her under a false identity in a mental asylum so that he can defraud her.
  • George Eliot's Middlemarch (1872) and Daniel Deronda (1876): women are trapped in marriages with emotionally withdrawn, cruel and self-centered men.
"What the novel deals with is what women have to deal with," wrote G. K. Chesterton. [2]

Indian films

While men can also experience emotional pain and even weep in Indian films, many films focus on women's self-abnegation, self-sacrifice and suffering. As examples I've limited myself to only one film from each of the past seven decades:
  • Sadhna (Devotion, 1958, directed by B. R. Chopra): a dancing girl (Vyjayanthimala) finds acceptance and love under an assumed identity, but realizes that due to her profession she will be forever excluded from domestic happiness:


(The words in translation: "Woman gave birth to man / And he gave her the flesh-trade. . .She is trampled, abused, and discarded at will / She is weighed in dinars or sold openly in the marketplace. . .A man has a right to every luxury / For a woman life itself is a punishment. . ."
The music is by Datta Naik with lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi; Vyjayanthimala's playback singer is Lata Mangeshkar.)
  • Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, mistress and servant, 1962, directed by Abrar Alvi): a neglected wife (Meena Kumari) spirals downward into the depths of alcoholism and despair; and a young woman (Waheeda Rehman) is separated, perhaps forever, from the man she has grown to love:


(The music is by Hemant Kumar, with lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni; Waheeda Rehman's playback singer is Asha Bhosle.)
  • Amar Prem (Immortal Love, 1972, directed by Shakti Samanta): Pushpa (Sharmila Tagore) is violently driven away from her village home by the brutality of her husband; the passer-by who prevents her suicide betrays her by selling her to a Calcutta brothel. When a wealthy client falls in love with her, his disapproving family forces them to separate.
  • Umrao Jaan (Beloved Umrao, 1981, directed by Muzaffar Ali): the child Ameeran is kidnapped from her village and sold to a Lucknow brothel, where she becomes the famous tawaif Umrao Jaan (Rehka). During the 1857 Uprising she flees to the countryside and finds herself in her old village. She has a bittersweet reunion with her mother, but her brother demands that she leave the village and never return. She goes back to Lucknow, only to find the city in ruins.


(The music is by Khayyam, with lyrics by Shahryar; Rehka's playback singer is Asha Bhosle.)
  • Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Is Happening, 1998, directed by Karan Johar): the tomboyish Anjali (Kajol) falls in love with her classmate Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan). At the moment she is about to confess her feelings to him, he tells her that he has fallen in love with the new girl at the school, Tina (Rani Mukherji). Anjali conceals her pain from Rahul and Tina, but, devastated, leaves school.

https://youtu.be/4cJvmGWfDk4?t=1h19m52s (the song ends at 1:23:40)

(The words are: "O God, why does love hurt so much? / Let the heart remain silent / Let it not speak / . . .My heart weeps, and my eyes are full of tears / What is there to say? / You didn't even think of me. . ."
The music is by Jatin-Lalit with lyrics by Sameer; the playback singers are Manpreet Akhtar, Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan)
  • Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow may never come, 2003): the shy Naina (Preity Zinta) falls in love with her new neighbor, the extroverted Aman (Shah Rukh Khan), only to discover that he has a life-threatening illness. 
  • Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (These Young People Are Crazy, 2013): the shy Naina (Deepika Padukone) falls in love with her new acquaintance, the extroverted Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor), only to discover that he has a relationship-threatening aversion to commitment.
Sadism, patriarchal complicity, or something else?
So for those of us who love these forms, an uncomfortable question arises: Are we conscious or unconscious sadists, openly or secretly experiencing pleasure in the spectacle of women's suffering? Is to enjoy opera, 18th- and 19-century literature or commercial Indian movies to be complicit with patriarchy? And why is women's suffering so essential to these forms?

One obvious explanation for the predominance of women's suffering in art is its predominance in reality. Taking a global and historical view, in comparison to men women have been prevented from earning, inheriting or controlling as much money, have been blocked from as much educational attainment, and have been given poorer nutrition and health care. They have been allowed fewer social, political and personal freedoms and have been subject to significantly more sexual violence and trafficking. If art reflects the culture within which it is produced, then art created within patriarchal cultures will inevitably reflect sexual double standards, women's enforced dependence and powerlessness.

