Saturday, November 27, 2021

Favorites of 2021: Live performance

Messalina (1679). Libretto by Francesco Maria Piccioli, music composed by Carlo Pallovicino. Produced by Ars Minerva, Céline Ricci, stage and artistic director. ODC Theater, San Francisco.

Aura Veruni as Messalina. Photo: Valentina Sadioul

On November 21 my partner and I attended a live performance for the first time since February 2020. It had been 91 weeks since our last experience of in-person music-making.

That seems like a long time, but after Carlo Pallovicino's Messalina had its first performances during the 1679-80 opera season in Venice, it had to wait 340 plus one years to be restaged by Céline Ricci's Ars Minerva. Initially scheduled for the fall of 2020 and postponed a year due to the pandemic, Messalina was a triumphant return to the stage for both the opera and the company.

Our knowledge of the historical Roman Empress Messalina is filtered through the accounts of her enemies. In the year 38 CE Messalina, then a teenager, was married to Claudius, then in his late 40s. She has been accused by later chroniclers of infidelity and promiscuity in an attempt to delegitimize the imperial claims of her descendants. Juvenal alleged that she would go to brothels and solicit customers under a false name while wearing a blonde wig. Pliny the Elder asserted that she had engaged in a competition with a prostitute to see who could accommodate the most partners over the course of a single night; Messalina supposedly "won."

Ricci notes that Messalina was a teenager forced to marry a much older man. She sees the stories of Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, Juvenal, and other writers as misogynistic attempts to enforce a double standard under which powerful men are free to have as many sexual partners as they can entice, bribe or coerce, while women who assume this male prerogative are condemned.

Aura Veruni as Messalina and Deborah Rosengaus as Claudio; costumes by Marina Polakoff, projections by Entropy. Photo: Valentina Sadioul

It's curious that Pallavicino and Piccioli chose such a scandalous subject for their opera. Pallavicino's day job was as maestro di coro at the Ospedale degli Incurabili, one of Venice's four charitable hospices. Each hospice had its own resident all-female instrumental and vocal ensemble, or coro, which primarily performed sacred music for liturgical services. That the man entrusted with the musical training of the sequestered women of the Ospedale should compose an opera about the notorious Messalina—prominently featuring scenes of lust, sexual deceit, abduction and attempted rape—might have raised a few eyebrows.

In Pallavicino and Piccioli's opera, Messalina (Aura Veruni) is portrayed as boldly libidinous; the opera opens with an interrupted scene in which she is intimately entertaining her would-be lover Caio (Patrick Hagen). Claudio (Deborah Rosengaus) is a jealous (and comically credulous) husband, but he is also revealed as a sexual predator willing to kidnap and hold captive Floralba (Shawnette Sulker), the repudiated wife of his lieutenant Tullio (Kevin Gino). Tullio has rejected Floralba because he found her embracing a young man named Alindo (Kindra Scharich). But "Alindo" is actually Erginda, Floralba's sister in male drag, who, jilted by her fiancé Tergisto (Zachary Gordin), has followed him to court. Aiding Messalina in her intrigues and offering knowing commentary on the action is her page and confidant Lismeno (Marcus Paige).

Aura Veruni as Messalina and Marcus Paige as Lismeno. Photo: Valentina Sadioul

Pallovicino's musical setting is filled with dozens of short, tuneful arias; such a profusion of musical material must have been fiendishly difficult for the singers to memorize. As always in Ars Minerva productions, though, the singing in every role was of an exceptionally high standard. Special praise must go to Aura Veruni for her commanding performance as Messalina. In gorgeous voice throughout, she performed her music while wearing revealing costumes and executing Ricci's at times athletically-demanding comic business. (At one point she sings an aria while being pleasured in turn by two lovers; one escapes from beneath her voluminous skirts just as the other crawls under them.)

Kindra Scharich as "Alindo" and Aura Veruni as Messalina. Photo: Valentina Sadioul

Messalina starts off as a sex farce, and Ricci's direction and the clever and amusing costumes by Marina Polakoff (Messalina emerges from some of them as if from out of a blossoming flower) lead us to think that we're in the familiar comic territory of young lovers (Messalina and Caio) foiling the designs of a jealous and lecherous old man (Claudio). But as the opera unfolds, Ricci highlights the ways in which men wield power over women and deploy the sexual double standard to their own benefit. The comic atmosphere is darkened and disrupted by reminders that male power is asserted and maintained through violence against women. And although the opera ends "happily," with the couples reunited and Messalina (ironically?) urging men to follow women's example of faithfulness, in the last scenes Ricci also hints at Messalina's historical fate: she was not yet 30 when she was executed by Claudius' personal bodyguards, and all public traces of her were systematically destroyed.

