Sunday, November 4, 2018

Why we live in cities part 2: Exceptional musical performances

As a sequel to Why we live in cities: Five exceptional musical performances, here are another half dozen (plus one more) musical reasons why we put up with the crowds, noise, dirt, danger, and expense of living in a modern metropolis. In chronological order, some exceptional musical performances of 2018:

1. Women of the Mediterranean (Ars Minerva, performed at the Italian Cultural Institute, San Francisco, March 28)

Céline Ricci as the title character in Pietro Andrea Ziani's La Circe (1665) at ODC Theater, September 2017. Photo: Ars Minerva

Strong, fierce, and sometimes dangerous women are at the heart of Baroque opera. This program highlighted arias featuring heroines and anti-heroines such as Cleopatra (from Handel's Guilio Cesare), the goddess Circe (from Ziani's La Circe), the Amazon Queen Pulcheria (from Pallavicino's Le Amazzoni), and the Roman Empress Ottavia (from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea). If some of the composers' names in that list are unfamiliar, it is because the artistic mission of Ars Minerva is to discover worthwhile operas that have languished unperformed for centuries and bring them to new audiences.

Dressed in Matthew Nash's simple but beautiful antiquity-inspired gowns three stars of Ars Minerva's previous productions, Aura Veruni, Kindra Scharich, and Ars Minvera Artistic Director Céline Ricci, were sensitively accompanied on keyboard by Derek Tam. In a charming and very enjoyable touch, each singer gave a brief spoken introduction to the character she was portraying before performing her aria. The final piece, beautifully sung by Ricci, was from Giovanni Porta's Ifigenia in Aulide (1738). It certainly whetted the appetite for Ars Minerva's upcoming performances of Porta's opera on November 30 and December 1 at San Francisco's ODC Theater.

Website: Ars Minerva

2. Purcell: Dido and Aeneas (Voices of Music and San Francisco Girls Chorus, produced by the San Francisco Early Music Society 2018 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, performed at First Congregational Church, Berkeley, seen June 7)

Henry Purcell's great tragic opera Dido and Aeneas (1688?) was written to be "perform'd at Mr. Josias Priest's boarding-school at Chelsey. By young gentlewomen." For the 2018 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, Voices of Music joined forces with the SF Girls Chorus to offer a hint of what such a performance might have sounded like. Professional adult singers, soprano Mindy Ella Chu and baritone Jesse Blumberg, performed the title roles, with members of the Girls' Chorus taking on all of the other characters. Especially delightful was Allegra Kelly's boozy Sailor, but all of the chorus members performed with exceptional skill and assurance.

There is strong evidence that in the original performances at Priest's school the "young gentlewomen" took all of the roles, including that of the Trojan hero Aeneas; for a debate on this question between yours truly and lutenist David Tayler of Voices of Music, please see The Mysteries of Dido and Aeneas and its comments thread. But how closely Voices of Music and the SF Girls' Chorus re-created Dido's original performances is ultimately immaterial; this production succeeded beautifully on its own terms. A suggestion for the 2020 Festival for these same forces: John Blow's Venus and Adonis.


3. Mozart: Il re pastore (The Shepherd-King, produced by the Merola Opera Program and performed at SF Conservatory of Music, seen July 21)

Photobombing the wedding picture: Charles Sy (Agenore), Cheyanne Coss (Aminta), Patricia Westley (Elisa), Zhengyi Bai (Alessandro), and Simone Macintosh (Tamiri). Photo: Kristen Loken/Merola

Mozart composed Il re pastore in 1775, when he was just 19 (although it was his tenth opera!), using an existing libretto by Pietro Metastasio. In staging 18th-century opera many contemporary directors are concerned that modern audiences lack familiarity with the conventions of opera seria or the patience to sit through a series of lengthy da capo arias. Director Tara Faircloth applied a common solution to these issues by trying to turn this (semi-) serious opera into a comedy, and at first it seemed that she had overdone it: in her initial arias rich-voiced soprano Cheyanne Coss (as Aminta, the "shepherd-king" of the title) was asked to do painful-looking pratfalls and engage in other not-very-funny slapstick. But about midway through the first act the farce got turned down a notch, and the emotional dilemmas of the characters as expressed in Mozart's glorious music began to come to the fore. And when that happened the comic action became much more effective, because something was at stake.

It helped that the opera was crisply conducted by Boston Early Music Festival co-artistic director Stephen Stubbs, and superbly sung by its young cast. In addition to Coss the singers included Patricia Westley as Aminta's true love Elisa, Simone Macintosh as the deposed princess Tamiri, Charles Sy as Tamiri's lover Agenore, and Zhengyi Bai as Alessandro (Alexander the Great). Bravi tutti!


4. Handel: Semele (American Bach Soloists Festival and Academy, performed at SF Conservatory of Music, seen August 10)

ABS Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas. Photo: Gene Kosoy/ABS

In the early 1740s Handel was forced by financial failure to give up composing Italian opera and turn to English-language oratorios on Biblical and mythological subjects. In Semele (1744), though, he tried to unite the two forms. Semele was in English and was performed as an oratorio (that is, it was not staged), but like opera it treated a frankly erotic subject: the adulterous passion of the god Jupiter and the mortal Semele. Evidently the combination was not to the audience's taste, because after the year of its premiere Semele was never revived in Handel's lifetime.

In our day, of course, when the blurring of genre boundaries is more common, Semele has deservedly become one of Handel's most popular works. The young singers and musicians of the American Bach Soloists Festival and Academy, under the leadership of ABS Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas, gave a superlative account of Handel's great score. Of special note were Arwen Myers as Semele, with a sensual "O sleep, why dost thou leave me" and a bright "Myself I shall adore"; Patrick Kilbride as Jupiter, with a lyrical "Where e'er you walk"; and Graham Bier as a sleepy Somnus, with a very funny "Leave me, loathsome light." By singling out these singers I don't mean to slight the rest of the cast: as with other ABS Festival and Academy productions we've seen, the level of accomplishment of the young artists was uniformly high. We're looking forward to the 2019 Festival.

Website: American Bach Soloists

5. Wagner: Tristan and Isolde (produced by the Claude Heater Foundation and performed at Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, August 26)

Juyeon Song and Roy Cornelius Smith in Act II of Tristan und Isolde. Photo: David Perea/Claude Heater Foundation

It didn't sound promising. A pickup orchestra and a group of singers unknown to me in a single performance of Wagner's colossal masterpiece? This is a work so difficult that after 70 rehearsals in Vienna in the early 1860s the intended premiere was abandoned (it finally premiered in Munich in 1865). A work so taxing that the first Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, and two conductors, Felix Mottl and Josef Keilberth, died shortly after performing it. A work so harmonically daring that it didn't become established in the repertory until two decades after its premiere. A work so punishing that some of the world's greatest tenors, such as Plácido Domingo and Jonas Kaufmann, have shied away from undertaking complete live performances.

But the work evidently held no terrors for conductor Jonathan Khuner or his remarkable cast. Roy Cornelius Smith was a powerful Tristan, showing no fatigue even in the last act (a grueling marathon in which Tristan holds the stage virtually on his own for nearly an hour). Amazing as Act III was—it ends with Isolde's great "Liebestod" and the resolution of the opening Tristan chord first heard four hours previously—Act II was even better. As Smith's Tristan and Juyeon Song's Isolde sang a rapturous love duet, and were then confronted by Philip Skinner's anguished King Marke, the performance reached peak after peak. Under Khuner's direction the orchestra brought out all the lyricism in Wagner's sweeping score. At the end the Herbst Theatre audience sat stunned for a moment before erupting with applause and cheers. We can only hope that a concert performance of Die Walküre is in the planning stages for next summer.

Website: Claude Heater Foundation

6. SF Music Day (produced by InterMusic SF at the War Memorial Veterans Building, San Francisco, September 30)

Trio 180: Sonia Leong, Ann Miller, Vicky Wang. Photo: Joy Chiang/Trio 180

SF Music Day is a truly astonishing annual event. In the course of a single day something like three dozen musical groups, ranging in style from jazz to contemporary to classical to uncategorizable, give 30-minute concerts in four different venues inside the War Memorial Veterans Building. And it's free, although if you come and enjoy even some of what you hear—and how couldn't you?—a donation to InterMusic SF is in order.

Somehow, although SF Music Day has been taking place for a decade, I only found out about it a few years ago. And each time I've attended I've experienced a revelatory performance. In 2016 it was soprano Kindra Scharich and her accompanist George Fee offering a program of great German songs from Schubert to Strauss. Last year it was the Sylvestris Quartet playing "250 years of French chamber music in 30 minutes," ending with a lovely performance of the slow movement from Camille Saint-Saëns' String Quartet No. 1.

This year the great discovery for me was Trio 180, the faculty piano trio-in-residence at the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music. Violinist Ann Miller, cellist Vicky Wang and pianist Sonia Leong performed the first movement of Brahms' Piano Trio in C Major (1882) together with the two movements of Jennifer Higdon's Piano Trio (2003), "Pale Yellow" and "Fiery Red." This was a wonderfully chosen program; at one point in the lyrical "Pale Yellow" the three musicians played the same melody in unison, echoing a similar moment that had occurred the Brahms piece and forming a subtle connection between them. And as its name implies, "Fiery Red" was fast-paced and required of the performers a truly jaw-dropping level of virtuosity. I'm already looking forward to the discoveries I'll make at SF Music Day next year.


Bonus track: The Avengers (SF Public Library west entrance, October 20)

The Avengers performing on the steps of the SF Public Library October 20.

As we approached the San Francisco Public Library one recent afternoon we heard the sounds of a rock band. "This sounds like punk," my partner said. Sure, I thought. Is there a post-Green Day rock band that doesn't try to sound like punk? But then we got closer, and the band started their second song. I recognized the refrain, and, astonished, turned to my partner. "It's the Avengers," I said.

If you aren't already familiar with the Avengers, back in the day they were one of the most pissed-off and articulate bands in the SF punk scene. They also wrote songs with irresistible hooks that made you want to sing along (and move to San Francisco and form a punk band). When the Sex Pistols played their final concert at Winterland on January 14, 1978, the Avengers were the opening band. The Pistols' guitarist, Steve Jones, was so impressed with them that he produced several tracks for their second EP.

A song from that EP, "Uh-Oh," as performed at the SFPL show:

Anti-harassment anthems like "Uh-Oh" ("When a girl says no. . .the answer is NO!") and lyrics like "It's the American in me thinks it's an honor to die/in a war that's just a politician's lie" (from "The American in Me") are unfortunately just as relevant today as when they were written, and the Avengers are just as impassioned and vital as ever. One of my favorite moments in the show happened during the song "Teenage Rebel." It's probably a few decades since the Avengers' lead singer Penelope Houston has been a teenage rebel, so when she got to the refrain she found a (delighted and embarrassed) teenage girl in the audience and sang "I'm a teenage rebel" to and with her.

I had never before had a chance to see the Avengers; they broke up in 1979, perhaps feeling that they had said what they came to say. As Houston says to the 5000-strong Winterland crowd (the biggest audience the Avengers or the Sex Pistols ever played to), "I see you all came, you want to see the Sex Pistols—what are they going to tell you that you don't already know? What are they going to tell you? You've got to figure it out for yourself!" ("I Believe in Me" ends at 29:17)

After the breakup Houston went on to perform and record as a solo artist. But perhaps feeling that the music she created with the Avengers is still meaningful, she has gotten the band back together every so often to play live. The current incarnation of the group includes guitarist and Avengers co-founder Greg Ingraham, bassist Joel Reader (from Mr. T Experience and Pansy Division), and drummer Luis Illades (from Pansy Division).

In fact the SFPL Avengers show had a specific purpose: it was intended to highlight the library's SF Punk Archive. Houston works at the library, and the Punk Archive is her initiative, founded on her collection of posters, zines, and other ephemeral artifacts from that cultural moment. But the SF Punk Archive isn't about nostalgia—it's about documenting and embodying the creative ethos of do-it-yourself culture for this and future generations. And these days we've got more need for creativity than ever.


Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Ellie Dehn as the title character in Arabella at SF Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In the summer of 1927 the composer Richard Strauss asked his longtime collaborator Hugo von Hoffmansthal—the librettist for Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose-Bearer, 1911), and Ariadne auf Naxos (Ariadne on Naxos, 1916), among others—to write a comic opera, "a second Rosenkavalier."

The two men sent ideas back and forth; nothing seemed quite right. But after a few months Hofmannsthal had an inspiration. He recalled a scenario he'd written sometime earlier for a play, Der Fiaker als Graf (The Coachman as Count): "Now yesterday it occurred to me that the whole thing had a touch of Rosenkavalier about it, a most attractive woman as the central figure, surrounded by men, mostly young ones, a few episodes, too—. . .a light opera (in the Rosenkavalier style, but lighter still. . .)" [1]

Hugo von Hofmannsthal around the time of the composition of Der Rosenkavalier.

Hofmannsthal fleshed out the action by combining the characters and setting of The Coachman as Count with plot elements from "Lucidor," a short story he'd written around the time of Der Rosenkavalier. In that story a younger daughter, Lucile, is disguised by her mother as a boy named "Lucidor" in order to aid the marriage prospects of the elder daughter Arabella (the family can't afford to have two daughters "out" at the same time). The new opera would be named after its heroine.

The action of Arabella takes place in the 1860s. Count Waldner has destroyed his family's wealth through his reckless gambling; their only hope is for their daughter Arabella to rescue their fortunes by marrying one of her three rich suitors. Arabella enjoys being taken on sleigh-rides on the Ringstrasse and out to dance at balls; but as she tells her sister (now named Zdenka, perhaps in tribute to the soprano Zdenka Fassbender) none of her suitors is der Richtige, "the right one," with whom there will be "no doubts and no questions."

Lisa della Casa as Arabella, with Anneliese Rothenberger as Zdenka (Munich, 1963, conducted by Josef Keilberth):

Aber der Richtige,
wenns einen gibt
für mich aus dieser Welt,
der will einmal dastehn,
da vor mir,
und wird mich anschaun
und ich ihn,
und keine Zweifel werden sein
und keine Fragen,
und selig werd ich sein
und gehorsam wie ein Kind.

ZDENKA (sie liebevoll ansehend)
Ich weiß nicht, wie du bist,
ich weiß nicht, ob du Recht hast—
dazu hab ich viel zu lieb!
Ich will nur, das du glücklich wirst
mit einem, ders vierdient!
und helfen will ich dir dazu.
(mehr für sich)
So hat die Prophetin es gesehn,
se ganz im Licht,
und ich hinab ins Dunkel.

ARABELLA (für sich)
Aber der Richtige,
wenns einen gibt
für mich aus dieser Welt. . .

ZDENKA (für sich)
Sie ist so schön und so lieb—
ich werde gehn,
und noch in Gehn
werd ich dich segnen,
meine Schwester!

But the right one,
if there is one
for me in this world,
will suddenly stand
there before me,
and he will gaze at me,
and I at him,
and there will be no doubts
and no questions
and I shall be as happy
and obedient as a child.

ZDENKA (looking at her lovingly)
I do not know your heart,
I don't know if you're right,
I love you too much to care!
I only want you to be happy
with one who is worthy of you!
And in this I want to help you.
(more to herself)
For that is what the fortune teller said,
She, bathed in light,
and I plunged in darkness.

ARABELLA (to herself)
But the right one,
if there is one
for me in this world. . .

ZDENKA (to herself)
She is so lovely and so loveable—
I’ll go away,
and still in parting
will I bless you,
my dear sister!

Zdenka, of course, is dressed as a young man, "Zdenko," and in that guise has been trying to act as a go-between with Arabella for Matteo, a poor young officer who is obsessed with her. Arabella is indifferent to Matteo, but Zdenka has fallen in love with him, and passionately pleads his case with her sister to no avail. To keep Matteo from killing himself in despair Zdenka has begun to write him love letters signed with Arabella's name.

Heidi Stober and Ellie Dehn in Act I of Arabella at SF Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

It is Shrove Tuesday, the last day of Carnival. That evening Arabella will attend the Coachman's Ball in the company of her suitors, and at the end of the night must choose one of them to marry or condemn her family to poverty and disgrace. But walking in the street that day she sees a man who looks at her with a thrilling intensity; she can't stop thinking about him.

It turns out that this stranger has been summoned to Vienna by Arabella's father. He sent her photograph to an old army friend in a last-ditch attempt to find her a suitable husband. The old friend has died, but his nephew Mandryka, smitten with Arabella's picture, has come to Vienna from his estates in Croatia in search of her.

At the Coachman's Ball Mandryka and Arabella finally meet. He declares his love; in him she recognizes "the right one," and accepts his proposal of marriage. However, doubt and questions soon follow. Arabella goes to dance a final dance with and bid farewell to each of her suitors. While she is in the ballroom Mandryka overhears "Zdenko" giving Matteo an envelope containing a key to Arabella's room. In a jealous fury Mandryka gets drunk and, when Arabella's father upbraids him, accuses her of betrayal. Everyone heads for the Waldner's hotel, where Mandryka encounters Matteo and Arabella together. . .

Ellie Dehn as Arabella is the center of attention at the Coachman's Ball in Act II. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Hofmannsthal was right to emphasize the lightness of Arabella—the plot requires a number of suspensions of disbelief. But Strauss, evidently moved by the themes of marital suspicion and forgiveness, produced one of his most passionately lyrical scores. In the first act there is the sisters' duet and Mandryka's aria of fervent yearning; in the second, the love duet between Arabella and Mandryka; and in the third, a touching reconciliation scene.

Brian Mulligan and Ellie Dehn in Act III of Arabella at SF Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Seen in performance at San Francisco Opera on October 28, the musical glories of Arabella were almost overwhelmingly evident. Conductor Marc Albrecht savored but did not wallow in Strauss's lush melodies, and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra brought out all the detailed colors of the orchestration. It was almost as great a revelation as hearing Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne this summer.

Vocally this is an extremely demanding opera. It requires of both male and female singers not only beauty of tone, but the ability to float long-breathed high-lying phrases over a surging orchestra. As Arabella Ellie Dehn had a strikingly beautiful voice (if not always, perhaps, an ideally sustained legato) and an elegant demeanor; her performance, which emphasized Arabella's seriousness over her girlishness, gave greater emotional weight to her fateful choice. Her duet with the impassioned Zdenka of the pure-voiced soprano Heidi Stober in the first act was exquisite, and would have stopped the show had Albrecht permitted it. As Mandryka Brian Mulligan's voice glowed with burnished warmth; if later in the opera he seemed at moments to have tired somewhat (Mandryka is onstage for almost the entire second and third acts), he rose to the occasion of the reconciliation duet with soaring ardency.

Ellie Dehn as Arabella and Brian Mulligan as Mandryka in an excerpt of the Act II love duet from the San Francisco Opera production:

Where this performance was lacking was in the production. Director Tim Albery's blocking was sometimes puzzling, and missed several opportunities suggested by the libretto. He also updated the time of the action from the 1860s to 1910, but apart from the lovely gowns it gave Dehn the opportunity to wear, it wasn't clear why. There was no sense that the opera was taking place just a few years before the cataclysmic destruction of World War I, or at a time of intense cultural and political ferment in Vienna. The Rosenkavalier we saw at Glyndebourne also updated the action to the same period, and made far too much of a point of referencing contemporary figures such as Sigmund Freud and the painters Gustav Klimt and Ernst Kirchner. But something in between these two approaches might have worked. In addition to the costumes, the decor could have been another place to nod to fin-de-siècle Viennese design. Tobias Hoheisel's drab three-piece set, though, lacked either a sense of aristocratic opulence or of modernist experimentation. It just looked cheap.

Brian Mulligan's Mandryka confronts Daniel Johansson's Matteo in Act III. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

There is another aspect of Arabella that perhaps could not have been alluded to without overdetermining our responses. The opera had its première on 1 July 1933 in Dresden just a few months after the Reichstag fire had enabled Hitler to consolidate Nazi power. (Hofmannsthal and Strauss had been working on the opera, of course, since 1927.) Through no fault of its creators, in these circumstances an opera looking back nostalgically to the days of Imperial Vienna might be seen at best as willfully oblivious and at worst as passively complicit. (Strauss's later cooperation with the Nazi regime, in part to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law, might further tilt the perception of some viewers towards the "passively complicit" end of the scale.) This context is mentioned in Larry Rothe's and Paul Thomason's program essays.

As if that isn't enough, there is more darkness hovering over this "light" opera: Arabella was to be the last collaboration between Hofmannsthal and Strauss. In July 1929 Hofmannsthal's son Franz committed suicide; two days later as Hofmannsthal was setting out for the funeral he suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. We can't know what Strauss and Hofmannsthal might have gone on to create, but we can be grateful for the six operas they did complete together. For me first among them will always be Der Rosenkavalier, but the sheer loveliness of Arabella will always have its own special appeal.

Many thanks to Matthew Shilvock, General Director of San Francisco Opera, for programming this underperformed work. The final performance of Arabella takes place on November 3.

  1. A Working Friendship: The correspondence between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, translated by Hanns Hammelmann and Ewald Osers, Random House, 1961, p. 442.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Angela Carter's fiction: The Magic Toyshop

A continuation of my series on Angela Carter's fiction.

Cover of the American Dell paperback issue of The Magic Toyshop. And no, Carter's novel has nothing to do with Rosemary's Baby.

Like a Victorian toy theater, The Magic Toyshop (1967) displays many of Carter's recurrent themes in exquisite miniature. Melanie, orphaned at 15, is sent to live in South London with her domineering Uncle Philip, his mute wife Margaret, and Margaret's brothers Francie and Finn. Melanie's first experience of Uncle Philip's house elicits a telling comparison: "She felt lonely and chilled, walking along the long, brown passages, past secret doors, shut tight. Bluebeard's castle." [1]

Uncle Philip creates extraordinarily clever (but also eerily uncanny, grotesque and macabre) toys that are not intended to bring joy to children. When he discovers Melanie exploring the toyshop, he tells her to "put those things away, miss. I don't like people playing with my toys." [2]

In his miniature theater in the basement (um, symbolizing the unconscious?) Uncle Philip likes to stage perverse mini-dramas featuring life-size marionettes. He compels Melanie to perform in "Leda and the Swan"—and as if that isn't creepy enough, the swan is disturbingly Uncle-Philip-shaped. As Finn says after he later destroys the swan-puppet, "He put himself into it. That's why it had to go." [3]

Still from the 1987 film version of The Magic Toyshop. Caroline Milmoe as Melanie playing Leda.

Melanie is repelled by Uncle Philip and finds herself drawn to Aunt Margaret ("'it came to her on her wedding day, like a curse. Her silence.'" [4]) and her brothers, especially Finn:
The curl of his wrist was a chord of music, perfect, resolved. Melanie suddenly found it difficult to breathe.

It was as if he had put on the quality of maleness like a flamboyant cloak. He was a tawny lion poised for the kill—and was she the prey? She remembered the lover made up out of books and poems she had dreamed of all summer; he crumpled up like the paper he was made of before this insolent, off-hand, terrifying maleness, filling the room with its reek. She hated it. But she could not take her eyes off him. [5]
The tensions that have been building in the house soon come to a head, and a conflagration (both metaphorical and literal) erupts.

The Magic Toyshop is full of pre-echoes of The Bloody Chamber (the "Bluebeard" and "Beauty and the Beast" references), Nights At The Circus (an orphaned young girl dependent on the exploitative kindness of strangers), and Wise Children (the patent falsity and psychological truth of theater, incest both symbolic and actual, and the catastrophic but cleansing fire that obliterates what has gone before). There are more of would become her characteristic images and motifs: twins, trains, flowers (Uncle Philip's ironic last name), mirrors, opera, adolescence and sexual initiation, among many others.

'She. . .inspected herself in the long mirror. . .Moonlight, white satin, roses. A bride. Whose bride? But she was, tonight, sufficient for herself in her own glory and did not need a groom.' [6] Caroline Milmoe as Melanie in the film version of The Magic Toyshop.

In his biography of Carter, Edmund Gordon describes his encounter with The Magic Toyshop, his first experience of her writing:
. . .I tore through the novel in a few intoxicated hours, stunned by the fearless quality of the imagination on display and by the luminous beauty of the prose. [7]
I had a similar experience on my first reading of The Magic Toyshop, and my re-reading has confirmed it, in my view, as one of Carter's masterpieces (the other being The Bloody Chamber).

The Magic Toyshop was adapted into an excellent feature film in 1987 produced by Granada Television, directed by David Wheatley and written by Angela Carter. Angela Carter currently seems to be having a moment, with recent radio and stage adaptations of Nights at the Circus and Wise Children. Can someone please restore this film and reissue it on DVD or make it available to stream? (Yes, Criterion Collection, I'm talking to you.)

Other works discussed in the series:  

  1. Angela Carter,  The Magic Toyshop, Heinemann, 1967, p. 82.
  2. Carter, The Magic Toyshop, p. 86.
  3. Carter, The Magic Toyshop, p. 174.
  4. Carter, The Magic Toyshop, p. 37.
  5. Carter, The Magic Toyshop, p. 45.
  6. Carter, The Magic Toyshop, p. 16.
  7. Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter, Oxford, 2017, p. 417.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Angela Carter's fiction: The Bloody Chamber

A continuation of my series on Angela Carter's fiction.

The Bloody Chamber (1979): Carter's development of the Rossinian narrative voice she employed in Wise Children seems to have originated in the story "Puss-in-Boots," which was among the last stories she wrote for her collection of re-imagined fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. In that story Puss-in-Boots helps his master (known only as Master) woo and bed a beautiful young woman who is held virtual prisoner by her miserly, impotent, elderly husband. Yes, we are firmly in opera buffa or commedia dell'arte territory; to underline the point the lady's husband is named Signor Panteleone (Pantalone is a stock commedia character).

The ribald tone of this story at first seems out of place in this collection based on dark fairy tales such as "Bluebeard," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Beauty and the Beast." But there is darkness in Carter's "Puss-in-Boots" as well: the cat does not just outwit the aged Signor Panteleone but contrives his violent demise, freeing his young widow to marry the handsome young Master. Carter's fierce Puss is perhaps inspired by the illustrations of Perrault's tale by Gustave Doré:

In the remaining stories in The Bloody Chamber Carter's language is lushly evocative and creates a looming sense of dread and the uncanny that is often tied to sexuality. Here is the narrator of the title story lying in her bridal chamber after the wedding night:
. . .the last thing I remembered, before I slept, was the tall jar of lilies beside the bed, how the thick glass distorted their fat stems so they looked like arms, dismembered arms, drifting drowned in greenish water. [1]
It's a vision of horror that will prove all too prescient when she discovers the fates of her husband's previous wives.

But these stories often have endings that diverge from those of the tales on which they are based, and make us view their heroines in a different light. What if Little Red Riding Hood, unafraid and eager, climbed into bed with the wolf? Or Beauty, instead of transforming the Beast into a man through her love, embraced her own animal nature? The stories in The Bloody Chamber are beautifully written and strikingly imaginative; you will never think of fairy tales in quite the same way again.

The story "The Company of Wolves" from The Bloody Chamber was adapted into an outstanding feature film in 1984 produced by the Independent Television Channel (ITC), directed by Neil Jordan and co-written by Jordan and Angela Carter.

Next time: The Magic Toyshop
Last time: Wise Children

  1. Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and other adult tales, Harper & Row, 1979, p. 22.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Angela Carter's fiction: Wise Children

A continuation of my series on Angela Carter's fiction.

The Dolly Sisters on the cover of the  first British edition of Wise Children

Wise Children (1991), Angela Carter's final novel, takes the working-class ventriloquism of Nights at the Circus and sustains it more consistently and entertainingly. Perhaps recognizing that the most enjoyable sections of her previous novel were the parts in which Fevvers recounted her life story, Carter wrote Wise Children entirely in the first-person voice of music-hall performer Dora Chance.

Raised by a woman they think of as their grandmother, Dora and her twin sister Nora are destined for the stage from an early age. Their career as the Lucky Chances (loosely based on the real-life vaudeville stars the Dolly Sisters) spans eight decades of popular entertainment, from pantomime and music hall to movies (a Hollywood version of A Midsummer Night's Dream that bears a close resemblance to Max Reinhardt's 1935 Warner Brothers production), the West End (a Shakespearean revue variously entitled What You Will, What? You Will? or What! You  Will!), and finally burlesque. Television also makes an appearance in the person of game-show host Tristram Hazard, who is either the cousin or half-brother of the Chance twins.

Still from Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

As the uncertain relationships among the characters imply, as well as the names "Chance" and "Hazard" (one of whose meanings is "chance"), the wise (or otherwise) children in this novel do not know their own fathers. The chief perpetrators of this ambiguity are the Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard and his twin brother Peregrine, who between them beget three pairs of twins on Melchior's various wives and lovers.

The novel is organized around a series of celebrations that quickly descend into disaster, as revelations, resentments and jealousies erupt. There's a catastrophic Twelfth Night party which ends with Melchior's country manor, Lynde Court, burning to the ground; a calamitous 21st birthday party for Saskia and Imogen, the twin daughters of Melchior (or is it Peregrine?), which ends with the birthday girls smashing everything in sight when Melchior announces his remarriage to a woman no older than they are; and an ill-starred Hollywood triple wedding, which ends with the mother of Nora's groom dumping a vat of tomato sauce over the bride's head ("What? Her son marry a born-again virgin? Not good enough for Little Italy!" [1]).

The Dolly Sisters

So when Dora and Nora crash Melchior's hundredth birthday party in the company of his long-ago discarded first wife, we know that chaos is about to ensue (another meaning of "hazard," of course, is "danger"). As it does, but by this time the impending debacle has become a bit too predictable.

Wise Children is breezy reading, and bursts with Shakespeare, opera, literary and pop-cultural references. There are characters who bear strong resemblances to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mickey Rooney, Jack L. Warner, and John Christie, the founder of the opera festival at Glyndebourne (to which Lynde Court bears more than a passing resemblance [2]). And Dora's narrative voice is delightful, even if in the dark it would be impossible to tell her apart from Fevvers.

So it seems perverse to complain that the novel is too enjoyable, but somehow that's my feeling. I was a bit surprised to learn from Gordon's biography of Carter that I'm not the only person to feel this way; both Victoria Glendinning and Harriet Waugh "agreed that the hilarity came at the expense of emotional depth." [3] Wise Children is like a relentless Rossini farce instead of a mature Mozart opera. I have to say that while I can enjoy The Barber of Seville I much prefer The Marriage of Figaro, which reveals "the shadows of human sadness cast by the sunlight of comedy." [4] Your reaction may vary.

Wise Children has been adapted into a play by Emma Rice, which premiered at the Old Vic, London, in October 2018:

Next time: The Bloody Chamber
Last time: Nights at the Circus 

  1. Angela Carter, Wise Children, Chatto & Windus, 1991, p. 161.
  2. Just so I'm not accused of seeing Glyndebourne references where they don't exist, Carter regularly attended the Festival Opera in the 1970s and 1980s. 
  3. Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter, Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 405.
  4. Spike Hughes in Glyndebourne: A History of the Festival Opera, Second edition, David & Charles, 1981, p. 259.