But I think something more is going on as well. Fiction doesn't straightforwardly mirror the real world; as we know, operas, novels and movies all have a complicated relationship to reality. And while of course artists are embedded in the culture of their societies and times, they don't always unthinkingly reflect its values—which, after all, are hardly monolithic, but are continually being contested and changed.

Certainly it's true that opera and Indian films are largely created by men, but many 18th- and 19th-century novels were written by women, and all of these forms have large and enthusiastic female audiences. In fact, almost all of the examples I've listed can be read—and many were explicitly intended—as critiques of the condition of women.

In all of the works I've listed above, it is the threatened, abused, rejected, ostracized and vulnerable women at their center who intensely engage our sympathy. As Chesterton wrote, ". . .sympathy does not mean so much feeling with all who feel, but rather suffering with all who suffer." We do not seek out the experience of opera, novels and movies because we enjoy the spectacle of others' suffering; we seek it out in order to share that suffering.




1. Catherine Clement, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, University of Minnesota Press, 1988, pp. 5 - 6.
2. G. K. Chesteron, The Victorian Age in Literature, Home University Library, 1913, Ch. II: "The Great Victorian Novelists"

Saturday, May 27, 2017

More popular than Hamilton: A history of opera


Opera is an art form that is absurd and incongruous—or, as Samuel Johnson had it, "exotic and irrational." Accompanied by an orchestra, characters sing to one another to express their feelings. They fall in love at first sight. They can behave either in an unrealistically magnanimous, noble and self-sacrificing way, or very, very badly indeed. And often the heroine (sometimes together with the hero) ends up dead.

Given its patent lack of realism or uplift, what explains opera's popularity over four centuries? And yes, I did say "popularity." The Metropolitan Opera in New York recently announced that its paid attendance for the 2016-17 season averaged a disappointing 75 percent. The company staged 225 performances (of 26 operas) in a house with a 3800-seat capacity, not counting standing room. That means that in this sub-par season the Met still sold more than 640,000 opera tickets.

For comparison, let's take a look at one of the most popular shows in Broadway history, Hamilton. Seven to eight shows a week is more than 400 performances in a year, almost twice as many as the Met stages. And yet this year Hamilton sold fewer than 550,000 tickets. Yes: by the measure of tickets sold, opera is more popular than Hamilton. [1]

Despite this, opera is continually in crisis—mainly because no matter how many tickets are sold, the costs for mounting opera are higher than ticket sales can cover. The average ticket price at the Met is $158.50, yielding box-office revenue for 2016-17 of more than $100 million. But the Met's annual budget is over $300 million. The shortfall is covered by the generosity (and vanity) of rich donors and by wringing salary and benefit concessions from the artists and crews whose long-cultivated talents and hard work actually make the shows happen. It's no wonder that in the first half of the 18th century Handel's London opera companies went broke twice, even though he was producing the greatest operas of his time (his own).

For writers looking back over the colorful 400-year history of opera, its continual struggle against reality in all its forms would seem to be very rich material. And the latest attempt to capture the intersection of artistic, social and economic forces on the opera stage, Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker's A History of Opera (W. W. Norton, 2012), was widely praised on its initial publication. An updated second edition was published last year; in Opera News reviewer Fred Cohn called it "as good a survey of the art form as any I’ve read." [2]

In any one-volume treatment of such a vast and complex subject, certain elisions and simplifications will be inevitable. But I was brought up short just a few pages into the introductory chapter when Abbate and Parker write,
The aria. . .is a static mode. It is fundamentally about contemplation, and through contemplation the communication of mood to the audience. . .In some sense, then, arias stop time—they let nothing else happen while they unfold, allowing us to sample a kind of internal time, one in which the character's mind reveals itself. And what is said here about arias goes equally for all the contemplative parts of the opera: the duets, trios, and bigger ensembles.
Curiously, they don't mention the expression of emotion, which is what I would have said that arias are "fundamentally about." They go on to qualify their observation by saying that "one of the great departures of nineteenth-century opera is that all these fixed forms may be liable to injections of outside action" (p. 25).

