Tuesday, December 29, 2020

After Silence

Thinking of Hamlet's last words, "the rest is silence," Aldous Huxley writes,

. . .all the things that are fundamental, all the things that, to the human spirit, are most profoundly significant, can only be experienced, not expressed. The rest is always and everywhere silence.

After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

After Silence is the title of the new album by Voces8. It celebrates their 15th anniversary, which just makes me regret that I wasn't aware of them until this year. Many thanks to the friend and colleague who shared their music with me.

The album is divided into four sections: Remembrance, Devotion, Redemption, and Elemental; but as the inexpressible for Hamlet is his own death, the pieces included in each section touch on mortality or irrevocable loss. As you'll hear, the music is both elegiac and uplifting, thanks to how superbly the voices blend and how beautifully the dynamics are shaped by artistic director Barnaby Smith.

From Remembrance, "Drop, Drop, Slow Tears," music by Orlando Gibbons, words by Phineas Fletcher, both Shakespeare's contemporaries:


Drop, drop, slow tears,
And bathe those beauteous feet
Which brought from Heaven
The news and Prince of Peace.

Cease not, wet eyes,
His mercy to entreat;
To cry for vengeance
Sin doth never cease.

In your deep floods
Drown all my faults and fears;
Nor let His eye
See sin, but through my tears.

Voces8 has been accused of being almost too smooth, too technically perfect, which is a curious complaint. Of course, smoothness can shade into blandness if it is pursued to the exclusion of all other values, but Voces8 performs a wide-ranging and challenging repertoire. No one listening closely to what they are doing (and aware of the difficulty of achieving it) is likely to think that their performances are bland.

Unlike some other British a capella ensembles, Voces8 does not focus exclusively, or even, perhaps, primarily, on music of the Renaissance and Baroque. They have commissioned many new works, and the majority of the pieces included in After Silence (including all those in the final section, Elemental) were written in the 20th or 21st centuries. Well-known composers such as Arvo Pärt and Jonathan Dove are represented, but for me the most compelling music on After Silence is by composers I hadn't known before, such as Philip Stopford (his version of "Lully, Lulla, Lullay" is gorgeous and sad) and Eric Whitacre.

From Devotion, Whitacre's "A Boy and A Girl," the words a translation of "Los Novios" by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz:


Stretched out on the grass,
a boy and a girl.
Savoring their oranges, giving their kisses
like waves exchanging foam.

Stretched out on the beach,
a boy and a girl.
Savoring their limes, giving their kisses
like clouds exchanging foam.

Stretched out underground,
a boy and a girl.
Saying nothing, never kissing,
giving silence for silence.
Tendidos en la yerba
una muchacha y un muchacho.
Comen naranjas, cambian besos
como las olas cambian sus espumas.

Tendido en la playa
una muchacha y un muchacho.
Comen limones, cambian besos
como las nubes cambian espumas.

Tendidos bajo tierra
una muchacha y un muchacho.
No dicen nada, no se besan,
cambian silencio por silencio.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Enemy of All Mankind

Steven Johnson, Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History's First Global Manhunt, Riverhead Books, 2020

In September 1695 off the western coast of India an English pirate ship attacked the trading vessel Ganj-i-Sawai ("Exceeding Treasure"), which was laden with gold, silver, jewels, luxury goods, and dozens of pilgrims returning from Mecca to the Mughal court. The Ganj-i-Sawai (which the British called the Gunsway) was a formidable target: it carried 80 guns and 400 soldiers to defend the cargo and the 600 crew and passengers. The pirates were outgunned and outmanned by large margins. But they had surprise, speed, terror, and accident on their side.

The Ganj-i-Sawai was a luckless ship. The pirates' first volley brought down its mainmast, one of its cannon exploded and caused a fire on the gun deck, and its captain fled down into the hold rather than encouraging his men to fight. Despite the long odds the pirates were able to capture and plunder the ship ("plunder" included the torture of members of the crew and the gang rape of the female pilgrims). This act set off an international crisis that nearly resulted in the expulsion of the British from India.

The pirate captain, Henry Every, and the bulk of his crew were mutineers. Two years before the attack on the Ganj-i-Sawai a four-ship expedition had set sail from England bound for the Caribbean to salvage treasure from sunken Spanish ships. However, after making port in Corunna in the northwest corner of Spain the expedition was held up for months waiting for its authorization to sail. Unpaid since the start of the expedition and sick of waiting in port, Every, the charismatic first mate on the expedition's flagship Charles II, ultimately led a mutiny, seized the ship and sailed out of port. Renaming the ship the Fancy, Every navigated not west towards the Caribbean but south down the coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, and then northeast into the Indian Ocean.

His goal was the mouth of the Red Sea, a waterway less than 20 miles wide that would funnel Arabian and Indian traders right towards where his ship was waiting to intercept them. And although a convoy of trading vessels managed to slip past the Fancy by sailing through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait at night, afterwards the convoy separated. The Fancy, a ship that had been stripped down for speed, was able to catch up to and capture two of its ships, the Fath Mahmamadi and the Ganj-i-Sawai.

Anonymous 18th-century engraving of Henry Every, with the Fancy engaging with another vessel in the background. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The haul was immense. Pirate ships were floating collectives, and the Fancy's crew had decided to divide any captured loot equally (with the captain getting a double share). Most members of the crew wound up with money and goods worth hundreds of pounds, and Every's share was at least £2000. In comparison, the annual wages of an ordinary seaman in the Royal Navy might have been £10. It's no wonder that piracy held such attractions.

When word of the loss of the ships to the English pirate reached Dehli, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb assumed that Every, like many other privateers, was operating under a letter of marque issued by the British government. He ordered the arrest of the British factors in the port city of Surat, the seizure of their goods, and for his armies to prepare to assault the East India Company fort at Bombay. Cooler counsel ultimately prevailed, in part because Britain put a bounty on the heads of Every and his men, and in part because the East India Company agreed to provide armed escorts to accompany Indian merchant ships. Not only did this provide immediate income for services rendered, it placed the trade of the Mughal Empire under the protection, and ultimately the control, of the Company. It was a key shift, one of the many occurrences that over the succeeding decades would enable the Company to dominate most of the subcontinent.

Proclamation for apprehending Henry Every, alias Bridgeman, and sundry other pirates, 1696.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Johnson, a popular writer on business and technology, has hit on a fascinating story that, in retrospect, is an inflection point in British relations with India and in the development of global trade. Along the way he discusses the brutal and dangerous lives of seventeenth-century seamen; press-gangs and the slave trade; the history of piracy; the violent succession of Mughal Emperors; the rise of mercantilism and the creation of the joint stock company.

Johnson's tale is engagingly told, but he makes some mistakes, both minor and major, along the way. An example of the former: he writes of pirate Thomas Tew's Red Sea raid of 1693 (which probably inspired Henry Every's plans),

. . .most of the men on board took home roughly £2000 after the prizes had been fully allocated by the quartermaster. Recall the terms that James Houblon had offered the experienced crew of Spanish Expedition Shipping: £82 for the entire voyage. A midshipman on [Tew's ship] the Amity had earned fifty times that much in a six-month voyage. (p. 114)

More like 25 times that much, but still a handsome reward. Although his prize share had been between four and eight thousand pounds, enough money on which to live in peaceful retirement for the rest of his life, Tew unwisely returned to the Red Sea in 1695 and was briefly allied with Every. However, the Amity had its own encounter with the Fath Mahmamadi, during which Tew was struck in the abdomen by a cannonball and killed. If the rewards of piracy were great, so were the dangers.

Sometimes Johnson gets the math right, but calculates from the wrong assumptions. He writes that immediately after the mutiny,

Every's most pressing need was not for food or armaments, but rather men. The eighty pirates aboard the ship would not give Every enough manpower to exploit the Fancy's full potential in an exchange with another vessel. Each of the great guns on deck required at a minimum six men to man them in the heat of battle; with forty-six guns on board, Every knew he needed at least three times his current crew to fire a full broadside. More would be needed to fire the muskets, man the sails, and storm enemy ships if the Fancy were able to overpower them. (p. 111)

So by Johnson's calculation of six men per gun, during an encounter the Fancy would need 280 men to fire a broadside, plus more to "fire the muskets, man the sails, and storm enemy ships." Only, sailing ships didn't generally carry enough crew to man every gun onboard because ships fought side-by-side and during an engagement could usually at any time bring only half of their guns to bear. If the ship maneuvered during battle to change the side facing the enemy, the gun crews simply moved across the deck.

This can be confirmed by examining the crew complements of British 46-gun ships launched or acquired between 1680 and 1700, which range between 128 and 230 men and average about 170. For her armament the Fancy was undermanned at the start; Every probably wanted to double the size of the crew, but not (as Johnson has it) increase it by a multiple of three or four. Sailing ships were small and crowded and men needed food and water, which had to be stored onboard; any crew beyond the minimum necessary were burdens on a long voyage. In the event Every was able to recruit additional crew from the English, French and Dutch prizes the Fancy took on the way to the Red Sea. [1]

This is not the only error in the book that could have been corrected by a quick internet search. Johnson approvingly quotes historian John Keay's description of the Mughal Empire's use of some of the gold and silver paid for Indian spices and fabrics as "'nullifying its economic potential by melting and spinning the precious metals into bracelets, brocades and other ostentatious heirlooms.'" Johnson then adds his own description of the process as "the equivalent of winning the lottery and decorating your house with wallpaper made of hundred-dollar bills" (p. 50).

Jigha turban ornament, 18th century. White jade (nephrite), diamond, spinel and emerald in 22K gold. 14 cm. Photo by Robert & Orasa Weldon/GIA. Image source: GIA.edu

This seems like a false comparison. For one, the value of metals, gems, and other materials is not destroyed by their incorporation into jewelry; if anything the reverse. For another, jewelry, brocaded fabrics, and other luxuries possessed symbolic value: they were worn by rulers (not only in India, as portraits of English kings and queens attest) as highly visible manifestations of power and status; they could be given as gifts to reward the loyalty of subjects and reinforce networks of influence and patronage. Finally, even if you want to make the case that the manufacture of jewelry was not the most productive use of India's huge trade surpluses, the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707) is probably not illustrative of the point: he was highly devout and enforced the prohibition in Islamic law against men wearing gold. [2]

So what happened to Every and his men? After the spoils were divided up, Every sailed the Fancy back around the Cape. Reprovisioning only at Ascension Island, an uninhabited six-mile-wide volcanic speck in the middle of the South Atlantic, he sailed on to Nassau in the British Bahamas. [3] There the Fancy, all the goods in her, and a large sum of money were offered to the governor, who (probably for reasons both of prudence and profit) accepted the deal. The crew dispersed, with many heading to the American colonies. 

Every and twenty companions acquired a single-masted boat, the Sea Flower, and sailed northeast across the Atlantic to Ireland, where they split up. [4] Returning to the British Isles seems like a highly risky choice, and so it turned out to be: eventually eight crewmen were identified, arrested and put on trial in London for piracy (a fascinating story in itself, which Johnson tells well). 

But Every was not among those arrested. One of the captured crewmen who claimed to have traveled with him on the Sea Flower, Joseph Dann, testified that Every was headed for Scotland but had said his ultimate destination was Exeter in southwestern England, near where he'd been born. (Although, given the consequences of being found, how likely is it that Every would reveal his true destination?) 

Tantalizingly, Dann also reported an encounter just a few days before his arrest with the wife of the Fancy's quartermaster, Henry Adams, at St Albans, a stagecoach stop northwest of London. Mrs. Adams and Dann knew one another well, as she had met and married Adams in Nassau and had been one of the voyagers (and the only woman) on board the Sea Flower. Mrs. Adams was boarding a coach, traveling alone, and told Dann she was going to see Every. Interestingly, although Johnson doesn't mention it, St Albans was on the Great North Road, and a traveler boarding there was probably heading towards Yorkshire or Scotland and not towards Devonshire. 

But Mrs. Adams' reference to him, if true on both her part and Dann's, is the last known trace of Henry Every. After this moment he vanishes. His ultimate fate remains unknown.

  1. See the website Three Decks, which compiles known information about ships in the Age of Sail: https://threedecks.org/index.php 
  2. See Dona Mary Dirlam, Chris L. Rogers, and Robert Weldon, "Gemstones in the Era of the Taj Mahal and the Mughals," Gems & Gemology, Fall 2019, Vol. 55, No. 3, https://www.gia.edu/gems-gemology/fall-2019-era-of-the-taj-mahal-and-mughals, and Alice Keller and Terri Ottaway, "Centuries of Opulence: Jewels of India," October 11, 2017, https://www.gia.edu/jewels-of-india
  3. That the Fancy could navigate to a six-mile-wide island in the middle of a 2400-mile-wide ocean says a great deal about the skill of the men on board. Amazingly, 17 members of the crew elected to stay on Ascension rather than risk capture and execution in British territories. 
  4. Another remarkable feat of sailing and navigation.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley (1947), screenplay by Jules Furthman based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, directed by Edmund Goulding.

Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power, playing against his usual romantic-hero type) is a carny, drifting along and looking for a hustle. Trading on his good looks, he seduces the sideshow psychic Zeena (Joan Blondell) and tries to get her to reveal the secret code she used in her mind-reading act with her husband Pete (Ian Keith) before he took to drink.

Zeena refuses at first, but when Pete dies after drinking a bottle of wood alcohol he mistakes for moonshine (an accident that Stan has a hand in), Zeena needs a partner for her act and agrees to teach Stan the code.

Thanks to his hard-knock life, Stan also turns out to be able to draw on a deep well of pious patter ("It's what they used to give us at the orphanage on Sundays after beating us black-and-blue all week") and a gift for cold-reading—intuiting facts about someone (and the vulnerable points through which they can best be manipulated) through non-verbal cues. It's a gift that will fail him, though, at a crucial moment.

Stan is two-timing Zeena with Molly (Coleen Gray), another (younger, prettier) performer with an electric girl act, who is the girlfriend of the strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki).

Once they have the code and their lovers have discovered their betrayal, Stan and Molly leave the carnival and head for the big city to make their fortune.

Their upscale nightclub act, in which a blindfolded Stan (as "The Great Stanton") divines the contents of the audience's written messages thanks to Molly's coded questions, is wildly successful. In the audience one night is "consulting psychologist" Lilith (Helen Walker, with tightly coiffed/repressed hair), who asks The Great Stanton a trick question.

Stan dodges the trap and impresses Lilith against her better judgment. She invites him to her office the next day:

Lilith: "How did you know [my question was fake]?"
Stan: "I didn't. I just had a feeling that your question wasn't on the level. I figured you were trying to make a chump out of me. Just common sense."
Lilith: "It's not so common."
Stan: "I don't know about that."
Lilith: "Why?"
Stan: "I've got that same feeling right now."

Stan learns that Lilith records all of her sessions with her wealthy clients, and realizes that their confessions are a gold mine. It doesn't take long for Stan to convince her to help him launch an even bigger hustle: spiritualism. With the details he gleans from Lilith's recordings Stan can convince the credulous rich that he is communing with their departed loved ones, and in return they shower him with cash. But even if Lilith's name wasn't enough to tip him off, Stan should have listened to his instincts. . .

The carnival sequences are authentically seedy, in part because a real carnival was rented and installed on the backlot.

But the final third of the movie feels a bit rushed: transitions are abrupt, Stan uncharacteristically lets down his guard at a key moment, some actions seem inadequately motivated, and some major plot developments (such as a police manhunt for Stan) are left unresolved. 

It feels a bit as if director Edmund Goulding (Dark Victory, The Razor's Edge, Pickup on South Street) was forced to shorten the movie by 30 minutes, although clearly the Production Code is playing a hand as well. In William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel, for example, rich mark Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes) is racked by guilt because his youthful sweetheart Dorrie died in a botched back-alley abortion, something that veteran screenwriter Jules Furthman (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep) obviously couldn't allude to. And the ending of the film, which in one of its many instances of doubling/repetition grimly echoes the beginning, still offers a faint gleam of consolation entirely missing from the novel.

But Power gives an excellent performance as Stan, a guy for whom no scam, however successful, is ever quite enough, and whose fall leads him to make a desperate choice. And Helen Walker is a chilling femme fatale. She would later appear in Call Northside 777, Impact, and The Big Combo—I'm planning a personal Helen Walker film festival right now.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Semi-Attached Couple and the Semi-Detached House

Emily Eden by Simon Jacques Rochard, August 1835 (detail). Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London

The critic Q.D. Leavis identified the Victorian writer Margaret Oliphant as the bridge between Jane Austen and George Eliot. But there's another writer who might also be characterized as a connection between the two: Emily Eden. 

Eden was born in 1797, the year in which the 21-year-old Austen was writing First Impressions (later to be published as Pride and Prejudice), and died in 1869, the year in which the 49-year-old Eliot was writing Middlemarch. Eden's witty, ironic style was strongly influenced by Austen's work, and her fictional themes anticipate those of Eliot and other late Victorian writers such as Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell.

Eden never married. After her mother's death in 1818 she lived with her brother George and her sister Frances in London and later in India, where George served as governor-general between 1836 and 1842. On their return she published a book of her own lithographs, Portraits of the People and Princes of India (1844), and later an account of her travels in Simla, Up the Country (1869). 

She also wrote two novels. The first to be published (anonymously) was The Semi-Detached House (1859); its success motivated her to publish a novel she'd written and put in a drawer thirty years earlier, The Semi-Attached Couple (1860).

Title page of The Semi-Attached Couple. Image source: Internet Archive

The semi-attached couple is Lord Teviot and Helen Beaufort. Lord Teviot,

with five country houses—being four more than he could live in; with 120,000l. a year—being 30,000l. less than he could spend; . . .and the good looks of the poorest of younger brothers—what could he want but a wife? Many people (himself among the rest) thought he was better without one; but he changed his mind the first time he saw Helen. [1]

Helen is the youngest daughter of Lord and Lady Eskdale:

Yes, I knew Helen from her childhood, and had thought that such a gentle, gay creature could never be touched by the cares and griefs that fall on the common herd. . .Why was she to escape? I do not wish to be cynical; but if a stone is thrown into our garden, is it not sure to knock off the head of our most valuable tulip? If a cup of coffee is to be spilled, does it not make a point of falling on our richest brocade gown? If we do lose our reticule, does not the misfortune occur on the only day on which we had left our purse in it? [2]

After a "long attachment" of a few weeks and several balls, Lord Teviot proposes, and is accepted. But as this foreshadowing suggests, the marriage is not a success, and "cares and griefs" soon follow. He is short-tempered and jealous, and she is quick to take offense. They seem to willfully misunderstand one another. Their travails are dissected with schadenfreude by their gossipy, ill-natured neighbors, and seized on by opportunistic acquaintances who want to widen the rift between them for their own purposes.

The novel also follows the fortunes of Eliza Douglas, an unmarried daughter of one of those ill-natured neighbors. While visiting with Lord and Lady Teviot at their estate St. Mary's she meets Colonel Beaufort, Helen's cousin, and is smitten:

Poor girl! little did she think that while she sat quietly in the carriage, pondering over Colonel Beaufort's tritest remarks, [and] hoarding [them] up as most important recollections. . .little did she know that the ungrateful creature had dismissed from his mind all the conversations that had ever passed between them. . .and that she was merely to him a good-humoured little Miss Something whom he had met at St. Mary's. Shocking discrepancy! but so it will be, when young, ignorant girls fall in love as, I grieve to say, they often do with blasés men of the world. However, give them time and opportunity, and there is no saying whether the warm heart will not soften and conquer the hard one at last. [3]

I'll avoid spoilers, but I want to highlight the ironic narrative voice that Eden inherited from Austen but makes her own in passages such as these.

Of a marital dispute between Mr. and Mrs. Douglas about her suspicions of Lord Teviot:

[Mrs. Douglas] assured Mr. Douglas. . .that if she saw any chance of being of use to Helen the next day, she would do what she could; but as for not thinking ill of Lord Teviot and Lady Portmore and Colonel Stuart, and indeed of most people, she really could not oblige him by going so far as that. [4]

Of Mrs. Douglas musing on a prospective suitor for her eldest daughter Sarah, Mr. Wentworth, who is "drab-coloured in look, coat, and ideas": 

There was what artists would call a good deal of neutral tint in his composition; but he was well-principled, good-natured, reasonably wealthy, and attached to Sarah, so, as times go, she had reason to be thankful. It is well to lay hold of the exception, when the rule generally is, that the men who may marry our daughters are neither good, rich, nor attached to anything but themselves. [5]

Of the particular perspective that a life of extreme privilege affords:

Lady Eskdale had been dorlotée [coddled] through a prosperous life into a quiet belief that everything was for the best; and well might she think so, for she had had the best of everything. [6]

Title page of The Semi-Detached House. Image source: Internet Archive

The heroine of The Semi-Detached House is Blanche, Lady Chester, who, while her husband is away on a diplomatic mission, takes the abode of the title during her pregnancy (a word that never occurs in the novel; you have to read carefully not to be surprised when she goes into labor). "Semi-detached" means, in the way of all real-estate listings, completely attached, and Blanche is at first concerned about the proximity of her plebeian next-door neighbors, the Hopkinsons: he is a merchant captain away at sea, and she is the plump mother of two daughters, and grandmother to a three-year-old boy. But Blanche is soon chastened when she comes to know of the Hopkinsons' decency, generosity, and goodness. 

And she soon learns as well of the dangers of snobbery and prejudice, as exemplified by the Baroness Sampson. As the near-Old-Testament name suggests, the Sampsons are coded as Jewish, despite their ostensibly Christian faith. The Baroness shuns the two Hopkinson girls, whose sweet, guileless, and considerate natures her niece Rachel has discovered:

'I never saw two more uninteresting girls—no manner, no usage du monde [worldliness]. What could you find to say to them, Rachel? I am sure you have seen nothing like them in my set.'

'Nothing whatever that bears the slightest resemblance to them, Aunt.' [7]

Baron Sampson is as odious as capitalists come:

The conversation was gradually drawn by the Baron to foreign trade, to China, and finally to a projected Hongkong railroad. 'I am delighted to obtain such valuable information from such excellent authority; I have taken a few shares in this company—not, as you may imagine, with any idea of profit. . .I feel that railroads, and harbors—in fact, facilities for trade are the best means for the conversion of our Eastern brethren. . .Though these railroads may carry opium, Christianity will have its ticket too.' [8]

The Baron alludes, of course, to British trade with China, which involved military invasion and occupation to compel the Chinese to buy British opium (grown in India) in exchange for porcelain, silk, and, above all, the substance to which Britons were primarily addicted: tea. The Baron is clearly a model for the mendacious railroad financier Melmotte in Trollope's great novel The Way We Live Now (1875).

Emily Eden's fiction features scenes of marital disharmony, class snobbery, political chicanery, and financial fraudulence, but it is not primarily for their plots that her novels deserve to be read. Instead, it is her witty and ironic narrative voice that makes her seem to speak to us so vividly.

The full texts of The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House are available online through Mary Mark Ockerbloom's "A Celebration of Women Writers" project. For other formats, see archive.org.

  1. Any echoes of "a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" are entirely intentional.
  2. Emily Eden, The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. I, Ch. I.
  3. The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. II, Ch. VI.
  4. The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. II, Ch. IV.
  5. The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. II, Ch. VII.
  6. The Semi-Attached Couple, Vol. II, Ch. VIII.
  7. Emily Eden, The Semi-Detached House, Ch. XVI.
  8. The Semi-Detached House, Ch. XVI.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Favorites of 2020: Live music

Miah Persson as Fiordiligi and Anke Vondung as Dorabella in the 2006 Glyndebourne production of Così fan tutte. Image source: DigitalTheatrePlus.com

While the experiences of reading books, watching films and listening to recorded music have been essentially unchanged by the pandemic, live performances in my area stopped abruptly in mid-March and have not yet resumed. And so rather than select my favorite live performances from among the four or five in-person concerts we attended in the first two months of the past year, I thought instead I'd take a look at four different responses to the shutdown.

Opera houses such as Glyndebourne, SF Opera and the Met, as well as many other performing arts groups, responded rapidly to the cancellation of live performances by streaming past productions online for free; I'll discuss these at the end of the post. Although these streaming videos are an enjoyable stopgap, they are clearly not a way forward. So I will focus first on three companies that have responded to our current circumstances as a creative opportunity:

Ars Minerva Artistic Director Céline Ricci. Photo: Martin Lacey Photography. Image source: sfgate.com

Ars Minerva: Cocktails & Chit-Chat. Ongoing; free with a suggested donation.

Ars Minerva, the Bay Area group led by the super-resourceful Céline Ricci, inventively revives Baroque operas that have lain unperformed in archives since their premières. Their sixth opera production, Carlo Pallavicino's Messalina (1679), was planned for this fall but has now been rescheduled for 2021.

Ars Minerva's online series Cocktails & Chit-Chat is in keeping with Ricci's philosophy of making a virtue out of necessity. It's low-tech and home-produced, but all the more spontaneous and appealing as a result. Each 30-minute episode features informal talks, interviews, and performances centered on a theme. Topics have included backstage insights, underperformed composers such as Antonia Bembo, Joseph Bologne, and Francesca Caccini, and the role of Naples in 17th- and 18th-century operatic culture. The upcoming episode on 9 December will be a preview of Messalina, with highlights performed by some of its featured singers and instrumentalists. As an added bonus, Ricci provides a delicious (sometimes too delicious) cocktail recipe to accompany each episode; Messalina's Cocktail is utterly addictive, and worth the suggested donation all by itself. 

Ars Minerva has big plans for the future. After Messalina's modern première there will be a collaborative performance with SF Girls Chorus of Juditha Triumphans, an oratorio written by Vivaldi for the women of Venice's Ospedale della Pietà. Once again Ricci's group provides a model of creativity, innovation, resourcefulness and sheer enjoyment that arts organizations with budgets many times its size would do well to emulate.

Tiffany Townsend as Léontine in The Anonymous Lover. Photo: Larry Ho. Image source: LAOpera.org

Los Angeles Opera: The Anonymous Lover (L'Amant Anonyme, 1780), composed by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges; libretto by François-Georges Fouques Deshayes ("Desfontaines") after a play by Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis; free stream available until 29 November.

Another approach has been taken by LA Opera, which recently offered a socially distanced online production of The Anonymous Lover (L'Amant Anonyme), the only opera that survives in full by Mozart's contemporary Joseph Bologne (see Black Beethoven and the Black Mozart). Performed by singers from LA Opera's Young Artist Program to a prerecorded orchestra conducted by James Conlon, the production offered a projected mis-en-scène that largely left the characters floating in undefined spaces, and in which neither their identities nor the details of their relationships were ever made fully specific. Nonetheless, the fresh voices and sparkling music were sheer delight. The widowed Léontine (Tiffany Townsend) must decide whether to remain unattached or respond to her anonymous admirer, who turns out to be her steadfast friend Valcour (Robert Stahley). Each has an advisor: Léontine's is her down-to-earth companion Dorothée (Alaysha Fox), while Valcour's is his philosophical friend Ophémon (Michael J. Hawk). Conlon interpolated a powerful scena from Bologne's opera Ernestine which helped give weight to Léontine's emotional dilemma, as did the lovely and moving dance interludes choreographed by Andrea Beasom and featuring herself and Daniel Lindgren.

The Anonymous Lover is a gem, and LA Opera chose the perfect means to showcase both a too-little-known composer and its own young artists. The LA Opera's in-person season resumes (we hope) next fall, but I'll point out that there's room for another online production between now and then.

Paula Murrihy in Ariodante.

Royal Opera House: Ariodante in concert. Live 20 November 2020; stream available on demand until 20 December; tickets £10/US$10.95.

This performance was a homecoming of sorts for Ariodante, which premièred in January 1735 at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, the original theater occupying the site of the current Royal Opera House. It was presented in a semi-staged version with an excellent cast accompanied by a modern-instrument orchestra (with the addition of harpsichord and theorbo) scaled down to Baroque proportions and conducted by early-music specialist Christian Curnyn. The presentation is straightforward: costumes are simple and modern, singers interact but at a distance, and there are (almost) no props. Some atmosphere is created in a garden scene in Act I when the camera pans over the empty theater: the ceiling lights look like twinkling stars, while the lights illuminating the boxes stand in for garden lanterns. In Acts II and III deep blue stage lighting indicates the fall of night and the growing darkness of the plot.

Baroque operas have a not entirely undeserved reputation for convoluted stories. Ariodante, though, is unusually straightforward, and Handel introduces the plot with dramatic and musical economy. By the beginning of the third aria, about 10 minutes into the opera, we understand that the knight Ariodante (Paula Murrihy) is loved by the princess Ginevra (Chen Reiss), who is lusted after by the duke Polinesso (Iestyn Davies), who is loved by Ginevra's lady-in-waiting Dalinda (Sophie Bevan). We also know that Polinesso is planning to exploit Dalinda's feelings in a scheme to supplant Ariodante, marry Ginevra and become heir to the throne. Over the next three hours this plot and its disastrous outcomes unfolds. (The action is further compressed in this performance by some musical cuts, primarily at the ends of Act I and II.)

Ariodante is one of Handel's greatest operas, and the second act features one moving aria of grief and loss after another. Ariodante despairs over what he believes is Ginevra's unfaithfulness, the King (Gerald Finley) mourns Ariodante's apparent suicide, and Ginevra, disgraced, alone and bereft, yearns for her own death.

The music is demanding: the 1735 cast included the brilliant castrato Giovanni Carestini as Ariodante (you can hear the music that was written for him by Handel and other composers on Philippe Jaroussky's album Carestini: The Story of a Castrato, one of my Favorites of 2011). Paula Murrihy will not replace my memories of Lorraine Hunt and Anne Sofie von Otter in this role, but Murrihy acquits herself honorably. Ginevra was sung in 1735 by Anna Maria Strada del Pò, for whom Handel wrote many parts including Angelica in Orlando (1733) and the title roles in Partenope (1730), Alcina (1735), Atalanta (1736), and Berenice (1737). Soprano Chen Reiss proved fully equal to both the joy and deep pathos of Ginevra's music. As the villain Polinesso, Iestyn Davies sang a role originated by a contralto, Maria Caterina Negri; Davies sang with fleetness and musicality, if not quite the sense of vocal menace summoned by, for example, Ewa Podleś on the Marc Minkowski recording. Gerald Finley in the role of the King brought a sense of command (both vocal and dramatic), as well as deep anguish when his obedience to the law forces him to condemn his own daughter.

Don't be daunted by the 3½-hour runtime: nearly an hour of that is taken up by the 15-minute "stream will begin soon" announcement and two 20-minute intermissions, all of which can easily be skipped.

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

Glyndebourne Open House, SF Opera is ON, Nightly Met Opera Streams (all ongoing; free with suggested donation)

As with most things opera, Glyndebourne got this right. Glyndebourne launches each new streaming offering with a synchronous watch party, and then keeps the stream available for seven days (a thoughtful accommodation for those of us who can't always fit watching a complete opera in one sitting into our at-home schedules). 

This summer Glyndebourne featured 15 different streamed operas, fittingly starting with the latest productions of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas which initiated the Festival Opera in the 1930s. Of these the highlight was Nicholas Hytner's handsome and incisive 2006 Cosi fan tutte (see Was Mozart a misogynist?). Also included in the series were the 2010 revival of David Hockney's Rake's Progress from 1975, Jonathan Kent's 2009 Fairy Queen (the one with the bonking bunnies), David McVicar's 2005 Giulio Cesare, Richard Jones's 2014 Der Rosenkavalier (see the post Glyndebourne for my reviews of their 2018 revivals), Robert Carsen's 2011 boarding-school Rinaldo, Laurent Pelly's playful 2012 L'heure espagnole and L'enfant et les sortilèges, and Keith Warner's film-noir 2018 Vanessa. As this partial list suggests, Glyndebourne's series featured a well-balanced mix of reimagined old favorites and unusual repertory, always in striking, thoughtful productions (even if the director's ideas, as in Michael Grandage's 1960s-era The Marriage of Figaro or the decadent fin-de-siècle Der Rosenkavalier, were not always completely welcome). Glyndebourne's latest online offering is Melly Still's 2009 Rusalka, available beginning 27 November.

SF Opera's free online offerings are available for too short a time (typically from Saturday morning to Sunday night), and have not been nearly as varied as Glyndebourne's. So far, of the 13 productions made available (including this weekend's L'Elisir d'amore), three have been by Verdi, three by Donizetti, and two by Puccini. With only two exceptions (Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick), all of the rest of the operas are from the 19th century. This feels like a missed opportunity to showcase opera's diversity of styles, attract new fans and offer existing ones a risk-free opportunity to broaden their experience.

The Metropolitan Opera has approached its free online streaming with characteristic overkill. It has been streaming a different opera every night, and each stream is available for only 24 hours. For those of us fortunate enough to still have jobs or who want or need to spend time on other activities like romantic partners and children, having only one evening to watch each opera means that inevitably we miss most of what's on offer. You would never design an in-person season this way, and it's an equally bad idea online. If the short window of availability is meant to encourage us to sign up for the subscription service Met Opera On Demand, I haven't been encouraged.

Update 2 December 2020: The first version of this post overlooked a key live music event, streamed online: a performance of Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen (Metamorphoses, 1946), in a socially distanced concert at the Philharmonie de Paris on 28 May 2020. By then the vast scope, the likely duration, and the terrible toll of the pandemic were becoming clearer. Strauss' great elegy, which was written in the final months of the Second World War and which ends in the Funeral March theme from Beethoven's Third Symphony, felt like a fitting way to mourn all that had been and would be lost. That the musicians came together at the invitation of violinist Renaud Capuçon to play this music in an empty auditorium during a raging pandemic—this was one of the first live events since the shutdown of concert halls in March—was paradoxically a gesture of courage, faith, hope, and solidarity.

Renaud Capuçon et ses amis jouent Richard Strauss

Last time: Favorites of 2020: Recordings

Monday, November 23, 2020

Favorites of 2020: Recordings

In this year of disaster, I've found myself drawn especially to the music of the 17th century and before. That music of such beauty and depth could be produced at other times of uncertainty, political instability, and deadly plague somehow gave me hope.

What follows is a list of my favorite recordings first heard in the past twelve months (no matter when they were recorded or released) in roughly chronological order by composer.

Roland de Lassus: Canticum Canticorum (1560s?-1580s)
Choeur de Chambre de Namur, Clematis; Leonardo García Alarcón, director. Ricercar, recorded 2015.

As an adult it's as surprising to me that this musical setting of the Song of Songs was performed in church as it was for me to discover at age 15 a hymn to the pleasures of kissing in the middle of the Bible. Choeur de Chambre de Namur and the instrumental ensemble Clematis under the direction of Leonardo García Alarcón offer a cool yet sensuous performance of this sexiest of sacred texts. "Osculetur me osculo oris sui" (Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEkcOqV0mgo [links to full playlist]

Tomás Luis de Victoria: Officium Defunctorum (1603)
Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, director. Phi, recorded 2011.

In this year of sorrow and loss, Victoria's mass for the dead offered consolation. It is hushed, meditative, melancholy and inward, qualities which the performance of Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent captures beautifully. Sad, but (if you're the sort of person I am) paradoxically uplifting. "Taedet animam meam" (My soul is weary):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1acf_d4nuWA [links to full playlist]

Giulio Caccini: L'Euridice (1600)
Soloists with Scherzi Musicali; Nicolas Achten, director. Ricercar, recorded 2008.

Giulio Caccini was a singer, instrumentalist and composer in Florence who was involved in the first experiments in a new musical form around the turn of the 17th century: opera. Jacopo Peri wrote what is considered to be the first opera, Dafne, in 1598; some of Caccini's music was included in a performance of Peri's second opera, a setting of Ottavio Rinuccini's libretto Euridice, which was given in October 1600 as part of the festivities surrounding the marriage of Henri IV of France with Maria de' Medici. Apparently there was a rivalry between the two composers: Caccini then rushed his his own setting of the same libretto into print before Peri's became available. The first full performance of Caccini's Euridice occurred in 1602, but it does not seem to have had quite the same effect as Peri's two years before.

The reference works I've consulted seem to agree that Peri was the more dramatic composer, and Caccini the more lyrical. Certainly the lyricism of this score is highly apparent in this recording by Scherzi Musicali, which features Céline Vieslet as Euridice (Eurydice) and director Nicolas Achten as Orfeo (Orpheus). It is through-sung in a flowing, melodic arioso occasionally punctuated by madrigal-like ensembles. It's fascinating to hear the origins of the style that would reach its artistic and expressive peak in the operas of Claudio Monteverdi.


Francesca Caccini: La liberazione di Ruggerio dall'isola d'Alcina (1625)
Huelgas Ensemble; Paul van Nevel, director. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, recorded 2016.

Francesca Caccini was the first woman to compose an opera. Giulio Caccini's eldest daughter, she was raised in a musical household and appeared along with her half-sister Settimia and her stepmother Margherita in musical performances led by her father; she was one of the singers in Peri's L'Euridice. Very highly regarded as a virtuoso singer, after her marriage at age 19 or 20 to another performer she also turned to composing and teaching. An indicator of the regard in which she was held is that after the accession of Ferdinando II de' Medici as the Grand Duke of Tuscany, she became the highest-paid musician in his service.

Although Francesca Caccini was a prolific composer of vocal music, La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The liberation of Ruggiero from the island of Alcina) is her sole surviving opera. Based on an episode from Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516), it was first performed in Florence during Carnival in 1625 for the visit of Prince Władisław of Poland, who immediately commissioned two further operas from Francesca. For more about the work and a description of a puppet opera performance, please see the post Francesca Caccini's La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall' Isola Alcina.

It's easy to hear in this performance why the prince was so impressed. The melodies are fluid, the characters are musically delineated, and the ensembles are lovely. Although there are no starry soloists on this recording, the performers of the Huelgas Ensemble do the work justice. Many thanks to the dear friend who brought this on a visit in early March; we haven't stopped listening to it since.


Luigi Rossi: La Lyra d'Orfeo & Arpa Davidica (1620s?-1650s)
L'Arpeggiata; Christina Pluhar, director. Erato, recorded 2005 & 2019.

Luigi Rossi was from the generation after the first opera composers such as Guilio Caccini, Jacopo Peri and Claudio Monteverdi, although their influence can still be heard. In 2005 the French soprano Véronique Gens and the period-instrument group L'Arpeggiata recorded a selection of Rossi's vocal works, including arias from his opera Orfeo (1647). As L'Arpeggiata's musical director Christine Pluhar reports in her booklet note, the recording became caught up in a legal dispute and could not be issued for 15 years. When it finally became available, Pluhar decided to augment it with two more CDs of Rossi's vocal music featuring countertenors Philippe Jaroussky, Jakub Józef Orlinski, and Valer Sabadus, along with sopranos Céline Scheen and Giuseppina Bridelli.

In the past I've occasionally found Pluhar's musical approach to be too anachronistic for my taste: in her arrangements of the often skeletal scores that were written in the 17th century, she and her musicians sometimes have included elements such as jazzy harmonies or percussion that were unlikely to have been a part of the sound-world of their composers. L'Arpeggiata largely avoids those kinds of incongruities on these recordings, many of which are world premières. Véronique Gens' voice is extremely appealing, the two other sopranos are nearly as good, and the three countertenors (each with a very distinct timbre) are among the most renowned exponents of this voice type performing today. A delightful collection of music by an under-performed composer. "Mio ben" (My beloved) from Orfeo:


Johannes Schenck: Le Nymphe di Rheno (1702)
Wieland Kuijken & François Joubert-Caillet, bass viols. Ricercar, recorded 2012.

This CD seems to have been planned as the first volume of two that would have included all of the 12 sonatas for two bass viols composed by Johannes Schenck and collected under the title Le Nymphe di Rheno (The Nymphs of the Rhine). Alas, only these six sonatas have appeared (they are II, III, VII, VIII, XI, & XII). Beautifully performed and recorded in the resonant 13th-century Chapelle Notre-Dame de Centeilles in Siran, France, these performances have a warmth that is missing from the complete set of Le Nymphe di Rheno sonatas recorded by Les Voix Humaines on Naxos, which to my ears have a harsh metallic edge to the sound.


George Frideric Handel: Agrippina (1709)
Soloists with Il Pomo D'Oro; Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor. Erato, recorded 2019.

Handel was only 24 when he composed the brilliant music for Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani's satirical libretto about ancient Romans double- and triple-crossing one another in a mad scramble for sex and power. 

Agrippina (Joyce DiDonato) schemes to make her teenaged son Nerone (Franco Fagioli) Emperor, and when it is announced that the Emperor Claudio (Luca Pisaroni) has perished at sea she makes her move. No sooner is Nerone acclaimed Emperor by Agrippina's henchmen than a fanfare announces the arrival of Claudio. The report of his demise was premature: he was rescued by Ottone (Jakub Józef Orlinski), whom Claudio has now gratefully named as his successor. As someone of Nerone's age might say today: awkward! Agrippina immediately goes to work to get Ottone out of the way by spreading rumors about him and Poppea (Elsa Benoit), who is loved by Ottone and lusted after by Claudio and Nerone. Characters' fortunes undergo sudden reversals; hope is followed quickly by despair, tragedy by farce, and vice versa. (For more on the plot and background of the opera, see the post Agrippina.) But Handel's music raises the stakes by grounding the characters' duplicitous actions in real emotion.

This wickedly entertaining opera is having a cultural moment. It has finally gotten the recording it deserves, with a superb cast accompanied by a virtuosic period-instrument ensemble, Il Pomo D'Oro. And it can also be seen in David McVicar's modern-dress production for a mere 5-spot via Met Opera on Demand, which pointedly updates ancient Rome to contemporary Washington D.C. (DiDonato is a memorably fierce Agrippina in both). 

Here is DiDonato in an excerpt from her "In War & Peace" concert with Il Pomo D'Oro performing Agrippina's Act II aria "Pensieri, voi mi tormentate":


Pensieri, voi mi tormentate.

Ciel, soccorri a mie disegni, soccorri ciel!
Il mio figlio fa che regni
E voi Numi il secondate!
Thoughts, how you torment me.

Heaven, help me in my plan, help me, heaven!
Let my son reign
Second only to you, oh gods!

Next time: Favorites of 2020: Live performances
Last time: Favorites of 2020: Movies

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Favorites of 2020: Movies

Mia Goth as Harriet Smith and Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse in Emma. (2020)

As I wrote in the first post of this series, Favorites of 2020: Books, I haven't been able to turn the collective crisis of our past year to productive use. I spent far less time than I anticipated watching screens for enjoyment, and far more staring at screens for work. So my list of favorite films will be shorter than usual. And as always, the favorites are chosen from movies first seen in the past twelve months, no matter when they were created. In reverse chronological order by year of release:

Emma. (2020), screenplay by Eleanor Catton based on the novel by Jane Austen; directed by Autumn de Wilde.

Invited by a good friend, I saw Emma in a movie theater (remember those?) this spring just before the pandemic shutdown. It is in the deliberately anachronistic style of Jane Austen adaptations that I usually avoid. But director Autumn de Wilde's eye-popping visuals and wide-eyed leading lady Anya Taylor-Joy were perfect for rendering Austen's most irony-filled work. De Wilde's visual style and Taylor-Joy's incredulous stare place invisible quotation marks around every scene, and if period deportment is largely absent, the period costumes and production design are sumptuous (especially as photographed by Christopher Blauvelt). This version won't replace in our affections the 4-hour 2008 BBC adaptation written by Sandy Welch and starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller (see Six months with Jane Austen: Favorite adaptations and final thoughts), but it easily surpasses the mid-90s versions with Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale.

Wild Nights with Emily (2018), written and directed by Madeleine Olnek.

Emily Dickinson wrote twice as many letters to her sister-in-law and next-door neighbor Susan as to any other correspondent, and many were filled with impassioned language ("I shall think of you at sunset, and at sunrise, again; and at noon, and forenoon, and afternoon, and always, and evermore, till this little heart stops beating and is still"). But when her poems and letters were edited for publication, references to Susan were literally erased, cut out or scribbled over.

As I wrote in my full-length post on Emily's letters and poems to Susan Dickinson,

Olnek's film Wild Nights with Emily vividly and at times humorously portrays the intensity of the relationship between Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler). And, quite rightly, Olnek feels free to imagine aspects of the love between her characters that the letters only imply. Her film offers a much-needed corrective to the image of the irascible, ill-mannered, and unrequitedly heterosexual Emily of Terence Davies' recent film A Quiet Passion. In that film Susan (played by Jodhi May) hardly appears, and the deep emotional connection between her and Emily (Cynthia Nixon) is not even hinted at—another "reenactment and recycling" of Susan's historical erasure. Wild Nights is a very welcome, funny, and moving restoration of Susan to the emotional center of Emily's life and work.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), screenplay by Viña Delmar, based on the play by Helen and Nolan Leary; directed by Leo McCarey.

An elderly couple (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) is forced to separate for the first time in their marriage of 50 years when he loses his job and they lose their home. None of their adult children living nearby will take them both in, and it soon becomes apparent that the children and their families are irritated by the parents' presence. It's decided that the mother will be sent to a nursing home, while the father will be packed off across the country to live with another of the children. On the day the father is set to leave, the couple reunites to visit the places where they courted years ago and reminisce about their life together; unspoken between them is the knowledge that it is likely the last time they will ever see one another.

Amazingly, Make Way for Tomorrow was released just six months before the delightful McCarey-directed and Delmar-penned matrimonial comedy The Awful Truth, for which McCarey was given the Academy Award for Best Director. In his acceptance speech he said, "Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture." I'm glad it's a choice we don't have to make. Make Way for Tomorrow became the inspiration for Yasujiro Ozu's great Tokyo Story (1953), but the original is every bit as poignant.

Jewel Robbery (1932), screenplay by Erwin Gelsey, based on the play by Ladislas Fodor; directed by William Dieterle. 

Halfway through Jewel Robbery I had to double-check the credits to make sure that it wasn't directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Like many of Lubitsch's films of the time, Jewel Robbery has a Central European setting (Vienna), a Hungarian source and an operetta-like plot. William Powell plays an Arsène-Lupin-like gentleman thief; when the married-but-bored Baroness Teri (Kay Francis, with her charming lisp and gorgeous gowns) is trapped in a jewelry store during a heist, the sparks (and the risqué dialogue) fly:


Many twists and turns and several hairbreadth escapes ensue before the eyebrow-raising ending. This is the kind of sparkling comedy that Hollywood can't be bothered to make any more, alas: witty, entertaining and breezily executed (the runtime is a mere 68 minutes).

Honorable mention:

Stand-In (1937), written by Gene Towne and Graham Baker based on a story by Clarence Budington Kelland; directed by Tay Garnett.

A comedic take on classic Hollywood, made near the peak of classic Hollywood. Accountant Atterbury Dodd (Leslie Howard) is sent from New York to find out why Colossal Pictures isn't turning a profit. Guided by a former child star now working as a stand-in (Joan Blondell), he discovers a few reasons: a drunken producer (Humphrey Bogart), an arty and spendthrift director (Alan Mowbray), a pampered and past-her-prime star (Marla Shelton), and a corrupt press agent (Jack Carson). Can Blondell help Howard to salvage the movie (called Sex and Satan), save the studio, redeem Bogart, and recognize her charms? Of course, there can only be a Hollywood ending, but along the way we're treated to gleeful parodies of ruthless studio owners, self-regarding stars, jungle movies, and general Hollywood excess. 

This film was among several enjoyable Joan Blondell features we watched this summer; the others included Blonde Crazy (1931, with James Cagney), Lawyer Man (1932, with William Powell), and Topper Returns (1941, with Roland Young). All are recommendable if you're a Blondell fan; if you're looking for a place to start with her extensive catalog my recommendation would be Gold Diggers of 1933.

Bollywood and beyond: Indian films

This was a year of loss for the Indian film industry; the sad news included the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput (who appeared in PK—an honorable mention in my Favorite films of 2015Shuddh Desi Romance and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!), as well as the deaths of Irrfan Khan (familiar to U.S. viewers from The Lunchbox, and whom I wrote about in Slumdog Millionaire, Dil Kabbadi, and The Puzzle), Rishi Kapoor (star of innumerable films including Bobby, Amar Akbar Anthony, Chandni, Love Aaj Kal, Shuddh Desi Romance, and Kapoor and Sons), and dancer and choreographer Saroj Khan (for whom the Filmfare Award for Best Choreography was instituted, and who won it a record eight times). 

Update 15 November 2020: I have just learned of the death from COVID-19 complications of Soumitra Chatterjee, leading actor in Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), Charulata and Kapurush (The Coward), among many other films; another tragic loss in this terrible year.

Honorable mentions:

This year we rewatched some old favorites (including Vivah, which seems to get more affecting with every viewing) and saw three classic comedies for the first time. While none became a favorite, all deserve honorable mentions:

Andaz Apna Apna (Everyone has their own style, 1994), written and directed by Rajkumar Santoshi.

Two small-time scammers, Amar (Aamir Khan) and Prem (Salman Khan), who'll do anything for money except work, learn that Raveena (Raveena Tandon), the daughter of a rich industrialist, is returning to India with her secretary Karishma (Karisma Kapoor) in order to find a husband. Both Amar and Prem decide that they will woo and win Raveena, and sometimes work with and sometimes against one another to realize their common but mutually exclusive goal.

What made this comedy work for us was its sheer goofiness, which the actors clearly embraced and which just kept building until the farcical climax. There are dream sequences, disguises, false identities, evil twins, fake kidnappings, real kidnappings, a cache of diamonds, and startling appearances by the caped Crime Master Gogo (Shakti Kapoor), in whose lair the final showdown takes place. Silliness reigns supreme, but silliness was exactly what we needed during a long summer of unrelenting stress and sorrow.

Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke (We are travelers on the path of love, 1993), story, screenplay and dialogues by Robin Bhatt; directed by Mahesh Bhatt.

The plot is shirt-cardboard flimsy: will Rahul (Aamir Khan) marry runaway bride Vyjayanti (Juhi Chawla; vyjayanti is a flower that garlands Lord Krishna) over the objections of her father? Or will he make a prudent marriage to the wealthy, Westernized Maya (Navneet Nishan; maya means "illusion")? Sealing the deal are the three mischievous but adorable kids Rahul is raising (his sister's), who bring Vyjayanti home, conceal her for as long as they can, and love her as a surrogate mom/big sister; the kids hate Maya, and the feeling is mutual. There are, of course, some complicating subplots, including the manufacture and delivery of a truckload of shirts owed to Maya's father by Rahul's garment factory. With three cute kids added to the jodi of Aamir and Juhi, Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke succeeds mainly on the appeal of its charming cast.

Chupke Chupke (Hush-hush, 1975), screenplay and dialogues by Shakeel Chandra, Gulzar, D.N. Mukherjee, and Biren Tripathy, based on a story by Upendranath Ganguly; directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Comedy can be difficult to translate—literally so in the case of Chupke Chupke, which relies on jokes related to language for much of its humor. Prank-loving botany professor Parimal (Dharmendra), newly married to Sulekha (Sharmila Tagore), learns that his wife's revered brother-in-law Raghavendra (Om Prakash) is unhappy with his driver because he uses slang. So in disguise as "Pyaremohan," Parimal volunteers himself as a driver who speaks only the purest Hindi. Of course, Sulekha's husband has to meet Raghavendra in person at some point, and so Parimal recruits his English-professor friend Sukumar (Amitabh Bachchan) to pretend to be him. Comic misunderstandings abound, especially when Sulekha seems to her family to be overly intimate with their driver, and "Parimal"/Sukumar starts showing a romantic interest in the beautiful Vasudha (Jaya Bachchan). Parimal comes in for some teasing, too: when he sneaks up to Sulekha's room at night, she asks him to continue pretending to be Pyaremohan—that is, she wants him to think that she finds the idea of sleeping with the driver to be more exciting than sleeping with her husband.

There were some language jokes that even I could grasp: one relates to the confusing pronunciation of English with its silent p's and k's; another is a play on the name of one of Parimal's friends, P.K. Shrivastav (both jokes turn on "peekay," Hindi slang for "drunk"). But I couldn't help but feel that as a non-Indian I was missing out on a lot of nuances, and Parimal clearly doesn't know when a joke has been carried too far. A great cast and director and the ever-growing complications of the situation, though, kept me smiling (or groaning) throughout. For another (and more enthusiastic) review of this classic, please see Beth Loves Bollywood.

Next time: Favorites of 2020: Recordings
Last time: Favorites of 2020: Books

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Favorites of 2020: Books

Clockwise from bottom left: Jean Parker (Beth), Joan Bennett (Amy), Katherine Hepburn (Jo), Frances Dee (Meg), and Spring Byington (Marmee), in the 1933 film version of Little Women.
Image source: Pre-Code.com

'What a trying world it is!' said Jo, rumpling up her hair in a fretful sort of way. 'No sooner do we get out of one trouble than down comes another.'
—Louisa May Alcott, Little Women [1]

2020 has not been a year that invites retrospection: confirmed pandemic deaths above 1 million worldwide (with the true toll likely much higher), political mendacity and wealth inequality at Gilded Age levels, black men and women killed by those sworn to serve and protect, livelihoods and careers threatened, education jeopardized, cultural institutions shut down, live performances cancelled, beloved bookshops and restaurants permanently closed, and communities destroyed by climate-change-fuelled wildfires that filled the skies of the western U.S. with thick, choking smoke that used to be our landscape.

Nonetheless, I will try to do my usual end-of-year favorites lists of books, movies, and recorded and live music. But I have a confession to make. Like many, I've found it hard to focus amid all the chaos and uncertainty, and I haven't been reading, watching movies, or listening to music nearly as much as I thought I would. To my own surprise and disappointment I haven't engaged in any Victorian novel binge-reading, living-room film festivals, or all-day opera marathons.

Despite my inability to turn our collective crisis to productive use, I do have some favorites to share, starting with books. And as always, they are chosen from works first encountered in the past twelve months, no matter when they were created.

Favorites: Fiction

Louisa May Alcott: The Annotated Little Women, edited with an introduction and notes by John Matteson, Norton, 2015.

I've seen two of the many film versions of Little Women (1933, with Katherine Hepburn, Joan Bennett and Spring Byington, and 1994, with Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst and Claire Danes), so when a relative suggested that I would enjoy reading the book I wondered whether I would find it too sweetly sentimental. But when I mentioned to my partner that I was reading it she sad, "Oh, that's the sad one."

What my partner remembered and I did not about the saga of the March sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy is that in addition to its "little homilies" it is full of pain and emotional trauma: bitter sibling rivalry, near-fatal accidents, broken hearts, illness and death. In Part I alone Amy nearly dies when she plunges through thin ice into a freezing-cold river; Beth nearly dies of scarlet fever contracted by nursing the sick children of a neighboring family; and their father nearly dies from an illness contracted while serving as a chaplain in the Union army. [2]

In short, as in the novels of Alcott's older contemporary Elizabeth Gaskell, in Little Women death is a constant presence and ultimately does not spare even major characters. And sometimes the emotions are raw: after the only copy of the precious manuscript of Jo's novel, over which she has worked for years, is burned by Amy in a fit of pique, Jo confesses her unappeased anger to her mother. Her mother responds, "I am angry nearly every day of my life."

The notes by John Matteson focus on the many biographical parallels between the characters' lives and those of the Alcotts and their circle in Concord, Massachusetts. Illustrations include those drawn from the many editions of the book, as well as film and theatrical adaptations. (Curiously, in a fit of misplaced modesty the images of classical statuary in the book seem to have been airbrushed to remove certain anatomical details.)

The only drawback of The Annotated Little Women is the reader-unfriendly format. The book is massive: several inches thick, weighing nearly 5 pounds, and when fully open is nearly two feet wide. As an adult man I struggled to hold the book on my lap; it's probably not the edition to buy a young person to whom you want to introduce the book.

Leonora Carrington: The Complete Stories, translations from the French by Kathrine Talbot and from the Spanish by Anthony Kerrigan, Dorothy Project, 2017.

Leonora Carrington was a British-born surrealist artist and writer who moved to Mexico in her mid-20s and remained there for much of the rest of her life. Her brief, intense, dreamlike short stories, most just a few pages long, are like fables or fairy tales without a moral. As in her paintings, certain images recur obsessively: forests, horses, birds, hybrid beings, and hyenas (which in some mythologies are both male and female). Mouths, teeth, eating, and strong smells feature prominently, and as you might guess from these lists, the stories can often be gruesome. The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington brings all of her short fiction together in English for the first time. Many thanks to the friend who brought this volume on a visit in early March; they were the perfect accompaniment to the sense of unreality inspired by the rapidly unfolding events of this spring.

Silvina Ocampo: Leopoldina's Dream, translated by Daniel Balderston, Penguin, 1988.

Silvina Ocampo was an Argentinian writer, the wife of Adolfo Bioy Casares and a friend of Jorge Luis Borges. Like those two writers, her stories can border on the fantastic or supernatural, but Ocampo's are grounded in the characters' feral emotions, unthinking cruelties, and mutual incomprehensions. In "The Velvet Dress" a woman who insists on trying on a too-tight dress is unable to remove it and is suffocated; in "The Voice on the Telephone," the neglected children at a birthday party turn matricidal; and in "The Lovers," a clandestine couple's true desire is to greedily devour an entire cake—sex is an afterthought.

Leopoldina's Dream was reissued in an expanded edition by New York Review Books in 2015 as Thus Were Their Faces. The disturbing atmosphere of Ocampo's stories is so intensely concentrated that I found the expanded edition to be almost too much of a good thing.

Margaret Oliphant: Miss Marjoribanks and Phoebe, Junior

Victorian novelist Margaret Oliphant is not as well-known today as her contemporaries Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, but the reason for her relative neglect is mysterious. She can be strikingly acute about the strategies that determined, ambitious women in her era had to pursue in order to achieve their aims. In Miss Marjoribanks, the title character (pronounced "Marchbanks") wants to transform the moribund society of Carlingford and inject some youth and life; her matchmaking is so successful that she runs out of eligible bachelors for herself. In Phoebe, Junior, Phoebe Beecham is beset with suitors, and faces a choice between one that is intelligent, sympathetic and poor, and another who is dim, malleable and wealthy. Her choice is a surprising one for a 19th-century heroine (though not, perhaps, quite so rare in real life).

As I wrote in my full-length post on Miss Marjoribanks, "As long as there are readers who appreciate wicked irony, keen wit, emotional complexity, and independent, self-directed women, Miss Marjoribanks will be (re)discovered, and treasured." The same could be said of Phoebe, Junior. I'm very much looking forward to my next Margaret Oliphant experience; soon I'll be reading Hester: A Story of Contemporary Life.

Honorable mentions: Fiction

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis: Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, Liveright, 2020.

As I wrote in my full-length post on Posthumous Memoirs, the narrator is skeptical and self-deprecating, and unsparingly points out his own blindnesses, follies, hypocrises, and failures. As the title implies, though, he's also dead. Machado's great novel anticipates many fictional techniques later called postmodern, and the narrator is an elegant and bemused observer of himself and others.

I keenly anticipated this new translation by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (their translation of Machado's Collected Stories was one of my favorite books of 2018), but it did not markedly improve on Gregory Rabassa's translation of 1997, and at some points was not as good. In the post I wrote "in whatever version you choose to read Machado's brilliant work you'll be amazed that a novel written 140 years ago can seem this modern," but if you have not yet read Posthumous Memoirs I recommend turning first either to Rabassa's translation for its renderings of Machado's prose or Flora Thomson-DeVeaux's (Penguin, 2020) for her notes and commentary.

Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities, translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike, Knopf, 1995.

This was my second attempt to read this great unfinished novel, and as with my first attempt I made it through the first volume but couldn't quite work up the fortitude to continue with the second. The setting is Austria just before World War I, and Ulrich, the man without qualities, is a detached observer of the foibles and hypocrisies of those who surround him. Unfortunately he is largely blind to his own, and to the looming conflict that will shortly lead him and his countrymen into disaster.

Musil writes brilliantly about our self-deceptions, the comforting falsehoods we tell ourselves about our behavior and motivations. But knowing more than the characters do about their own situations, for hundreds of pages, ultimately becomes a burden for the reader. And the unfinished nature of this massive work—there are hundreds of pages of drafts and fragments that attempt to complete the second part—discouraged me from continuing, for a second (and probably final) time.

Favorites: Nonfiction

Sarah Bakewell: How To Live —or— A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Other Press, 2010.

