Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Favorites of 2018: Movies and television

Favorite films of 2018

In 2018 we cut way back on our viewing, so this short list of favorites is drawn from a total of only about 30 films. And as always my choices were made from films first seen (but not necessarily first released) in the past twelve months or so. We were underwhelmed by a number of movies that lots of other people seemed to love, including The Red Turtle (2017), Academy-Award-winner The Shape of Water (2017), and Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs (2017), so you'll notice that only one of my favorites is a recent film.

Loving Vincent (2017; written by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, and Jacek Dehnel, and directed by Kobiela and Welchman)


An exploration of the mystery of the final days of Vincent Van Gogh, animated in the style of his paintings. Loving Vincent's visuals vividly render the sensation of swirling motion and psychic turmoil we have when viewing Van Gogh's late work.

I'm somewhat amazed that no one had thought of doing this before, but perhaps an explanation is provided by the daunting technique involved: each of the film's tens of thousands of frames is an individual oil painting. Most scenes are based on specific Van Gogh subjects, but some evoke the photographs of Van Gogh's contemporary Eugène Atget. If the stunning animation overshadows the film's narrative, perhaps that's as it should be—leaving us not with any neat explanations of Van Gogh's tragedy (the film acknowledges that none are possible), but with a renewed sense of wonder at his achievement.

Here is a short documentary describing the process of making the film, narrated by its co-writer, -director and -producer Hugh Welchman:




Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966) and A Report on the Party and Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1966)


These two films were both co-written by Ester Krumbachová, a major figure of the Czech New Wave.  

Daisies follows two young women, Marie I and Marie II, as they gleefully violate many of the societal restrictions on women relating to public behavior, food, alcohol, and sex. The two Maries ultimately discover that every rebellion provokes a powerful reaction, and that for women especially, conformity can be deadly.

A Report on the Party and the Guests portrays the subtly shifting dynamics among a group of friends on a picnic in the countryside when they are confronted by an ominous gang of men. Then the men's superior shows up and informs them that it's all been a mistake; the men were sent to invite the group to his al fresco birthday party. A party that everyone is forced to attend becomes a brilliant analogy for political life under the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, and when one of the group tries to leave, the mask of benign paternalism comes off. . .

Both films are essential viewing. For more, along with a discussion of the Krumbachová-written film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), please see Ester Krumbachová: Three films of the Czech New Wave.

Nayak (The Hero, 1966; written and directed by Satyajit Ray)


After a drunken nightclub brawl and the unwelcome news that his latest film has flopped, Bengali matinée idol Arindam Mukherjee (played by Bengali matinée idol Uttam Kumar) decides it's time to get out of town. But instead of providing distance from his problems, his trip will bring him face-to-face with the increasingly cynical and opportunistic choices that have brought him to this crisis. In his dark night of the soul, Arindam recognizes how empty and unprincipled he has become—but also how many others are struggling in a corrupt and pitiless world. In Nayak, as in his many other masterpieces, Ray offers no easy answers.

For more, please see Nayak: The Hero

Favorite television of 2018

Doctor Thorne (2016)


When Julian Fellowes' adaptation of Anthony Trollope's novel aired on Britain's ITV, The Guardian's Viv Groskop called it "a carnival of cleavage." Add magnificent gowns, elegant interiors, lush greenswards, a literate script and excellent actors, and the appeal of this series to a fan of period drama shouldn't be too mysterious.

The late Jenny Diski wrote of Fellowes, "These purveyors of escapist fantasies of love and landed wealth come directly from the social world and political party that talks compulsively of 'honest, hard-working families' while giving us austerity and cuts in public spending for most, and tax breaks for the already wealthy and overpaid."

Diski is right to point out the grotesque hypocrisies of the ruling class to which Baron Fellowes belongs. But Trollope's Doctor Thorne is anything but a comforting escapist fantasy. It depicts a social and economic system in which two young people who love each other are kept apart because they can't afford to marry. Mary (Stefanie Martini), the ward of Doctor Thorne (Tom Hollander), will likely live out her days alone in abject poverty, while the local landowner's son, Frank Gresham (Harry Richardson), is faced with becoming a fortune hunter and contracting a loveless marriage for financial gain. The inheritance that would enable Mary and Frank to escape these fates is so improbable that it functions as its own critique. So if indeed Fellowes is nostalgic for the heyday of the landed gentry, he chose the wrong vehicle to convey those sentiments.
 
For more, please see Doctor Thorne.

Mr. Selfridge (2013-2016)


A young woman comes from the provinces to the capital city to make her way in the world, and finds a job in a new kind of retail establishment: a department store. At the store—filled with a cornucopia of tempting consumer goods—she must sell to wealthy customers luxuries she will never be able to afford herself. Her immediate female supervisor is strict and severe (and possibly jealous of her youth and beauty). But the store owner is impressed by her ideas (and by her youth and beauty) and becomes her secret ally. The owner is advised by a competent and upright accountant, as well as by a right-hand man who is sometimes skeptical of his boss's radically innovative schemes. Meanwhile, the young woman is courted by her brash male co-workers—but she's looking for a partner who shares her sensibility and ambitions.