Piccioli's libretto is jam-packed with incident; the multiple locations (including Messalina's bedroom, a public square, a temple, the baths, an amphitheater, and the desolate countryside) are beautifully suggested by Entropy's striking projections and Thomas Bowersox's evocative lighting.

Deborah Rosengaus as Claudio and Shawnette Sulker as Floralba. Photo: Valentina Sadioul

Conductor and harpsichordist Jory Vinokur led the accompanying chamber orchestra of five skilled and alertly responsive string players: Cynthia Keiko Black and Laura Jeannin on violins, Aaron Westman on viola, Gretchen Claassen on cello, and Adam Cockerham on theorbo. This ensemble is close to the size of the orchestra that played for the original staging of this opera in Venice, providing an authentic sense of Pallavicino's sound-world.

Messalina is Ars Minerva's sixth production of an unjustly neglected Baroque opera, all of which have centered on maligned, misunderstood, or mistreated women. For more information on Céline Ricci's adventurous and innovative productions please see my posts on Pallavicino's The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles, Ziani's La Circe, Porta's Ifigenia in Aulide, and Freschi's Ermelinda (I inexplicably missed Ars Minerva's first production, Castrovillari's La Cleopatra). Ars Minerva's return to live performance is a hugely welcome development, and I'm keenly anticipating Ricci's future projects.

Update 27 December 2021: A video of Messalina is now available to stream on demand; access can be purchased on the ODC website.

Other Favorites of 2021:

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Favorites of 2021: Recordings

My favorite recordings first heard in the past twelve months, in chronological order by composer:

Byrd 1588: Psalmes, Sonets & Songs of sadnes and pietie
Grace Davidson (soprano), Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano), and Nicholas Todd (tenor), with Alamire vocal ensemble and Fretwork viol consort; David Skinner, director. Inventa INV1006

The falcon is a symbol of conversion to the "old faith," Catholicism. Image by Julian Hindson. Image source: Presto Music

1588 was a momentous year for England. In late July the Spanish Armada was defeated by a combination of poor weather, poor strategy, and English attacks. Just the year before, the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, had been executed for her collusion in the Babington Plot to overthrow the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and install herself as monarch, backed by an invading Spanish army. So 1588 might seem a curious time for William Byrd, a composer with known Catholic sympathies, to publish a song collection. Particularly one containing the song "Why do I use my paper, ink and pen?" which sets a poem by Henry Walpole mourning the martyrdom of Jesuit missionary Edmund Campion, who was hanged, drawn and quartered for sedition in 1581.

Although Byrd was a recusant who was fined for refusing to attend services of the Church of England, he retained Elizabeth's support from the time of his appointment to the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal in 1572 until her death in 1603. In 1575 he and Thomas Tallis were granted a royal patent for the printing and marketing of part-music, and the 1588 collection Psalmes, Sonets & songs of sadnes and pietie was issued under that monopoly. It contains 35 vocal works in five parts. Many were originally written for domestic performance by a solo singer accompanied by a consort of four viols; for their publication in Psalmes Byrd texted the instrumental parts so that the songs could be performed by a soloist ('first singing part') plus four voices. Perhaps Byrd thought by arranging the songs for voices only he would increase their potential market. If so, his strategy worked: the publication went through several editions in his lifetime.

This is the first recording of all the numbers in the collection. Alamire director David Skinner wisely elected to vary the texture by performing 18 of the songs using a vocal soloist accompanied by viols, as Byrd originally composed them. Another 13 songs are performed by voices only, as issued in the published collection, and four are performed by viols alone.

Also in the interests of variety, Skinner changed the published order of the songs and split the collection into two separate programs. Each of the two discs of this recording opens with a group of psalms, followed by a selection of the love sonnets and pastorals, then a smaller group of songs of sadness and piety; each disc concludes with one of the two funeral songs lamenting the death of the poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney, who died in battle against the Spanish forces in the Netherlands in 1586. So that every number could fit onto two discs, Skinner has also shortened some of the psalms; for example, the two songs drawn from the lengthy Psalm 119 have had verses cut so that their total performance time is about five minutes, rather than 20. I share Skinner's view that these changes enhance the collection's listenability at only a minor cost to its completeness.

The result is a recording of quiet beauty, inviting contemplation. Byrd's gift for melody is often apparent; it's very clear why "Lullaby, my sweet little baby" (on disc 1) was so popular that the entire collection become known as "Byrd's Lullabys." But his many compositional felicities are best appreciated by following along with the provided texts. The soloists, both vocal and instrumental, are very good, and the voices of Alamire are both individually distinctive and well-blended. The performances were recorded, fittingly, in the lovely acoustic of All Saints, a fourteenth-century church on the grounds of the Holdenby estate once owned by one of Byrd's supporters at Elizabeth's court, Sir Christopher Hatton.