Bakewell's book on the 16th-century French essayist Montaigne won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography in 2010, and it's easy to see why. Her book is a lively introduction to Montaigne's life and ideas. Of course, starting with an appealing subject is half the battle, and Montaigne is one of the most engaging of companions. Whatever their ostensible subject, his essays probe his own thoughts, feelings and actions. Even when the picture they form—of both the author and ourselves—is unflattering, his very candor is disarming.

In "Our emotions get carried away beyond us," Montaigne writes, "We are never 'at home': we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, impel us toward the future; they rob of of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be—even when we ourselves shall be no more." Bakewell's book is very enjoyable, but perhaps the highest praise I can give it is that it will make you want to read Montaigne.

Paula Byrne: Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson, Random House, 2005.

Mary Robinson (née Darby) was born on a dark and stormy night, and as she wrote in her Memoirs, published after her death by her daughter, "Through life the tempest has followed my footsteps, and I have in vain looked for a short interval of repose from the perseverance of sorrow."

Hardship indeed seemed to pursue her. At 16, encouraged by her mother, she unsuspectingly married an impecunious law clerk who, it turned out, had lied about his prospects. Soon she and her infant daughter were living with him in Fleet Street Prison, where he had been imprisoned for debt. There she turned to writing to earn money and published her first books of poems, but much of what she earned by her pen was absorbed in clearing her husband's debts. At 19 she decided to go on the stage; even as the protégé of the famous actor David Garrick and a married woman, she was risking her reputation. It was a risk that paid off, at least in the short term: soon she was celebrated by all London as "Perdita" ("the lost one"), her role in a shortened version of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale.

Robinson was considered to be one of the most beautiful women of her age, and was painted by Gainsborough, Romney and Reynolds; she became a leader of fashion and was emulated by many wealthier and more respectable women. When she was approached by a go-between for the teenaged Prince of Wales with an offer of £20,000 to become his mistress, Robinson decided to turn her beauty to account. (Again, perhaps, she was too credulous; she never received the promised money in full.) After the Prince ended their liaison she became involved with a succession of well-born men. But inevitably her youth and allure faded, and her money was spent faster than it was earned. Robinson, alone and in poor health, turned to writing Gothic novels and romances. While some achieved popular success, she died in poverty before she turned 45.

Byrne's biography of this complicated and not always admirable figure is sympathetic. She also offers a fascinating picture of late 18th-century England and its intersecting worlds of the stage, demimonde and aristocracy, its growing marketplace for women's writing, and its stifling constraints on intelligent, ambitious, and unruly women like Perdita.

Diane Johnson: The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, New York Review Books, 2020; originally published by Knopf, 1972.

Diane Johnson writes the kind of biography that generally drives me up the wall: she attributes feelings, relates thoughts, and ascribes motives to her subjects, all with only the scantiest of evidence. (In fact, the lack of evidence gives her invention freer reign.) What not only redeems her method but makes it highly entertaining is that she is fully cognizant of the unfounded liberties she is taking and imagines multiple possibilities for her—no longer subjects, but characters. It makes for a very lively and enjoyable read; while none of us can say what degree of truth any of her reconstructions holds, the unhappy marriage of the writers Mary Ellen Peacock Nicolls and George Meredith, and Mary's attempt to find freedom and mutual love, starkly illustrates the limitations on women's choices and lives in the mid-19th century. The True History of Mrs. Meredith, originally published in 1972, was the inspiration for Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives (see below) and informed my post Six Victorian marriages, part 3: Mary Ellen Peacock Nicolls and George Meredith.

Phyllis Rose: Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, Knopf, 1983.

Parallel Lives has become a classic, and deservedly so. Rose examines five mid-19th-century marriages from the perspective of the struggle for power and sex. As was all too commonly the case in that era, the wife tended to have the worst of it: while Effie Ruskin escaped her cruel, domineering and self-involved husband, Jane Carlyle and Catherine Dickens could not escape theirs.

Fortunately there were other models that privileged men and women could follow: Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill achieved the marriage of true minds, while George Eliot and George Henry Lewes worked to create a companionate intellectual, creative and erotic union. Even if you are not interested in Victorian art and literature—and if you're reading this, how is that possible?—Parallel Lives is fascinating for the light it shines on how these couples negotiated (or failed to negotiate) the sometimes precarious balance between self and other in their romantic relationships. Rose's book was the main basis of my series Six Victorian Marriages.

Mark Morris and Wesley Stace: Out Loud: A Memoir, Penguin, 2020.

In 1988 Mark Morris, then a relatively unknown choreographer from New York City's downtown dance scene, was appointed to succeed the world-renowned Maurice Béjart at Belgium's national theater, La Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. At the press conference introducing the wild-haired enfant terrible to the Belgian press and public, Morris was asked to describe his philosophy of dance. He responded, "I make it up and you watch it. End of philosophy."

As that quote suggests, Morris's memoir is very entertaining, and is filled with eyebrow-raising anecdotes and blunt opinions. But his determination to avoid analysis of his work becomes a noticeable weakness in the last quarter of the book. Once his struggle to become established is over, there is only the work to discuss, and Morris resolutely refuses to illuminate how he conceptualizes his dances. Nonetheless, this book is essential for all Morris fans (and of those who have seen the Mark Morris Dance Company in any of its incarnations, who has not become a fan?). And for those who have not yet seen his company, this memoir will convince you to do so at the first opportunity. I've previously written about Morris's Mozart Dances, Dido & Aeneas, and Layla and Majnun.

Honorable mentions: Nonfiction

Julian Barnes: The Man in the Red Coat, Knopf, 2020.

The Man in the Red Coat opens with a visit to London in 1885 by three men. As Julian Barnes points out, all were known to Marcel Proust, and two of the three were models for characters in his In Search of Lost Time. The third was Dr. Samuel Pozzi, subject of the John Singer Sargent painting partially reproduced on the cover, who seemed to know everyone and go everywhere in Belle Époque Paris. Barnes uses Pozzi (and a set of remarkable photographic cards of society figures that were packaged with Potin chocolates, examples of which are reproduced throughout the book) to give a portrait of the age.

Pozzi had a wide acquaintance, a flourishing gynecological practice, and many affairs, including with women who were his patients. He made significant medical advances and was frequently invited to dinner parties. But perhaps Barnes himself suspected that the details of Pozzi's life did not quite justify book-length treatment, and the narrative keeps veering off to follow other, more colorful figures of the period. Among them is Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fézensac, one of Pozzi's companions on that London trip, and the model for both Proust's Baron Charlus and Huysmans' des Esseintes in À rebours (Against Nature). Amid the cameos by Montesquiou, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, and many others, Pozzi gets a little lost in the shuffle.

Claire Tomalin: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Knopf, 2002.

If Samuel Pozzi is perhaps too genteel to make a completely compelling biographical subject, Samuel Pepys presents the opposite problem. He was an opportunist who betrayed superiors, underlings, and family members whenever it was to his advantage, a corrupt Navy official who during a time of war siphoned off needed money and resources for his private gain, and a sexual predator who routinely assaulted vulnerable women of his own class or below. Of course, biographical subjects need not be admirable, and Pepys may have been no worse than most men of his class, time and place. But given that Pepys' greatest accomplishment is the candid description of his own appalling behavior, it's difficult to spend 500 pages in his company—even when the portrayal is by the excellent Claire Tomalin (who has also written biographies of Jane Austen, Nelly Ternan, Mary Wollstonecraft, and others).

William Dalrymple: The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, Bloomsbury, 2019.

When the East India Company received its royal monopoly on trade west of the Americas and east of Africa in 1600, it found itself in a position of disadvantage with respect to the Portuguese, French and Dutch, which had long-established outposts in South Asia. It also found itself facing the awesome Mughal Empire at the height of its power.

Two hundred years later, after exploiting internecine conflict among India's princes, employing superior military force, and acting with ruthlessness against subject populations, the East India Company's forces captured Dehli and held ultimate power over vast swathes of the subcontinent. The company had become the first corporate state.

This isn't where the story ends, of course. But as the subtitle suggests, this volume is about the company's rise, not its decline, and as a result it becomes a recounting of one military victory against long numerical odds after another. (That most of the East India Company's troops were themselves Indian is one of the ironies of history.) The end of the company's monopoly on trade, the 1857 Uprising and its brutal suppression, the takeover and expansion of the company's administrative apparatus by the British government, and the ending of British rule in 1947 are all outside the scope of this book. But their absence makes The Anarchy feel incomplete. Perhaps it is best read in conjunction with Dalrymple's book on the Uprising, The Last Mughal.

Next time: Favorites of 2020: Movies

  1. Part First, Chapter XVII, "Little Faithful"
  2. In the Civil War more than 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed. For some perspective, in 1860 the U.S. population of (white) men between the ages of 15 and 39 (the age range covering the vast majority of Civil War soldiers) was only 5.8 million; more than one in ten men in that age range died as a result of the war. And most died of disease: for every three men killed in battle, at least five more died of disease. In a military hospital, Robert March is in grave danger.