Friday, March 26, 2021

Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960

Valmont (Gérard Philipe) and Juliette (Jeanne Moreau) in Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960.
Image source: Paris Cinéma Région

Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 (released September 1959), screenplay adapted from the novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos by Roger Vailland, Roger Vadim and Claude Brulé; directed by Vadim.

"We must not think that in saying yes to sex one says no to power." (Michel Foucault) [1]

Confirmation of Foucault's insight, should any be needed, can be found in writer/director Roger Vadim's Barbarella (1968), an attempt at a science fiction sex comedy starring his pre-consciousness-raised wife Jane Fonda clad in see-through plastic. Not even successful as camp, Barbarella's reflection of the new sexual mores in society and in cinema in the late 1960s was instantly dated, a textbook example of the voyeuristic male gaze. (And indeed the March 1968 issue of Playboy featured the pictorial "The Girls of Barbarella"; Fonda, by the way, was 30 years old.) It is to the sophomoric Barbarella's everlasting shame that it was released in the same year as Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. [2]

But a decade earlier Vadim wrote and directed a movie that could be mistaken as a product of the French New Wave. Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 is an updating of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel of aristocratic libertinage to the milieu of the Parisian haute-bourgeoisie in the late 1950s. Vadim seems to have explicitly modelled Liaisons on Louis Malle's Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows, 1958). Like Malle's film, Liaisons is shot in black and white, stars Jeanne Moreau, and is set to a superb jazz soundtrack (by Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers in Liaisons, by Miles Davis in Ascenseur).

Valmont (Gérard Philipe in his next-to-last film) and Juliette (Moreau) are a married couple who have reached an understanding. Their mutual sexual spark has died, although apparently it's more extinguished in Juliette than in Valmont, and they each take other lovers. He is open about it, which makes him a target of endless gossip, and Juliette is discreet. She is so discreet, in fact, that many of the couple's friends consider her a model wife, enabling her to use her reputation for virtue as a shield to keep unwanted admirers such as Prevan (Boris Vian) at a distance (at least, until they are useful to her). But although Valmont and Juliette have agreed to sleep with other people, they've also agreed to be completely honest with each other; they have vowed "not to accept the lies that degrade other couples." [3]

Juliette and Cécile (Jeanne Valérie) in Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960.
Image source: Notre Cinéma

Juliette sets Valmont the task of seducing the virginal teenaged Cécile (Jeanne Valérie). Cécile's parents have been looking to get her married; to get them off her back she has betrothed herself to the wealthy Jerry Court (Nicholas Vogel), who is twice her age. Unbeknownst both to Cécile's parents and herself, Court is one of Juliette's current lovers. Meanwhile, Cécile is in love with another man, college student Danceny (Jean-Louis Trintignant, who was actually closer to Vogel's age than Valérie's). Juliette tells Valmont that she wants him to help her revenge herself on her self-satisfied lover Court: "He thinks he is marrying virtue, but he must marry vice." Her revenge, it turns out, will engulf not only Court, Cécile and Danceny, but ultimately Valmont, and herself.

That Juliette's name is shared with the Marquis de Sade's anti-heroine is no accident. Both characters view sex as the surest, and often for women the sole, means to power. As Angela Carter has written, "[De Sade's Juliette] is a woman who acts according to the precepts and also the practice of a man's world and so she does not suffer. Instead, she causes suffering." [4]

One of the many who suffer at the hands of Liaisons' Juliette is the devout Madame de Tourvel (Annette Vadim, the director's wife; paging Dr. Freud). Madame de Tourvel has also succumbed to Valmont's seductive stratagems, and the adulterous couple are, for a short time, blissfully happy.

Valmont and Madame de Tourvel (Annette Vadim) in Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960.
Image source: Paris Cinéma Région

But Juliette accuses Valmont of violating their pact, and gives him an ultimatum. He looks on silently as she sends Madame de Tourvel a telegram in his name:

My Angel, one becomes bored of anything, it's a law of nature. Stop. I took you with pleasure and I leave you without regret. Stop. Good-bye. Stop. That's the way of the world. Stop. It's not my fault. Stop. Valmont.

Madame de Tourvel receives the telegram just after she has told her husband that she is leaving him for Valmont; her abrupt abandonment drives her into madness.

