Sunday, November 25, 2018

Ester Krumbachova: Three films of the Czech New Wave


Ester Krumbachová was a Czechoslovakian designer and screenwriter. In the 1960s she was one of a group of creative filmmakers that became known as the Czech New Wave. Of course, the cultural ferment of the time was not only artistic but political. After the 1968 Soviet invasion crushed the Prague Spring, permissible expression was ever more tightly restricted; by the early 1970s Krumbachová had been blacklisted and was unable to find work making films.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů, 1970; screenplay by Jaromil Jireš and Ester Krumbachová, production design by Krumbachová, directed by Jireš)


Based on a surrealist novel by Vítězslav Nezval published in 1945, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders portrays a teenaged girl's first fearful intimations of sexuality. In a series of nightmarish tableaux the 13-year-old Valerie (played by 13-year-old Jaroslava Schallerová), dressed in diaphanous virginal white, encounters lustful monks, a cruel constable, an ambiguous young thief, magic pearls, and aged vampires who must suck the blood of the young in order to regain youth.


Jireš' camera lingers on Valerie's thinly-clothed body throughout the film, and there are a few (brief) scenes that feature her partial nudity. Perhaps these scenes seemed liberating in 1970, but to this viewer in the present day they seemed exploitative. And there's another, more disturbing sequence in which Valerie is condemned to be burned at the stake. The flames are uncomfortably fierce and uncomfortably close to Schallerová; you can see her hair frizzing and her face turning red in the extreme heat. According to an interview with Schallerová included in the DVD extras her mother was on set, but you have to wonder why she didn't intervene when her daughter was so clearly endangered. (In the interview Schallerová reports being burned by flying pieces of flaming debris during the filming of this scene.)


Valerie, with its circular structure, recurring characters, loosely connected dreamlike scenes, and gothic and supernatural elements, seems like a near cousin to The Saragossa Manuscript (1965). Both British writer Angela Carter and Irish filmmaker and writer Neil Jordan were fans, and Valerie influenced their own excellent collaboration, The Company of Wolves (1985). For me, Valerie's imagery, striking as it is, ultimately felt dated; you may feel differently.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders has been issued on a Criterion Collection DVD along with three earlier short films by Jaromil Jireš.

Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966; story by Věra Chytilová and Pavel Juráček, screenplay by Chytilová and Ester Krumbachová, costume design by Krumbachová, with artistic collaboration from Krumbachová and cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera, directed by Chytilová)


Of the three Czech New Wave films written or co-written by Ester Krumbachová discussed in this post, Daisies (1966) is by far the most well-known. This international succès de scandale was directed by Věra Chytilová, another creative woman in the Czech New Wave whose career was ended after the Soviet invasion.

Daisies opens with images of war and industrial machinery. We then see two young women (Jitka Cerhová as Marie I and Ivana Karbanová as Marie II), who declare that "When everything's getting spoiled, we'll be spoiled too!"


Violating decorum is an particularly strong cultural taboo for women. And so when Maries I & II gleefully gorge themselves at fancy restaurants and drunkenly disrupt an upscale nightclub, their "unladylike" behavior is intended to be especially shocking.


Performance artist Karen Finley would later also exploit for effect our internalized strictures on women's behavior, particularly in relation to food, but Chytilová and Krumbachová anticipated her by more than a decade. 

Another area where women's behavior is policed, of course, is sex. We see the Maries on a series of dates with older men from whom they cadge meals and then bid mocking farewells. Later Marie II disrobes in the apartment of a man who clearly considers himself to be an aesthete: he plays the piano, drinks cognac and collects butterflies. He utters a series of romantic clichés: "Now I know what love means. . .I wish this moment would last forever. . .Life without you is miserable. . .I may have fallen in love with you." Marie's response: "Isn't there some food around here?"


As we follow the two women as they check off a long list of "perversions"—masquerading under different identities and exaggerated makeup, lying, stealing, playing with fire, symbolic castration of sausages and pickles, flirting with self-harm—we come to recognize (along with the characters) that many of their actions are simply heightened versions of accepted behavior. When Marie II confesses to lying, Marie I tells her, "That's nothing. Everybody's doing it. Nobody ever notices." Lines like this may have been one of the reasons Daisies was banned shortly after its completion by the Czechoslovakian government.

