Saturday, January 26, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Maria Stuarda?

Mary Stuart, ca. 1578
The background: Mary Stuart was indeed a problem. The Queen of Scots never stopped plotting to become Queen of England. The younger cousin of Queen Elizabeth I, Mary throughout her life contested Elizabeth's right to the English throne. Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife. Mary, like many Catholics, saw Henry's marriage to Anne as illegitimate since his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon had not been annulled by the Pope. And if the marriage was illegitimate, the child of that union was also illegitimate. In this Mary's religious devotion and her political ambitions dovetailed neatly.

But when the fit between ambition and devotion wasn't so neat, Mary didn't hesitate to set piety aside. She married the Earl of Bothwell in May 1567 just a week after his divorce, despite the fact that he was the chief suspect in the February murder of her second husband Henry, Lord Darnley. At the time of her marriage to Bothwell, Mary was pregnant, which suggests that she and her lover Bothwell conspired to get rid of the inconvenient Darnley. A month after this highly unpopular wedding, Mary was imprisoned by a group of rebellious Scottish lords. She was forced to abdicate and ultimately fled to England, apparently expecting to be aided by Elizabeth. Instead she was held under estate-arrest for two decades, until she was condemned to death for her support of the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth. Mary was executed on February 8, 1587.

The opera: Donizetti's opera Maria Stuarda (first performed 1834/35, and based on Friedrich Schiller's play Maria Stuart) imagines an emotionally volatile meeting between Mary and Elizabeth in the park at Fotheringay Castle, where Mary is being held prisoner—although there is no evidence that the two ever actually met in person. Still, it's an irresistible scene. Under Elizabeth's goading, Mary's initial contrition quickly turns venomous: "Figlia impura di Bolena, parli tu di disonore? Meretrice indegna e oscena, su te cada il mio rossore! Profanato è il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!" (Filthy daughter of Boleyn, you speak to me of dishonor? Unworthy and obscene whore, the shame is yours! The English throne is profaned by your foot, vile bastard!") As you might imagine, things go downhill for Mary pretty swiftly after this.

The production: Joyce DiDonato as Mary was the chief reason we went to see the Live in HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera on January 19. Not only was she in gorgeous voice, she embodied this complex, contradictory role with complete conviction. Every movement was imbued with meaning; every moment seemed freshly conceived. Even when director David McVicar gave her distracting, unnecessary business (a palsied shaking of her hands in Act II, which seemed excessive for a character in her mid-40s), DiDonato made it work.

Here is the confrontation scene from this production; Elza van den Heever is Elizabeth:

DiDonato's thoughtful, committed performance made Matthew Polenzani as Leicester, the man who attempts to mediate between Elizabeth and Mary, look a bit like a ham. He seemed to rely on stock gestures and generic characterization. In another production with other singers it might have been enough, but in the company of an artist of the caliber of DiDonato it wasn't sufficient.

Elizabeth I, ca. 1588
Elza van den Heever as Elizabeth gamely threw herself into her role. In one of the best moments in the production, at the beginning of the second act we see a shockingly wigless Elizabeth being dressed by her ladies-in-waiting; van den Heever famously shaved her head to heighten the effect of this moment. While van den Heever's big, unruly voice has a wide vibrato in its lower ranges, her top notes soar over the orchestra effortlessly.

Unfortunately, she was also given intrusive and unconvincing business by McVicar. Elizabeth is made to stomp about the stage in a decidedly unregal way. Van den Heever is a big woman, and perhaps McVicar wanted to heighten the contrast between Elizabeth and the diminutive, vulnerable Mary. This wasn't the way to do it.

McVicar also made the questionable choice to indicate that the second act happens ten years after the first. It allows him to contrast the younger and older queens; in particular, as he mentioned during an interview broadcast during intermission, during the intervening time Elizabeth has become the iconic Gloriana. (Not quite: Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, from which this sobriquet is taken, wasn't published until 1590.)

Not only does this ten-year gap contradict Giuseppe Bardari's libretto, it dissipates the dramatic energy. At the end of the first act Elizabeth, in a fury after being insulted, condemns Mary to death: "Nella scure che ti aspetta troverai la mia vendetta" (In the axe that awaits you, you will find my revenge). Mary responds, "Or guidatemi alla morte" (Lead me to death). And then when the curtain rises on the second act we're to understand that it's ten years later, Mary is still alive, and Elizabeth is still vacillating about signing her death warrant. It doesn't make sense.