If you are a regular reader of E & I, all this may sound quite familiar. In my Favorites of 2016: Movies and Television I included the BBC series The Paradise (2012-2013), based on Emile Zola's novel Au bonheur des dames (The Ladies' Paradise, 1883). It's a wonderful series about the founding of a department store and the (sometimes catastrophic) effects it has on the social and economic fabric of its community.

The ITV series Mr. Selfridge, despite being created by the excellent writer Andrew Davies from (it's clear) the same source material, is not quite as engaging. The series is about the founding of Selfridges, a real-life London department store. The social dimension that is a key focus of the earlier BBC series is only background in the ITV series. And when there is a Mr. Selfridge episode that focuses on larger social questions, as in an episode that deals with the women's suffrage movement, it often falsely back-projects 21st-century attitudes onto its characters.

Also, Harry Selfridge is a far less complicated figure than The Paradise's predatory John Moray. Yes, Harry is a womanizer, but he is also open, aboveboard, always wants the best for everyone, and knows that the answer to every question raised by consumerism is more consumerism (and the series takes his point of view). Far more than The Paradise, Mr. Selfridge is a period-piece soap opera—and only grows more so in the third and fourth seasons.

Nonetheless, the characters are sympathetic, especially Harry's wife Rose (Frances O'Connor), gone by the end of the second season, and the shopgirl Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus) and her mentor, designer Henri Leclair (Grégory Fitoussi), both gone by the middle of the third season. The series spans two decades, from the Edwardian era to the Roaring 20s, and the sumptuous period sets and costumes are also enjoyable eye-candy.

But in the third season the one-dimensional villain Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle) and Harry's self-regarding son-in-law Serge de Bolotoff (Leon Ockenden) have quickly grown tiresome. This may sound like I'm damning the series with faint praise, but we're hoping that the appearance of the Dolly Sisters (Zoe Richards and Emma Hamilton) and the return of the witty Lady Mae Loxley (Katherine Kelly) will liven things up in the fourth and final season.

Joni Mitchell: A Woman of Heart and Mind (American Masters, 2003)


Susan Lacy's documentary traces Joni Mitchell's life and work from her mid-1960s beginnings singing as Joni Anderson in Calgary coffeehouses, through her 1970s heyday and her subsequent fall from pop music favor. Lacy has tracked down some rare photographs and film and television footage, and interviewed many of her colleagues, collaborators and former lovers. Even if you think you aren't interested in Mitchell or her music, her determination to explore her own path in the face of what seem at times to be insurmountable difficulties is compelling.

Both Zadie Smith and I have had to radically rethink our responses to Joni Mitchell's music; for more, please read Attunement: Conversion experiences.

Biggest disappointment

Our reduced viewing schedule didn't permit us enough time to see more than a few Bollywood films. We did manage to watch Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat (2018). But despite the presence of three E & I favorites in the cast (Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor), the excellent music and SLB's stunning production design, the film felt like an overlong and schematic ISIS allegory. (The black-clad, black-flag-waving Muslim horde treacherously stabs the Rajasthani hero in the back—and yes, I do mean literally.)

So Padmaavat's heavy-handed script was our biggest disappointment of 2018. But did I mention the excellent music and stunning production design? Here is "Ghoomar," picturized on Deepika Padukone, choreographed by Kruti Mahesh Midya and sung by Shreya Ghoshal:



As you may have already seen, an utterly unexpected appearance by Shreya Ghoshal was one of my favorite live performances of 2018.

More Favorites of 2018:

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Favorites of 2018: Recordings


Kindra Scharich with the Alexander String Quartet. Photos: Jiyang Chen (Kindra Scharich), Rory Earnshaw (ASQ)

Recordings 

My favorite recordings first heard in 2018:

Kindra Scharich and the Alexander String Quartet: In Meinem Himmel: The Mahler Song Cycles (FoghornClassics)

This recording has hardly left our CD player since it was first issued a few weeks ago. (For people who prefer digital media, it is also available in CD-quality and high-resolution downloads.) Scharich's pure, clear soprano is exquisite, and the string quartet transcriptions by ASQ first violinist Zakarias Grafilo offer both intimacy and richness of sound. Although Scharich can rise to dramatic heights, as in "Ich hab' ein glühend Messer" (I have a red-hot knife in my breast), she does not over-emote: she allows the (often quietly devastating) meanings of these songs to be conveyed by the music and words. She also uses vibrato lightly, as an expressive technique, so that her voice blends beautifully with the quartet. If you already know Mahler's songs these versions will let you hear them anew; if you are unfamiliar, they are a great place to start. Lovely and moving; a triumph for all involved.

From the Rückert-Lieder, "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!"



Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!

Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!
Im Zimmer stand
Ein Zweig der Linde,
Ein Angebinde
Von lieber Hand.
Wie lieblich war der Lindenduft!

Wie lieblich ist der Lindenduft!
Das Lindenreis
Brachst du gelinde!
Ich atme leis'
Im Duft der Linde
Der Liebe linden Duft.
I breathed in the scent of linden

I breathed in the scent of linden!
In the room stood
a sprig of linden,
a gift
from a dear hand.
How lovely was the linden scent!