Another reason for government disapproval was that the film showed the women wasting food—still far from an abundant resource in Czechoslovakia when we travelled there in 1990. In the final scenes the two Maries stumble across a vast formal dinner set out for guests who have not yet arrived, and they proceed to demolish whatever they can't devour.


After a dunking—a ritual sentence applied in the Middle Ages to curb transgressive women—the two Maries return to the banquet room to clean up. They spout lines that could be taken from the government-sanctioned newspapers that they are now wrapped in: "If we're good and hardworking we shall be happy and everything will be wonderful." They try to reassemble the shattered place settings and restore the mashed delicacies. But their parodic assumption of the "good women" roles they have rejected throughout the film (Marie I asks Marie II, "Are we pretending?") won't end well. For women, Chytilová and Krumbachová suggest, conformity is deadly.


That such a pioneering experimental and feminist film was made by Chytilová, Krumbachová and their colleagues under circumstances of political oppression is a testament to their courage and creativity. And that the male privilege and constricting gender roles that were satirized in Daisies are still with us a half-century later means that their achievement remains all too relevant.

A Report on the Party and Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1966; story and costume design by Ester Krumbachová, screenplay by Krumbachová and Jan Němec, directed by Němec)


Jan Němec is probably most famous for Oratorio for Prague, the footage he shot in August 1968 of Soviet tanks in Wenceslaus Square. But two years before the invasion he directed this adaptation of a bitterly funny story by his then-wife Ester Krumbachová.

Some friends go for a picnic in the countryside. Their idyll is rudely interrupted by a gang of men, led by the smirking Rudolf (Jan Klusák), who corral them and won't let them leave. Attitudes among the friends vary: Karel (Karel Mareš) is defiant, Manzel (Evald Schorm) is wary and watchful, his wife Eva (Zdena Škvorecká) coöperates out of fear, and Josef (Jiří Němec) coöperates out of a desire to avoid conflict.


Rudolf (Jan Klusák) explains it all to Josef (Jiří Němec)

Soon dissension arises among the friends—they distance themselves from Karel, who seems to be deliberately courting trouble. When Karel tries to leave, and is set upon by their captors, no one makes a move to help him.

The melée is broken up by the arrival of a man (Ivan Vyskočil) who seems to be Rudolf's superior. He is solicitous and deeply apologetic. There's been a misunderstanding: Rudolf and his men were sent to bring the friends to his birthday party. It was all a joke—they are his guests.


Soon they are joined by more friends from the city and by a wedding party from a nearby village. Everyone is to partake of a huge al fresco banquet by the shore of a lake.

But a small flaw mars the placid surface of the celebration: it's discovered that Manzel has left. His wife explains, "He didn't want to be here." The host grows visibly unhappy at the absence of his guest, and the sense of unease soon becomes oppressive. Rudolf has an idea: "Let's all go and bring him back!" Soon a gun is brandished, a snarling tracking dog is brought in, and the searchers head off through the woods. . .

A Report on the Party and Guests is sharply observed; we detect the subtly shifting dynamics among the friends as they are faced with Rudolf's "joke" and then the host's more affable but no less inescapable authority. And a party that everyone is forced to attend is a brilliant analogy for political life under the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. To emphasize the connection some pointed questions are asked:


Eva (Zdena Škvorecká) questioning their host: "What about human rights?"

The cast of A Report is a mid-1960s snapshot of the Czechoslovakian film and intellectual worlds. Among the cast (I'm sure I'm missing many others):
  • Ivan Vyskočil (the host), a stage director who co-founded the Theatre on the Balustrade (Divadlo Na zábradlí), where future Czech president Václav Havel's plays were first produced.
  • Jan Klusák (his smirking assistant and adoptive son Rudolf), who later appeared in and composed music for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.
  • Jiří Němec (the collaborating intellectual Josef), a psychologist and philosopher (and cousin of director Jan Němec). Together with his wife Dana Němcová (who also appears in the film as the bride, Olinka) he was an originator of the Charter 77 human rights manifesto.
  • Karel Mareš (the defiant Karel) who composed the soundtrack music for A Report and for Miloš Forman's The Firemen's Ball (1967), among other films.
  • Evald Schorm (the wary Manzel), a film and theatre director and screenwriter.
  • Zdena Škvorecká, a singer and writer. After the Soviet invasion she fled Czechoslovakia with her husband, the writer Josef Škvorecký (who also appears in the film as one of the additional guests); together they founded Toronto's 68 Publishers, which championed dissident literature. 