The updating of the novel works surprisingly well. To the novel's letters the film adds phone calls, tape recordings, and Juliette's telegram; most of the translations required by the temporal leap forward by nearly two centuries maintain the spirit of the original. Some "modern" touches don't work so well, however. There's a scene where a jazz band (Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers) sends women into an orgiastic frenzy of dancing, like something out of Joseph March's The Wild Party (1928). And Vadim gives a smarmy introduction to the film in which he Explains It All To Us; one of its more memorable lines concerns "young women freed from sex-related social constraints and that burst open, buoyantly, like ripe fruits."

Vadim's introduction suggests that Juliette is escaping the sexual double standard, but in fact she is conforming to it. And we never learn the source of Juliette's desire for vengeance against Valmont, and, indeed, all men (her destruction of the happiness of Cécile and Madame de Tourvel is ultimately aimed at the men in their lives). In Laclos' novel Merteuil tells Valmont that she is "born to revenge my sex and command yours," and goes on to say that "I must conquer or perish." [5] Merteuil's anger at the enforced subordination of women is largely absent from Vadim's film. Instead, we're left to surmise that an earlier betrayal by Valmont is what motivates Juliette's coldness and malice. Merteuil's rebellion against the proscriptions imposed on women by men, portrayed so vividly in Laclos' novel, is replaced by an intramarital power struggle. 

Moreau as Juliette. Image source: Notre Cinéma

Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 succeeds on its own terms: it's sleek and chic and has excellent leads in Gérard Philipe and Jeanne Moreau, who are flattered by the gorgeous black-and-white photography of Marcel Grignon. [6] But it could have been much more. That would have required, though, some self-critical reflection on the part of Vadim, whose later career demonstrates that he forever remained a prisoner of the idea that women's sexual freedom should primarily benefit men.

  1. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality vol. 1: An Introduction, a translation by Robert Hurley of Histoire de la sexualité: la volonté de savoir (The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge), Pantheon, 1978, p. 157.
  2. Vadim made a specialty of films showcasing the bodies of young actresses who were by pure coincidence his lovers, for example in Et Dieu. . .créa la femme (And God Created Woman, 1956) with his then-wife Brigitte Bardot. Liaisons features a nude scene with Vadim's new wife Annette Strøyberg, who was 9 years his junior and looks remarkably similar to Bardot (blonde hair, wide-set eyes, pouty lips). He would go on to write and direct Le Vice et la Vertu (Vice and Virtue, 1963), a retelling of the Marquis de Sade's Justine featuring his teenaged lover Catherine Deneuve.
  3. Quotes from the screenplay are taken from Roger Vadim's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, screenplay by Roger Vailland, Roger Vadim and Claude Brulé, translated by Bernard Shir-Cliff. Ballantine Books, 1962.
  4. Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, Pantheon, 1978, p. 79. 
  5. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, 1782, translated anonymously as  Dangerous Connections, 1812, J. Ebers. Letter LXXXI:
  6. Grignon often worked as the cinematographer on films directed by André Hunebelle, including Les 3 Mousquetaires (1953), Le capitan (1960), Les mystères de Paris (1962), Fantômas (1964), and Fantômas contre Scotland Yard (1967).

Monday, March 1, 2021

Mozart and Salieri: The Magician's Cave

Antonio Salieri (detail). Image source:

There is an indelible popular image of the composer Antonio Salieri, thanks to Peter Shaffer's 1979 play Amadeus and F. Murray Abraham's Oscar-winning performance in the 1984 Miloš Forman film version. In the play and film Salieri, "the patron saint of mediocrity," envies Mozart, undermines him at every turn, and finally, to rid himself of his more talented rival, poisons him.

Salieri's culpability for Mozart's death was taken by Shaffer from Alexander Pushkin's dramatic dialogue Mozart and Salieri, one of the four Little Tragedies (1830):

I am an envier. I envy; sorely,
Profoundly now I envy. — O Heaven!
Where, where is justice? When the sacred gift,
Immortal genius, comes not in reward
For fervent devotion, complete self-denial,
For toil and effort and prayers,
But casts its glow upon a madman's head,
An idle loafer's brow. . .O Mozart, Mozart!

This image of Salieri is contradicted, however, by the historical evidence. For one thing, Salieri was vastly more successful than Mozart. In 1774, at the age of only 24, Salieri was appointed Kammerkomponist ("chamber composer"—in essence, the director of non-church and non-ceremonial music) and director of the Italian opera at the Viennese court of the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II. Salieri was also the protégé of Gluck, the most renowned opera composer of the previous generation. Between 1783 and 1792 Salieri's operas received a total of 167 performances in Vienna; Mozart's operas received 63 performances—respectable, certainly, but only sufficient to make him the seventh-most-performed opera composer in the imperial capital. Beyond Vienna, Salieri's operas were performed in Milan (where Joseph's brother Ferdinand was Grand Duke), Venice, Rome, and Paris (where Joseph's sister Marie Antoinette was Queen). Mozart had far more cause to be envious of Salieri than the other way around. [1]

Michael Kelly by Adèle Romany. Image source: Nancy Storace (1765-1817)

Michael Kelly, the Irish tenor who sang in Vienna between 1784 and 1787 and by his own account appeared in Paisiello's Barbiere di Siviglia (Barber of Seville) and the first performances of Martin y Soler's Una Cosa Rara (A Rare Thing) and Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), knew Salieri well. He wrote of him in his Reminiscences (1826),

Salieri. . .was a composer of eminence. . .He was a little man, with an expressive countenance, and his eyes were full of genius.

. . .Salieri, indeed, would make a joke of any thing, for he was a very pleasant man, and much esteemed at Vienna; and I considered myself in high luck to be noticed by him. [2]

This does not mean, of course, that there was no rivalry between Mozart and Salieri. Since they were both producing operas for the court theater and vying for the Emperor's and the audience's favor, it could hardly have been otherwise. And not all of Salieri's decisions as director of the opera would have been pleasing to Mozart, which may have colored his perspective. Kelly reports that

. . .three pieces were nearly ready for representation at the same time, and each composer claimed the right of producing his opera for the first. The contest raised much discord, and parties were formed. The characters of the three men were all very different. Mozart was as touchy as gunpowder, and swore that he would put the score of his opera [Le nozze di Figaro] into the fire if it was not produced first; his claim was backed by a strong party. Righini, on the contrary, was working like a mole in the dark to get precedence [for Il Demogorgone, ovvero il filosofo confuso].

The third candidate was Maestro di Capella to the court [Salieri is described as Maestro di Capella on the title page of the score of La Grotta di Trofonio below, although he was not officially appointed Hofkapellmeister until 1788], a clever, shrewd man, possessed of what Bacon called, crooked wisdom; and his claims were backed by three of the principal performers, who formed a cabal not easily put down. [3]

Was there a conspiracy against Mozart led by Salieri? Mozart thought so at times. One of his father's letters to Mozart's sister Nannerl says that "very powerful cabals have ranged themselves against your brother. Salieri and all his supporters will move heaven and earth to try to down his opera. . .many people are plotting against him." [4] The most probable source of Leopold's information was his son. Complicating this picture, of course, are what we know of Mozart's own "touchy as gunpowder" nature (was he seeing dark conspiracies to undermine him where none existed?), the fact that Salieri did not actually have an opera ready in the spring of 1786 (La Grotta di Trofonio (The Cave of Trophonius) had been performed the previous fall, and had been very successful), and Mozart's miraculous ability to thwart the nefarious plans of the "powerful cabal": in the end, it was his Figaro that was the first opera produced when the season resumed.

But if they were sometimes at odds with one another, Mozart and Salieri also worked together. In 1785 they collaborated, perhaps with a third composer, on a short cantata celebrating the return to health of Nancy Storace, a leading soprano in the opera troupe (the score of the cantata was identified in 2015). Among many other roles, Storace created Ofelia in Salieri's La Grotta and Susanna in Mozart's Figaro.

Nancy Storace (detail) by Pietro Bettelini, 1788. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

And in early 1786 Mozart and Salieri each composed a one-act comic opera—Mozart's Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) in German, and Salieri's Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the music, then the words) in Italian—to be performed at a banquet held by the emperor. So while at times they were professional rivals, they were also colleagues who could poke fun at backstage machinations. Whatever the truth or falsity of Mozart's suspicions, it seems that relations between them remained generally cordial until the end of Mozart's life.  [5]

Mozart would borrow elements of Salieri's parody of a prima donna's aria ("Lá tu vedrai chi sono") from Prima la musica when later writing Fiordiligi's partly-parodic "Come scoglio" in Cosi fan tutte (1790). As I wrote in my post on a recording of excerpts from Der Schauspieldirektor and Prima la musica, selected as one of my Favorite recordings of 2018, "Nothing was lost on Mozart."

That feeling was reinforced on hearing the superb recording of Salieri's La Grotta di Trofonio with Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset (Ambroisie, 2005). In the opera two sisters, the more serious Ofelia (Raffaella Milanesi in Rousset's recording) and the more lighthearted Dori (Marie Arnet) have reached the age of marriage and have chosen lovers who reflect their temperaments. Ofelia loves the contemplative Artemidoro (Nikolai Schukoff), while Dori loves the fun-loving Plistene (Mario Cassi).

Title page of the score of La Grotta di Trofonio: Ofelia and Dori meet Trofonio outside his cave in a scene from Act II. Vienna: Artaria, 1786, engraving by Mansfeld. Image source: Oxford Music Online

While wandering in the forest Artemidoro encounters the magician Trofonio (Carlo Lepore) and enters his cave in search of knowledge. Soon, seeking his friend, Plistene also enters the cave. When the two friends emerge their personalities have been switched, to the dismay of the sisters. The women's father Aristone (Olivier Lallouette) suggests that the simplest solution is for them to exchange lovers. The sisters reject this idea and decide to visit the magician's cave themselves, where their personalities are also switched—only, in the meantime the men have re-entered the cave and been switched back. Now the couples are mismatched again, this time to the dismay of the men. Finally Aristone pleads with Trofonio to resolve the situation. He invites the sisters back into the cave where they return to their original personalities, and the opera ends with a double wedding.

When he wrote the libretto for Cosi fan tutte, Lorenzo Da Ponte clearly drew inspiration from Giovanni Casti's libretto for La Grotta. Da Ponte's libretto also features two sisters and two swains of differing temperaments, an older man advising/manipulating the two couples and pressuring them to switch partners, and at the end a restoration of the original couples and a double wedding.

Mozart also borrowed musical ideas from La Grotta. Salieri's overture begins with sustained chords in the low strings evoking the underworld, an unusual opening that is also heard in Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787), as is the recurrence of the same music later in the opera at the appearance of the supernatural. (This is somewhat unusual; in this era the music of the overture was still often independent of that of the opera it introduced.) La Grotta's opening trio involving Aristone and his daughters prefigures the sound-world of Cosi and the trios featuring Don Alfonso, Fiordiligi and Dorabella (like Dori in La Grotta, the livelier/shallower sister).

In Act I of La Grotta, Artemidoro (a tenor) sings a beautiful aria about finding peace and tranquillity in solitude, "Di questo bosco ombroso" (In this shady wood):

In Act I of Cosi, Ferrando (a tenor) sings a beautiful aria about nourishing his heart on the hope of love, "Un' aura amorosa" (A breath of love). Though in a different key, the aria's phrases follow a similar melodic arc:

Perhaps it is not surprising that these arias sound similar: they were written for the same singer, Vincenzo Calvesi, who appeared in the first performances of both operas.

This is not to say that La Grotta develops the full emotional resonance of Cosi, of which I've written that "the depth of feeling expressed by Mozart's music complicates the cynical farce of Da Ponte's plot." In Cosi the lovers' understanding of each other and themselves is transformed by the emotional trials they undergo; in La Grotta the characters may switch personalities but when it's all over they haven't much changed. As is also the case with Handel, when Mozart borrowed ideas from other composers he generally improved them. Nonetheless, La Grotta is a sparkling comic opera whose brilliant score is done full justice in Christophe Rousset's excellent recording, which is available for download.

And if the evidence of Mozart's borrowings is not fatal to the idea of Salieri as a talentless hack (after all, you don't borrow ideas you think are bad), there are the other composers who sought out Salieri as a teacher in the decades after Mozart's death, such as Beethoven, Schubert, and Meyerbeer. And the most successful opera composer of the generation following Salieri's, Gioachino Rossini, paid his own tribute to Salieri. The opening vocal phrase of Rosina's aria "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816) follows that of "Ne lo stato conjugale," a duet for Dori and Plistene from Salieri's La Grotta, virtually note-for-note. (According to Christophe Rousset, Rossini knew La Grotta very well, as it continued to be performed for three decades after its premiere.)

In Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri, Mozart gives a speech that perhaps provides a more historically accurate reflection of his relationship to Salieri:

Here is a toast
To you, my friend, and to the candid union
That ties together Mozart and Salieri,
Two sons of harmony.

Update 23 March 2021: When writing this post I had thought that my recognition of connections between Salieri and Casti's La Grotta and Mozart and Da Ponte's Cosi was reasonably original. It turns out that several scholars had this insight more than two decades before me.