How lovely is the linden scent!
That twig of linden
you broke off so gently!
Softly I breathe in
the scent of linden,
the lovely scent of linden.

Vicente Martín y Soler: Una cosa rara. Montserrat Figueras and other soloists, with Le Concert des Nations conducted by Jordi Savall (Astrée)

The most popular composer by far in Vienna during the time of Mozart wasn't Mozart. It was Vicente Martín y Soler, and Una Cosa Rara (A rare thing, or Beauty and faithfulness, 1786) was his most successful opera by far.

As the Savall recording shows, Cosa rara is full of excellent music that echoes Mozart's earlier Le Nozze di Figaro and anticipates his later Don Giovanni. The conventional narrative has been that Mozart's genius condescended to Martín's mere talent. This recording complicates that story by revealing that Mozart borrowed significant compositional ideas from Martín.

The erotic duet that inflamed Viennese audiences, "Pace, caro mio sposo":



Read more about the opera: A Rare Thing: Vicente Martin y Soler's Una Cosa Rara

Prima la musica, poi le parole and Der Schauspieldirektor. Roberta Alexander and other soloists, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec)

In February 1786 the Emperor Joseph II staged a contest between Italian opera buffa and German Singspiel (literally "singing play": arias interspersed with spoken dialogue). Representing Italian comedy with Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the music, then the words) was the music director of the court's Italian opera company, Antonio Salieri; representing the German Singspiel with Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) was a promising young composer, Wolfgang Mozart. Both works are operas about producing an opera, and both feature the rivalry of two sopranos, one serious and tragic, and the other light and comic.

This recording was produced in the early days of CDs, and the excerpts were clearly chosen so that each opera would fit on one side of a vinyl album. All of the spoken dialogue in Der Schauspieldirektor was cut; Prima la musica lost most of its recitative, as well as several arias. But what remains is highly enjoyable. Here is Salieri's parody of a prima donna's aria, "Lá tu vedrai chi sono" (There you shall see who I am), and as Donna Eleonora, Roberta Alexander's voice has a remarkable range:



This sounds not unlike "Come scoglio," a parody of a prima donna's aria Mozart included four years later in Così fan tutte. Nothing was lost on Mozart. . .

Handel: Saul. Featuring soloists with the Glyndebourne Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Ivor Bolton, directed by Barrie Kosky (Opus Arte)

We regretted that the timing of our Glyndebourne trip this summer did not allow us to see the revival of this production of Handel's oratorio Saul (1739). Fortunately the original production from 2015 is available on video. It boasts an excellent cast (Christopher Purves, Iestyn Davies, Lucy Crowe and Sophie Bevan) and the striking stage images of director Barrie Kosky and designer Katrin Lea Tag.

The libretto by Charles Jennens (who a few years later fashioned the libretto for Messiah) tells the story of the Israelite king Saul, who is at first grateful to David for saving his kingdom by slaying the Philistine giant Goliath. But soon Saul's gratitude turns to envy, and then to murderous madness. Saul's hatred ultimately redounds on Saul himself and his son Jonathan.

In the opening chorus "How excellent thy name, O Lord," David (Iestyn Davies), in post-traumatic shock after his battle with Goliath, is hailed by Saul and the Israelites—and yes, that is Goliath's severed head downstage center:



Kosky clothes many of the singers in 18th-century-style costumes; the madness of Saul thus cleverly evokes the madness of King George III, who had acceded to the British throne six months before Saul's premiere. On the music blog Bachtrack David Karlin has written, "When you go to a Barrie Kosky production, you know you’re going to get something theatrical, something to astonish you, something brimming with ideas—whether or not you agree with them." I'm usually allergic to Regietheatrical interventions; the ideas of most directors are impoverished compared to those of the composer and librettist. But to my surprise, I found myself completely engaged by Kosky's staging. Saul shows that Regietheater doesn't always have to involve a crime committed against the work.

The Vivaldi Edition returns:

Dorilla in Tempe, soloists with I Barocchisti conducted by Diego Fasolis (Naïve)
Il Giustino, soloists with Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone (Naïve)

Yes, it's cheating to include two full-length operas in one capsule review. But the Vivaldi Edition, on hiatus since 2014, issued these two splendid recordings over the past twelve months—a most welcome return. They are also nicely contrasted. Dorilla in Tempe (1734) puts its pastoral lovers through a wringer of misunderstandings, jealousies and betrayals before everything is sorted out for the happy ending. Il Giustino (1724) follows the martial rise of the peasant Giustino (Delphine Galou) to the throne of the Byzantine Empire, with bear attacks, shipwrecks, sea monsters, prison escapes, and ghostly apparitions in between.

These new entries maintain the high standard set by the Vivaldi Edition. They feature emerging and established singers such as Romina Basso (Dorilla), Emöke Barath, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, and Delphine Galou (all Giustino), vivid conducting and virtuosic period-instrument ensembles; the recorded sound and the packaging are also first rate. As an added bonus, both operas re-use melodic material from Vivadi's most popular work, Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons).