Zdena Škvorecká and Josef Škvorecký in A Report on the Party and Guests.
A Report was banned by the Czechoslovakian government in 1967; it was allowed to be screened briefly during the Prague Spring of 1968, but after the Soviet invasion it was forbidden a second time. However, a print was shown at the 6th New York Film Festival in September 1968, just weeks after the invasion. It was reviewed by Renata Adler in the New York Times and was shown internationally to wide acclaim. Director Jan Němec left Czechoslovakia in 1968; he returned the next year, but left permanently in 1974. He and Ester Krumbachová divorced in 1968.

Krumbachová remained in Czechoslovakia, unable to work in film again until the 1980s. She died in 1996, but not before witnessing the 1989 Velvet Revolution that overthrew the Soviet-supported government, and the 1990 election of Havel to the presidency. In 2005 her colleague Věra Chytilová directed a documentary, Searching for Ester (Pátrání po Ester), about Krumbachová's contributions to the Czech New Wave and their own synergies and differences.

Daisies and A Report on the Party and Guests have been issued together on a DVD in the Criterion Collection Eclipse Series 32, "Pearls of the Czech New Wave." As I hope I've suggested, both films are essential viewing.

Update 22 December 2018: Daisies and A Report on the Party and Guests were selected for my Favorites of 2018: Movies and television.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Maria Edgeworth: Helen


Maria Edgeworth. Daguerreotype by Richard Beard, 1841. Image: National Portrait Gallery NPG P5.

Jane Austen admired the novels of Maria Edgeworth. The narrator of Austen's Northanger Abbey famously praises Edgeworth's Belinda (along with Fanny Burney's Cecilia and Camilla) as a work "in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language." And in the fall of 1814, around the time Austen was writing Emma, she sent a letter to her niece Anna in which she said that "I have made up my mind to like no Novels, really, but Miss Edgeworth's, Yours, and my own." [1]

Austen thought so highly of Edgeworth that she sent her a complimentary copy of Emma. Since this was not one of the twelve presentation copies allotted to her by her publisher John Murray, Austen probably paid for it (and for the shipping to Edgeworth's home in Ireland) out of her own meager income.


Title page of Maria Edgeworth's copy of Jane Austen's Emma. Image: Sotheby's

Edgeworth, though, seems to have been unimpressed with Emma. She wrote to her half-brother Charles Sneyd Edgeworth:
There was no story in it, except that Miss Emma found that the man whom she designed for Harriet's lover was an admirer of her own—& he was affronted at being refused by Emma & Harriet wore the willow—and smooth, thin, water-gruel is according to Emma's father's opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by smooth thin water gruel!! [2]
Edgeworth apparently never sent an acknowledgement to Austen, and passed the novel on to a friend.

However, there is evidence that Emma may have made a deeper impression on Edgeworth than she first recognized. In Edgeworth's novel Helen (1834), Lady Cecilia, like Emma, is guided by an older man who is a model of moral uprightness and sound judgment. And, like Emma, when she incurs his disapproval it ultimately brings her to the bitter realization that she has been over-concerned with social appearances and the world's opinion.


"Her husband turned, and clasped her in his arms." Lady Cecilia and General Clarendon are reconciled. Illustration from Helen, 1850.

There is also a character in Helen, Horace Churchill, who is superficially charming, but shallow and deceitful. In taking actions that are self-interested and morally questionable, he is reminiscent of another Mr. Churchill, Emma's Frank.

While Emma may have influenced Helen, Edgeworth's novel went on to have echoes in the work of later writers. Those echoes are most prominent, perhaps, in Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters (1865-66). Both Edgeworth's and Gaskell's novels center on a sensitive and steadfast heroine, whose deep affection for a more worldly companion results in a series of moral crises. Each heroine chooses to risk her own reputation, and her future happiness, in order to protect her friend.


"Oh! it is no wonder!" Illustration by George Du Maurier for Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters (1866) from the Internet Archive.

There are connections between Edgeworth's novel and the work of another Victorian writer as well. Edgeworth's heroine Helen is the niece of the childless Dean Stanley, who "possessed rich benefices in the church, and an ample private fortune, and it was expected that his niece would be a great heiress. . .But the dean’s taste warred against his affection: his too hospitable, magnificent establishment had exceeded his income. . .Cursed with too fine a taste, and with too soft a heart—a heart too well knowing how to yield, never could he deny himself, much less any other human being, any gratification which money could command. . ." The Dean's physicians  advise him to go to Italy for his health; of course, while there "he found fresh temptations to extravagance, his learning and his fancy combined to lead him on from day to day to new expense. . ." [3]

This picture of a pleasure-loving and profligate churchman may sound familiar to readers of Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers (1857). Like Dean Stanley, Trollope's Dr. Stanhope has received a "magnificent establishment" as a result of his preferment in the church: "He held a prebendal stall in the diocese, one of the best residences in the close, and the two large rectories of Crabtree Canonicorum and Stogpingum. . ." Like Dean Stanley, Dr. Stanhope had gone to Italy for his health: "He had resided in Italy for twelve years. His first going there had been attributed to a sore throat. . ." And like the "too hospitable" Dean Stanley, Dr. Stanhope is "thoroughly a bon vivant. . ." [4]

There is also a parallel between Helen and Trollope's He Knew He Was Right (1869). In Helen, General Clarendon, the upright husband of Lady Cecilia, forbids her to visit the scandalous Madame de St. Cymon, or to receive visits from her.
"'Cecilia,' said he, 'take care what you are about. Remember, it is not my request only, but my command to my wife' (he laid solemn stress on the words) 'that she should have no communication with this woman.'
"'My dear Clarendon, I have not the least wish.'
"'I do not ask what your wishes may be; I require only your obedience.'" [5]
When Clarendon discovers that Lady Cecilia has disobeyed him (she is being subtly blackmailed by Madame de St. Cymon), he announces that he will separate from her forever.

The story of He Knew He Was Right focusses on Louis Trevelyan, who forbids his wife Emily to communicate with a longtime but disreputable family friend, Colonel Osborne:
He was her master, and she must know that he was her master. But how was he to proceed when she refused to obey the plainest and most necessary command which he laid upon her?. . .As he thought of it all it seemed to him that if she would not obey him, and give him this promise, they must be separated. He would not live with her, he would not give her the privileges of his wife, if she refused to render to him the obedience which was his privilege. [6]


"Shewing how wrath began." Illustration by Marcus Stone for Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right (1869).

When Trevelyan discovers that Emily has  continued to receive letters and visits from Colonel Osborne, he separates from her. By the standards of Victorian society both Clarendon and Trevelyan are "right," but their rigid adherence to patriarchal principle threatens to destroy their loved ones' happiness, and their own.

These similarities are certainly suggestive, but can we be sure that Gaskell and Trollope were familiar with Edgeworth's novel? In fact, yes. The Edgeworth scholar Marilyn Butler has shown that Gaskell read Helen and drew on both it and Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer's A Diary (1844) in writing Wives and Daughters. [7]


Entry for "Edgeworth's Novels" in ten volumes, Waltham House Catalogue of Anthony Trollope's library. "M 4" is a shelf indication. 
Image: The Morgan Library and Museum.