"Ambitious love hath forced me to aspire":

Ambitious love hath forced me to aspire
the beauties rare which do adorn thy face.
Thy modest life yet bridles my desire,
whose severe law doth promise me no grace.

But what? May love live under any law?
No, no. His power exceedeth man's conceit
of which the Gods themselves stand in awe
for on his frown, a thousand torments weight.

Proceed then in this desperate enterprise,
with good advise, and follow love, thy guide,
that leads thee to thy wished Paradise.

Thy climbing thoughts, this comfort take with all,
that if it be thy foul disgrace to slide
thy brave attempt shall yet excuse thy fall.

Royal Handel
Eva Zaïcik (mezzo-soprano) with Le Consort. Alpha ALPHA662

Image source: Presto Music

From 1720 to 1728 George Frideric Handel was the principal composer and musical director for London's Royal Academy of Opera. The Royal Academy was a group of aristocratic shareholders who each invested at least £200 to commission new opera seria from Europe's leading composers, including not only Handel but also Attilio Ariosti and Giovanni Bononcini. And in his additional role as Master of the Orchestra Handel was responsible for engaging the vocal soloists and musicians for the company.

During this time Handel wrote some of his greatest operas, including Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt), Tamerlano (Tamerlaine), and Rodelinda, all first performed in the twelve months between February 1724 and February 1725. Arias from those operas have been recorded many times; although this recording does include one stirring aria from Giulio Cesare, it has a welcome focus on lesser-known operas by Handel and the other two composers.

Eva Zaïcik has a rich, rounded mezzo-soprano that is especially luscious in the slower arias, but she can also fleetly negotiate coloratura passages. Le Consort is less than a third of the size of Handel's Royal Academy orchestra, but what it sacrifices in richness of sound it makes up for in transparency of textures and responsiveness to the music and the singer. A very rewarding recital, as you can hear in "Stille amare" (Bitter drops [of poison]) from Tolomeo, Re d'Egitto (Ptolemy, Ruler of Egypt):

Stille amare,
già vi sento tutte in seno,
la morte a chiamar;
già vi sento smorzare il tormento,
già vi sento tornarmi a bear.
Bitter drops,
already I feel you within my breast,
summoning death;
already I feel you ease my torment,
already I feel you return me to joy.

La Francesina: Handel's Nightingale
Sophie Junker (soprano) with Le Concert de l'Hostel Dieu; Franck-Emmanuel Comte, director. Aparte AP233

Image source: Presto Music

La Francesina—"the little Frenchwoman"—was born Élisabeth Duparc. As a young woman she travelled to Italy for operatic training, and appeared onstage in Florence and other Tuscan cities. In 1736—Handel scholar Winton Dean thinks she may have been 20 or 21, but it's possible she was a year or three older—she came to London, probably after being talent-scouted by Nicola Porpora, musical director of the Opera of the Nobility. The Opera of the Nobility had been founded in 1733 in opposition to Handel's company, reflecting a political split between the Prince of Wales and his father King George II. In the Opera of the Nobility La Francesina sang with the castrato Farinelli, the greatest opera star in the world.

It's perhaps no coincidence that the company employing the greatest opera star in the world went bankrupt by the end of the 1736-37 season. La Francesina then joined Handel's company, and performed with him in opera and oratorio for the next decade. She was described by Charles Burney has having a "natural warble, and agility of voice," a "spirited manner," and "lark-like execution" which "Handel seems to have great pleasure in displaying." [1] For good reason: judging from the parts he wrote for her she was a very skilled singer. Those parts include Romilda in Serse (1738), the title roles in Deidamia (1741), Semele (1744), and L'Allegro in L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1742), and a revised version of the aria "Rejoice greatly" in Messiah (1742).

Sophie Junker is a young Belgian soprano, and this her first solo recording. To my ear her singing is not always perfect, but it is passionate, exciting, and expressive. We had the good fortune to see Sophie Junker in concert with Sherezade Panthaki accompanied by Voices of Music, one of my Favorite Concerts of 2019; I wrote then that "Junker was a voice new to us and a wonderful discovery." That excellent first impression is amply confirmed by this new recording.

Romilda's "Nè men con l'ombre d'infedeltà" from Serse:

Nè men con l'ombre d'infedeltà
voglio tradire l'anima mia;
e se'l mio bene suo mal si fè,
incolpi amore, non gelosia.
Not even with a shadow of infidelity
Would I betray my beloved;
And if harm should befall my dearest one,
Let love, not jealousy, be to blame.