Here is a Delphine Galou performing Giustino's aria "Bel riposo de' mortali" from the first act of Il Giustino:



Bel riposo de' mortali

Bel riposo de' mortali
Su quest'occhi spiega l'ali,
Dolce sonno, e vieni a me.
Lovely repose of mortals

Lovely repose of mortals,
Over my eyes spread your wings,
Sweet sleep, and come to me.

Some of the previous entries in the Vivaldi Edition are now unavailable in CD format. So if (like us) you're still wedded to the physical, don't hesitate to pick these up right away.

More Favorites of 2018:

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Favorites of 2018: Live performances


Soprano Aura Veruni, Ifigenia in Ars Minerva's Ifigenia in Aulide. Photo: Olivier Allard

Live performances

We're incredibly fortunate to live in a place where so many wonderful musical events are available to us. What follows are brief descriptions of a dozen favorite live performances from 2018: five that haven't already been discussed on this blog, followed by links to my posts about another seven that I've already written about. And limiting myself to a choice of a dozen was arbitrary; the list could easily have been much longer. In chronological order:

Capella Romana: 12 Days of Christmas in the East (St. Ignatius Cathedral, San Francisco, January 7)

On Epiphany in the festively decorated St. Ignatius Cathedral, Capella Romana performed ancient and modern compositions for the Christmas season from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. One of the things that I find especially powerful about Byzantine chant is that even at its most celebratory there is always a mournful undercurrent. It is as though in the midst of joy we are being reminded of the inevitability of suffering—also the theme of my favorite Christmas carols.

From the concert we attended, Capella Romana performing "Prokeimenon for the 1st of January":

 

This year Capella Romana will be performing concert series in Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco.

Shreya Ghoshal, Bollywood Song and Dance with Dhaval and Gunjan and friends (San Francisco Public Library, March 3)

It was advertised simply as "Bollywood," buried in small print in the San Francisco Public Library's monthly newsletter of events; some digging brought me to this blog post, which invited us to "come sing along with the greatest melodies of all time" on a Saturday afternoon at the main branch of the library.

When I arrived the event was in full swing. There was a modest but appreciative audience of about 75 people watching Indian film songs being performed karaoke-style to synthesized versions of the original music. But then a woman was invited up on stage; I wasn't able to catch her name. She announced her thanks that she had been given permission to perform the next song to the actual music from the film soundtrack. I fleetingly wondered how it was that she had access to the original soundtrack without the vocal; and as she performed, the song and her voice sounded familiar:



It wasn't until I got home and popped in a DVD or two that I confirmed that, in a basement auditorium at my local public library, I had just seen a performance by the playback singer Shreya Ghoshal. If you aren't a Bollywood fan, perhaps you don't realize how improbable that is. For her singing Shreya Ghoshal has won four National Film Awards, six Filmfare Awards, and nine Filmfare Awards South (the Filmfare Awards are often described as the Indian equivalent of the Oscars). She has performed on the soundtracks of something like 500 films. [1]

Click on the link below for the filmed version of "Mohe Rang Do Laal" from Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Bajirao Mastani (2014), picturized on Deepika Padukone and sung by Shreya Ghoshal. (The live performance video excerpt picks up around the 2:51 mark of the film version.)



Deepika Padukone in "Mohe Rang Do Laal" from Bajirao Mastani.

Even through the public library's sound system Shreya Ghoshal sounded great; what a privilege to be able to see her in such an intimate setting.

Rodelinda (San Francisco Conservatory of Music, March 11)

The SF Conservatory of Music Opera and Musical Theatre Program is a wonderful resource for Bay Area music lovers. We get to see talented young singers on the verge of professional careers perform in fully- or semi-staged productions accompanied by a full orchestra of talented young players on the verge of professional careers—all for free or a very low cost. And the programming by director Jose Maria Condemi and his SFCM faculty collaborators is adventurous, featuring lots of Baroque, 20th-century and contemporary opera along with excellent Broadway shows like Urinetown and Sondheim's Company.

The Spring 2018 production was Handel's Rodelinda (1725), one of his greatest works. Rodelinda is the widowed queen of Lombardy, who is sexually blackmailed by Grimoaldo, her husband Bertarido's usurper and murderer. To force Rodelinda to yield to him, Grimoaldo threatens her son, and she spends most of the opera either in sorrow or defiance. But is her husband Bertarido really dead. . .?

Handel wrote some of his most beautiful arias for Rodelinda. To give you a taste, here is Sophie Daneman performing the opening aria, "Ho perduto il caro sposo" (I have lost my beloved husband), accompanied by the Raglan Baroque Players conducted by Nicholas Kraemer:



At SFCM soprano Karen Notovitz gave a lovely, moving performance as Rodelinda, with excellent support by Matheus Coura (Bertarido), James Hogan (Grimoaldo), and the other members of the cast. In a year that for us was filled with great opera productions, Rodelinda is still a vivid memory.