And in the Waltham House Catalogue of Anthony Trollope's library printed in 1867 (held by the Morgan Library and Museum) there is an entry for "Edgeworth's Novels" in 10 volumes, probably Tales and Novels, Twenty Volumes Bound in Ten. Helen is the final volume. There were multiple editions of this set issued in the mid-1800s by various European and American publishers. Thanks to a very good friend I have a copy of the 1850 Harper & Bros. edition on my shelves; Trollope owned the Simpkin, Marshall & Co. edition of 1857. Indeed Trollope may have read Helen before acquiring this set; in his Autobiography he mentions Edgeworth and Sir Walter Scott as his mother Fanny's favorite novelists. [8]

And to bring this post full circle, Sir Walter Scott was among those who appreciated Austen's achievement in Emma more fully than did Edgeworth. As Scott wrote in his anonymous review of Emma, Austen's novels
proclaim a knowledge of the human heart. . .presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him. . .The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis personæ conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances. . .All of [her characters'] entanglements bring on only a train of mistakes and embarrassing situations. . .in which the author displays her peculiar powers of humor and knowledge of human life. [9]
While the power of Austen's naturalism was not something that Edgeworth may have recognized when she received Emma with the compliments of its author, she clearly had done so by the time she came to write Helen.

For more on Maria Edgeworth, please see "Crossing boundaries: Gender, race and colonialism in Belinda"

Update 25 November 2018: Another Trollope novel also seems to have been inspired by Helen. In Kept in the Dark (1882), Cecilia Holt, like Edgeworth's Lady Cecilia, has not told the entire truth to her husband about her involvement with another man before their marriage. As I wrote about Kept in the Dark in "A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope part 4": "[Cecilia] wants to tell him about her past engagement but keeps putting off her confession. Events overtake her intentions, and once they are married, that previous engagement becomes a secret she must conceal." Like Edgeworth's General Clarendon, when Cecilia's husband discovers that she had a previous lover and that she has kept this information from him, he determines on a separation. Not only the plot parallels but the similarity in the characters' names are an indication of Kept in the Dark's source in Edgeworth's novel.

Update 22 December 2018: Helen was selected for my Favorites of 2018: Books.


  1. Praise of Belinda: Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Ch. V; letter to Anna Austen, Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra and others. R.W. Chapman, ed. Oxford University Press, 1932, Letter 101, p. 405.
  2. Quoted in Marilyn Butler, "Letters to the Editor: Unfavourable Review." Times Literary Supplement, 29 February 1968, p. 205. The episode in which Mr. Elton "makes violent love" to Emma occurs in Ch. XV. "To wear the willow" means to mourn or grieve for a lost or forsaking lover. And it is actually Emma's sister Isabella, Mr. Woodhouse's elder daughter, who complains about the gruel: ". . .among the failures which the daughter had to instance, the most recent, and therefore most prominent, was in her own cook at South End, a young woman hired for the time, who never had been able to understand what she meant by a basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin. Often as she had wished for and ordered it, she had never been able to get any thing tolerable" (Ch. XII). Both of these incidents are in Vol. I; Butler suggests that Edgeworth did not go on to read Vol. II or III before giving the book away.
  3. Maria Edgeworth, Helen, Ch. I.
  4. Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, Ch. IX.
  5. Helen, Ch. XLV.
  6. Anthony Trollope, He Knew He Was Right, Ch. V.
  7. Butler, "The Uniqueness of Cynthia Kirkpatrick: Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters and Maria Edgeworth's Helen." The Review of English Studies, Volume XXIII, Issue 91, 1 January 1972, Pages 278–290. https://doi.org/10.1093/res/XXIII.91.278. Butler also points out that Edgeworth was a friend and correspondent of Gaskell's Knutsford relatives.
  8. 1857 edition noted in Richard H. Grossman and Andrew Wright, "Anthony Trollope's Libraries," Nineteenth-Century Fiction,  31(1): 48–64; Fanny Trollope's favorite novelists from Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography, Blackwood, 1883, Ch. II, "My Mother."
  9. [Walter Scott] "Art. IX. Emma, A Novel" [review]. The Quarterly Review, Vol. XIV, No. XXVII, October, 1815, p. 188-201. http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/review-of-emma-in-the-quarterly-review-1815

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Why we live in cities part 2: Exceptional musical performances

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

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


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

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

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

Website: Ars Minerva

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



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

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

Websites:

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


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

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

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

Websites:

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


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

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

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

Website: American Bach Soloists

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


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

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

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

Website: Claude Heater Foundation

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


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

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

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

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

Websites:

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


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

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

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

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



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

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


https://youtu.be/dU1QfLHMnC0?t=1594 ("I Believe in Me" ends at 29:17)

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

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

Website: Penelope.net