Almira and Antiochus und Stratonica
Soloists with the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra; Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, directors. CPO 555205-2 and CPO 555369-2

Image source: Boston Early Music Festival

These two operas are grouped together because they are both of high quality and they are linked historically: they were both written for the Hamburg Opera in the first decade of the 1700s. Almira (1705) was the first opera composed by the 19-year-old Georg Friedrich Händel (later Anglicized to George Frideric Handel), while Antiochus and Stratonica (1708) was the second opera by the 25-year-old Christoph Graupner, who had come to Hamburg just after Händel's departure (perhaps no coincidence).

Both operas feature complicated plots providing plenty of opportunity for emotional outpourings, include both comic and serious characters, and provide a mix of German, Italian, and French musical elements. And both are given excellent performances by the forces of the Boston Early Music Festival.

In Almira, the Queen of Castile (Emöke Baráth) must fulfill the deathbed wish of her father and marry the son of the royal counselor Consalvo (Christian Immler). However, Almira loves her secretary Fernando (Colin Balzer), whose birth is obscure. Consalvo's son Osman (Zachary Wilder) is loved by the Princess Edilia (Amanda Forsythe); but, ambitious to be elevated to the monarchy by marrying Almira, Osman abandons Edilia. Matters are further complicated by rivals for the affections of both Almira and Osman, and Consalvo's own romantic aspirations. And then it turns out that Consalvo had another son, believed lost at sea. . .

Amanda Forsythe as Princess Edilia performing "Schönste Rosen und Narcissen" from Act I of Almira:

Schönste Rosen und Narcissen,
lasst in eurer Wunderpracht
mich das Bild von Osman küssen,
welches mich verliebt gemacht.

Hohe Linden, die ihr grünet
und zu holde Schatten dienet,
seid bemüht,
in den Zweigen
mir zu zeigen,
ob der Hoffnung edle Blüth’
wird dereinst mein Leid versüssen?
Lovely roses and narcissus,
Amid your wonderful splendour
let me kiss the image of Osman,
which made me fall in love.

Tall lindens, as you come into leaf
and make sweet shade,
might you strive
in your branches
to show me
whether the noble bud of hope
will sweeten my sorrow one day?

Antiochus und Stratonica has a double helping of forbidden love. King Seleucus (Harry van der Kamp), recently widowed, has married the much younger Stratonica (Hana Blažíková). His son Antiochus (Christian Immler) is stricken with love for his beautiful stepmother, but rather than dishonor his family, sickens and wastes away. The handsome doctor Hesychius (Jesse Blumberg) is called in, and it doesn't take him long to diagnose the cause of Antiochus' suffering. Meanwhile, the sorceress Mirtenia (Sunhae Im) has fallen in love with the royal treasurer Demetrius (Aaron Sheehan), who is inconveniently married to Ellenia (Sherezade Panthaki). It's not a comfortable position to be in when there's a sorceress who wishes you didn't exist. . .

Seleucus' "Zu den Wolcken" (Up to the clouds):

Zu den Wolcken, zu den Sternen,
laß ich meine Seufftzer gehn.
Himmel ja, durch viele Thränen,
und durch Sehnen
wird man dich erweichet sehn!
Up to the clouds, up to the stars,
I send my sighs.
Yes, O heaven, through many tears
and through yearning
your heart will be softened!

La Grotta di Trofonio and Armida
Soloists with Les Talens Lyriques; Christophe Rousset, director. Ambroisie AMB9986 and Aparté AP244

Image source: Presto Music

Beginning in 2005 with La Grotta di Trofonio (The Cave of Trophonius, 1785), Les Talens Lyriques director Christophe Rousset has embarked on a project to reclaim Antonio Salieri's operas from neglect and disregard. So far he has recorded five complete operas, and the results have been revelatory. Far from the mediocrity portrayed in Peter Shaffer's play and screenplay Amadeus, Salieri has been revealed as a gifted and highly original composer.

And it has become abundantly clear that Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte borrowed musical and dramatic ideas from Salieri. As I wrote in my post on Salieri's La scuola de' gelosi (1778), Mozart and Salieri: The School of Jealousy, "Salieri may not have been Mozart, but being Salieri was more than sufficient." (La scuola de' gelosi was an Honorable Mention in my Favorites of 2019: Recordings.)

Each of these operas offers its own rewards (and distinctive sound-world). La Grotta di Trofonio is an opera buffa featuring two sisters, the serious Ofelia (Raffaella Milanesi) and the light-hearted Dori (Marie Arnet), and their temperamentally matched lovers Artemidoro (Nikolai Schukoff) and Plistene (Mario Cassi). Walking in the woods one day the two men enter the cave of the magician Trofonio (Carlo Lepore) and emerge with their personalities switched, triggering a series of comic misunderstandings and mis-timed attempts to match up each couple's personalities again. (Mozart and Da Ponte borrowed extensively from La Grotta for Cosi fan tutte (1790).)