Mark Morris Dance Group: Pepperland (Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, September 28)

The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is not the best rock album ever recorded. It's not even the best rock album released in 1967: that would be The Velvet Underground & Nico, which came out two months before Sgt. Pepper (and which had been recorded almost a year previously). [2]

But of course Sgt. Pepper is a pop culture landmark, and last year Mark Morris was commissioned by the City of Liverpool to do a piece commemorating the album's 50th anniversary. As he said in a preconcert talk, "I misunderstood enough [of the project] to be interested in it." He was apparently intended to choreograph a piece to one song, and instead wound up doing most of the album. The Mark Morris Dance Group performs only to live music these days, so Morris in turn asked Ethan Iverson to re-imagine six songs from the album, and also compose some interstitial music to bridge the Sgt. Pepper sections. For Pepperland Iverson's group The Bad Plus (keyboards, brass, percussion and theremin) was the pit band.

Iverson's versions are recognizable but deliberately a bit askew, to enable us to hear this overfamiliar music with fresh ears. For "When I'm Sixty-Four" he sets the familiar melody over cross-rhythms of 4/4, 5/4 and (yes) 6/4. This being a Mark Morris piece, different groups of dancers moved in sync with each of the rhythms at the same time, to hilarious effect. I will never hear that song in the same way again. Elizabeth Kurtzman's costumes applied the spectrum of bright solid colors from the brass-band jackets worn by the Beatles on the album cover to clothes evoking the clean lines of Swinging London designers such as Mary Quant. As Morris also said during that preconcert talk, "I'm not interested in nostalgia. I'm interested in history."

The result was utterly delightful. Here is a brief excerpt of the "Allegro" section, which bridged "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Within You Without You":




Ars Minerva, Giovanni Porta's Ifigenia in Aulide (ODC Theater, December 1)

In the 18th century opera seria productions required the best singers and instrumentalists in the world (not to mention the best stage and costume designers and state-of-the-art theaters). Only kings and princes had enough money to sponsor opera seria, and at times even their resources weren't enough: in London in the 1730s both Handel's opera company and its rival the Opera of the Nobility went bankrupt.

I mention this to put the achievement of Ars Minerva in perspective. This fall the group, led by indefatigable Artistic Director Céline Ricci, revived Giovanni Porta's Ifigenia in Aulide, an opera seria that had not been performed in full since its premiere in 1738. For a group without the deep pockets of a major opera company to take on this task is itself astonishing; that Ars Minerva did so successfully is simply staggering.

Ifigenia in Aulide takes place just before the Trojan War. The Greek ships, massed to attack Troy, are becalmed in port after the Greek king Agamemnon kills a deer sacred to the goddess Artemis. The oracle of the gods demands the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, before favorable winds will blow. In some versions of the story Iphigenia is sacrificed; in others, Artemis descends in a cloud, rescues Iphigenia and takes her to the island of Tauris. The libretto of Apostolo Zeno for Ifigenia offers a third version that enables the "happy ending" traditional in opera seria, but which unusually retains aspects of tragedy: another character dies in place of Ifigenia. [3]

Ifigenia is remarkable not only for its semi-tragic libretto but for its music, which also defies convention. Opera seria is often thought to be highly formalized, a series of solo da capo arias after which each singer in turn exits the stage. [4] But in Act II, Ifigenia (the superb Aura Veruni) begins an angry aria addressed to Achilles (Céline Ricci), who she thinks has fallen in love with the captive Elisena (Cara Gabrielson). Ifigenia is so hurt that she abruptly leaves the stage after the first section of her aria. Achilles immediately takes up her melody and in essence completes her aria—a striking moment that suggests that, despite the breach between the characters, they are growing emotionally closer.

Porta also disrupts our expectations early in Act III, where Agamennone (a commanding Nikola Printz), Clitennestra (a fierce Shawnette Sulker) and Ifigenia sing a moving trio; in opera seria ensembles are usually placed only at the end of an act. But this trio dramatically symbolizes the situation of Ifigenia, torn between her father's demands for sacrifice and her mother's pleas to escape.

And although Porta is not nearly as well known today as his younger contemporaries Vivaldi and Handel, he wrote some beautiful music for Ifigenia. Especially notable for me were Agamennone's aria immediately following the Act III trio, in which he expresses the inner conflict he can't reveal to his daughter or wife, and Ifigenia's aria "Madre diletta, abbracciami" (Dearest mother, embrace me), in which, as her sacrifice looms, she tries to comfort her anguished mother.

Here is Joyce DiDonato performing "Madre diletta," accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis:



Incidentally, Ars Minerva's performance was described in the program as semi-staged. But the setting of each scene was distinguished by Nicole Spencer Carreira's evocative projections and Jack Beuttler's atmospheric lighting, the singers were wearing Matthew Nash's postmodern costumes, and they interacted with a dramatic intensity focussed by Ricci's stage direction. She employed the clever device of a robed and masked silent Greek chorus from which characters would emerge and to which they would then return. I've seen fully staged operas in which the singers were less engaged with one another and the stage movement was less integral to the drama.

