Monday, June 30, 2008


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.

Update 25 February 2018: Sadly, Sridevi passed away late last night. I've written a brief appreciation with links to several posts about her films.

Update 4 July 2020: Saroj Khan, who choreographed the dances in this film, passed away yesterday. For an appreciation of her life and work, please see "In memoriam: Saroj Khan."

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.