Counterexamples from before the nineteenth century come immediately to mind. Thinking only of Mozart and Da Ponte's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), for example, the Countess's third-act "Dove sono" seems at first to be a straightforward aria of (melancholy) remembrance. As she looks back to the days of her courtship and early marriage, she asks, "What happened to those lovely moments / Of sweetness and pleasure?" But towards the end of the aria, the tone shifts: "Perhaps my faithful soul / Which still loves despite its suffering / Can give me the hope / Of changing his ungrateful heart!" In this section Mozart especially emphasizes the word speranza: hope. This aria is its own four-minute drama, in which a neglected and unhappy wife finds the resolution to try to win back her husband's love. It is hardly dramatically static or simply contemplative or merely mood-setting:



(Renée Fleming as the Countess in the 1994 Glyndebourne Opera production directed by Stephen Medcalf and designed by John Gunter, with the London Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink.)

And as for the 19th century's "great departure" of injecting action into ensembles, the Act II finale in Le Nozze di Figaro is a comic masterpiece in which, each time it seems that the Countess has made the Count ashamed of his jealous suspicions and Figaro and Susannah have finally won his acquiescence to their marriage, new characters burst in that completely upend the dramatic situation and throw everything into doubt:


(Hermann Prey as Figaro, Mirella Freni as Susannah, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the Count, Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, Hans Kraemmer as Antonio the gardener, Paolo Montarsolo as Dr. Bartolo, Heather Begg as Marcellina, and John van Kesteren as Basilio in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1976 film, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Böhm.)

Perhaps, you may be thinking, Abbate and Parker were referring to those benighted operas written before Mozart's time. But in Handel and the Opera Seria (a work that does not appear in Abbate and Parker's bibliography) Winton Dean says that in Handel's works the aria is "a means of dramatic expression" (p. 152). He goes on to detail the many ways in which arias in Handel operas illuminate character, reveal intentions, and, yes, dramatize emotion and conflict.

So Abbate and Parker's generalization does not withstand scrutiny. There are other errors of fact and judgment as well:
  • "For a long time, the historical 'first' in this genre [of German-language opera] was said to be Heinrich Schütz's Dafne of 1627. . .the fact that Schütz was an established master of severe church music made him a particularly attractive candidate" (p. 64).

    More to the point, perhaps, Schütz studied in Venice with Gabrieli and, later, with Monteverdi. With such training it shouldn't be a surprise that he attempted opera. Not to mention that it has never been unusual for composers to write for both the theater and the church: Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini did so as well. And, to my ears, Schütz's sacred music is anything but severe: listen to the sensuously intertwining voices in "Auf dem Gebirge" from Geistliche Chormusik (Sacred Music for Choir); this could be an operatic love duet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLMds0Skz4w
  • ". . .the version [of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689)] that has survived is one arranged for performance at a girls' boarding school in London" (p. 66).

    Not quite. Nothing is known about the performance for which the earliest surviving score was prepared. That score has been dated after 1748, but it is probably based on an earlier source. The earliest surviving libretto is a single copy from that girls' school performance in 1689, and it is not known whether there was any earlier staging (so to describe it as "arranged" for this performance is misleading). There are textual differences between the score and the libretto, so in any case there is no single version of this work. [3]
  • The authors state that in the later 18th-century opera seria had "not changed much since Handel's day. . .with the action likely to be an evening-long celebration of the status quo, the final curtain closing as an absolute ruler heaps boundless wisdom and mercy on his humble subjects" (p. 127).

    As a characterization of opera seria in Handel's day or any other, this is perhaps deliberately cartoonish. It does not describe, for example, many of the serious operas of Vivaldi, Jommelli, Handel or Haydn. This characterization does seem to betray, though, an unwillingness on the part of the authors to engage seriously with serious opera.
Such sweeping and unfounded generalizations about opera in the years before 1800 might lead you to suspect that Baroque and classical opera aren't really the focus of Abbate and Parker's attention. You'd be right. There are two chapters and 54 pages (or less than 10% out of 567 pages of text) devoted to opera's first 150 years of development; as many chapters and more pages are devoted to Wagner alone. [4]

Opera before 1750 encompasses the works of Monteverdi, Cavalli, Lully, Charpentier, Purcell, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Rameau, and Handel, not to mention composers such as Bononcini, Hasse, Jommelli, Leo, Pergolesi, Porpora and Vinci. Most of these composers are ignored. Monteverdi and Cavalli receive glancing attention; a few of the others are the subject of a sentence, a paragraph or a page. Handel is the primary focus of an entire section, but it is only 12 pages long (Wagner gets nearly five times as much space).