"Di questo bosco ombroso" (In this shady forest), Artemidoro's Act I aria about finding peace and tranquillity in solitude:

Di questo bosco ombroso
al solitario aspetto
un placido reposo
d'insolito diletto
tatto m'inonda il cor.

La cheta solitudine
a un'alma filosofica
quant'è più cara, e amabile,
che di città lo strepito
e d'affolato popolo
l'incomodo clamor!
In this shady forest
the solitude brings
a peaceful repose
of rare delight
that touches my heart.

The quiet and solitude
to a philosophical soul
are more dear, and appealing,
than the noise of the city
and the crowds of people
who make such a distracting clamor!

Armida (1771) is a magic opera based on Torquato Tasso's epic Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), a source previously used by different authors for libretti set by Lully (Armide, 1686), Handel (Rinaldo, 1711), and Jommelli (Armida Abbandonata, 1770); Armida operas would later be written by Gluck (1777), Haydn (1784), Rossini (1817), and Dvořák (1904).

In Salieri's opera (libretto by Marco Coltellini) Saracen sorceress Armida (sung by Lenneke Ruiten) is using her supernatural powers against the Christian army besieging Jerusalem. She captures the valiant knight Rinaldo (Florie Valiquette) and brings him to her magic island. There she falls in love with him and uses her powers (whether erotic or magical is not specified) to make him love her and forget his martial duties. As the opera opens, Rinaldo's companion Ubaldo (Ashley Riches) arrives on Armida's island in an attempted rescue (or should that be "rescue?"). Using his magic shield and wand Ubaldo is able to defeat the infernal beings defending the island; he's also able to resist the equally dangerous allurements of Armida's handmaidens, led by Ismene (Teresa Iervolino). But can Rinaldo defend himself against Armida's tears?

Armida moves swiftly through its three acts (which take just over two hours to perform). Under Rousset's direction the music is highly effective at evoking both the darkness and sensuous pleasure of Armida's island, and the cast is uniformly excellent. Beautifully produced by Aparté in a hardbound case (like a miniature book) with essays, images, and the full text in four languages, the CD version is a strong argument for the continued production of physical media.

"Qui'l regno è del contento," a love duet for Armida and Rinaldo from the beginning of Act II:

Armida, Rinaldo
Qui'l regno è del contento
la sede del piacer.

Fresch'ombre e verdi sponde,
cui bagna un rio d'argento
c'invitano a goder.
Par che la terra e l'onde
spirino un dolce ardor,
sembra che fin d'amor
mormori il vento.

Armida, Rinaldo
Qui'l regno è del contento
la sede del piacer.

Folle chi della vita
passa il breve momento
in torbidi pensier.
Che val l'età fiorita,
che val ricchezza ed or,
se cambia un van timor
tutto in tormento?

Armida, Rinaldo
Prezioso è il tempo, e lieve,
facciamone tesor,
la vita è un cammin breve,
spargiamolo di fior.
Armida, Rinaldo
Here happiness reigns,
this is the seat of pleasure.

Refreshing shade and verdant banks,
bathed by a silver stream,
invite us to enjoyment.
The land and the sea
inspire a sweet ardour,
even the winds seem to murmur
words of love.

Armida, Rinaldo
Here happiness reigns,
this is the seat of pleasure.

Foolish are they who spend
life's brief moments
in troubled thoughts.
What's the use of being young,
what's the use of gold and riches,
if vain fear turns everything
into torment?

Armida, Rinaldo
Time is precious and fleeting,
so let us treasure it;
life's path is short,
so let us strew it with flowers.

After Silence
Voces8: Eleonore Cockerham and Andrea Haines (soprano), Katie Jeffries-Harris and Barnaby Smith (alto), Blake Morgan and Euan Williamson (tenor), Christopher Moore and Jonathan Pacey (bass); Barnaby Smith, director. Voces8 Records VCM129

Image source: Presto Music

"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." —Aldous Huxley

For us this has been the year of Voces8. After being introduced to this (chiefly) a capella group via YouTube by a good friend and colleague, I sought out their latest album After Silence and learned about the streamed concert series they had begun sponsoring, Live from London, which will feature heavily in my next Favorites of 2021 post.

What is immediately apparent with Voces8 is the way their flawless intonation and perfect unison combine to make an exquisitely blended sound. Dissonances, especially, are so impeccably tuned that they will send shivers up your spine.

Eric Whitacre's "A Boy and a Girl," a version of "Los Novios" by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz as translated by Muriel Rukeyser:

A Boy and a Girl
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.
Los Novios
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.

