Monday, December 29, 2008

Back from a hiatus

Whew! I'm finally able to start posting again after an exceptionally busy fall semester and holiday season. But I can't simply return to posting about Bollywood movies without acknowledging the horrific Mumbai attacks of a month ago, although I'm not sure that I have anything to add to what's already been written about these appalling crimes.

However, there is a Tehelka special issue on the attacks which makes for harrowing reading; Tehelka also offers continuing coverage of new developments. There's also a BBC special report devoted to the attacks and their aftermath.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming next time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Congratulations to Alex Ross

The New York Times announced today that one of the winners of this year's MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grants is Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker.

I posted on Ross's The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century last April; recently, Michael Kimmelman has written an even more enthusiastic review for the New York Review of Books. The paperback will be published October 10 (unless the publisher now moves up the date).

Ross's blog is also titled The Rest is Noise, and The New Yorker offers an online archive of his past articles.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Opera guide 3: Der Rosenkavalier

Fans of Bollywood should find Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose-Bearer, 1911) to be strikingly familiar: central to the plot is an arranged marriage, which in the 18th century--the period of the opera's action--was common among the European aristocracy. The middle-aged Baron Ochs has come to Vienna to marry Sophie, the beautiful young daughter of the wealthy merchant Herr Faninal. From the marriage Ochs will gain Faninal's wealth and Sophie's youth and beauty; Faninal and Sophie will get a more exalted social status. It’s a straightforward business deal between the two men: Sophie herself doesn't have a say in the matter.

Or does she after all? In the comedies of Molière and Beaumarchais and Goldoni, the young girl destined to be united with a husband she doesn't love contrives to thwart the older man's desires and assert her own. And it was those comedies, along with Louvet de Couvray's novel Les Amours du Chevalier de Faublas (1781), Mozart and da Ponte's opera Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), and William Hogarth's painting series Marriage à la Mode (1743-45) that librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal took as explicit models when he sent the first outline of what would become Der Rosenkavalier to the composer Richard Strauss.

The engine of the plot may be the plans of the Baron Ochs (pronounced "ox," and with good reason) to marry Sophie, and her attempt to escape the fate the Baron and her father have arranged for her. But the true centers of interest are the Marschallin, a woman past the first bloom of youth, and her adolescent lover Octavian--played, like Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro, by a woman. In another Figaro parallel, the Marschallin, like Mozart's Countess, is trapped in an unhappy marriage and facing the loss of her youth and allure. Octavian is evidently neither her first nor probably her last lover.

In the first moments of the opera Octavian and the Marschallin are entwined in her bedchamber after a night of passionate lovemaking (strongly, not to say vulgarly, suggested in the opera's overture) when Ochs bursts through the door. He's made his unwelcome entrance to ask the Marschallin to nominate the person who will be the bearer of the silver rose that Ochs, by family tradition, will present to his new bride. The Marschallin, in a moment of perhaps deliberate incaution, names Octavian. Her choice will have far-reaching consequences for everyone involved when the 16-year old Sophie and the 17-year-old Octavian set eyes on each other. (The presentation of the rose, above; Octavian and Sophie becoming acquainted, at right.)

Baron Ochs is usually portrayed as a blustery, dim-witted and lecherous old man, an immediate figure of low comedy. But Ochs doesn't have to be such a buffoon. Strauss himself wrote of the Baron, "Most basses have presented him as a disgusting vulgar monster with a repellent mask and proletarian manners. . . This is quite wrong: Ochs must be a rustic Don Juan of 35, who is after all a nobleman, if a rather boorish one, and who knows how to conduct himself decently." But over time Ochs has become a role for aging basses, so that in most productions these days he seems to be at least in his 50s, and the coarse and clownish aspects of the character have become more prominent.

The jarring comedy of the Baron is all the more surprising because Hofmannsthal could write scenes possessing an incredible delicacy of feeling. In the first act the Baron's plans bring the Marschallin to the uncomfortable recognition of the ways in which her own life parallels Sophie's: she too was a young girl brought out of convent school to marry an older man whom she barely knew. This recognition makes her feel the passing of her youth all too keenly, and in a touching monologue at the close of the first act she laments the passage of time:

"How can it really be
that once I was little Resi
and that one day
I shall be an old woman?
An old woman, the old Marschallin!
'There she goes, the old Princess Resi!'
How can this happen?
How can our dear Lord make it so?
When I am still the same person?
And if He must make it so,
Why does He let me see it all
so very clearly?
Why does He not hide it from me?"

Strauss felt that this scene must be played, "not sentimentally as a tragic farewell to life, but with Viennese grace and lightness, half weeping, half smiling."

In the great final scene of the opera, Sophie, Octavian, and the Marschallin all finally meet. Sophie realizes immediately that there's a disturbingly intimate connection between Octavian and the Marschallin; Octavian feels torn between his new love for Sophie and his sensual connection to the Marschallin; and the Marschallin realizes that the inevitable day of parting from Octavian has arrived far sooner than she anticipated. These characters express their bittersweet feelings in a trio which contains some of the most breathtaking music in all opera.

This is an excerpt of the final scene taken from the 1960 film directed by Paul Czinner, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and featuring Sena Jurinac as Octavian, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin, and Analise Rothenberger as Sophie (alas, no subtitles):



As if this ravishing music weren't enough, at the end of this amazing scene the Marschallin withdraws, leaving Sophie and Octavian to sing one of the most tender love duets ever written.

There are many wonderful recordings of this opera to choose from. I can personally recommend two on DVD. The first is the 1979 Munich production conducted by Carlos Kleiber and designed by Otto Schenk. It has perhaps the greatest Octavian ever in Brigitte Fassbaender, who has the charisma of the young Elvis in the role; the heartbreaking Marschallin of Gwyneth Jones; and the Sophie of Lucia Popp, who may look slightly mature for the role (Sophie is, after all, supposed to be 16) but whose youthful voice and acting sweep away any hesitation. My second recommendation is the 1985 London production conducted by Georg Solti and designed by William Dudley and Maria Björnson. Anne Howells is not perhaps among the greatest Octavians, but Kiri Te Kanawa is a coolly regal Marschallin, and Barbara Bonney's beautiful (and beautifully sung) Sophie makes the "love at first sight" moment with Octavian in Act II perfectly convincing. The 1960 film excerpted above also looks well worth viewing in its entirety.

The classic 1956 studio recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin, Christa Ludwig as Octavian and Teresa Stich-Randall as Sophie remains the standard version more than 50 years on. But this is an opera that should really be seen to be appreciated--live, if possible, but if not, via one of the superb DVD versions recommended above.

The photos in this post were taken by Terrence McCarthy during San Francisco Opera's 2007 production, which was adapted by Thierry Bosquet from Alfred Roller's original 1911 designs. The Marschallin was sung by Soile Isokoski (pictured above) and Martina Serafin, Sophie by Miah Persson, and Octavian by Joyce DiDonato. DiDonato writes a delightful blog, Yankee Diva, which I highly recommend.

Update 12 August 2009: Thanks to ruizdechavez, (most of) the final trio and duet of the 1979 Munich Rosenkavalier featuring Lucia Popp, Brigitte Fassbaender and Gywneth Jones has been posted on YouTube--watch it while you can:



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYZliEez2Vk

Update 21 August 2009: In my DVD recommendations I didn't mention the 1994 Wiener Staatsoper production conducted by Carlos Kleiber, with Felicity Lott as the Marschallin, Anne-Sofie von Otter as Octavian, and Barbara Bonney as Sophie, because I'd never seen it. Thanks to Anik LaChev's eye bags blog and YouTube's rwprof, though, I've just seen the final trio and final duet of that production, and they're exceptional--if the entire production achieves this standard, then this version would rank with the Munich Opera production discussed above as the best available.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The "Arrgh!" factor: Chandni

Bollyviewer commented on my post on Silsila and Lamhe that every Yash Chopra film has a fatal flaw. After seeing Chandni (Moonlight, 1989), I'm beginning to agree.

Chandni is played by Sridevi, and if she was irresistible in Lamhe (1991) she's even more so here. The movie could have been titled The Many Moods of Sridevi--it's basically a love poem to the actress. The camera captures her impish, playful, tender, grave, sorrowful, and loving glances in close-ups that are simply overwhelming--and this is when they're viewed on a television screen. We see her dancing in both traditional and modern costume, and (this being a Yash Chopra film) in settings as different as the Swiss mountains and the pouring monsoon rains.

Of course, the excuse for this obsession with Sridevi is ostensibly the obsession of Chandni's fiancé, Rohit (Rishi Kapoor), who has plastered the walls of his room with her photographs. Rohit is a giggling, pudgy, childlike guy with the most execrable taste in sweaters imaginable. In every scene he seems to be wearing some new knitted horror (and in the quick-change dance numbers he's shown wearing four or five of them in rapid succession). I'm sorry that I don't have some screencaps, but the image above from the Eros films site gives you some idea. Rishi's sweaters would justify a scathing post all to themselves on Ugly, Ugly, Bollywood Fugly.