The production design by John McFarlane was also problematic. The action took place on a large raised platform that was supposed to heighten our sense of the theatricality of the action; both queens are playing to a larger audience than just one another. But the platform required DiDonato and van den Heever to climb up and down stairs to make entrances and exits while wearing long, heavy dresses—it looked awkward. Also, the park at Fotheringay with its leafless trees looked more like King Lear's blasted heath, even though Mary sings about her joy in nature, the "fragrant and fair meadows" covered with flowers that surround her. McFarlane was clearly looking for a visual metaphor for Mary's withered hopes, but this choice was too obvious—the characters looked like they were stranded on a moonscape.

Finally, while Donizetti and Bardi created some highly effective scenes—the confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary, Mary's confession to Talbot, and her final moments before the execution—Donizetti's music does not always match the drama onstage. Too often it's impossible to tell whether a singer is expressing love or hatred, joy or fear, because no matter what the emotional content of the words the music remains lilting and mid-tempo.

The music is also repetitive. In Baroque opera, da capo arias have an A-B-A structure: when the A section is performed the second time, its meaning is informed by the contrasting emotion of the B section. In Maria Stuarda, the verse of an aria or cabaletta is often repeated for no discernable reason—there is no contrasting emotion or additional meaning. And Donizetti overuses certain musical effects; Mary sings a downward arpeggio to indicate heightened emotion something like half-a-dozen times, and (no fault of DiDonato) it's less effective each time.

But even in a problematic opera with a problematic staging about a problematic historical figure, Joyce DiDonato gave a harrowing, unforgettable performance as Mary. There will be an encore broadcast of Maria Stuarda on Wednesday, February 6, at 6:30 pm.

Friday, January 18, 2013


I had no intention of seeing Barfi!. The "whimsical" trailers were insufferable, I'm generally allergic to movies with an exclamation point in the title, and the film's premise—deaf boy (Ranbir Kapoor's Barfi) falls in love with autistic girl (Priyanka Chopra's Jhilmil)—seemed way too calculated an appeal to the audience's sentimentality.

My feelings of aversion weren't helped by the controversy over all the scenes in the movie that, depending on your point of view, are either homages to or borrowed without attribution from other films. In support of the "homages" argument, a few of the borrowed scenes (some Chaplinesque chase scenes, and some Donald O'Connor moves from Singin' In The Rain's "Make 'Em Laugh," an Arthur Freed-Nacio Brown song itself "inspired" by Cole Porter's "Be A Clown"—meta-plagiarism!) seem like they are meant to be instantly identifiable. But several scenes are borrowed from films that are more contemporary or less well known. And writer/director Anurag Basu has borrowed before: he notoriously lifted the central plot of his 2007 movie Life in a...Metro virtually scene by scene from Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960).

But my resistance to Barfi! wore down—I enjoyed Amélie (2001), one of Barfi!'s obvious models, after all—and when we finally saw it I found a few things to like. Among them was Ileana D'Cruz as Shruti, a woman who inexplicably falls in unwavering lifelong love with Barfi. (Now I want to see some of her Telugu films, which look like fun.) Alas for Shruti, Barfi only has eyes for Jhilmil, the autistic neighbor girl played by a virtually unrecognizable Priyanka Chopra. Priyanka's roles often emphasize her beauty and glamour, so I was amazed by her transformation as Jhilmil:

The film's portrayal of severe autism, though, has been criticized for lacking realism and employing stereotypes. That's not a debate that I'm qualified to join; I do think, though, that Priyanka deserves praise for taking on a role that is so much against her usual type, and that any shortcomings in the way the character is conceived are more likely to be the responsibility of the writer/director.

Anyway, despite its unconventional aspects the movie is basically a love triangle. So Basu tries to disguise the simplicity of the story with multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards, and lots of shtick for Ranbir (thus the homages/borrowings). That I lost the thread more than once is probably due mainly to my own after-work tiredness, but Basu's complicated screenplay—Jhilmil is kidnapped twice, once in each of the two flashback time frames—may bear some of the blame as well. Ranbir shows once again that he's a versatile and talented actor, even when he's working with warmed-over material.

Your response to the movie is likely to be predicted by the title. "Barfi" is the way everyone refers to Ranbir's character because it's the way he pronounces his own name, Murphy; barfi is also a sweet made of condensed milk and sugar. If that makes you go "Awww...How clever!" you may like Barfi!; it makes me feel like I've eaten far too much barfi.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Les Troyens

Who can describe the havoc of that night?
Who can tell its deeds of death? Who can with tears
Equal in sorrow its calamities?
Our ancient and imperial city falls.
All around, on streets, in homes, at temples
sacred to the gods, lifeless bodies lie.
Nor is it only Trojan blood that flows:
The vanquished too at times with courage burn,
And conquering Grecians fall. On every side
Are cruel wailings heard, and everywhere
Is fear, with countless scenes of death.
—Virgil, The Aeneid, Book II, lines 361-369
(translated by Benjamin Hall Kennedy and Pessimisissimo)

Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens (The Trojans, completed 1858) portrays episodes from Books II and IV of Virgil's Aeneid: the fall of Troy, Aeneas' escape with a handful of men to Carthage, the love of Aeneas and Queen Dido, Aeneas' departure for Italy and Dido's anguish and death. The opera is suitably epic in scope. The five acts, which include symphonic and ballet interludes and require huge choral forces, take more than five hours to perform.

The difficulties of staging Les Troyens are so daunting that Berlioz never saw a complete performance. The last three acts were presented in a heavily edited version in 1863 as Les Troyens à Carthage, but the full opera wasn't produced until decades after Berlioz's death. Since then, complete performances have remained rare, and only larger opera houses have the resources to contemplate a production.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York is one of those houses, and after the work's Met premiere in 1973 it has staged the opera every decade since. On January 5, 2013, we went to see the Met Live in HD broadcast of this season's remounting of Francesca Zambello's 2003 production. While I had mixed feelings about aspects of the production, I was grateful to have the opportunity to see the opera at all (it hasn't been staged by the San Francisco Opera since the late 1960s).

And in one respect the production was revelatory: young American tenor Bryan Hymel (pronounced EE-mel), who, we learned, had stepped in for Marcello Giordani on short notice in mid-run, proved to be an absolutely thrilling Énée. Here is an audience-shot video of Hymel singing the Act IV love duet with the Didon of Yvonne Nafe from the 2010 Amsterdam production. Even with not-great sound and image, it will give you at least an idea of what we heard:

The words, written by Berlioz himself, are: "Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie! / Blonde Phoebé, grands astres de sa cour, / Versez sur nous votre lueur bénie; / Fleurs des cieux, souriez à l’immortel amour!" (Night of rapture and boundless ecstasy! / Golden Phoebe, and you, great stars of her court, / pour on us your enchanted light; / Flowers of heaven, smile on our immortal love!)*

As this excerpt suggests, Berlioz's music for Les Troyens, particularly in the more intimate or inward moments in the second part, is often exquisite (another example is Hylas' wistful lament for his Trojan homeland which opens Act 5, and which was sung beautifully by Paul Appleby).

Susan Graham was Hymel's Didon, and while her voice does not have the opulence of her 2003 predecessor, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, she was admirable in this emotionally and physically exhausting role. Deborah Voigt reprised her role as the prophetess Cassandre from the 2003 production, and seemed somewhat taxed in the lower-lying reaches of the music (the part was written for a mezzo-soprano). The Met has resources other opera houses can only envy; the secondary roles were taken by singers of high caliber, including baritone Dwayne Croft (Chorèbe, Cassandre's betrothed), contralto Karen Cargill (Anna, Dido's sister), and bass Kwangchul Youn (Narbal, Dido's advisor). Fabio Luisi conducted with apparently inexhaustible energy, though I couldn't help but wish we could hear what James Levine would have brought to the score.

Lorraine Hunt was also a deeply affecting Dido in the recording with Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of Henry Purcell's 1689 chamber opera Dido and Aeneas. To give you a sense of the scale of Les Troyens, to perform the entirety of Purcell's opera takes less time than any one of the five acts of Berlioz's sprawling epic.

I'll close with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson performing Didon's lament after she learns of Énée's betrayal, "Je vais mourir" (I am going to die); note the return of "Nuit d'ivresse" as if in a memory:

This excerpt is from the 2003 Met production; could there be a more compelling case for an official release of the full-length performance?

Update 8 June 2015: Yesterday we attended the opening performance of Les Troyens at San Francisco Opera, the first fully staged production of this work here since 1968 (that's 47 years). This production featured Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre, Brian Hymel as Enée, Susan Graham as Didon, and Sasha Cooke as Anna, Didon's sister. As you might expect from this partial cast list, the opera was superbly sung. The secondary characters were also strongly cast. Didon's advisor Narbal was sung by Christian Van Horn, excellent as the four villains in the SF Opera production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman two years ago; Brian Mulligan, whom we've seen at SF Opera as Marcello in Puccini's La Bohème and as Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, also impressed as Cassandre's lover Chorèbe.

While it's difficult to single out particular moments from such a beautifully realized performance, highlights included every moment the fierce Antonacci was onstage, Enée's anguished realization that he must betray Didon, "Intuile regrets" (Futile regrets), and Didon's final lament, "Je vais mourir" (I am going to die). The exquisite love duet between Enée and Didon, "Nuit d'ivresse," simply stopped time.

Less well-realized was the production by David McVicar, which was often incoherent. The first two acts, "The Capture of Troy," feature costumes and war materiel that suggest the Crimean conflict of the mid-1850s, but this suggestion seems to be largely abandoned in the last three acts, "The Trojans at Carthage." There are unfortunate directorial choices: at the end of the first act, Cassandre collapses onstage; when after a brief pause the scrim rises for Act II, there is a body lying in just about the same place. Cassandre? No—it turns out to be Enée. There is some unfortunate choreography (originally by Lynn Page, re-created by Gemma Payne): during the Act IV revels that precede "Nuit d'ivresse" I turned to my partner and whispered, "Someone has seen Mark Morris" (attempted borrowings from his Dido & Aeneas and L'Allegro were particularly apparent). She whispered back, "Yes—but not enough." And there are unfortunate design choices (Es Devlin did the sets): the onstage model of Carthage in the last three acts (an element that also appears in the Metropolitan Opera's Francesca Zambello production; perhaps it's called for in the libretto) should be cut immediately, the appearance of the Trojan Horse is initially effective but its rocking movement and unimpressive pyrotechnical effects soon replace awe with eye-rolling, and at the end of the opera the vision of Roman triumph over Carthage that arises from a continually smoking heap of metal is just...bad.

The ineffective moments in the production, though, can be ignored. The sublime singing of the cast and the inspired playing by the SF Opera Orchestra under conductor Donald Runnicles are memories we'll treasure.


* Berlioz's complete libretto for Les Troyens can be found can be found on The Hector Berlioz Website.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


The performances in Kahaani (Tale, 2012)—especially those of Vidya Balan as Vidya Bagchi, a very pregnant woman seeking her missing husband, and Parambrata Chatterjee as Inspector Rana, a Kolkata cop who helps her—have been justly praised. The look of the film is also notable: director (and co-writer) Sujoy Ghosh and cinematographer Setu took concealed and hand-held cameras into the streets, subways and celebrations of Kolkata, giving the film a real sense of urgency and immediacy.

But a suspense thriller has to be suspenseful, and on that level Kahaani doesn't always succeed so well. For one thing, even though I'd avoided reading reviews of Kahaani before seeing it so that I wouldn't be alerted to any plot twists, my efforts were in vain. Less than a third of the way in, I'd guessed the film's big secret (and this despite several instances where Ghosh attempts to misdirect viewers).

And for a film that goes out of its way to establish its verisimilitude, at key moments Kahaani lacks realness. At one point Vidya and Inspector Rana are searching for a personnel file on a suspected terrorist, Milan Damji (Indraneil Sengupta). They are told that the file may be in an old office now used for storage. They break into the building (which looks like it's been abandoned for 20 years, not just 2, but never mind) to look for the file, but are closely pursued by a professional killer, Bob Biswas (the creepily effective Saswata Chatterjee). In the old office, Vidya and Inspector Rana hear Biswas coming up the stairs. Having only seconds to act,

—Spoiler alert!—

Vidya grabs the entire folder labelled "DA," containing dozens of files. Somehow Biswas' suspicions aren't raised by finding that the main entrance to the building has been left unlocked, and that the first folder in the "D" drawer of the file cabinet is labelled DB (DB?). Can he believe that no one named Das (or Dalai, Dalasingharay, Danadapatta, or Dasgupta, just to mention some common eastern Indian names) has ever had a personnel file? This is only one of many holes in the script, which repeatedly had me thinking, "But wait a minute..."

I was also disappointed by Vidya's transformation at the end of the film, when her apparently multilayered character suddenly becomes flattened into a stock action-movie figure. Although Ghosh drops several hints earlier in the film that Vidya is other than she seems. Inspector Rana's formal name is Satyaki, identified by Vidya as Arjun's charioteer in the Mahabharata. Arjun, of course, is the righteous warrior who, in an epic battle, kills the treacherous Karna. And in a confrontation two-thirds of the way through the film, Vidya turns out to be a suspiciously good (and surprisingly cold-blooded) shot. That there is no official inquiry after this incident is another one of those "But wait a minute..." moments.

—End of spoilers—

So while Kahaani is worth seeing for the performances and for the vividness of its Kolkata setting, it only works if you don't allow yourself to think too hard about the kahaani. For a compelling Vidya Balan movie with complex characters and very real suspense, I recommend instead No One Killed Jessica (2011).

Kahaani trailer