Their sound is especially effective in the intimate, mournful and devotional works that are at the heart of their repertory and which make up the core of this double CD set. After Silence includes works spanning the 16th through the 21st centuries (many of the contemporary pieces specifically commissioned by the group), and is divided into four parts: Remembrance, Devotion, Redemption, and Elemental. The album may have been planned as a celebration of the 15th anniversary of Voces8, but it's hard not to read it also as a response to the pandemic: many of the pieces included address the pain of separation and irrevocable loss.

Philip Stopford's setting of "Lully, Lulla, Lullay," filmed in St Stephen's Walbrook Church, London:

Lully, lulla, lully, lulla
By by, lully lullay
Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child
By by, lully lullay

O sisters too,
How may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling,
For whom we sing,
By by, lully lullay?

Herod, the king,
In his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might,
In his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me,
Poor child for thee!
And ever morn and day,
For thy parting
Neither say nor sing
By by, lully lullay

Other Favorites of 2021:

  1. Charles Burney, A General History of Music, Volume the Second, Chapter VI: The Origin of the Italian Opera in England, and its Progress there during the present Century, 1789.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Favorites of 2021: Movies

Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955). Image source:

This past year I found myself rewatching films I'd first seen years or decades ago. I do this a good deal in most years, but this year it seemed as though rewatched films were a larger proportion of my viewing. So at the end of my list of favorite films first seen in the past twelve months I've added a couple ringers: movies that I first watched decades ago, but which on re-viewing I felt deserved a place on my favorites list. 

In ascending chronological order by year of release:

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

Coleen Gray (as Molly performing in her stage persona "Electra") in Nightmare Alley.

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). When her husband Pete dies (an accident that Stan has a hand in), Zeena enlists Stan as a partner in her act and teaches him the secret communication code that makes her seem clairvoyant. Once he learns the code, Stan and his (younger, prettier) lover Molly (Coleen Gray) leave the carnival and head for the big city to make their fortune with an upscale nightclub act.

Unfortunately for Stan, "consulting psychologist" Lilith (Helen Walker, with tightly coiffed/repressed hair) comes to the nightclub one night. Soon they've formed a partnership: Lilith feeds Stan information from therapy sessions with her wealthy clients, enabling him to extort ever-increasing sums of money from them by pretending to commune with the spirits of their long-lost loved ones. But "psychic" Stan doesn't see that he's the one being conned. . .

The carnival sequences are authentically seedy, in part because a real carnival was rented and installed on the backlot. Screenwriter Jules Furthman (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep) had to tone down many aspects of Gresham's novel, thanks to the Production Code, but the movie is still remarkably dark. 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. Equally courageous is Joan Blondell, whose Zeena is a once-beautiful woman whose face and body are beginning to show the effects of her hard life. And Helen Walker makes a coolly calculating femme fatale, as she would in the next film on my favorites list.

Impact (1949). Screenplay by Dorothy Reid and Jay Dratler, directed by Arthur Lubin.

Helen Walker (as Irene Williams) in Impact.

San Francisco auto magnate Walter Williams (Brian Donleavy) dies in a fiery crash on a mountain road. Or at least that's the way it looks. Just before the crash, though, Williams was assaulted by a hitchhiker, shoved unconscious off a cliff and left for dead. Instead it was his passenger who was behind the wheel when Williams' speeding car plunged off the twisting road in the dark and exploded in flames, burning the driver's body beyond recognition.

When Williams returns to consciousness he's dazed. He crawls back up to the road and climbs into the back of a moving van that had stopped at the accident scene. Unnoticed by the movers as they drive off, the next day he wakes up with a splitting headache as they pull into a small town in Idaho. There he discovers the news of his "death" and a dawning realization: his wife Irene (Helen Walker) and the "cousin" she'd asked him to give a lift to (Tony Barrett) had plotted to murder him. And that insight leads inevitably to the conclusion that they must have been lovers.

In Idaho Williams meets the owner of a struggling gas-station, the war widow Marsha Peters (Ella Raines), and—his former life shattered—decides to stay on and help her as "Bill Walter." Eventually, though, he reveals his true identity, and at Marsha's urging returns to the Bay Area to clear his wife of murder charges in his "death"—only to find himself arrested, accused by Irene of killing her lover. Now Marsha must race against time to try to prove his innocence. . .

Impact offers some nice twists on the noir formula: instead of the Good Wife versus the seductive Other Woman, this time it's the seductive Bad Wife who (twice!) tries to do away with her husband, and the good Other Woman who tries to save him. The movie's chief attractions are the adversaries in that battle: the striking Ella Raines (of Hail the Conquering Hero), and Helen Walker, once again playing an ice-cold femme fatale with chilling effectiveness.