Ars Minerva should be enthusiastically applauded for the excellence of Ifigenia's musical values: the fine cast (especially the leading quartet of Veruni, Printz, Sulker and Ricci) and accompanying 10-piece orchestra led by conductor and harpsichordist Derek Tam and concertmistress Cynthia Black. But it is close to miraculous that on a tight budget Ricci and her colleagues were able to realize such an ambitious and thoughtfully-staged production. Bravi tutti!

Seven additional favorite performances that I've already written about, in chronological order:



Dorothea Röschmann and Malcolm Martineau (Cal Performances, Hertz Hall, February 16): A magnificent recital by these two artists that included unforgettable performances of four great song sequences: Schubert's Four Mignon Lieder, Mahler's Rückert-Lieder, Schumann's Maria Stuart Lieder, and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder.




Dido and Aeneas, with Mindy Ella Chu (Dido), Jesse Blumberg (Aeneas), the SF Girls' Chorus and Voices of Music (Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, First Congregational Church, June 7): Collaborating with SF Girls Chorus on this semi-staged version of Purcell's great opera was a stroke of genius on the part of Voices of Music codirectors Hanneke van Proosdij and David Tayler; after all, the opera was premiered at a girls' boarding school.



Cesare (Sarah Connolly), Cleopatra (Joélle Harvey), and members of the Glyndebourne Chorus in Giulio Cesare. Photo: Glyndebourne.com

Der Rosenkavalier and Giulio Cesare (Glyndebourne Festival Opera, June 19 and 20) Striking productions of two of our favorite operas at Glyndebourne, a place we never dreamed we'd actually be able to attend.



Charles Sy (Agenore), Cheyanne Coss (Aminta), Patricia Westley (Elisa), Zhengyi Bai (Alessandro), and Simone Macintosh (Tamiri) in the Merola Opera Program's Il Re Pastore. Photo: Kristen Loken/Merola

Il Re Pastore (Merola Opera Program, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, July 21): A playful production of a rarely-performed opera by the teenaged Mozart, crisply conducted by Boston Early Music Festival co-artistic-director Stephen Stubbs and superbly sung by its young cast.



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

Tristan und Isolde (Claude Heater Foundation, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, August 26): A pickup orchestra under conductor Jonathan Khuner and a group of singers unknown to me took on Wagner's rapturous masterpiece in a performance that reached peak after peak.



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

The Avengers (San Francisco Public Library, October 20): Decades after opening for The Sex Pistols' final concert at Winterland, The Avengers are keeping punk rock's creative do-it-yourself ethos alive with vital and impassioned performances like this one.



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

Arabella (San Francisco Opera, October 28): A rare chance to see a performance of one of Richard Strauss's most passionately lyrical scores, gorgeously sung and played.

More Favorites of 2018:
 


  1. Ghoshal's films include E & I favorite Vivah (2006), Godavari (2006), Dor (2006), Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006, one of my Favorite Bollywood Films from the 2000s), Aaja Nachle (2007), 3 Idiots (2009), Band Baaja Baaraat (2010), Love U...Mr. Kalakaar! (2011), PK (2014), and four of my Top Ten Shah Rukh Khan movies: Devdas (2002, for which she won the RD Burman Award for New Music Talent and the Filmfare Award for Best Female Playback Singer), Paheli (2005), Om Shanti Om (2007), and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2009).
  2. You don't agree? Of course not. Every generation, and indeed every person, has their own candidates for "greatest rock album," a question that can never be settled. But if you think Sgt. Pepper is the best rock album ever because it incorporated elements of musique concrète, minimalism and Indian music, The Velvet Underground & Nico got there first. And speaking of great albums, 1967 was also the year of the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Are You Experienced?, The Doors, and Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You
  3. Very few opere serie end with the death of one of the characters. I'm aware only of Vivaldi's Bajazet and Handel's Tamerlano, versions of the same libretto, in which the captured sultan Bajazet commits suicide.
  4. A da capo aria typically has three sections: a first section that establishes an emotion, a shorter second section that contrasts with the first section, and then a return "to the top" (da capo) for a repeat of the first section with added vocal ornamentation.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Favorites of 2018: Books

It's that time again, when I offer a brief survey of my favorite books, music, movies and television first experienced during the past year. To start, here are my ten favorite books read in 2018 (half fiction and half non-), plus the biggest disappointment.

Fiction (in chronological order of first publication):

Jane West: A Gossip's Story (Valancourt Books, 2016; originally published 1796)

A romantic young woman named Marianne is courted by two suitors, one manly and reserved, and other impetuous and ardent. Her preference for the ardent lover leads to misunderstanding and disappointment. Meanwhile her elder and more rational sister finds that her family's suddenly reduced circumstances have created what seems to be an unbridgeable gulf between her and the man to whom she is drawn.

A Gossip's Story would be of great interest as one of the sources that inspired Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811). But as I wrote in my full-length post, "it deserves to be read in its own right for West's keen observations on human foibles as well as her frequently ironic narrative voice, which (despite the deferential advice for women) can feel very modern."

For more, please see my full-length review of A Gossip's Story.

Maria Edgeworth: Helen (Pandora Press: Mothers of the Novel, 1987; originally published 1834)

Jane Austen once wrote in a letter to her niece Anna that "I have made up my mind to like no Novels, really, but Miss Edgeworth's, Yours, and my own." Edgeworth's Helen centers on a sensitive and steadfast heroine, whose deep affection for her more worldly friend Lady Cecilia results in a series of moral crises. Helen chooses to risk her own reputation, and her future happiness, in order to protect her friend. But is Lady Cecilia deserving of Helen's sacrifice? Helen was a major influence on Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters and Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers, He Knew He Was Right and Kept in the Dark.

For more, please see my full-length review of Helen.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis: Collected Stories (Liveright, 2018, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson; originally published 1870-1906)

I'm only a few stories into this 900-page volume, but it's already clear that it belongs on this list. Although Machado de Assis was born in Brazil as the grandson of slaves in 1839, he is a very contemporary-seeming writer. His narrators tend to be lightly ironic and self-deprecating, but can also have blind spots of which the reader gradually becomes aware. Even in his earliest stories there is an assurance, a command of effect and of the revelation of narrative detail, that is striking. Up until now Machado has been known in the English-speaking world primarily for his great novels The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas / Epitaph of a Small Winner (Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, 1881), Quincas Borba / Philosopher or Dog? (1891), Dom Casmurro (1899), and Counselor Ayres' Memorial / The Wager: Aires' Journal (Memorial de Aires, 1908). I suspect that this volume will make him equally renowned for his short fiction.

José Maria de Eça de Queiroz: The Maias (Dent: Everyman's Library, 1986, translated by Patricia McGowan Pinheiro and Ann Stevens; originally published 1888)

Eça wrote about the decadence of individuals, families, his society and his nation. His favorite technique—also Flaubert's— is to ironically undercut his characters' idealistic, romantic, or philosophical pretensions by constantly intruding the comedy of human incompetence and vanity. His masterpiece is The Maias (Os Maias, 1888), in which the punishment for the main character's lack of moral courage is to be exiled forever from deep feeling. He exemplifies Pascal's pensée that "The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries." After The Maias I recommend Eça's earlier novels The Crime of Father Amaro (O Crime do Padre Amaro, 1875-80) and Cousin Bazilio (O Primo Basílio, 1878), which are also great.

For more, please see my full-length review of The Maias.

Emil Ferris: My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Book One (Fantagraphics, 2017)

In Chicago's gritty Uptown neighborhood in the late 1960s, 10-year-old horror comics fan Karen Reyes begins to discover some of the secrets of the adults around her—and to harbor a few of her own. Rendered as Karen's sketchbook diary, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a strikingly drawn and vividly imaginative graphic novel that is part coming-of-age story, part cancer memoir, and part murder mystery, while every page is an homage to the saving (and disturbing) power of art. Be forewarned: once you read this you will be desperate to read Book Two, which as yet has no announced release date.

For more, please see my full-length review of My Favorite Thing is Monsters.

Biggest disappointment

Frances Sheridan: Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph (Oxford University Press: World's Classics, 1995; originally published 1761)

In 18th- and 19th-century novels, as in real life, women often marry the wrong men. Eliza Haywood's Betsy Thoughtless marries the mundane Mr. Munden rather than her lover of true worth, Mr. Trueworth. Anne Brontë's Helen Graham marries the emotionally abusive and dissolute Arthur Huntingdon, and even after their separation rebuffs the impassioned declarations of her mercurial new admirer Gilbert Markham. George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke marries the dully pedantic Mr. Casaubon rather than his dashing young cousin Will Ladislaw or the crusading Dr. Lydgate. 

Like those heroines, Sheridan's Miss Sidney Bidulph sabotages her own happiness. Unlike those heroines, though, Sidney does so again and again. The author tells us from the start that the novel is intended to show "that neither prudence, foresight, nor even the best disposition that the human heart is capable of, are of themselves sufficient to defend us against the inevitable ills that sometimes are allotted, even to the best" (p. 11-12). Sidney, though, repeatedly brings those "inevitable ills" on herself through a combination of willful ignorance, hasty judgment, and needless self-sacrifice. The novel becomes a long slog to an arbitrary and unsatisfying ending. Like real life, one might say, except nothing could be more contrived than the way Sidney always somehow manages to snatch misery from the jaws of happiness. Sometimes even for an 18th-century fiction fan the destination is not worth the journey.


Nonfiction (in the order in which they were read):

Zadie Smith: Feel Free: Essays (Penguin Press, 2018)

I prefer Zadie Smith's essays to her fiction. Heresy, I know, but there you have it. Feel Free is perhaps slightly less satisfying than 2009's brilliant Changing My Mind (Penguin) because the essays in the new collection do not always seem to have arisen from her own most urgent thoughts and experiences. As one example, in 2011 she became the regular new books columnist for Harper's magazine. All of those columns are included here, and they're certainly worth reading. But it's clear that this assignment was perhaps not always particularly inspiring, and certainly (together with a new child, continuing teaching responsibilities, and her other writing) made her feel overcommitted. As she writes, "I lasted six months" (p. 251).

But Feel Free brings together many affecting and insightful essays, including one of her best, "Some Notes on Attunement." That essay explores her own changing feelings about the music of Joni Mitchell, but its even larger subject is the need, when faced with something new and strange, to "lower your defenses." These essays exemplify Smith's determination to remain open to experience and, as she has written elsewhere, "Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it."

For my response to "Some Notes on Attunement," please see the post Attunement: Conversion experiences.

Ellen Harris: Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (Second edition, Oxford, 2018)

Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1688?) is the greatest opera in English, but it continues to be surrounded by mysteries. The premiere of this masterpiece seems to have been performed by the students at a girls' boarding school in London, but we don't know when, we don't know who sang which roles, and we don't have an original or complete score.

Ellen Harris published the first edition of this study more than 30 years ago, and in the intervening time some fascinating new evidence has come to light. The publication of this new edition provided the impetus to explore some of the controversies that still swirl around this opera in advance of its performance by the San Francisco Girls Chorus and Voices of Music at the 2018 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition. Voices of Music co-founder David Tayler was kind enough to contribute his thoughts on the performing forces at the opera's premiere; for his conclusions please see the comments thread of the full-length post on The mysteries of Dido and Aeneas. My responses to the BFX performance of Dido can be found in the second entry of the post Why we live in cities, part 2: Exceptional musical performances.

Spike Hughes: Glyndebourne: A History of the Festival Opera (Second edition, David & Charles, 1981)

This year was our summer of Glyndebourne: in June my partner and I were able to realize our longtime dream of attending the Festival Opera. And we were also able to see David Hare's play about its founding, Moderate Soprano, which fortuitously was playing in the West End during our trip. Hughes' book, first published in 1965 and succinctly brought up to date in 1981, is a lively (though not always perfectly reliable) first-hand recounting of Glyndebourne's origins. Hughes makes it clear just how unprecedented the whole enterprise was (and remains), and just how much John Christie and Audrey Mildmay, the estate's owners, were making it up as they went along. Hughes is an entertaining writer, and his book is the starting point for every subsequent volume on Glyndebourne (and there are many). He perfectly captures the feeling of being at Glyndebourne when he writes that "the nature of Glyndebourne all along has been rather that of a private pleasure which the public may share."

To see where reality differed from the dramatic license taken in Hare's play please see the post The moderate soprano: Audrey Mildmay. For more on our experiences of Glyndebourne, including reviews of the two operas we saw there, please see the post Glyndebourne.

Edmund Gordon: The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017)

I wrote in my review that "Gordon has produced a thoughtful, thoroughly researched and well-written biography; if you are interested in Carter's writing you will find that it provides much to reflect on. But on occasion in describing connections between Carter's life and work he can be reductive, and there are other areas that he simply doesn't investigate fully—leaving as an exercise for the reader questions that perhaps he should have probed more deeply." Ultimately, though, the test of a literary biography is whether readers are inspired to discover or rediscover the subject's writing. During her tragically shortened life Angela Carter was not as highly regarded as she should have been; Gordon's biography is a major step towards bringing her the full appreciation she deserves.

For more on Gordon's biography, please see my full-length review of The Invention of Angela Carter. For my responses on re-reading four of Carter's fictional works, please see the post series Angela Carter's fiction.

Akira Kurosawa: Something Like An Autobiography (Translated by Audie Bock; Vintage, 1983)

Akira Kurosawa, of course, directed and wrote cinematic masterworks such as Rashōmon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957) and The Hidden Fortress (1958)—to mention only some of the films from a single decade of his more than 50-year career. If you come to his autobiography expecting detailed discussions of the making of those films, however, you'll largely be disappointed. Fully half of the text is devoted to his youth and young adulthood; the other half to the beginning of his film career, culminating in the unexpected success of Rashōmon. (It won the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival in 1951; Kurosawa did not know that it had been submitted, and in fact had just been told by his studio that it had rescinded its offer for him to make another film.)

Kurosawa offers vivid memories of growing up in a rapidly changing (and increasingly militarized) Japan. He is also strikingly honest about the aimlessness of his young adulthood, his beloved brother's suicide, and the stroke of fortune that led to his applying and being accepted for a position as assistant director at a film studio. He writes:
It was chance that led me to walk along the road to P.C.L. [Studios], and, in so doing, the road to becoming a film director, yet somehow everything that I had done prior to that seemed to point to it as an inevitability. I had dabbled eagerly in painting, literature, theater, music and other arts and stuffed my head full of all the things that come together in the art of the film. Yet I had never noticed that cinema was the one field where I would be required to make use of all I had learned. (p. 90)
Once hired, his hard work, dedication, loyalty and talent led to the chance to write and direct his own films—but then the war began, and devastation followed. It's a remarkable story; if you are at all familiar with his films (and everyone should be*), Kurosawa's autobiography is highly rewarding reading.

More Favorites of 2018: 


* Even if you think you haven't seen a Kurosawa film, you probably have: Star Wars (1977) is based in part on The Hidden Fortress, The Magnificent Seven (1960) is a remake of Seven Samurai, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Django (1966) rework Yojimbo (1961).