In The Culture of Opera Buffa in Mozart's Vienna Mary Hunter describes Cosi as being "in conversation" with other opere buffe in the repertory of Vienna's Burgtheater, including Pasquale Anfossi and Giovanni Bertati's Il curioso indiscreto (Unwise curiosity, 1777, performed in Vienna in 1783), Paisiello and Bertati's I filosofi immaginari (The imaginary philosophers, 1779, performed in Vienna in 1783), and Martin y Soler and Da Ponte's L'arbore di Diana (The tree of Diana, premiered in Vienna in 1787). Hunter devotes 16 pages to a discussion of the parallels between La Grotta and Cosi, including the Dori/Dorabella and Ofelia/Fiordiligi echoes, textual and musical parallels between the first act trio in La Grotta between Aristone and the sisters' suitors with the opening trio in Cosi between Don Alfonso and the sisters' suitors, similarities between the two operas' first-act finales, and affinities between the two "filosofi," Trofonio and Don Alfonso (although she dismisses the correspondences I noted between the suitors Artemidoro and Ferrando as "broadly typological" of tenor lovers). "In every example of significant resemblance between the two operas," she writes, "Cosi either improves upon or mocks Trofonio." [6]

Bruce Alan Brown and John A. Rice also discovered another connection between Salieri and Cosi: Da Ponte evidently wrote the libretto for Salieri, not Mozart. Salieri went so far as to begin setting the text to music: he wrote out the vocal part for the opening trio involving Don Alfonso, Ferrando and Guglielmo, "La mia Dorabella," and fully scored the second trio for the men that follows, "È la fede delle femmine." (In "La mia Dorabella" the suitors expound on the beauty and faithfulness of their sweethearts; in "È la fede delle femmine," Don Alfonso tells them that "the faithfulness of women is like the Arabian phoenix; everyone says it exists, but no one has ever found it.") However, after composing these two numbers Salieri stopped for reasons that are unknown, and Da Ponte took the libretto to Mozart. Brown and Rice quote Victor Novello's paraphrase of Constanze Mozart's feeling that "Salieri first tried to set this opera but failed, and the great success of Mozart in accomplishing what he could make nothing of is supposed to have excited his envy and hatred, and have been the first origin of his enmity and malice toward Mozart. . ." [7]

But Salieri must have known that Da Ponte would be offering the libretto to Mozart if he gave it up, and Cosi did not have "great success": although it was apparently well-received, it was performed only five times in January and February 1790 before the death of Joseph II closed the theaters, and then only five more times between June and August of that year. Hunter writes that the circumstances surrounding Salieri's giving way to Mozart in the setting of Cosi "does not tell us much about the relationship between the two composers. The relations between Trofonio and Cosi, however, do seem to tell a story of unrelieved competitiveness on Mozart's and Da Ponte's parts; whether this was meant more or less amicably or in bitterness, and how it was received, will probably never be known." However, we do know that a little more than a year after Cosi's final performance Mozart invited Salieri to see his new opera The Magic Flute, and that Salieri praised it highly (see note 5).

  1. The list of composers with more opera performances in Vienna than Mozart during his lifetime, in descending order: Paisiello (251), Salieri (167), Martin y Soler (140), Cimarosa (127), Guglielmi (112), and Sarti (97). Tallies taken from John Platoff, "Mozart and his Rivals: Opera in Vienna," Current Musicology, Vol. 51, No. 1, 1993, p. 105-111.
  2. Michael Kelly, Reminiscences, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 99, 101. 
  3. Kelly, Reminiscences, p. 130. The "discord" must have taken place in the spring of 1786, but Kelly mis-remembers that Salieri was advocating for La Grotta; it had already been performed in the fall of 1785.
  4. Leopold Mozart to his daughter, [25th?] April 1786. Letters of Mozart and his Family, vol. III, translated and edited by Emily Anderson, Macmillan, 1938, p. 1336.
  5. In October 1791 Mozart took Salieri and his mistress, the soprano Caterina Cavalieri (who had sung Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni), to see Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Mozart wrote his wife Constanze, "Salieri listened and watched most attentively and from the ouverture to the last chorus there was not a single number that did not call forth from him a bravo! or bello! It seemed as if they could not thank me enough for my kindness." Quotation from Letters of Mozart and his Family, vol. III, translated and edited by Emily Anderson, Macmillan, 1938, pp. 1442-43.
  6. Mary Hunter, The Culture of Opera Buffa in Mozart's Vienna, Princeton University Press, 1999, Ch. 8, pp. 247-272.
  7. Bruce Alan Brown and John A. Rice, "Salieri's 'Così fan tutte'," Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1 (March 1996), pp. 17-43.