Love Me or Leave Me (1955). Screenplay by Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart; directed by Charles Vidor.

Doris Day (as Ruth Etting) wearing a Helen Rose creation in Love Me or Leave Me.

The story of a nightclub singer's rise to stardom and marriage to a controlling, violent man may have attracted its star Doris Day because of the parallels to her own life. Singing hopeful Ruth Etting (Day) is spotted in a 10-cents-a-dance joint by Chicago gangster Martin Snyder (James Cagney). Snyder aggressively takes charge of Ruth's career, strong-arming Ruth's way into a job singing a warm-up jingle for a male headliner, and then engineering the headliner's no-show so that Ruth can go on in his place. A radio show follows, the Ziegfeld Follies are soon calling, and Ruth becomes the toast of Broadway—but she still somehow manages to keep Snyder at arm's length. Snyder's frustration and jealousy are further inflamed by Ruth's musical director Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell), who has made no secret of his attraction to her. Ruth returns Johnny's feelings, but her career is tied to Snyder. Snyder ultimately coerces Ruth into marriage, resulting in misery for all three.

Day, dressed in a series of glamorous Helen Rose gowns, surprises by playing Ruth as a woman whose sweet appearance conceals a will of steel: she knows what she wants and goes after it, even at the cost of her own happiness. Cagney gives a fiercely driven performance as Snyder, the intensity of whose passion for Ruth is never enough to evoke responsive feelings in her. Cagney manages to make Snyder sympathetic in his inability to help himself despite his recognition of the hopelessness of his situation.

In addition to the strong script and performances, Day sings a dozen standards, including the title track, "Ten Cents A Dance," "Mean to Me," "I'll Never Stop Loving You," "You Made Me Love You," and a lush, emotionally freighted version of "Never Look Back":

All That Heaven Allows (1955). Screenplay by Peg Fenwick after a story by Edna L. Lee and Harry Lee; directed by Douglas Sirk.

Rock Hudson (as Ron Kirby) and Jane Wyman (as Cary Scott) in All That Heaven Allows.

Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is a well-off widow in a New England town whose life revolves around her country-club friends and her college-age children. Passion is missing—until she meets Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), a much younger arborist (Hudson was actually only 7 years younger than Wyman, but Ron is supposed to be 15 years younger than Cary). Ron lives "simply" (in a gorgeously renovated old mill that would cost several decades of my salary) and invites Cary to dinner with his carefree bohemian friends; soon they are falling in love.

But Cary's country-club set is disapproving, and both her son and her daughter react badly (neither of them thinks it's appropriate for their middle-aged mother to be interested in love and sex). Her son actually buys her a TV set for company; in a brilliant reverse-angle shot she sees herself reflected in the screen as if trapped within it. Will Cary be able to summon the emotional strength to find happiness with Ron, or will she conform to the expectations of her neighbors and the wishes of her children and remain walled up alive in her comfortable tomb?

All That Heaven Allows is stunningly filmed in deeply saturated Technicolor by Sirk and cinematographer Russell Metty. The screen is flooded with gorgeous reds and golds when she and Ron embrace, and conversely when they are separated the winter landscape seems drained of color; Cary is often placed behind window frames as if behind prison bars. Sirk's use of shadows is as visually evocative as in a black and white film.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, 2019). Written and directed by Céline Sciamma.

Noémie Merlant (as Marianne) and Adèle Haenel (as Héloïse) in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Image source: UCSD Guardian

Beautifully photographed and delicately understated, Céline Sciamma's film focuses on the impossible and doubly forbidden love between the artist Marianne and her aristocratic subject Héloïse. Their love is impossible because, as Héloïse's companion (and secretly the painter of her portrait), Marianne is essentially a high-status servant in the household of the Countess, Héloïse's mother. Their love is doubly forbidden because it is both homoerotic and adulterous: Héloïse's marriage has been contracted and is imminent; Marianne has been hired to paint her wedding portrait.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire could not have been designed to be more enticing to us with its 18th-century setting, scenic locations, elegant interiors, lovely clothes, simmering erotic tension, hopeless love, passionate Vivaldi, intelligent script, and appealing actors (Noémie Merlant as Marianne and Adèle Haenel as Héloïse). What more could we ask for?


The Lady Eve (1941). Written and directed by Preston Sturges.

Barbara Stanwyck (as the Lady Eve) and Henry Fonda (as Charles Pike) in The Lady Eve.

The Lady Eve is the quintessential Sturges comedy. Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), heir to the "Pike's Pale Ale" fortune, is returning to New York from a snake-hunting expedition to the Amazon. On board the same ocean liner are Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and "Colonel" Harry (Charles Coburn), a father-daughter team of card sharps planning to fleece him and the other rich passengers along the way. Charles, who has been in paradise and is bringing home a snake, is about to fall.