Warning--spoilers follow.

Those sweaters should have been a clue: Rohit's judgment is appallingly bad. His idea of a surprise for Chandni is to shower her with rose petals from a hired helicopter. Unfortunately, as the helicopter is landing Rohit manages to fall out, and is left partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. Bitter at his fate and supposedly loving Chandni so much he can't bear to see her saddled for a lifetime with an invalid like him, he angrily drives her away.

Chandni flees Rohit and his hateful family (who have always despised her) and goes to Bombay to look for a job. Late for an interview, she flags down a car at random. Of course, the driver is Lalit (Vinod Khanna), the boss of the firm she's applying to. Khanna is very handsome, with a worldliness (and a hint of world-weariness) that suggests Bryan Ferry at his most suavely seductive. When Lalit lounges casually at a bar with cigarette in hand, you practically expect him to start crooning some melancholy Jacques Brel number. Vinod's on the left, Bryan's on the right:


Lalit is perceptive, attentive and kind; best of all, he's an adult. He's experienced the pain of loss (in a flashback we see his lover Devika (Juhi Chawla, looking very Sridevi-esque) die suddenly--really suddenly, since we'd had no clue she was ill--in his arms), and it hasn't turned him into a petulant, self-pitying mess. He gradually allows himself to fall in love with Chandni, and his mother (Waheeda Rehman) couldn't approve more.

On a business trip to Switzerland, Lalit encounters who else but Rohit, who at the urging of his brother-in-law Ramesh (Anupam Kher) has finally agreed to try rehabilitation at a Swiss clinic. And after a mere four months (the miracles of Swiss medicine!) he's been completely cured of his paralysis. Lalit and Rohit form an instant friendship (shades of the "two friends in love with the same woman" plot of An American in Paris (1951), here).

Rohit decides to surprise Chandni again: he shows up at her door in Bombay in his wheelchair, and then stands up and does a few awkward dance steps (incidentally, seeing Rishi Kapoor trying to keep up with the sinuously graceful Sridevi in the dance numbers is painful). By now you'd think Rohit would have figured out that surprises aren't such a good idea. He declares that he's ready to take Chandni back--only, she breaks the news to him that she's found someone else. (After breaking off their engagement and cutting off all contact for months, what did he think?) When Lalit invites his new friend to meet his fiancée, Rohit realizes that Lalit's the new man in her life.

But instead of doing the honorable thing and leaving town, he agrees to come to Lalit and Chandni's wedding. Having done so, for the sake of his love and his friendship does he stoically swallow his pain? Of course not--he swallows half a bottle of whiskey instead, and is rendered so sloppily insensible that at the wedding he plummets down a huge staircase. Chandni rushes to his unconscious side, crying "Rohit, my Rohit!" (Her Rohit, it turns out, is uninjured.)

Now it's Lalit's turn to be crushed by sudden unwelcome knowledge. But does he go on a self-pitying binge? Does he speak bitter, angry words to his fiancée and friend? And does Chandni come to her senses and realize that Lalit is much better friend, lover and husband material than Rohit has ever been or could be?

No, no...and no. Chandni leaves on her honeymoon, all right--with Lalit's blessing, but with the wrong guy. As we see Chandni standing up in a convertible speeding through the Swiss countryside with Rohit at the wheel (wait--haven't they learned by now that seatbelts are necessary things?), and as the words "Love...never...ends..." are slowly written across the screen, my involuntary response is an inarticulate, strangulated, agonized "Arrgh!"

Update 12 November 2012: Yash Chopra passed away on October 21, 2012 after a sudden  illness. In memory of this legendary figure, I've written a post on Six favorite songs from Yash Chopra films.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas

I can't believe it's taken me so long to discover the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis. His Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (originally published 1881; translated by Gregory Rabassa, Oxford University Press, 1997) is, as the title suggests, narrated by a dead man--the very first chapter is titled "The Author's Demise."

Brás Cubas's narrative voice is lightly ironic, a quality that I enjoy in writers as different as Jane Austen, Italo Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez. Brás Cubas is skeptical and self-deprecating, as well--pointing out his own blindnesses, follies, hypocrises, and failures unsparingly.

But the novel also illustrates the limitations of approaching life ironically. While passion and commitment are shown to be absurd--delusional when not hypocritical--the alternative is a life of detached bemusement. Brás Cubas's litany of missed opportunities, bypassed possibilities, and half-hearted pursuits eventually becomes rather sad. He's not the first person who when at college is "a profligate, superficial, riotous and petulant student," and afterwards desires nothing more than "to prolong the university for my whole life forward..." As much to give his life some drama as out of true feeling, he ultimately embarks on a long-term affair with Virgília, the wife of an opportunistic politician; the affair doesn't end particularly well.

Like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, the Posthumous Memoirs calls attention to its own constructedness as literature--the narrator refers to previous events in his life by chapter number, for example, or engages in self-conscious typographical experiments. Chapter CXXXIX, "How I Didn't Get to Be a Minister of State," for example, consists entirely of a lengthy ellipsis. The next chapter--titled "Which Explains the Previous One"--begins, "There are things that are better said in silence. Such is the material of the previous chapter."

But apart from his wit, what makes Brás Cubas such an enjoyable companion is his unflattering honesty about himself and his motives--greed, fear, lust, envy, indolence, boredom, a desire to avoid difficulty and embrace immediate pleasure. Motives which, on reflection, are uncomfortably familiar.

"Perhaps I'm startling the reader with the frankness with which I'm emphasizing my mediocrity. Be aware that frankness is the prime virtue of a dead man. In life the gaze of public opinion, the contrast of interests, the struggle of greed all oblige people to keep quiet about their dirty linen, to disguise the rips and stitches, not to extend to the world the revelations they make to their conscience. And the best part of the obligation comes when, by deceiving others, a man deceives himself, because in such a case he saves himself vexation, which is a painful feeling, and hypocrisy, which is a vile vice."

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Lucia di Lammermoor

At many points during San Francisco Opera's production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (seen July 2), it was hard to escape the impression that the singing was better than the music.

Lucia is based on Walter Scott's novel The Bride of Lammermoor (despite the Scottish setting, the characters' forenames have been Italianized). Lucia is forced to renounce her true love, Edgardo, and marry Arturo, a man she has barely met, to save the fortunes of her brother Enrico. Madness and death follow.

Soprano Natalie Dessay (photo by Terrence McCarthy) deserves every superlative that's been showered on her Lucia. While she possesses the effortless-sounding coloratura demanded by this difficult role, she is also a skilled actress who fully inhabits her character. The famous mad scene in the middle of the third act, where a dazed Lucia wanders into her wedding party drenched in Arturo's blood and hallucinating that she is marrying Edgardo, was brilliantly performed (and I don't even like coloratura).

As her lover Edgardo, tenor Giuseppe Filianoti's voice sounded somewhat dry and strained in Act I, but gradually opened up over the course of the evening. He gave an emotionally compelling account of the final scene, where Edgardo at Lucia's tomb realizes the full horror of what's transpired and resolves to die with her. Baritone Gabriele Viviani sang Enrico with a convincing sense of menace and heedlessness of his sister's desires. As the sympathetic chaplain Raimondo, bass Oren Gradus possessed the most commanding male voice (and the most nuanced male character) onstage. Andrew Bidlack essayed the thankless role of Arturo with a high tenor voice that was perhaps on the light side (am I the only person who feels some sympathy for the luckless Arturo, slaughtered on his wedding night?).

But for me, these excellent voices were too often employed in the service of music that was incongruously mismatched with the dramatic situation. This was especially apparent in the second-act sextet (mainly a trio) that follows Lucia's signing of the marriage contract with Arturo. An armed Edgardo bursts in (never mind how) and expresses defiant rage, while Enrico feels the stirrings of remorse, and Lucia is utterly devastated. But Donizetti's melodies for this scene bear little relation to the content of the words; you could substitute entirely different texts about the beautiful spring breezes, and the trio would work perfectly well. This incongruity can be used once or twice as a deliberate effect; when it happens throughout the opera, you can't avoid the suspicion that it's not a device, but a failing.

San Francisco Opera did use a recent critical edition of the score, which apparently involved somewhat more transparent orchestration and the use, as Donizetti originally intended, of an eerie-sounding glass harmonica during Lucia's mad scene (you can approximate the effect by rubbing a wetted finger around the rim of a wine glass). Alas, the care taken with the score was not extended to the sets, which used painted panels to try to generate a sense of oppressiveness and enclosure, but mainly just looked cheap. From the first scene, the panels also forced the performers into awkward accommodations, as when the chorus representing Enrico's clansmen has to duck under an all-too-solid panel representing the mist on the moors.

Fortunately the production did not detract from Dessay's amazing performance. Here's a short excerpt of her mad scene from the Metropolitan Opera's Lucia from last fall. The production is entirely different from San Francisco's, but it will give a small hint of what it's like to experience her performance in the theater:



For another, more eloquent appreciation of Natalie Dessay's Lucia, see Prima la musica, poi le parole.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Vivah and Aaja Nachle

Adam Gopnik has an article in the current New Yorker on the writer G. K. Chesterton. In it he quotes a chapter in Chesterton's autobiography titled "The Man With The Golden Key," in which Chesterton describes how as a child he played with figures (including a prince who carried a golden key) in a puppet theater:

"If this were a ruthless realistic modern story, I should of course give a most heartrending account of how my spirit was broken with disappointment, on discovering that the prince was only a painted figure. But this is not a ruthless realistic modern story. On the contrary, it is a true story. And the truth is that I do not remember that I was in any way deceived or in any way undeceived. The whole point is that I did like the toy theatre even when I knew it was a toy theatre. I did like the cardboard figures, even when I found they were of cardboard. The white light of wonder that shone on the whole business was not any sort of trick..."
Fantasy and reality are not opposed to or exclusive of one another, but can coexist simultaneously. And surely this is the way that our imaginations are engaged by books, opera, and movies, among other things. In the spirit of being neither deceived nor undeceived, then, my appreciation of two recent Bollywood films that involve no more reality than Chesterton's toy theater, but nonetheless offer a high degree of enjoyment:

Porn for parents: Vivah (2006)

There's a book called Porn for Women (Cambridge Women's Pornography Cooperative, 2007) which consists of pictures of hunky guys vacuuming, doing the dishes, and offering thick slices of chocolate cake for dessert, with captions like "I don't like to see you looking too thin."

Well, Vivah (Marriage) is pornography for parents. Director Sooraj Barjatya (of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun...! (1994) fame) has created a world where children are obedient, kind, sweet-tempered, solicitous of their parents and siblings, and unfailingly courteous. If they're beautiful young women, they're modest and demure; if they're charming young men, they're shy and reject all vices. Loving parents arrange marriages for their children that lead to deeply affectionate unions and emotionally close extended families where class and caste differences don't matter.

This is not to say that none of this is ever true. For all of it to be true simultaneously, though, we have to be in Barjatyaland.

Vivah is the story of an arranged union between Poonam (Amrita Rao), a small town, middle-class family's gorgeous niece raised as their own daughter, and Prem (Shahid Kapoor), the handsome second son of a fabulously wealthy Dehli industrialist. Amrita and Shahid are very appealing as the young lovers, even if Shahid has a hard time being convincing in those rare moments when he's called on to look sultry. The supporting cast--including Alok Nath and Anupam Kher as Poonam's and Prem's respective fathers and Lata Sabharwal as Prem's sister-in-law--inhabit their roles with a charming ease. And not least, Ravindra Jain's soundtrack has the great Udit Narayan and the brilliantly talented Shreya Ghoshal all over it.

It's the kind of movie where, when discussing their past love affairs, Poonam's had none, and Prem mentions that he once had a crush on a girl sitting in front of him in one of his college classes. Then he discovered that she already had two boyfriends, and lost interest. Almost every character is unrelentingly good, and except for the last few minutes the story is almost entirely lacking in drama. Instead, we're treated to the beautifully photographed three-hour long spectacle of the "journey from engagement to marriage" of two really nice young people from really nice families.

I loved it.

Madhuri Dixit's return: Aaja Nachle (2007)

Aaja Nachle (Come Dance With Me) is a classic "Hey kids, let's put on a show!" musical. Its main feature of interest is that it's the vehicle for the return of Madhuri Dixit to Bollywood after an absence of 5 years (it's her first film since Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas (2002)).

Although she looks great in Aaja Nachle, it's clear in some sequences at least that Madhuri is no longer in top dancing form. Very often she will remain more or less stationary in the center of groups of dancers who swirl around her. It's impossible to escape the feeling that this is intended by director Anil Mehta and choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant to disguise her relative lack of mobility. Still, she remains very expressive as both an actor and dancer, and is always a pleasure to watch.

She plays Dia, a woman who left her village to avoid an arranged marriage, and ran off with her lover to New York to realize her dreams as a dancer. A decade later, divorced and with a young daughter, she returns to the village at the request of her dying teacher. The Ajanta amphitheater will be demolished and replaced by a shopping mall unless she can rally the townspeople to save it. So she recruits a motley assortment of townfolk to perform the ancient love story of Laila and Majnu.

Will Dia be able to whip her fractious cast into a smooth ensemble by opening night? Will sophisticated lighting effects, elaborate sets and costumes, and dozens of backup dancers materialize from nowhere? Will the actors playing Laila and Majnu stop arguing constantly and fall in love offstage as well as on-? Will the evil politicians and businessmen who have forgotten art and their heritage in pursuit of money see the error of their ways? Will dissatisfied wives and husbands, astonished at seeing their partners' onstage transformations, suddenly come to appreciate them? Will the theater be saved...?

If you're unsure about how the movie turns out, you haven't watched 42nd Street (1933) or Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) or Babes in Arms (1939) or Singin' in the Rain (1952) or The Band Wagon (1953) or...I'm sure you catch my drift. But the film is enlivened by Akshaye Khanna's delightful performance as a pro-development politician (he actually says to Dia, "I'm the bad guy"), a terrific ensemble cast, and of course, by Madhuri Dixit's lovely smile--missing from the screen for too long.

Aaja Nachle is not a great work of art. It's clichéd, suspenseless, totally unreal and utterly predictable.

I loved it.

Update 10 July 2011: After rewatching Vivah, I've posted additional thoughts about it in Bollywood Rewatch 2: Vivah and India's missing daughters.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Ariodante

The challenges of staging Baroque operas seem to present insoluble difficulties for San Francisco Opera. Ariodante, seen June 18, is the fifth Handel opera I've seen mounted by the company, and as with most of the others the vocal strengths of the cast were undermined by poor direction, a puzzling design concept, and generic costumes.

Ariodante's story is taken from Cantos 5 and 6 of Ariosto's epic poem Orlando Furioso (1532), and takes place in exotic Scotland. The vassal knight Ariodante (Susan Graham) loves the king's daughter Ginevra (Ruth Ann Swenson), and she returns his love. Polinesso (Sonia Prina), however, has his own designs on the throne; he convinces Dalinda (Veronica Cangemi), Ginevra's lady-in-waiting, to dress in Ginevra's clothes and invite him into her chambers. Witnessing what he thinks is Ginevra's unfaithfulness, Ariodante flees the court and is reported to have killed himself. Meanwhile, his brother Lurcanio (Richard Croft) denounces Ginevra and demands justice for his brother; upholding his own law, the king (Eric Owens) is forced to condemn his daughter to death unless a champion is willing to defend her honor.

What is it about Handel that brings out the worst in opera directors? At SF Opera I've seen characters:

a. singing a gut-wrenching farewell love duet while standing 20 feet apart and facing the audience rather than each other (Rodelinda, directed by David Alden);

b. repeatedly hurling clattering objects across the stage during another character's aria (Alcina, directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, guilty of many crimes against Handel);

c. disrobing a singer during her aria (Alcina again);

d. sexually groping a singer during her aria (Alcina yet again--different singer, different aria);

e. comically gesticulating throughout another character's sorrowful aria (Giulio Cesare).
That last offense was committed by director John Copley, who also directed Ariodante. He didn't repeat it in Ariodante, fortunately, but he missed many dramatic opportunities and staged at least two scenes (Dalinda's escape from Polinesso's assassins and Lurcanio's duel with Polinesso) so ineptly that the audience laughed out loud. The set designer, John Conklin, did no better: Ariodante is supposed to take place in Scotland, but the settings looked like Greek and Roman antiquity as reimagined for the lobby of a Las Vegas casino. And it's not clear that Conklin ever met or spoke with costume designer Matthew Stennett, whose generic Renaissance Faire costumes (which, frankly, looked like leftovers from his costumes for Giulio Cesare from a few seasons back) placed the action a millennium or more later, around the time of Ariosto.

Fortunately, for the most part you could just shut your eyes and revel in excellent singing of some of Handel's greatest music. In the title role, Susan Graham gave a harrowing account of "Scherza infida," Ariodante's searing aria of pain and despair after he witnesses what he thinks is Ginevra's unfaithfulness. Graham's performance of that aria was even more remarkable since Copley had her sing the last third of it lying flat on her back. As Ginevra, Ruth Ann Swenson's once-bright soprano seemed to have become a touch cloudy. The soft grain in the voice wasn't bothersome, however: it just gave it a quality more like velvet than satin. Sonia Prina's voice wasn't very alluring in tone; her voice lacks the richness I find especially appealing in some altos. But she fired off fiendishly difficult coloratura like a machine gun--it was jaw-dropping. Unfortunately, she was the tiniest person on stage, which did not lend credence to her portrayal of the swaggeringly evil Polinesso. Veronica Cangemi's Dalinda had the necessary vocal brightness, but conductor Patrick Summers took some of her arias at cruelly hard-driven tempos, forcing her to fudge some of the coloratura. As the king, Eric Owens offered a somewhat woolly bass voice, but the role did allow him to display his earth-shaking low notes.

The discovery of the evening for me was Richard Croft. His Lurcanio was sung in a soaring, lyrical tenor that never strained in its upper reaches, and had an almost baritonal warmth in its lower ones. What a voice! (And if you've read any of my other opera posts, you know that I don't even like tenors.) I'd love to see Croft in some other pre-19th century repertory; how about as Ulysses in Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria? Just a thought...

Croft sings Lurcanio on the excellent recording of Ariodante conducted by Marc Minkowski on Archiv. That recording also features the spine-shivering alto of Ewa Podles as Polinesso and a stunningly dramatic performance by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter in the title role. A good second choice is the version conducted by Nicholas McGegan on Harmonia Mundi, which features the glorious Lorraine Hunt (later Lieberson) as Ariodante, although her supporting cast isn't as accomplished as the one on the Minkowski recording. The DVD of Ariodante from the English National Opera directed for the stage by David Alden is to be avoided at all costs.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Forbidden Love: Silsila and Lamhe

Silsila (The Affair, 1981) and Lamhe (Moments, 1991) are Yash Chopra films about thwarted love. Both were box-office failures when first released--the first for seeming to condone adultery, and the second for its incestuous undertones. While I didn't have moral objections to either film (although the thought of a middle-aged Viren being romanced by an 18-year-old Pooja in Lamhe is a bit creepy), I find their classic status to be somewhat puzzling.

Warning: spoilers follow.

In Silsila, the writer Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) has just met and fallen in love with Chandni (Rekha); his brother Shankar (Shashi Kapoor), a fighter pilot, has been betrothed to Shobha (Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan) for some time. Knowing little about the film, I still realized immediately that Shankar was doomed, and sure enough, fifteen minutes into the film he's killed in action. When Amit learns that Shobha is pregnant, he decides to save her honor and that of his brother's child by marrying her, and writes a bitter letter to Chandni telling her to forget him--but without telling her why (shades of Devdas).

Amit later meets Chandni again; in one of several unlikely coincidences in this film, she's become the wife of Dr. Anand (Sanjeev Kumar), who saves Shobha's life (but who can't save the baby) after a car accident. Amit and Chandni begin an ill-concealed affair--especially ill-concealed when they all but declare it to their appalled spouses during a Holi celebration. There's a particularly heart-breaking scene where Dr. Anand pleads with his wife for a loving embrace as a sign of her affection; her reluctance tells him all he needs to know. Out of his love for Chandni, though, Dr. Anand goes on a business trip whose thinly disguised purpose is to give her the opportunity to run off with Amit; in one of the most emotionally telling scenes in the film, at the airport Dr. Anand gives Chandni a last look full of sadness before boarding the plane. Shobha, too, realizes what's going on, and discovers that she has grown to love Amit (although, given his coldness towards her throughout the movie, you have to wonder why).

Despite feeling overlong, the film does have some compelling moments. The song "Peheli Peheli Baar Dekha," in which Chandni playfully warns Amit not to get burned by her flame, is a (too short, alas) classic:


And there's a confrontation scene between Shobha and Chandni whose emotional impact is heightened if you believe the rumors that Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha had an affair in real life. But there are yet more incredible coincidences, a totally ludicrous climax (I'll just say it involves a plane crash and the highly improbable rescue of a single passenger, while everyone else on the plane dies) and what feels like a tacked-on resolution.

The film works neither as a latter-day Krishna-Radha fantasy (Amit and Chandni's behavior towards their kind and loving spouses is too self-involved and cruel for that) nor as a tawdry slice of realism (those coincidences, and the plane-crash of an ending). I find that I'm not the only skeptic about Silsila; you can read a kindred (but funnier) review at The Post-Punk Cinema Club.

Lamhe is the story of Viren (Anil Kapoor), who on his return as a young man from England to his family estate in Rajasthan falls in love with his neighbor Pallavi (Sridevi), whom he spots dancing ecstatically in the rain with the other village girls in "Megha Re Megha" (the excellent music by Shiv-Hari, who also did the music for Silsila, is one of the chief strengths of the film). Pallavi is incredibly vivacious, as she loses no time in demonstrating again in the song "Morni Bagaan Maa." It's performed with the great Ila Arun; Pallavi compares herself to a peahen awaiting the call of the peacock, while swivelling her hips suggestively in Viren's direction:




Seeing this from his perspective, we're to be forgiven if we conclude (as he does) that she returns his feelings. Watching a second time, you can also see what's less apparent on a first viewing (and which is entirely invisible to Viren): Pallavi's wistfulness as she thinks of her absent lover, Siddarth (Deepak Malhotra). When Siddarth returns and marries Pallavi, the brokenhearted Viren returns to England. After the couple are killed in an accident, though, Viren has their daughter Pooja raised by his amah (the great Waheeda Rehman) at his estate. Viren only visits briefly each year on the anniversary of Pallavi's death.

Eighteen years later, Pooja (Sridevi in a double role) is a young woman, and she's fallen in love with this remote, emotionally withholding father-figure (c'mon--that never happens in real life!). Viren, though, is highly disturbed by her resemblence to Pallavi. And for some odd reason he thinks that his role as her surrogate father and the 25-year difference in their ages present problems--I can't think why. (Of course, in real life Anil Kapoor was only a few years older than Sridevi.) But despite Viren's repeated rebuffs and his sudden determination to marry his long-suffering Westernized girlfriend Anita, Pooja is undeterred. Yes, it's the classic battle between the woman who is the symbol of the West vs. the woman who is the symbol of India--I wonder who wins?

Since the film involves a double helping of Sridevi, your feelings about it will probably depend on whether you find her irresistibly charming or highly annoying. This is my first Sridevi film, and I have to confess that she won me over as thoroughly as she does Viren. Sridevi's irrepressiblility and the terrific dance numbers (including one in which songs from earlier Bollywood movies are parodied), the striking landscape of Rajasthan and the beautiful Rajasthani costumes (particularly the adornment of the women), make up in part for a film that spins its wheels for most of the second half and whose happy ending may leave you instead feeling somewhat queasy.

Update 23 October 2012: On Sunday, October 21, Yash Chopra passed away in a Mumbai hospital. Our thoughts are with his family at this sad and difficult time.

Update 12 November 2012: In memory of this legendary figure, I've written a post on Six favorite songs from Yash Chopra films.

Update 30 July 2014: In late 2012 Sridevi appeared in the delightful English Vinglish, which I later picked as one of my favorite films of 2013.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Non-Indian fans of Bollywood part II

Thanks to Memsaab, I was alerted to a Times of India article on non-Indian fans of Bollywood: "Bollywood's phoren fan brigade," by Ashwin Ahmad. It's similar to Nisha Susan's article in Tehelka a few weeks ago; in fact, since it uses most of the same sources, it seems pretty directly inspired by Susan's thoughtful original.

But Ahmad is far less scrupulous than Susan when it comes to his sources. Both Memsaab and I are misquoted in the article (the misquote of Memsaab has her giving an opinion on a Bollywood film which is the opposite of the one she actually holds; the misquote of one of my blog comments renders it nonsensical). Surely it doesn't require a great deal of effort to quote a blog comment (or in Memsaab's case, an e-mail) correctly: all one has to do is select, copy and paste, no?

Worse than misquoting me, though, Ahmad mischaracterizes me. "Pesimisissimo [sic], who describes himself as a Bollywood loving white guy, feels the need to make it clear that he's not a hippy [sic] or gay." Nowhere in my blog have I ever "felt the need" to discuss my sexuality. Frankly, I'm not eager to claim membership in a group which has been responsible for most of the violence, racism, imperialism, exploitation, environmental damage, and bad fashion sense that has plagued humanity throughout history. Nor does the word "hippie" ever occur in this blog, except in this sentence. I write about punk and post-punk music because (as I wrote in a previous post) it helped to shape my sensibility, not out of hostility to a cultural movement that was first declared dead in 1967. (From the Wikipedia article on the Diggers, a radical mid-1960s San Francisco collective: "In October 1967, they staged The Death of Hippie, a parade in the Haight-Ashbury where masked participants carried a coffin with the words 'Hippie--Son of Media' on the side"). Ahmad could have checked my hippie/gay defensiveness or lack thereof simply by sending me an e-mail, which he never bothered to do. And to add insult to injury, he misspelled my name! I feel like the proverbial guy in the restaurant complaining that the food is terrible, and the portions are too small.

To end this post on a positive note, model journalist Nisha Susan has a delightful blog, The Chasing Iamb...and why you shouldn't choose blog names in a hurry. And, cementing her place in my affections, she's a fan of the brilliant Alison Bechdel, author of the comic strip "Dykes To Watch Out For" and the memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

Friday, May 23, 2008

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

Hilarious story by William Grimes in the New York Times today about 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (edited by Peter Boxall; Universe, 2006). After casting a skeptical eye over the list, Grimes picks three books he hasn't already read: Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent, Uwe Timm's The Invention of Curried Sausage, and Henry Williamson's Tarka The Otter. He gives a thumbs-up to Edgeworth ("a rollicking satire about trashy English aristocrats") and Timm ("an offbeat quest novel....The issues are big, the prose brilliant [it was translated by Leila Vennewitz], the execution deft"), and thumbs-down to Williamson ("T. E. Lawrence loved it. I didn't").

Of course, any list of this kind is intended to provoke an argument, so here goes:

1001 Books (you can see the list for yourself here) is supposedly limited to novels and short stories, but that limitation is applied pretty haphazardly. No poetry means no Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Dante, Ariosto, or Milton, though somehow Ovid's Metamorphoses makes the list. No drama means that Shakespeare is excluded. No nonfiction means that Montaigne's out, though somehow Swift's "A Modest Proposal," Rousseau's Confessions, Thoreau's Walden, Primo Levi's If This Is A Man and Octavio Paz's Labyrinth of Solitude (all, of course, essential reading) are in. Boccaccio's Decameron, Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon are inexplicably omitted. Mark Twain is represented only by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, while Paul Auster--admittedly a worthy inclusion--has fully eight titles on the list (counting each novel in The New York Trilogy separately). Three of Angela Carter's books are on the list, but not my two favorites. Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece The Master and Margarita is on the list, but not his brilliant Heart of a Dog. None of Bohumil Hrabal's novels make the cut, while eight of Ian McEwan's do. There was apparently no room for Julio Cortázar, José Donoso, or Eduardo Galeano; Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, Osamu Dazai, and Kobo Abe are also absent. And despite the scolding imperative of the book's title, I will probably die without having read David Gemmell, Bret Easton Ellis or T. C. Boyle.

Anyway, I'm going to offer a much more modest selection of titles that didn't make onto the list of 1001. You don't have to read these books before you die, but if you do you may encounter some unexpected pleasures. In alphabetical order:

  • Felipe Alfau, Locos (Dalkey Archive, 1988). A series of interconnected short stories featuring the unruly denizens of Toledo's Cafe de los Locos: pimps, professional beggars, poets, runaway nuns, police. Trapped in the absurdities of their everyday lives, the characters rebel against their author, seize control of the narrative and start cropping up unexpectedly in each other's stories. Locos might be reminscent of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds or Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller, except that it was published before either of them.
  • John Berger, Pig Earth (Pantheon, 1979). Another novel in short stories, Berger's book is set in the peasant villages of southeastern France. The rural struggle for survival--the unceasing labor, the sudden violence, the always-present possibility of catastrophe, the unexpected moments of beauty--is unforgettably described in Berger's stark, poetic prose. If you find Pig Earth compelling you may also want to read its sequel, Once in Europa.
  • Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (translated by G. H. McWilliam; Penguin, 2003). Ten aristocrats, five men and five women, flee 14th-century Florence to escape the plague. To pass the time, each character tells one story every day for ten days. The hundred stories that result are by turns comic, moralizing, tragic, anti-clerical, and bawdy--but mostly bawdy.

  • Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (Penguin, 1996). 15-year-old Melanie, suddenly orphaned, is sent to live in London with her mute aunt and creepy uncle. That uncle runs a toyshop filled with bizarre creations, and he begins to include Melanie in grotesque tableaux featuring his life-size puppets. Carter's modern-day gothic is decidedly dark, but lusciously written. If you like this, you may also want to read Carter's The Bloody Chamber.
  • Géza Csáth, Opium and other stories (edited by Marianna Birnbaum, translated by Jascha Kessler & Charlotte Rogers; Penguin, 1983). Csath was indeed a morphine addict (as a doctor, he had ready access to the drug), and his stories are often hallucinatory. But it's not just drugs that distort the perceptions of his characters. My favorite short story in this collection, "Saturday Evening," is told from the point of view of a child for whom Saturday nights offer pleasures and terrors that loom impossibly large.
  • José Donoso, The House In The Country (translated by David Pritchard & Suzanne Jill Levine; Vintage, 1984). A fever dream of a novel, in which the adolescents of the extended Ventura family revolt against their parents and engage in incest, homosexuality and gender play while around them their estate descends into chaos.
  • Eduardo Galeano, the Memory of Fire trilogy (translated by Cedric Belfrage; Pantheon, 1985-1988). A history of the Americas from before Columbus to the present day, told through a series of vignettes full of outrage, humor, and sadness. Galeano employs the skill of a historian, the techniques of a journalist, and the sensibility of a poet; it's a book that should be read by everyone in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Bohumil Hrabal, I Served The King of England (translated by Paul Wilson; Vintage, 1989). A comic novel of Czechoslovakia's tragic history. Ditie, a busboy at the Golden Prague Hotel, first serves aristocrats, then Nazis, then Communists, all the while doing his amoral best to survive the dizzying reversals of fortune, both of himself and his nation. If you enjoy this, you may want to read Closely Watched Trains.
  • Alvaro Mutis, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll (translated by Edith Grossman; New York Review Books, 2002). All seven Maqroll tales brought together in one volume. Maqroll is an adventurer, and the hopeless quests and impossible loves of this existential hero make for a series of ripping yarns.
  • Jan Potocki, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (translated by Ian McLean; Penguin, 1996). A series of Arabian Nights-like stories within stories whose chief elements are the supernatural and the erotic. The recurring adventures of a soldier in 18th-century Spain travelling to his new post provide a frame for these fantastic tales, which are related by the Muslims, Jews, Gypsies, and outlaws he encounters.

  • Philippe Soupault, The Last Nights of Paris (translated by William Carlos Williams; Exact Change, 1992). One of the few Surrealist novels that is truly dreamlike, Last Nights follows the narrator's pursuit of a femme mystèrieuse through the nocturnal landscape of 1920s Paris.
I could go on, but perhaps I'll list some additional titles in a future post. Comments and alternative lists welcome.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Opera guide 2: Le Nozze di Figaro

Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786) is an opera I never grow tired of hearing. The opera is incredibly rich: musically, of course, because it's Mozart, and dramatically, thanks to librettist Lorenzo da Ponte and his source, Beaumarchais' play La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day, or the Marriage of Figaro, first performance 1784).

La folle journée had created a scandal, in equal measure because of its subversive social and sexual politics. In the play and the opera, it's the wedding day of the servants Figaro and Susanna. Figaro has been taken into the Count Almaviva's service after the events of Le barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville, 1775), and Susanna is the Countess Rosina's chambermaid. However, the amorous Count is relentlessly attempting to maneuver (or bribe) Susanna into bed with him. So Figaro and Susanna make an alliance with the neglected Countess to try to thwart the Count's wayward desires. The idea of servants and women joining forces to frustrate an aristocratic male wasn't new--it's the basis of many of Molière's comedies. But there's more than a hint of cross-class lust between the Countess and the adolescent page Cherubino (which is even more eyebrow-raising because in both the play and the opera Cherubino is played by a woman), and the play was banned because of Figaro's inflammatory language attacking aristocratic privilege.

That language is toned down somewhat in the opera, but there's still a surprising amount of class antagonism on display. Not to mention that Figaro gets the better of his master several times (only, of course, with the help of Susanna and the Countess). At the same time, Figaro is shown as being a bit too clever for his own good, and all of his schemes come to nothing. It is Susanna and the Countess who are the moral and dramatic centers of the opera, and who demonstrate that trust and forgiveness are essential components of enduring love.

Le Nozze di Figaro contains some of the most brilliantly structured and truly funny scenes in opera. The second act in particular, in which the Count thinks he's trapped his wife's lover in her bedroom closet, swings from near-tragedy to farce and back again several times; whenever the dramatic tension is apparently relaxed it's unexpectedly tightened once again. The final act takes place at night in the garden, where Susanna has finally promised to meet the Count. The plan is for the Countess to take her place, but darkness and disguise create erotic chaos--as though the garden is a miniature Forest of Arden.

But no matter how witty and humane the libretto, it's Mozart's music which makes Le Nozze di Figaro in my estimation the greatest opera ever written. Mozart is able to perfectly express the characters of everyone from drunken gardeners to unctuous music masters to flirtatious servants to the infuriated Count. But it is in the music of erotic yearning that Le Nozze di Figaro achieves its greatest power: the Countess's "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono"; her duet with Susanna, "Canzonetta sull' aria," as they write a letter setting up the garden assignation with the Count; and Susanna's "Deh vieni" as she awaits her lover in the garden are all moments of transporting beauty, tinged (as love inevitably is) with sorrow.

Here's a clip of the incomparable Lucia Popp singing a meltingly sensuous "Deh vieni," courtesy of Muezzab:



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."

The opera has been recorded many times, but the version conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini with Anna Moffo as Susanna, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as the Countess, Guiseppe Taddei as Figaro, Eberhard Wächter as the Count and Fiorenza Cossotto as Cherubino remains unsurpassed. Every choice of tempo, dynamics and phrasing, every vocal performance (with exception, perhaps, of Cossotto's beautifully sung but rather womanly Cherubino), just seems perfectly right. The later Georg Solti-conducted set features an astounding cast, with Lucia Popp, Kiri Te Kanawa, Samuel Ramey, Thomas Allen and Frederica von Stade in the main roles (and in the smaller roles, unknowns such as Kurt Moll, Yvonne Kenny and Philip Langridge--talk about luxury casting!). My favorite recent recording is conducted by René Jacobs, with Patrizia Ciofi, Véronique Gens, Lorenzo Regazzo, Simon Keenlyside and Angelika Kirschlager. That recording offers excellent singing and Jacobs' vivid conducting of the virtuosic period-instrument orchestra Concerto Köln.

For such a theatrically foolproof opera with so many good recordings, it's a bit of a surprise that there's no fully satisfying version on DVD. Surveying the four I own (I'm open to suggestions for a fifth):

The 1972 Peter Hall-directed Glyndebourne version has a young Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, the delightful Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna, a suave Benjamin Luxon as the Count and Frederica von Stade's famous Cherubino. However, Knut Skram is somewhat lacking in charisma as Figaro, the stage of the old Glyndebourne theater is too cramped to convincingly represent the Count's estate, and Hall has Susanna and the Countess actually switch dresses (not just cloaks) during the garden scene. When towards the end of the scene the Countess emerges after a few minutes in a pavilion having changed back into her own gown I find myself distracted by trying to figure out how, given the complexities of 18th-century women's dress, she would have accomplished it. Plus, having her return in her own clothes undermines the Count's recognition scene, when he realizes that the "Susanna" he'd been trying to seduce moments earlier was really the Countess. In short, Hall's changes simply make a mess of Beaumarchais', Da Ponte and Mozart's careful comic design. The audio, picture, and subtitle quality are also sub-par.

The usually reliable Jean-Pierre Ponnelle directed a film version in the mid-70s with Mirella Freni (Susanna), Kiri Te Kanawa (the Countess), Hermann Prey (Figaro), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (the Count), and Maria Ewing (Cherubino), and he makes the class distinctions (and sexual attractions) among the denizens of the Count's estate especially apparent. But although in terms of her delghtfully ardent acting Maria Ewing is convincingly boyish, her voluptuous curves are anything but. Less pleasant distractions are provided by Fischer-Dieskau's unfortunate wig and the decision to stage some arias as inner monologue voice-overs. Still, this earthy version intrigued me when, at Cherubino's age, I saw it broadcast on PBS.

The 1991 Glyndebourne production conducted by Bernard Haitink has a charming Alison Hagley and a young Gerald Finley as Susanna and Figaro, with Renée Fleming and Andreas Schmidt as the Countess and Count, and Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Cherubino. While strikingly sung and generally well-staged, here the problem is the frankly cheap-looking sets and costumes, including some which manage to make the gorgeous Fleming look dowdy.

Finally, there's the René Jacobs version, featuring Rosemary Joshua as Susanna, Luca Pisaroni as an especially virile Figaro, Annette Dasch as a girlish Countess (in the play she's barely 21, but she's usually depicted as significantly older than that in the opera), Pietro Spagnoli as a violent, wife-abusing Count, and Angelika Kirschlager as Cherubino. Like Jacobs' CD version, it's thrillingly conducted and well-sung, but conceits which (I can attest) worked in the theatre, such as having sets consisting of 18th-century artwork, come across as too artificial on DVD--the drama remains somewhat remote. And the brutality of the Count is such that you wonder why the Countess wants to win back his attention--she's better off without it. Definitely not a first choice.

It seems that the maxim that opera has to be experienced live to be fully appreciated is especially true in the case of Le Nozze di Figaro. But until San Francisco Opera sees reason and agrees to put it on once a month, I'll have to be satisfied with Giulini's superb recording and my own imagination.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Om Shanti Om and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa

In a previous post on Om Shanti Om (2007) I mentioned its homages to (and parodies of) films from the golden ages of both Bollywood and Hollywood. Something that only struck me on a second viewing, though, is how it makes reference to Shah Rukh's early career.

Of course, there's the connection to Karan Arjun (1995), which also features a reincarnation and revenge plot. And there are general resemblances between his characters Om and Om and Shah Rukh's own life. Like Om Prakash, Shah Rukh started out as a "junior artiste"--though unlike Om Prakash, he quickly moved into starring roles. And like Om Kapoor, he has become a superstar with myriad product endorsements--though unlike Om Kapoor, by all reports Shah Rukh is very professional, hard-working, and self-aware. In Anupama Chopra's King of Bollywood (2007), Shah Rukh is quoted as saying "I am just an employee of the Shah Rukh Khan myth."

But watching "Daastan-e-Om Shanti Om" ("This is the saga of Om Shanti Om") I realized that there was another early SRK film to which parallels were being drawn. (A word of warning if you haven't seen Om Shanti Om: both my description of the song and the video clip below give away some of the plot of the film.) "Daastan-e-Om Shanti Om" is an elaborately staged (and highly effective) number which reenacts the murder of the Bollywood star Shanti (Deepika Padukone) before an audience that includes her killer, the evil producer Mukesh (Arjun Rampal). It's inspired in part by "The Mousetrap," the play-within-the-play in Shakespeare's Hamlet which is staged to "catch the conscience of the king." (Note the slow descent of Shah Rukh from the ceiling, just as in the title song from Baadshah (1999)):


There was another story-song near the beginning of Shah Rukh's career: "Kaise Don" from the film Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No, 1993). In KHKN Shah Rukh plays Sunil, a musician who wants to be a member of the band which is headed by his romantic rival Chris (Deepak Tijori) and which features as lead singer the girl they both love, Aana (Suchitra Krishnamoorthi). Thanks to Sunil's underhanded machinations he gets rejected by Aana and kicked out of the band just before their big gig at a gangster's club, Chinatown.

Bands at Chinatown get pelted with glasses, bottles and plates if they displease the wiseguys who frequent the joint, and when Chris and Aana's band starts playing a sappy love song the table settings start flying. Then in the nick of time Sunil shows up uninvited, and after whispering the details of his new song to the band for a total of about 3 seconds they all launch into "Kaise Don" ("That's the story of how he became a Don"). The song tells about a "straight and lovable guy," unable to find a job, who turns to crime as a last resort. He claws his way to the top of the underworld, but in the process loses the girl he loves. The band, of course, performs this song they've never heard or rehearsed before with full costumes, sets, props, lighting, pyrotechnics, and complex group choreography (suddenly 20 dancers materialize to act out the story):


What makes me think that "Kaise Don" is a direct model for "Dastaan-e-Om Shanti Om," apart from the fact that they're both story-songs narrated by Shah Rukh, is that there are other parallels between the films. In both films, Shah Rukh's character isn't fully sympathetic. Om Kapoor is a pampered and narcissistic superstar; Sunil doesn't hesitate to lie to his friend Chris to gain a romantic advantage with Aana. And--spoiler alert!--both films feature romantic triangles in which SRK's character ultimately doesn't get the girl.

Anyway, it's one more example of the thought, care, and sheer cleverness its writer and director Farah Khan brought to the realization of Om Shanti Om.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Rest Is Noise

The first thing to say about Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2007) is that it's a remarkable accomplishment. As the subtitle suggests, the book attempts to tell the story of 20th-century music, which is inextricably bound with the story of the 20th century itself: the scandalous success of Richard Strauss' perverse Salome; the riot that greeted the Parisian premiere of Stravinsky's dissonant Rite of Spring; the political polarization and avant-garde experimentation of Weimar Berlin; the populist yearnings of 1930s America; the smothering aesthetic conformity imposed by Hitler's and Stalin's murderous regimes; the weaponization of culture in the Cold War; the experimentation and cross-fertilization of the 60s and 70s.

And many of the stories Ross tells are irresistible. Schoenberg's breakthrough into atonality was inspired by his wife's torrid affair with a suicidal artist. After a savage denunciation of his Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk (1934) in Pravda, Shostakovich waited by his telephone for a call from Stalin that might mean the gulag. In post-WWII Germany, the Darmstadt Summer Institute for serialist music was sponsored in large measure by the US military government. Similarly, the CIA, through front organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom, funded the performance of pieces by the pacifist/anarchist/gay composer Lou Harrison. The flamboyant figure of Nicholas Nabokov (Vladimir's cousin and head of the CCF) keeps cropping up: for several decades he seemed to have connections to every official source of cultural largesse in America.

Ross also wrestles honorably with the difficulty of writing about music, avoiding both abstruse technical analysis comprehensible only to a tiny percentage of his readership, and hyperbolic (and largely futile) Greil-Marcusian attempts to capture the emotional experience of listening. Ross splits the difference: there is some discussion of keys, triads, and tritones, but also evocative descriptions of how various pieces sound. If it doesn't always work, and if a few too many pieces are described as "silvery" or "swirling," there's no shame in falling short of the unattainable ideal of both precision and accessibility.

Perhaps it's just that I was already familiar with some of the music he writes about, but I was surprised to discover how few pieces his musical descriptions made me want to hear (or re-hear), and most of those were concentrated in the past forty years or so. For the record, they include György Ligeti's choral works (excerpts of which are on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)); Alvin Lucier's "I am sitting in a room" (1969); Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa (1977) and Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977); Pierre Boulez's Repons (1984); and György Kurtág's Stele (1994). Which brings up the imbalance in his book: it takes Ross two-thirds of its length (355 out of 540 pages) just to reach 1950. He spends an entire 45-page chapter on Shostakovich's travails under Stalin and successor Soviet governments.

Frankly, I would rather have heard more about the cross-fertilization between jazz, rock and avant-garde art music in the 1960s and 70s. It's fascinating stuff. In 1964, for example, a young novelty-song writer for Pickwick Records named Lou Reed was trying to generate a hit single for his (entirely made up) dance craze called "The Ostrich." Somehow recruited for his backup band The Primitives were three members of LaMonte Young's minimalist Theater of Eternal Music/Dream Syndicate: sculptor Walter De Maria, filmmaker Tony Conrad, and electric violist John Cale. Reed and Cale, of course, went on to form The Velvet Underground with Eternal Music drummer Angus Maclise (the name of the band came from a pulp S & M paperback given to Reed by Conrad). Maclise--because he refused to be told when to stop and start--was soon replaced by Mo Tucker. With the addition of guitarist Sterling Morrison, The Velvet Underground went on to record the least-heard and most influential debut album in rock history, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967). The Velvet Underground's music made heavy use of techniques from the avant-garde such as drones and amplified viola, both of which had been employed in Young's group; found sounds, as in John Cage's tape experiments; and sustained dissonance, which Ross compares to the music of Iannis Xenakis. Reed's intense lyrics about urban street life rode on top of (or occasionally were buried underneath) the waves of sound, although in "Sunday Morning" and "I'll Be Your Mirror" Reed and the band also created some of the most delicately gorgeous songs ever written.

But The Velvet Underground was only the first (and best) of many rock bands influenced by the experimental strain in contemporary art music. Ross almost entirely neglects the loosely associated and stylistically diverse No Wave, which included composers such as Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham who wrote for "orchestras" of massed electric guitars (Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, later of noise band Sonic Youth, played in Branca's groups). John Zorn's Spy vs. Spy combined thrash-punk with Ornette Coleman's free jazz, while hip-hop DJs like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa created sonic collages that updated Weimar composer Stefan Wolpe's "compositions" for multiple turntables. On the West Coast, bands like Flipper took distortion, repetition, and je m'en foutisme to extremes that were either brilliant or unbearable, depending on your tolerance for shambolic chaos. A few of these figures get brief mentions in The Rest Is Noise but I would have liked to have seen Ross devote more space to them and less to figures like Stravinsky and Shostakovich, about whom so much has been written already. And in a book subtitled "Listening To the Twentieth Century," it's embarrassing that Ross spends just a few pages covering developments in jazz.

To be fair, there's no way to encompass the wild profusion of styles and genres of music over the past 100 years in a single book. And any writer that tackles such a vast subject must of necessity focus on a few key figures. I guess, though, I was hoping that The Rest Is Noise would be more like an updating and amplification of John Rockwell's brilliant and boundary-smashing All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century (Knopf, 1983). Rockwell's book sent me out to haunt record stores and libraries to hear the music he so compellingly described; as I mention above, Ross's book generally didn't have the same effect. In any case, The Rest Is Noise cries out for a companion CD (or web page of audio downloads). Perhaps its unexpected success in hardback will convince the publisher to allow Ross to create one for the paperback edition.

Postscript: While writing this post I discovered that John Rockwell has an Arts Journal blog, Rockwell Matters, which is sure to be worth reading. Ross himself has a blog entitled The Rest Is Noise; while it is consistently the top-ranked (i.e. most visited and linked) classical music blog, I don't actually find myself browsing it as often as I should. I do, however, make sure to read all of his articles in the New Yorker, which are examples of music journalism at its finest.

Update: As I should have realized, Ross created a page on his blog of audio clips to accompany The Rest Is Noise; you can find it here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tehelka on non-Indian fans of Bollywood

Tehelka, a magazine devoted to Indian news and culture, has published a really delightful story by Nisha Susan on Western fans of Bollywood films. "The Mems and Saabs of Berlin" (and the US, and Korea, and the web) justly devotes most of its space to true Bollywood experts like Beth Loves Bollywood and Memsaab. In the final paragraph Susan included a quote from my post Why I love Bollywood; I'm honored to be included in such company, but I feel a bit out of place. Memsaab reports seeing over 600 Indian films; we're approaching 100, and I feel like we've barely scratched the surface (simply to see Shah Rukh Khan's entire body of work you'd have to watch 60 movies, and we've only seen 35 of them).

Before this, I was unfamiliar with Tehelka (whose name is apparently an Urdu word signifying "the tumult provoked by a daring act"). But its website banner offers supportive quotes from writers Khushwant Singh (Train to Pakistan) and Arundhati Roy (God of Small Things), which would be recommendation enough. If you need any more encouragement, the Wikipedia article on Tehelka mentions that it was shut down by the government after it reported on corruption in the awarding of arms contracts, and that another investigative series has shown the complicity of the state government of Gujurat in the mass killings of Muslims there in 2002. If you're interested in the culture and politics of India--home of something like 1 out of every 6 people on the planet--it looks like essential reading. I know I'll be bookmarking it.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth

In a glowing review in today's New York Times of Jhumpa Lahiri's new book Unaccustomed Earth (Knopf, 2008), Michiko Kakutani writes,

"The last three overlapping tales in this volume tell a single story about a Bengali-American girl and a Bengali-American boy, whose crisscrossing lives make up a poignant ballad of love and loss and death. Hema and Kaushik get to know each other as teenagers....Hema secretly nurses a crush on Kaushik, but he is oblivious to her schoolgirl antics and preoccupied with his mother’s deteriorating health."

Kaushik becomes a photojournalist; "Hema, meanwhile, becomes a professor, a Latin scholar, who...impulsively decides to opt for a traditional arranged marriage; though she is conscious of the 'deadness' of this proposed partnership, she tries to convince herself that the relationship will endow her life with a sense of certainty and direction. Then, against all odds, Hema and Kaushik run into each other in Rome — on the eve of Hema’s departure for her wedding...[The story has] an operatic denouement..."
"In the hands of a less talented writer it’s an ending that might have seemed melodramatic or contrived, but as rendered by Ms. Lahiri it...[is] a testament to her emotional wisdom and consummate artistry as a writer."
I haven't yet read Unaccustomed Earth, but the comparison that this particular plot line brings to mind isn't with opera, but Bollywood (although, as Memsaab points out, they have a lot in common). The bride who, on the eve of her arranged marriage, once again encounters her true love is a Bollywood staple: it features in such films as DDLJ (1995) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). And while the brave heart usually does take the bride, it's not always so. In Devdas (2002) the arranged marriage proceeds; in Veer-Zaara (2004) the couple is separated. And in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1998) the meeting with the lover occurs after the arranged marriage, with an unexpected result.

Perhaps Kakutani thought that invoking Bollywood in a review of an Indian-American writer's work would be a cliché. And ordinarily I might agree; however, in this case it seems that Lahiri herself is explicitly making the connection. I'll post again once I have a chance to read Unaccustomed Earth.

(Apologies to those who read the first version of this post, but I came to feel that both Kakutani and I gave too much away. The above is a version edited to avoid revealing the endings of both Lahiri's story and the films.)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

My musical Mount Rushmore: Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, and...

A former boss at my bookstore once asked me which four composers I would carve onto my musical Mount Rushmore. If I recall correctly, his own choices were Bach, Wagner, Mahler, and Duke Ellington. Limiting myself to Western classical music, my choices were Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart (in particular for the greatest opera ever written, Le Nozze di Figaro), and...well, I couldn't quite make up my mind between Bach and Vivaldi.

My hesitation left my boss practically speechless with disbelief. As far as he was concerned, Bach and Vivaldi were hardly in the same musical cosmos. Vivaldi wrote pleasant trifles intended to allow musicians and singers to show off their virtuosity; Bach's music was both structurally complex and emotionally profound. Only my own ignorance could possibly make me hesitate in choosing between them.

Of course, I understood my boss's point of view. Bach is the composer of the suites for solo cello, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, the Goldberg Variations, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Brandenburg Concertos, the Musical Offering, the Art of the Fugue, the Passions of St. Matthew and St. John, the B-minor Mass, and several hundred church cantatas such as "Ich habe genug" and "Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen"--to name just some of his towering masterworks.

In comparison, Vivaldi is famous for a handful of works, chief among them the concertos that make up Le quattro stagioni. He wrote something like 50 operas and oratorios, but until recently they've languished in obscurity. In sacred music, Vivaldi never wrote a single coherent mass, but rather scattered settings of various liturgical texts. And while he wrote hundreds of concertos for various instruments, his very productivity is used against him (in a way it never is with Bach and his hundreds of cantatas): Stravinsky is said to have remarked that Vivaldi didn't write 500 concertos, but rather the same concerto 500 times.

It would seem to be no contest. And in fact if my house were burning down and I only had time to grab one recording I confess that it would probably be Pablo Casals' performance of Bach's cello suites.

However, I still wasn't certain which of the two composers would make the final cut. My indecision had three sources. One was that while Vivaldi's music is some of the most purely pleasurable I know--rivalling Mozart's--I find the dichotomy between Vivaldi's lightness and Bach's profundity to be a false one. Can you listen to "Et in terra pax homnibus" from Vivaldi's Gloria, or "Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum" from his Nisi Dominus, and not be moved? Or to Bach's "Coffee Cantata" and not be amused? The second is that while Bach is universally acknowledged as a great composer, many of Vivaldi's works--his Gloria (thank you Mark Morris), or Stabat Mater, or sonatas for cello and continuo--felt more like personal discoveries. There wasn't the same weight of received opinion preventing me from experiencing the music with my own ears, mind, and heart. Finally, I occasionally find Bach's Lutheranism as expressed in his cantatas to be frankly forbidding in its rejection of the world and embrace of death. In "Ich habe genug," for example, Bach set the text "Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod; Ach, hätt' er sich schon eingefunden"--"My death delights me; if only it had already come." Somehow I find the lapsed priest who lived in a menage à trois with his favorite soprano and her sister to be more sympathetic.

These thoughts were prompted by reading James R. Gaines' Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (New York: HarperCollins, 2005). It's a dual biography of Bach and Frederick the Great of Prussia, who met only once, but momentously, late in Bach's life (A Musical Offering was the result). Gaines portrays the meeting between Frederick and Bach as not only a clash of musical tastes, but as a showdown between reason and faith. To do so he has to caricature Enlightenment thinkers as having blind faith in reason, instead of supremely valuing doubt, skepticism, and empiricism. It's too bad that the book is so shallow, because it deals with a fascinating time when intellectual refugees such as Voltaire, La Mettrie (author of Man, A Machine) and the mathematician Leonhard Euler were welcomed at the Prussian court.

In addition to his superficial summaries of the intellectual currents of the time, Gaines has a prose style (honed by his onetime editorship of People magazine, no doubt) which is apparently intended to be breezy, but which is more often simply grating. On the ruling family of Prussia: "The Hohenzollerns were a funny bunch." On Frederick the Great's grandfather, Frederick I: "[He] was not Great, not even good for much, but...he seems to have been quite taken with himself, in a neurotic sort of way." On the musical differences between Bach and later musicians: "[It] was an argument about what music was to be--serious work by serious people about serious things, or light amusement for connoisseurs." To say that Gluck's or Mozart's operas are merely "light amusement" is to misunderstand them utterly.

Gaines writes of the Bach revival in the 19th century, "As a Romantic figure, Bach was in every way perfect." But in fact many Romantic figures, such as the writer E. T. A. Hoffman, looked instead to the composer of Don Giovanni as their supreme precursor. That doesn't stop Gaines from using Bach as a stick with which to beat the composers from the generation that followed him--in particular, his son C. P. E. Bach, Mozart, and Haydn. But all of those composers deeply admired Bach (even if C. P. E.'s feelings towards his difficult father were understandably mixed).

And Bach admired Vivaldi. The idea that Vivaldi's work lacks substance is refuted by Bach himself: he transcribed nine of Vivaldi's concertos for solo harpsichord or organ, and a tenth for four harpsichords with string accompaniment. Bach's English Suites draw on Vivaldi's concertos for inspiration, and several of his fugues take subjects derived from the solo parts of Vivaldi's concertos. As Michael Talbot puts it in his entry on Vivaldi in Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): "A great master in his own right, Vivaldi was perhaps the only non-German to leave a strong mark on Bach as a composer."

So the final answer to the question of who will be the fourth composer on my musical Mount Rushmore is that I think I'm going to leave that spot perpetually unfilled. It will be a reminder not to let facile musical judgments prevent me from keeping my ears open.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Mughal-e-Azam

In one of my earlier Bollywood posts I'd written "less is often more." Not in Mughal-e-Azam (The Great Mughal, 1960), though. Its hallucinatory sets, sumptuous costumes, epic battle scenes and delirious dance numbers are overwhelming, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The film is set during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) in 16th-century India, and tells the story of the doomed love of Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar) and the court dancer Anarkali (Madhubala). The Emperor opposes their love, banishing Salim from court and imprisoning Anarkali in Piranesi-like dungeons. Ultimately, of course, the Emperor realizes that only death can separate the lovers...

Mughal-e-Azam's Urdu dialogue is acclaimed for being highly poetic (and quotable). Unfortunately, as in Sholay (1975), the effect is lost in the English subtitles, which often make the characters sound as though they are making stilted pronouncements at each other. This is especially true of Prithviraj Kapoor as the Emperor Akbar, who has an appropriately stentorian way of delivering his lines. In contrast, Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim underplays almost to a fault. Madhubala's Anarkali is the emotional center of the film, and her luminous beauty is breathtaking.

The sets and costumes are still jaw-dropping, as are the battle scenes featuring charging war elephants and thousands of clashing soldiers. What makes the film work for me above all, though, are its songs. The music is by Naushad with lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni, sung by an exquisitely fresh-voiced Lata Mangeshkar; Lachchu Maharaj choreographed the spectacular dance numbers. The seductive "Mohe Panghat Pe" ("Krishna teased me at the well") introduces us to Anarkali; Madhubala lifting her veil in its opening moments is justly one of the most famous shots in Indian cinema. The call-and-response competition in "Teri Mehfil Main" between Anarkali and her rival Bahar (Nigar Sultana), each seeking to outdo the other in her description of the sufferings of love, is a brilliant setpiece. When Bahar is awarded a flower and Anarkali the thorns (Salim pricks his own finger as he hands them to her), we have an intimation of the lovers' unhappy end in a brilliantly compressed image. Anarkali turns this ambiguous gesture into a complete victory, though, when she responds, "Thorns will never fade." Wah!

Mughal-e-Azam served as the inspiration for many other Bollywood films. In particular both Umrao Jaan (1981) and Devdas (2002) feature rebellious aristocratic sons who insist on loving, and being loved by, women of whom their stern, unbending fathers disapprove, and both films also end tragically. Sometimes the references are direct: "Mohe Panghat Pe" is clearly the template for Madhuri Dixit's "Kahe Chhed Mohe" in Devdas, as "Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya" ("I shall tell the story of my love")--Anarkali's defiant reassertion of her love for the Prince--is for that film's "Maar Daala." In Mughal-e-Azam, "Mohe Panghat Pe" ends with the Prince rewarding Anarkali with his own necklace; Umrao Jaan's "In Ankhon Ki Masti" ends with the same gesture being made by the Nawaab to Rekha's Umrao Jaan.

The DVD version we watched is riotously colorful, although the original film was mainly shot in black and white (the original is also available on DVD). While for most black and white films colorizing is an abomination, I don't feel quite the same way about Mughal-e-Azam--visual overload was so clearly a major part of director Karim Asif's aesthetic. As Memsaab reminded me in a comment on my earlier post, "sometimes more can be more too."