Moving into the second half of the eighteenth century, Haydn's operas go completely unmentioned. From this book you would have no idea that Mozart was only the seventh-most-popular opera composer in Vienna, after Paisiello, Martin y Soler, Cimarosa, Guglielmi, Sarti, and Salieri. Salieri, Cimarosa and Paisiello are granted one-sentence mentions; the other composers in that list aren't acknowledged.

In short, if you are interested in a history of the culture of opera and of opera's place in culture, this isn't the place to look. As an example of where the authors direct their attention, the "inexorable rise in the power and prestige of music publishers," a hugely important development in the later 19th century, is confined to a single remark (and a parenthetical one at that). In the very next paragraph, Wagner's "penchant for silk" is discussed at length, including a substantial quotation from one of his letters (p. 343).

Another odd emphasis is the profusion of film references scattered throughout the text. The chapter on Mozart begins with a lengthy description of a scene from the Coen Brothers' The Shawshank Redemption that features prisoners listening to the duet "Canzonetta sull' aria" from Le Nozze di Figaro; the very first illustration in the book is a still from this movie. But at least this reference is used to make a point about the sheer beauty of Mozart's music complicating and deepening our responses to the opera's comedy. [5]



(Renée Fleming as the Countess and Alison Hagley as Susannah in the 1994 Glyndebourne Opera production. The Countess dictates a letter to be sent from Susannah to the Count arranging a meeting that night in the garden; an English translation of the words might be: "'A song on the breeze: A gentle zephyr/This evening will sigh/Beneath the pines in the grove.' The rest he'll understand." Susannah agrees: "Certainly, the rest he'll understand.")

Other film references strain to make a point. Sure, perhaps the existence of Laurel and Hardy's The Devil's Brother/Bogus Bandits (1933), an adaptation of Auber and Scribe's Fra Diavolo, makes a point about the once widespread but now faded popularity of that opera. But what does the performance of "Largo al factotum" from Rossini's Le barbiere di Siviglia in Broadway Melody of 1938, or Lauritz Melchior singing "Winterstürme" from Wagner's Die Walkure in the Jane Powell vehicle Luxury Liner (1948) signify, other than that these are famous and readily excerpted arias?

And despite the authors' apparent encyclopedic enthusiasm for movies featuring opera, they miss some highly pertinent examples. "Largo al factotum," for example, features in Peter Yates' 1982 film Breaking Away (not mentioned by Abbate and Parker) where it is not a standalone showpiece but an expression of townie Dennis Christopher's love of bicycle racing and also his social and romantic aspirations. Speaking of Rossini, Chuck Jones' great Rabbit of Seville is mentioned, but mysteriously absent is his even more brilliant Wagner parody What's Opera Doc? ("Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!") And while we hear about the use of the prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Fritz Lang's Blue Gardenia and in Lars von Trier's Melancholia, inexplicably the authors don't discuss its incorporation into Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack for Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece of obsessive love, Vertigo.

In the final chapter the authors pull together a more extensive discussion of opera on film (although they ignore its place on television). ". . .[T]o track 'opera' in cinema over the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is to see a kind of seismographic trace of its place in culture." They point to examples primarily from the first two decades of sound film and note that in more recent times opera appears more rarely in movies and when it does has generally become a signifier of "European elitism." "If the movie seismograph is correct," they write, "this falling-away on the part of the general public has been going on for more than fifty years" (pp. 548-549). This analysis conveniently ignores movies from the past two or three decades where opera plays a more complicated or different role, such as Moonstruck, Pretty Woman, La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful), Quantum of Solace, or, indeed, The Shawshank Redemption. And if TV is included, what are we to make of Puccini's "Nessun dorma" from Turandot becoming the theme of the World Cup, watched by billions?

The authors do occasionally offer some interesting insights. Among them:
  • "Amid competition from increasingly revered masterpieces, writing new operas became ever more perilous" (p. 373). About opera after 1950? No—after 1850, when the programming at La Scala in Milan became dominated by revivals of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. Concerns about the dearth of viable new operas are nothing new, it seems.
  • In recent years with the rise of broadcasts of live opera into cinemas there has been a supposedly new emphasis on eliciting convincing, realistic acting (and not just beautiful singing) from opera stars. But the authors point out that this was an important concern of both Verdi and Wagner, and indeed the basis of critiques of singers in 18th-century French tragédie-lyrique (p. 398). I would go back even further and point to Monteverdi's famous letter to librettist Alessandro Striggio in 1616, in which he asks for realistic characters for whom he can write music that will "move the passions": "Ariadne moved the audience because she was a woman, and similarly Orpheus because he was a man. . ." [6]
  • The authors suggest that one reason for the theatrical effectiveness of Puccini's operas is their "blatant discontinuity" and lack of concern for "trivial narrative coherence." They give the example of Manon Lescaut, in which we never see Manon and Des Grieux during their blissful days of love. Instead we witness their meeting in Act I, and at the beginning of Act II discover that, after their breakup, Manon is living with another (richer, older) man (pp. 416-417). Another opera that reinforces this apparently paradoxical point is La Bohème, where we witness Mimi and Rodolfo vowing to stay together at the end of Act III, and at the beginning of Act IV discover that, after their breakup, she is living with another (richer, older) man. Puccini had a relentless focus on dramatic momentum, and to maintain it cut an entire act from La Bohème.
    But a few good insights can't redeem the whole book. Abbate and Parker's A History of Opera is actually quite old-fashioned: in their view operatic history begins in earnest with Mozart, hits the bel canto high points of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, and reaches its apotheosis with Verdi and (especially) Wagner. Both authors are 19th-century specialists, and it shows: in this book it's as though the rediscovery of Baroque opera that's occurred over the past 50 years or so never happened. Most of the text is devoted to retelling 19th-century opera plots and pointing out musical details. Sometimes those details can be illuminating, but what's missing is a fuller sense of opera's context, significance and history.

    The death of opera has been reported many times, and each time the reports have been greatly exaggerated. Opera will survive as long as humans are susceptible to beauty and to the emotional power of music. To prove the point, Lucia Popp as Susannah from the Act IV garden scene of Le Nozze di Figaro:



    (From the 1980 production at the Paris Opera conducted by Georg Solti. A translation of the words: "At last comes the moment when, without reserve, I can rejoice in my lover's arms: timid scruples, leave my heart, and do not trouble my delight. Oh! I feel this place, the earth and the sky, are responding to love's fire; the night conceals my secret joy. Come, my love, do not delay: love's joy awaits you. The sky is dark and all is hushed. Here the brook murmurs; the breeze plays, whose sighs soothe my beating heart; the flowers smile and the grass is cool; everything invites us to love. Come my beloved, amid these sheltering trees, and I will crown you with roses.")


    1. Opera is also more popular by the measure of ticket revenue: Over the same number of performances, 225, the Metropolitan Opera took in more money at the box office than Hamilton (more than $100 million versus less than $90 million)—despite the average ticket price at Hamilton being almost twice that at the Met ($300 vs. $158.50).
    2. Fred Cohn, A History of Opera [review], Opera News, Vol. 80 No. 9, March 2016: https://www.operanews.com/Opera_News_Magazine/2016/3/Departments/Chronicle_Plays.html
    3. The textual and musical sources of the opera are described in detail in Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas by Ellen Harris (Oxford University Press, 1987) and Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas: An Opera edited by Curtis Price (W. W. Norton, 1986), neither of which appears in Abbate and Parker's bibliography. 
    4. For comparison's sake, opera before Gluck is covered in 252 pages (out of 785 pages of text, or about one-third of the total) in A Short History of Opera, 4th ed. by Donald Grout and Hermine Weigel Williams (Columbia University Press, 2003), and in 85 pages (out of 364 pages of text, or about one-quarter of the total) in Opera: A History by Christopher Headington, Roy Westbrook and Terry Barfoot (St. Martin's, 1987).
    5. Although one of the characters says that "I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid." In fact, this duet happens at a dramatically crucial point in the opera and sets in motion the action which will conclude it—again, so much for the static nature of song in opera. As for the beauty of Mozart's music complicating the comedy of Da Ponte's libretto, Bernard Williams makes this point more tellingly in his brilliant essay on Cosi fan tutte published in On Opera (Yale University Press, 2006).
    6. Quoted in The New Monteverdi Companion, edited by Dennis Arnold and Nigel Fortune, Faber and Faber, 1985, pp. 34-35.