The Lady Eve is the best of Sturges' movies, which is saying a great deal, and has one of the cleverest, funniest closing scenes in all American movie comedy. This was the peak experience of our home Preston Sturges film festival this year. If you've never seen it, viewing is highly recommended, and if (like me) you have seen it before, a rewatch is in order.

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). Screenplay by Len Deighton (uncredited), based on the stage musical Oh, What a Lovely War! developed by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop; directed by Richard Attenborough.

This post will be published on Veterans' Day in the U.S., commemorating the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the moment when fighting was halted on the Western Front in World War I. That nearly 3,000 men were killed on that same day in the hours before the official cessation of hostilities is one more example of the horrific waste of life in that conflict, which resulted in the deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians, and permanent injury or disability to millions more.

Oh! What A Lovely War is a savage satire of the blunders and lies that led to and sustained the First World War. The home front, where brass bands play, musical hall stars exhort men to join up, and the appalling casualties are posted like cricket scores, is represented by Brighton Palace Pier; the battle front is depicted in all its muddy death-dealing horror. 

You'll recognize virtually every notable British stage and screen actor of the time, including Dirk Bogarde (The Servant), Edward Fox (The Day of the Jackal), John Gielgud (Secret Agent), Ian Holm (Dreamchild), Laurence Olivier (Rebecca), Michael Redgrave (The Lady Vanishes) and his daughter Vanessa (Mary, Queen of Scots), Ralph Richardson (The Holly and the Ivy), Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), and Susannah York (Tom Jones)—and if you have a sharper eye than mine you may spot Jane Seymour (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) as a chorus girl. I first saw this when I was about 16, and the final shot has stayed with me ever since. The film was made around the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war, but its message seems aimed as well at the brutal campaign the U.S. was then waging in Vietnam. Oh! What A Lovely War will only lose its impact when working-class young men are no longer sent off to die in meaningless conflicts by rich old men who direct the carnage from a safe distance—which is to say, never.

Honorable mentions:

Cluny Brown (1946). Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt, based on the novel by Margery Sharp; directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Helen Walker (as the Honorable Betty Cream) in Cluny Brown.

The final film completed by Ernst Lubitsch before his death, Cluny Brown features his trademark lightness of touch as well as typically risqué dialogue, this time featuring plumbing as a metaphor for sex.

As the plumber-heroine Cluny, Jennifer Jones displays an unsuspected flair for comedy and a British accent that often vanishes completely, while as Adam Belinski, a penniless Czech refugee from the Nazis, Charles Boyer offers his usual suavity. Helen Walker (of Nightmare Alley and Impact) plays the Honorable Betty Cream, the presumptive fiancée of Andrew (Peter Lawford), an upper-crust son and heir. Betty and Andrew have had a row, and over the course of a country-house weekend Cluny (a maid/plumber) and Adam (a houseguest) present romantic complications for the couple, and each other. Andrew is sincere but a bit dim, while Betty is self-possessed, coolly witty, and gets some of the better lines.

Cluny Brown may not rank with Lubitsch's greatest work—for that you'll need to watch Trouble in Paradise—but it is a charming and affectionate send-up of British manners and mores, and its oppositions are never simple ones. It makes me wonder why both Jennifer Jones and Helen Walker didn't get to play more comic roles.

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

Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 could almost be mistaken as a product of the French New Wave. An updating of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel in letters of aristocratic libertinage to the milieu of the Parisian haute-bourgeoisie in the late 1950s, Vadim's film seems to have been explicitly modelled 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 Philippe) and Juliette (Moreau), a well-off married couple, have agreed to sleep with other people, but have also pledged to be completely honest with each other; they have vowed "not to accept the lies that degrade other couples." But their apparent openness devolves into an intra-marital power struggle that brings disaster to everyone whose lives they touch, including the teenaged Cécile Volanges (Jeanne Valérie), her fiancé Jerry Court (Nicholas Vogel), her college-student lover Danceny (Jean-Louis Trintignant), and the devoted wife Madame de Tourvel (Annette Vadim).

The updating of the novel works surprisingly well. To the novel's letters the film adds phone calls, tape recordings, and telegrams; 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 appalling introduction aside, Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 largely succeeds on its own terms: it's sleek and chic and has excellent leads in Philipe and Moreau, who are flattered by the gorgeous black-and-white photography of Marcel Grignon. But, like the novel, it could have been a blistering critique of gendered power relations. That would have required, though, some self-critical reflection on the part of Vadim, whose later career (he wrote and directed Barbarella (1968), among other films) demonstrates that he forever remained a prisoner of the idea that women's sexual freedom should primarily benefit men.

Other Favorites of 2021: