Sunday, December 3, 2023

Favorites of 2023: Movies and television

Jack Lowden as Steven Morrissey in England is Mine (2017). Image source:

In the last Favorites of 2023 post I discussed the films we watched in our year of Alec Guinness. We did watch a few movies and TV shows last year that for some reason didn't feature Guinness, and of those first seen in 2023, a few stood out as particular favorites:

Drive My Car (2021), starring Hidetoshi Nishijima, Reika Kirishima, Masaki Okada, and Toko Miura; based on the short stories "Drive My Car" and "Scherezade" by Haruki Murakami; written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi.

Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his driver Misaki (Toko Miura) in Drive My Car. Image source: Japan Society Film Club

Apart from one misjudged scene added by writer-director Hamaguchi, this quiet and visually striking adaptation of two Haruki Murakami short stories enriches its source material. A meditation on loss, grief, storytelling, performance, and the bonds that—welcome or not—connect us with one another, Drive My Car was one of the most memorable films we watched this year. For my full-length post please see Haruki Murakami part 5: Drive My Car.

England is Mine (2017), starring Jack Lowden (Steven Morrissey), Jessica Brown Findlay (Linder Sterling), Adam Lawrence (Billy Duffy), and Laurie Kynaston (Johnny Marr); written by Mark Gill and William Thacker; directed by Mark Gill.

England Is Mine DVD cover

Image source:

A warning: this movie won't be for everyone. Any ordinary person will wonder why they are spending the length of a feature film with a teenager who tries to mask his crippling shyness with aloofness, disdain and arrogance; whose fear of disappointment prevents him from taking emotional risks or exposing himself to ridicule; and who constructs an insular world defined by his highly specific tastes. These include pop music (David Bowie, Roxy Music, New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Sparks, early 60s pop, girl groups and Motown, French chanteuses such as Françoise Hardy and Juliette Greco), movie stars (James Dean, Alain Delon, Jean Marais), and eclectic (and sometimes lurid) reading.

The movie is subtitled "On Becoming Morrissey," and as you may have already guessed, that awkward, introverted Manchester teenager went on to become the lead singer and lyricist of The Smiths. As I wrote of Morrissey's Autobiography (2013):

In the first half of Autobiography, Morrissey writes compellingly of his youthful feelings of loneliness and desperation, his struggles to escape the dead-end future planned for him by a routinized and soul-crushing school system, and his conviction that there must be a way to stop being an observer, a fan, and take an active part in the world of pop music that was his lifeline: "I am suddenly full of sweeping ideas that even I can barely grasp, and although penniless, I am choked by the belief that something must happen. It is not enough just to 'be'. . . .I cannot continue as a member of the audience. If only I could forget myself I might achieve." (p. 116)

The dingy palette of hazy browns and dull greens chosen by Gill and cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland to depict 1970s Manchester is the objective correlative of a mood of hopelessness and despair resulting from the city's slow-motion economic collapse. Colors drained of vibrancy are as effective as the black-and-white images of another excellent film set in 1970s Manchester, Anton Corbijn's Control, in representing the bleak post-industrial cityscape.

Steven meets a kindred spirit, the brash art student Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay).

From SheShe, a series of photographs of Linder Sterling by Christina Birrer with words by Linder, 1981. Photo credit: Christina Birrer. Image source:

It's Linder's drive and determination that finally galvanize Steven to risk failure by meeting up with the guitarist Billy (Adam Lawrence), whose notice seeking musical collaborators he'd spotted in a record store. One of the first songs they write together is entitled "I Think I'm Ready for the Electric Chair."

Billy Duffy ca. 1980. Image source:

Like Sam Riley's portrayal of Joy Division's lead singer and lyricist Ian Curtis in Control, Jack Lowden in England is Mine inhabits, rather than impersonates, his real-life character to an uncanny degree. From England is Mine, Steven's onstage debut with Billy and The Nosebleeds on 15 April 1978, doing a cover of the Shangri-Las' "Give Him A Great Big Kiss" (and unlike his heroes the New York Dolls, Steven doesn't change the gender of the singer's crush).

And here's the Shangri-Las original.

But when Billy leaves The Nosebleeds to join another band and Linder departs for London, Steven is left bereft and directionless—until Johnny (Laurie Kynaston), a guitarist friend of Billy's looking for a singer, knocks on his front door. It's no spoiler to say that we know how this story will continue. As I wrote about Autobiography, the music of The Smiths "gave expression to certain inchoate feelings of loss, regret, and lack of direction in my post-collegiate 20s. Johnny Marr's crystalline guitar was the perfect accompaniment to Morrissey's arch, funny, and bitterly true lyrics." The album Hatful of Hollow remains on my record shelf, despite what Morrissey has become.

If you're curious, a home recording was made in 1982 of Morrissey and Marr performing The Cookies' "I Want A Boy For My Birthday." They gave the tape to their first bass player, Dale Hibbert, so he could learn the song. He has posted it to YouTube, and it's brief sample of what their first musical collaborations sounded like:

And here is The Cookies original.

A reviewer for The Guardian called England Is Mine "generic." It is anything but, being filled with references to Morrissey's formative discoveries in music and books, and with visuals and dialogue that point to his later use of the materials of his life in his lyrics. [1]

Other reviewers have unfairly complained that the movie soundtrack contains no Smiths songs, even though the entire film takes place before The Smiths are formed. The soundtrack is great; Morrissey's lyrics to The Smiths' song "Rubber Ring" mention "the songs that saved your life," and several of his favorites are featured. [2]

Fortunately there are also some more thoughtful critical engagements with this movie and with Morrissey and The Smiths. Gill's film is obviously a labor of love and of close attention to telling details. It is not perfect, of course. Curiously, we don't see (or hear) Linder fronting her postpunk art-noise band Ludus, whose gigs Morrissey would surely have attended. We also don't see any of the other Manchester bands that were born around the same time: The Buzzcocks (a Linder collage is on the cover of their "Orgasm Addict" single), Magazine (she designed the cover of their first album Real Life), The Fall (though we do see a record-store poster), Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, and many others. 

And apart from a single letter from Steven that gets printed in the New Musical Express, there's no hint of why the rock journalist and scenester Paul Morley would have called Morrissey "minor local legend Steven Morrison" [sic] in a 1978 NME review of one of his few appearances with The Nosebleeds. 

It's also true that the film is not attempting to be a documentary, and is more concerned with evoking a state of mind than with strict verisimilitude. The film rearranges chronology, omits events (Morrissey published a book on the New York Dolls in 1981, a time when the film presents Steven as isolated, lost, and deeply sunk in depression), eliminates real people (Steve Pomfret, for example, who showed up on Morrissey's doorstep with Johnny Marr in 1982) and invents fictional characters. But the film's narrow focus heightens its intensity, and I thought that, one scene excepted, it was brilliantly conceived and executed. I can't guarantee that you'll feel the same way.


Moonage Daydream (2022). Produced, written, edited and directed by Brett Morgen.

Speaking of labors of love and of close attention to detail, Brett Morgen's impressionistic montage of David Bowie's ever-changing image and music (as well as other artistic endeavors) is mesmerizing. Many pop stars would have tried to build an entire career around just one of Bowie's many musical personae. Bowie, as Keith Jarrett once said of Miles Davis, would rather risk producing bad music than repeat himself endlessly. Amazingly, he produced music worth hearing at virtually every stage of his life.

Morgen's two-hour documentary does not attempt to be comprehensive; to do so would require spanning more than 50 years of Bowie's music, art, and self-fashioning. But what he does include, primarily the period from "Space Oddity" (1969) through Let's Dance (1983), is compelling not only for its inherently interesting subject, but for the associative way that it is presented.

"Life on Mars?" from Bowie's album Hunky Dory (1971), filmed by Mick Rock in 1973:


Our Flag Means Death, first season (2022). Starring Rhys Darby (Stede Bonnet, the Gentleman Pirate), Taika Waititi (Edward Teach/Blackbeard), Con O'Neill (Izzy Hands, Blackbeard's first mate), Rory Kinnear (Royal Navy officers Captain Nigel Badminton and Admiral Chauncey Badminton), and many others. Created by David Jenkins. Produced by HBO Max.

Rhys Darby (Stede Bonnet), Taika Waitiki (Blackbeard), and Rory Kinnear (Captain Nigel Badminton) in Our Flag Means Death. Image source: Markham Froggatt & Irwin

A dear friend thought we would enjoy this series, and he couldn't have been more right. Of course, pirates (and their flamboyant outfits and square-rigged sailing ships that were floating socialist communities) have an inherent appeal. But that appeal is multiplied when the pirate captain is played by Rhys Darby. The role of the incompetent manager in Flight of the Conchords was clearly excellent preparation for playing the incompetent Gentleman Pirate Stede Bonnet.

In the show (and in history) Stede feels stifled by his life as a wealthy Barbados plantation owner and decides to become a pirate, even though he has no sailing experience. As you might guess, he encounters a steep learning curve, a skeptical crew of misfits, and near-disaster when the first ship they try to capture turns out to be a pirate-hunting Royal Navy man-of-war. More hairbreadth escapes and a meeting with the fearsome Blackbeard (the excellent Taika Waitiki) shortly follow. The two pirate captains decide to join forces; as they spend time together, each realizes that the other possesses qualities that they themselves lack, and a bond begins to form.

Our Flag Means Death is unusually casual about same-sex affection and gender nonconformity (as, apparently, historical pirates could also be). It's also extremely funny. Season 2 has just been released, and will feature the appearance of the historical women pirates Zheng Yi Sao, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. We're looking forward to the further adventures of Stede, Blackbeard, and their crews. [3]

Next time: Favorites of 2023: Books

  1. We see Steven with a book on the Moors Murders, for example; one of The Smith's earliest songs, "Suffer Little Children," was about the killings, and contains the line "Oh Manchester, so much to answer for." Also on Steven's bookshelf is the Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, a gift from his librarian mother; in "Cemetry Gates" (Morrissey's spelling) he sings "Keats and Yeats are on your side, but you lose. . .Wilde is on mine." A scene in England is Mine set at a fun fair recalls The Smiths' "Rusholme Ruffians," where fairs are depicted as places where sex and violence lurk: "A boy is stabbed and his money is grabbed / And the air hangs heavy like a dulling wine. . .Then someone falls in love, then someone's beaten up / And the senses being dulled are mine." A more passionate fan of The Smiths than I am could probably find many other instances.
  2. The soundtrack sent me to YouTube to explore early 60s pop stars I'd either never heard of, or never (knowingly) heard: The Cookies, Diana Dors, Vince Eager, Billy Fury, Johnny Tillotson.
  3. Irrelevant historical note: While Anne Bonny and Mary Read were active around the same time as Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard, Zheng Yi Sao lived almost a century later.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Favorites of 2023: Movies - Our year of Alec Guinness

Sir Alec Guinness, 1960. Photo credit: Derek Allen. Image source: National Portrait Gallery London NPG x45667

Movies: Our year of Alec Guinness

Some famous movie actors achieved stardom by playing essentially the same character over and over again. As James Baldwin wrote, "No one, for example, will ever really know whether Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable—or John Wayne—can, or could, really act, or not, nor does anyone care: acting is not what they are required to do. . .One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be. One does not go to see Humphrey Bogart, as Sam Spade: one goes to see Sam Spade, as Humphrey Bogart." [1]

Alec Guinness was a different kind of star. He became renowned for his protean quality, his ability to inhabit radically different characters. We had, of course, seen Guinness before in films ranging from Dr. Zhivago (1965) to Star Wars (1977). But what inspired our mini-Alec Guinness film festival this year was seeing him as Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in The Mudlark (1950).

Alec Guinness (Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli) and Irene Dunne (Queen Victoria) in The Mudlark. Image source:

Guinness's role as Disraeli involved the convincing portrayal of an often-photographed historical figure who would have been twice the actor's real age, and the recital of a 7-minute speech to Parliament in a single take. That performance made an indelible impression on us, and we soon sought out more of his films from the 1940s and 1950s.

Guinness got his start in films in writer-director David Lean's Great Expectations (1946). He was featured as Herbert Pocket, the man who, at the behest of an unknown benefactor of the orphan Pip (John Mills), teaches him how to dress and behave like a gentleman. [2]

Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. Photo credit: Ealing Studios. Image source: CBS News

Guinness was cast because he had played Pocket in his own stage adaptation of Great Expectations. Lean's film remains possibly the best screen adaptation of Dickens' novel. In the 1999 British Film Institute poll surveying the greatest British films of all time, it was ranked #5.

But Guinness's movie stardom was assured by a series of films made at Ealing Studios in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In these comedies, middle- and working-class characters challenge the established order of wealth and class, but discover in the end that it is not so easy to escape their stations, or their fates.

In the black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) Guinness plays eight different roles: all the members of the upper-crust D'Ascoyne family, male and female, who stand in the way of Louis Mazzini (Denis Price), who is ninth in line for the Dukedom.

Alec Guinness as six members of the D'Ascoyne family in Kind Hearts and Coronets: From right to left, Guinness as The Parson, suffragette Lady Agatha, The General, The Admiral, and the 8th Duke; Valerie Hobson as the widow Edith D'Ascoyne; and Guinness as Lord D'Ascoyne, at the funeral of Young Henry D'Ascoyne, also played by Guinness. The Lord's son, Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, also played by Guinness, has already met his demise. Image source: National Portrait Gallery London NPG x88518

Louis's mother was a D'Ascoyne but was disowned by her family when she married an operatic tenor. (How low can you sink?) Louis sees a perfect way to revenge himself against the snooty D'Ascoynes and reward himself by becoming the next duke. Only, it requires a bit of murder. Eight murders, in fact. What could possibly go wrong? In the 1999 BFI poll, Kind Hearts and Coronets was ranked #6.

In a thoroughgoing departure from the flamboyantly idiosyncratic members of the D'Ascoyne family, in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) Guinness plays lowly bank clerk Henry Holland, who is so unassuming he's virtually invisible. [3]

Alec Guinness (Henry Holland) and Ronald Adam (bank manager Mr. Turner) in The Lavender Hill Mob.

Holland performs his task of safeguarding bullion transfers so well that after 20 years at the bank he has never been considered for a promotion. But being overlooked by his superiors fits neatly into a plan that Holland is perfecting: to steal a shipment of the gold he is supposed to protect. The masterstroke will be melting down the stolen bars and recasting them as Eiffel Tower souvenirs in the workshop of his partner-in-crime Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), so that they can be smuggled to Paris without suspicion. What could possibly go wrong? In the BFI poll The Lavender Hill Mob was ranked #17; watch for a very brief appearance by the young Audrey Hepburn in one of her first film roles.

The person who invented a fabric that was impervious to dirt and wear would be universally acclaimed, no? Well, no. In The Man In The White Suit (1951) Guinness plays inventor Sidney Stratton, who after many failed experiments and a few sizeable explosions manages to synthesize just such a miracle fiber. It has only three minor drawbacks: it glows faintly because it is slightly radioactive, it is so strong that it can only be cut by industrial machines, and it is so dirt-resistant that it can't be dyed. He has a blindingly white suit made to demonstrate his fiber's revolutionary qualities. What could possibly go wrong?

Alec Guinness as Sidney Stratton in The Man in the White Suit. Image source: Perisphere: The Trylon Cinema's Blog

At first the mill owner (Cecil Parker) that Stratton works for is enthusiastic—until he realizes that if clothes never wear out no one will ever need new ones, and his sales will crash. The mill workers realize just as quickly that if the market crashes they will soon be out of jobs. The owners and the workers unite around the idea that Stratton's invention should be suppressed. They try everything from bribery to intimidation to seduction by the boss's daughter (Joan Greenwood), but Stratton refuses to give up the rights. In American movies the good guy gets the girl and wins out in the end. . .but of course, this is a film made in Britain in the grim aftermath of WWII. In the BFI poll The Man In The White Suit was ranked #58.

The final Ealing comedy we saw was the darkest of all. Like The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers (1955) is a heist movie. [4] Guinness, looking a bit like a more sinister Oscar Wilde, plays Professor Marcus, the mastermind of a plan for a daring daylight bank truck robbery. He moves into the boarding house of a slightly dotty elderly woman, Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), thinking that she will be easily fooled, and assembles his gang: the Major (Cecil Parker); Louis, a menacing mobster (Herbert Lom); One-Round, a none-too-bright ex-boxer (Danny Green); and Harry, a Teddy Boy (the young Peter Sellers in his first major film role). The Professor tells Mrs. Wilberforce that the gang is a string quintet which will be rehearsing in his rooms.

Left to right: Guinness (Professor Marcus), Danny Green (One-Round), Peter Sellers (Harry), Cecil Parker (the Major), and Herbert Lom (Louis) as an unlikely string quintet in The Ladykillers. Image source: Los Angeles Times.

During their meetings they play gramophone records to mask the sound of their planning for the heist. Their scheme involves an unwitting Mrs. Wilberforce claiming a trunk (unknown to her, filled with cash) and having it delivered to the gang; who could draw less suspicion? But things take a bad turn when Mrs. Wilberforce discovers that the group is not a string quintet after all. They decide that to ensure her silence they'll have to bump her off. Five heavily armed men against one frail old lady; what could possibly go wrong? In the BFI poll The Ladykillers was ranked #13.

Apart from the pleasures of watching Alec Guinness in the multifarious roles that made him famous, we enjoyed seeing the streets of London in the early 1950s, before architects started competing to see who could design the most whimsical building to deface its skyline and before industrial sites became luxury condos. All of these Guinness films are recommended, and we would probably rank them in more-or-less the same order (if not necessarily in the same places) as they appear in the BFI poll.

Next time: Favorites of 2023: Movies and television that didn't involve Alec Guinness

  1. James Baldwin, "The Devil Finds Work," in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. St. Martin's Press, 1985, p. 575.
  2. In Great Expectations, Pip's education as a gentleman is directed and supported by an unknown benefactor. Guinness had been in a similar situation: his mother, Agnes Cuff, was unmarried, and Guinness's boarding-school education was paid for by a friend of his mother's. Guinness suspected that this friend was his biological father, but if so, it was never confirmed.
  3. Lavender Hill is a street in what was once the working-class neighborhood of Battersea on the south bank of the Thames; Henry Holland and his partner in crime Alfred Pendlebury live in a run-down boarding house there. Today Battersea is filled with high-rise condos and a huge old power station that's been turned into an upscale shopping mall—with luxury condos, of course.
  4. Not to be confused with the 2004 Coen Brothers remake.

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Favorites of 2023: Music

In my previous post I covered our year of French Baroque opera. In this sequel I'll list my other favorite live, streamed, and recorded musical performances of the past 12 months, ordered chronologically.

Live performances

Liv Redpath (photo credit: Thomas Brunot; image source: Minnesota Opera) and Alex Rosen (image source: Askonas Holt)

A Baroque New Year's Eve at the Opera. Liv Redpath, soprano, Alex Rosen, bass, with American Bach Soloists conducted by Jeffrey Thomas. Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, 31 December 2022.

Our year of concertgoing began, fittingly enough, with American Bach Soloists' Baroque New Year's Eve at the Opera, which for us has become an annual tradition. The 2022 edition featured soprano Liv Redpath and bass Alex Rosen in a program of arias by Handel, Purcell, Rameau and Vivaldi. Both soloists were impressive: Rosen possesses a rich bass, and Redpath's extraordinary voice offers both a pure high soprano and a lovely lower register.  

There were plenty of bravura fireworks, which both singers handled adeptly, but we especially enjoyed the more emotion-laden moments: Redpath's performance of "V'adoro, pupile" and "Se pietà" from Handel's Giulio Cesare, and "Felicissima quest'alma" from his Apollo e Dafne, as well as Rosen's singing of "Leave me, loathsome light" from Handel's Semele and "Puisque Pluton est inflexible" from Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie. A brilliant way to bring in the New Year; we're very much looking forward to this year's edition.

Update 7 November 2023: Rebecca Paller profiles Liv Redpath in the December 2023 issue of Opera magazine (p. 1552). Paller notes that this past summer Redpath made her debut at Glyndebourne as Tytania in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and in October stepped onstage at the Metropolitan Opera as Oscar in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball). She will appear as the heroine Pamina in the Met's production of Mozart's Magic Flute next month. Congratulations to Redpath, whose career seems to be taking off in a spectacular fashion. Her success is richly deserved. [1]

Joyce DiDonato. Image source: Joyce DiDonato: EDEN

Joyce DiDonato: EDEN, with Il Pomo d'Oro, Zefira Valova, violin and conductor. Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, 21 January 2023.

This concert began with Joyce DiDonato vocalizing the trumpet part of Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question from about six feet behind us (we were in the next to last row of the mezzanine). Hearing the resonance of her powerful voice from just a few feet away was an almost overwhelming experience.

By the end of the piece DiDonato had made her way to the stage, where she continued this deeply felt program on the theme of "the nourishing and healing of our world and our hearts" in the face of the ever-worsening climate crisis and the devastations of the COVID pandemic. Through musical selections on the theme of nature ranging from Monteverdi contemporaries Biagio Marini and Francesco Cavalli, through 18th century composers George Frederic Handel, Josef Mysliveček and Christoph Willibald Gluck, to 20th and 21st century songs written by Aaron Copland and Rachel Portman, DiDonato addressed our need for connection to the natural world. 

If the seed packets handed out at the end of the concert seemed inadequate to the tasks we face, artists cannot solve global-scale crises but can only heighten our awareness, understanding, and empathy. In her program notes DiDonato herself pointed to Gene Scheer's words to Rachel Portman's "The First Morning of the World": "I am filled with nothing but questions." EDEN has been issued on CD, and interviews with DiDonato together with performances of musical selections are available as a YouTube playlist on her channel.

Le Concert Spirituel at St. James's Roman Catholic Church, Spanish Place, London, 6 June 2023. Photo credit: Matt Crossick/PA Wire

Handel: Solomon. Soloists with The English Concert and The Clarion Choir, Harry Bicket, conductor. Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, 5 March 2023.

Handel: Dettingen Te Deum and Coronation Anthems. Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet, conductor. Presented by Wigmore Hall at St. James's Roman Catholic Church Spanish Square, London, 6 June 2023.

It is undeniably thrilling to hear in person these pillars of the Monumental Baroque, which showcase the performance of massed choirs, blaring horns, piping winds and thundering timpani. 

As anyone who has every heard the Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah can attest, Handel was a particular master of this style. The opening chorus of the Dettingen Te Deum, "We praise thee, O God," performed by Le Concert Spirituel:

In comparison to the massive choruses and huge orchestras that sometimes present these pieces, the musical forces in these performances were (relatively) modest in scale, but did not lack awe-inspiring power—nor, when it was called for, subtlety. To our surprise, the London concert was attended by the recently crowned King Charles III, adding to the sense of occasion.

Colin Balzer (Ruggiero) and Mireille Lebel (Alcina) in Francesca Caccini's Alcina. Photo credit: Kathy Wittman. Image source:

Francesca Caccini: La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina. Mireille Lebel (Alcina), Colin Balzer (Ruggiero), Cecilia Duarte (Melissa), and others. Presented by Boston Early Music Festival at New England Conservatory Jordan Hall, Boston, 10 June 2023.

From my original post, Music in London and Boston: "Francesca Caccini's Alcina (1625) is the first known opera composed by a woman. The story of Alcina is taken by librettist Ferdinando Saracinelli from Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1532), the same source used more than a century later for Handel's opera Alcina (1735). The knightly hero Ruggiero has been seduced by the beautiful sorceress Alcina into tarrying with her on her magic island in a haze of sensual pleasure. The sorceress Melissa, in male disguise, arrives and tries to recall Ruggiero to a sense of his martial duties. Ultimately Melissa prevails, and Alcina's enchantments of Ruggiero, and of her numerous former lovers who have been turned into the lush vegetation of her island, are broken."

An excerpt from Act II of the original 2018 BEMF production, in which Melissa brings Ruggiero to recommit to his knightly purpose:

Alcina offered a strong cast and benefited from longtime BEMF stage director Gilbert Blin's thoughtful staging, choreographer Melinda Sullivan's expressive movement, and designer Anna Watkins' effective costumes (particularly striking when the chorus, portraying the enchanted former lovers, was decked out with leaves and branches).

Honorable mention

Michael Spyres at Wigmore Hall, 21 May 2023. Image source: Conessi all'Opera

Michael Spyres: Tenore Assoluto, with Il Pomo d'Oro conducted by Francesco Corti. Wigmore Hall, London, 21 May 2023.

For many people this concert would have been the highlight of their year. As I wrote in Music in London and Boston: "Spyres' voice is astonishing. He calls himself a 'baritenor,' and indeed has a remarkably wide range; he also has the vocal flexibility to execute rapid coloratura passages. But this concert, in which Spyres sang one fiery vocal showpiece after another, was almost too much of a good thing. For me the highlight of the evening was Spyres' first encore, 'J'ai perdu mon Eurydice' (I have lost my Eurydice) from Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice (1774), his French-language adaptation of Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). For this listener Spyres' moving and lyrical performance of this aria provided a grateful respite from the spectacular fireworks that preceded it." The music Spyres performed at this concert has been released on his album Contra-Tenor.

From Lully's Persée, "Cessons de redouter la fortune cruelle":

Streamed and recorded performances

Philippe Jaroussky with Le Concert de la Loge at l'Abbaye de Royaumont. Image source:

Boston Early Music Festival 2022-23 virtual concert season. BEMF continues to make their concerts available via streaming, which is of inestimable benefit for those of us who don't live in the Boston area. Tickets cost about the same as a movie, and concerts are available for two weeks once they start streaming (generally, about two weeks after the concert date). Added bonuses are pre-concert talks and interviews with the artists. The 2022-23 season featured Philippe Jaroussky, Vox Luminis (both mentioned in my Favorites of 2022), chamber operas by Lully and Charpentier, Tallis Scholars, Bach Collegium Japan, Stile Antico, and many other accomplished artists. 

The opening of Antonio Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus, performed by Philippe Jaroussky with Le Concert de la Loge, Julien Chauvin, director:

BEMF's 2023-24 virtual season has just begun, and is well worth exploring.

Soula Parassidis (Iphigénie) and Jesse Blumberg (Oreste) in a scene from Boston Baroque’s production of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride (1779). Photo credit: Sam Brewer. Image source: the arts fuse

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride. Soula Parassidis (Iphigénie), Jesse Blumberg (Oreste), William Burden (Pylade), and others, with Boston Baroque conducted by Martin Pearlman.

There are multiple versions of the legends surrounding the Trojan War. Part of the tradition (depicted in Sophocles’ Electra, for example) is that on its way to Troy, the Greek fleet anchors in the harbor of Aulis. Agamemnon goes ashore and kills a deer in a sacred grove, offending the goddess Artemis, who then causes the Greek fleet to become becalmed. Only by the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter will the anger of Artemis be appeased and favorable winds enable the fleet to sail.

There's another version of the Iphigenia story, in which Artemis intervenes at the last moment and substitutes a deer for the sacrificial victim, who is transported to Tauride to serve as high priestess at a shrine to the goddess. This is the background of Nicolas-François Guillard's libretto for Gluck's opera. When Iphigénie's brother Oreste and his companion Pylade are shipwrecked on Tauride, neither sibling recognizes the other. And as high priestess, Iphigénie is called on to sacrifice one of the Greeks on the altar of Artemis.

Boston Baroque's spare, effective production made a virtue of its minimalism. The action took place in front of and around the musicians of the orchestra, and video projections supplied the scene- and mood-settings. The cast was uniformly excellent, with special honors to the three principals.

Iphigénie's Act II aria on learning of her brother's supposed death, "Ô malheureuse Iphigénie" (Oh, unhappy Iphigénie), performed by Soula Parassidis:

Boston Baroque's 2023-24 season is underway, and their live stream is pay what you can.

Left to right: Lenka Máčiková (Marquise Clarice), Kateřina Kněžíková (Vespetta), Jaroslav Březina (Patrizio), and Aleš Briscein (Count Orazio) in Act II of Giuseppe Scarlatti's Dove è amore è gelosia at the Baroque Theatre of Krumlov Castle. Image source: Lenka Máčiková

Giuseppe Scarlatti: Dove è amore è gelosia (Where there's love there's jealousy), libretto by Marco Coltellini. Soloists with the Schwarzenberg Court Orchestra conducted by Vojtěch Spurný. Baroque Theatre of Krumlov Castle, Czech Republic, filmed in September 2011, Opus Arte OA 1104 D.

Giuseppi Scarlatti, most probably the nephew of Domenico Scarlatti (although possibly his cousin), composed some 30 operas. Dove è amore è gelosia is a two-act comedy which features the love problems of an aristocratic couple (Marquise Clarice, a widow, and Count Orazio, her would-be second husband) and a servant couple (Vespetta, the Marquise's lady's maid, and Patrizio, Count Orazio's manservant). The Marquise finds the Count to be too jealous and possessive; Vespetta thinks Patrizio is taking her for granted. Both men are taught a lesson before all ends well.

From Act I, in the aria "Intendo la tua pena" the Marquise muses on her lonely situation as a young widow, but notes a woman's double bind. In the second verse she sings, "Trista è la vedovanza / In giovinetta età, / E se un piacer le avanza / Non è di libertà" (It is sad to be a widow / as a young woman / But when pleasure beckons / It means the end of freedom): [ends 29:54]

The opera was filmed in the same Baroque theatre in which it had its premiere on 24 July 1768. The occasion of the premiere was the wedding of Johann Nepomuk, eldest son of Prince Josef Adam of Schwarzenburg, to Maria Eleanora, Countess of Oettingen-Wallerstein. The premiere was a family affair: the Marquise was sung by the 21-year-old second daughter of Prince Josef, Maria Theresia; the Count by the Count of Salburg, a family friend; Vespetta by Giuseppe Scarlatti's second wife, the opera singer Antonia Lefebvre; and Patrizio by the opera's librettist, Marco Coltellini. It was conducted from the harpsichord by the composer himself.

Part of the attraction of the video of the opera is that it takes us behind the scenes (and beneath the stage) to show us Baroque stagecraft. Today the technical aspects of opera production are extremely sophisticated, thanks to computerization. Set changes can be automated, with motorized units moving into and out of place and hydraulic elevators quickly raising and lowering set pieces, props and actors. Projections can create ever-changing backdrops such as stormy seas, glowing sunsets, lush gardens or elaborate interiors. For changes in place, time of day, or mood, LED lighting instruments can be programmed to change color, focus on different spots, and vary beam widths on cue.

This production attempts to recreate the way the opera would have been staged in the 18th century. The singers perform and the orchestra plays by candlelight. Sets are painted flats on tracks, and backdrops are hung on pipes; both are changed in full view of the audience. Elevators and machines controlled by pulley systems and human muscle power bring singers or props up from below stage level (as seen in the video excerpt above). It's a fascinating glimpse of 18th-century stage practice, and the DVD includes an excellent bonus documentary on the restoration of the theater and the recreation of the opera's first performance. 

You can see an 11-minute documentary on the history of the theatre and its restoration on YouTube; below I've embedded a three-minute short on the production of Scarlatti's opera. Both are well worth your time.

Next time: Favorites of 2023: Movies and TV

  1. Review of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream by Mark Pullinger from Bachtrack, 2 July 2023: "[Tim] Mead['s Oberon] was well-matched by Liv Redpath’s Tytania, silvery voiced, bright top notes hit dead centre."
    Review of Verdi's Un Ballo en maschera by Keven W. Ng from Bachtrack, 1 November 2023: "The other outstanding performance of the evening comes from soprano Liv Redpath. . .Redpath brings a poised, rounded tone to the role [of Oscar]. She certainly has the coloratura chops for it, with brilliant staccati and a neat trill, but she impressed most in the ensembles, with a soaring radiance that many a Violetta would envy. She’s also a game performer, executing the manic choreography with ease." ^ Return

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Favorites of 2023: Music - Our year of French Baroque opera

Amanda Forsythe (Éolie) and Karina Gauvin (Circé) in Henri Desmarest's Circé, centerpiece opera of the Boston Early Music Festival (seen 11 June 2023). Photo credit: Kathy Wittman. Image source:

It's the time of year when once again I choose my favorite music, books, and films first experienced in the past 12 months. To begin I'm going to review my favorite live, streamed, and recorded musical performances.  

Our year of French Baroque opera

Ordinarily I order my selections chronologically, but in this first installment I'm organizing them thematically as well, because for us this was the year of French Baroque opera.

I have been listening to French Baroque opera for about as long as I've been listening to opera, over three decades. But until this year I'd often felt that I generally preferred Italian opera to the operas of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and especially Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Lully, the man who defined French opera in opposition to Italian opera, ironically was himself an Italian. He was born in Florence as Giovanni Battista Lulli in 1631 and did not become a French subject until 1661. His operas, which became the model in France for the next century, are characterized by five-act structure plus an allegorical prologue. Airs are often short and are generally sung without repeats (except perhaps a refrain), and there are extensive passages of recitative (sometimes comprising whole scenes). The chorus, a large group separate from the soloists, has a prominent role, and extensive instrumental or dance sequences are often featured. The distribution of voices includes sopranos, high tenors, and basses, but rarely altos (the range of most castrati, who were not popular in France).

Pygmalion et Galatée by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1890. Image source: American Bach Soloists

There are, of course, exceptions to this five-act structure, such as Rameau's Pygmalion, a one-act opera composed in 1748. The artist Pygmalion spurns his lover Céphise because he has fallen in love with his own creation, a Statue. L'Amour brings the Statue to life, and she and Pygmalion declare their mutual love. L'Amour consoles Céphise by finding her another lover, and everyone rejoices. This 45-minute work was enchantingly performed by the singers and musicians of American Bach Soloists led by director Jeffrey Thomas (seen 8 May 2023). The excellent soloists were Matthew Hill (Pygmalion), Morgan Balfour (Céphise), Amy Broadbent (La Statue Animée), and Mary Wilson (L'Amour). Coupled with Handel's lovely Italian cantata Apollo e Dafne, featuring Hadleigh Adams (Apollo) and Mary Wilson (Daphne), Pygmalion was the ideal work to inaugurate our season of French Baroque opera.

While in London during late May and early June, if we didn't have a concert or other evening activity planned we tended to stay in. Our thanks to the generous relative who gave us a subscription to the streaming service, which gave us the opportunity to revisit director Jean-Marie Villégier's production of Lully's Atys (1675). Filmed in Paris in 2011 and featuring Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie, it's your typical Baroque love quadrangle: the nymph Sangaride (Emmanuelle de Negri) is betrothed to the Phrygian King Celenus (Nicolas Rivenq) in obedience to her father, a river god (Bernard Deletré). However, she secretly loves the youth Atys (Bernard Richter), and he loves her. The goddess Cybèle (Stéphanie d'Oustrac) descends to bless the nuptials of King Celenus and Sangaride, and to declare her love for Atys. Now, if Atys and Sangaride's love is discovered it will offend father, King and goddess. It can't end well. . .

The closing minutes of Act I, the arrival of the goddess Cybèle ("Venez tous dans mon temple"):

Villégier's production, with Patrice Cauchetier's black, silver and gold period costumes, stylized gestures, and the Baroque dancers of Compagnie Fêtes galantes, was groundbreaking when it was first introduced in 1987. Decades later it remains extraordinarily handsome, and the cast could not be bettered.

It was excellent preparation for our next live experience of French Baroque opera, the Boston Early Music Festival's production of Henri Desmarest's Circé (1694). The scenic design, costumes and dance were inspired by Baroque models. You can read my full description of this performance in Music in London and Boston, where I wrote that "Circé was a spectacular triumph for the BEMF performers and production team." From the BEMF recording of Circé, the opening aria of Act III, "Désirs, transports, cruelle impatience," sung by Amanda Forsythe (Éolie) [1]:

On our return home, eager to see more, we continued our explorations on Two productions of Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie (1733) caught our eye. The first, director Jonathan Kent's 2013 production from Glyndebourne, features William Christie conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with soloists that include Sarah Connolly as Phèdre and Stéphane Degout as her husband Thesée. Interestingly, they are also the Phèdre and Thesée in director Ivan Alexandre's 2012 production from the Opéra Bastille, featuring Emmanuelle Haïm conducting Le Concert d'Astrée. Both versions are highly recommendable. The Glyndebourne production uses hunting and consumption as governing metaphors (the Prologue, which takes place in a giant refrigerator, is a highlight). Christie's tempi are well-judged, and the soloists and the Glyndebourne Chorus are second to none. The Opéra Bastille production employs Baroque costumes, staging and dancing, and is visually and aurally splendid.

Amazingly, although Rameau was 50 years old at the time of the first performance of Hippolyte et Aricie, it was his first opera. Rameau's fellow composer André Campra famously remarked of Hippolyte that "there is enough music in this opera to make ten of them; this man will eclipse us all." [2] From the Opéra Bastille production, the Deuxième Air des Chasseurs, "A la chasse" ("To the hunt!"; the Huntress is sung by Andrea Hill): [ends at 2:14:18]

To close out our French Baroque opera discoveries this year I'll mention two more Lully operas seen on Lully's Cadmus et Hermione (1673) was his first full-scale success, and determined the form of French opera for the next 100 years. The hero Cadmus is forced to undergo a series of trials to win the hand of Hermione, daughter of Mars and Venus. The 2008 production from the Opéra-Comique is directed by Benjamin Lazar with lavish Baroque costumes, scenery and staging. Musically it is superb, featuring the forces of Le Poème Harmonique conducted by Vincente Dumestre.

The final scene of Act IV, in which Cadmus (André Morsch) is reunited with Hermione (Claire Lefilliâtre) after rescuing her, with Athena's aid, from a giant. "Ah, how sweet is the memory of pain," they sing, "when at last one finds happiness!" But not so fast: a cloud descends from the heavens, and Hermione is abducted:

Speaking of heros aided by Athena, our final French Baroque opera was Lully's Persée (1682). The hero Persée loves the daughter of King Céphée, Andromède, who is betrothed to her uncle Phinée. Andromède returns the love of Persée, but Mérope, Queen Cassiope's sister, also secretly loves him. Meanwhile the snake-haired monster Méduse is wreaking havoc on the kingdom; anyone who gazes at her is instantly turned to stone. Persée must slay Méduse and rescue Andromède from a sea monster before the couple can be united. But not so fast: the lovelorn Mérope interrupts the wedding ceremony to warn that Phinée and his assassins are about to attack the wedding to kill Persée.

The 2004 production by Toronto's Opera Atelier directed by Marshall Pynkoski features Cyril Auvity as Persée, Marie Lenormand as Andromède, and Monica Whicher as Mérope, with Tafelmusik Chamber Orchestra and Choir conducted by Hervé Niquet. In Act II's "Infortunés, qu'un monstre affreux," Mérope and Andromède meet, and each recognizes the other's love for the hero about risk his life to save the kingdom:

The intelligent direction and ravishing visuals of these productions are certainly an important part of their appeal. But what we find most compelling are the emotional dilemmas at their center: the impossible love of Sangaride and Atys, the separations faced by Cadmus and Hermione and Persée and Andromède, and the thwarted passions of Céphise for Pygmalion, Circé for Ulisse, Phèdre for her stepson Hippolyte, and Mérope for Persée. And we find that these dilemmas are heightened, rather than diminished, by the stylizations of Baroque stagings. Enhanced by their spectacular settings and costumes, these stagings also demonstrate the power of emotional restraint and understatement.

Next time: More favorite live, streamed, and recorded musical performances.

  1. A minor issue for us, although it may be a sticking point for some: BEMF co-director Stephen Stubbs employs Baroque guitar liberally throughout the Circé recording. Although we don't have an exact list of the instruments in the orchestra of the Académie Royale de Musique, the records we do have mention theorbos (generally plucked) rather than Baroque guitar (generally strummed). See James R. Anthony, French Baroque Music from Beaujoyeulx to Rameau, Revised and expanded edition, Amadeus Press, 1997, p. 123.
  2. Quoted in Anthony, French Baroque Music from Beaujoyeulx to Rameau, p. 162.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Haruki Murakami, part 5: Drive My Car

Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Misaki Watari (Toko Miura) in Drive My Car. Image source: The Film Stage

Writer-director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi's film Drive My Car (2021) seamlessly combines elements from two Haruki Murakami short stories, "Drive My Car" and "Scheherezade," from the collection Men Without Women (2014).

Theater actor and director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) lives in Tokyo with his younger wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a television screenwriter. In the opening scenes we see their post-coital ritual, where Oto narrates a story to Yusuke.

Oto's story is about a high-school girl with a crush on a classmate. She starts breaking into his house when she knows no one will be there and entering his room. Each time she takes some small object whose absence won't be noticed, and somewhere in the room hides a token of herself.

As Yusuke is driving Oto to work the next day in his vintage red Saab 900 Turbo, they go over the story together, shaping it and teasing out its meanings. Oto is writing a screenplay for a late-night TV program, but Yusuke asks her to wait until they make love again to complete the story, whose ending she hasn't yet imagined.

Oto (Reika Kirishima) and Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) in Drive My Car. Image source: The Film Stage

That evening Yusuke is appearing as Vladimir in a performance of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. We see the last moments of the play. Hamaguchi cuts away just before the final lines:

vladimir:  Well? Shall we go?
estragon: Yes, let's go.
They do not move.

The omission of these lines is significant: it will turn out that one of the themes of the movie is movement versus stasis.

Later, Oto continues her story. The girl feels herself drawn to the boy's room, where "time stands still. Past and present fade away." She removes her clothes and begins to masturbate on the boy's bed when she hears someone entering the house and coming up the stairs. "Now she can stop at last. . .she'll become a new person. The door opens." Is Oto trying to tell Yusuke something? [1]

The next day as Yusuke is leaving, Oto asks him if they can talk when he returns that evening. "Of course," he responds. But Yusuke has lied. Instead of going to teach a workshop, as he'd told Oto, he drives around Tokyo rehearsing his lines for an upcoming production of Uncle Vanya to a cassette tape of the lines for the other characters recorded by his wife. The play seems to comment on their situation; is Yusuke rehearsing for the conversation with Oto, which he clearly dreads?. . .

Two years later, Yusuke has come to Hiroshima to stage a multilingual production of Chekov's Uncle Vanya. Thanks to a past accident, the festival requires their artists to have drivers rather than drive themselves. Yusuke is a bit obsessive about driving—he hates to be a passenger—and about his car. Like most drivers he thinks that other drivers are either too aggressive, too timid, or too distracted. Driving is also how he runs his lines, by playing the cassettes recorded by his wife of the other characters' parts. Those cassettes are also a connection to her, and Chekhov's lines often seem to be commenting on Yusuke's past and current emotional state.

So Yusuke is not happy when he is assigned a young woman, Misaki (Toko Miura), as his chauffeuse. But the taciturn Misaki is a skilled driver and, if Yusuke is never quite fully comfortable as a passenger, he slowly comes to accept her. As he begins to unbend, they both begin to reveal more about themselves; ultimately, each helps the other come to terms with a trauma from the past.

Drive My Car. Image source: Japan Society Film Club

As Yusuke and Misaki slowly reach an understanding, we also watch the casting, rehearsals and performance of Uncle Vanya. Yusuke is renowned for his unconventional casting choices. One of the actors who has auditioned is Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a TV heartthrob who had starred in a show that Oto was writing. Yusuke unexpectedly casts him as the middle-aged Vanya, a role that Yusuke himself is famous for. The two men go drinking after rehearsals, but we learn that Yusuke has a ulterior motive for getting to know Takatsuki. And unfortunately Takatsuki is involved in a sensationalistic subplot added by Hamaguchi that seems both implausible and jarringly out of place in this quiet, reflective film.

Apart from the violent Takatsuki subplot, Hamaguchi's elaborations of his source material develop layers of meaning only hinted at in Murakami's stories—the scenes from Yusuke's stage productions, for example, which seem to enact and, in the end, provide a partial resolution for, Yusuke's emotional dilemmas. The acting is excellent, with special kudos for Nishijima, Kirishima, Miura, and Park Yu-Rim, as a mute actress who movingly delivers the final lines of Uncle Vanya in Korean Sign Language. The images are also beautifully composed by Hamaguchi and photographed and lit by cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya. Drive My Car is a rich, subtle, and visually striking film.

Haruki Murakami. Photo credit: Kevin Trageser / Redux. Image source: The New Yorker

Other posts in this series:

  1. This scene, by the way, is not from Murakami's short story, but is one of the many details in the film that have been added by Hamaguchi.

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Haruki Murakami, part 4: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Haruki Murakami. Photo credit: Kevin Trageser / Redux. Image source: The New Yorker

In this post series I am discussing three Haruki Murakami-related works:

  • David Karashima's Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami (Soft Skull, 2020), an examination of the English-language publication of Murakami's books from his first novella through his international breakthrough The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995/1997).
  • Jay Rubin's Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (Harvill, 2002/Vintage 2005), a survey of Murakami's life and work up through the publication of Umibe no Kafuka (Kafka on the Shore, 2002/2005).
  • Ryūsuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car (2021), the Academy-Award-winning film based on two Murakami short stories published in the collection Men Without Women (2014).

Cover design: Chip Kidd. Image source: Chip Kidd

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was written during Murakami's time as a visiting lecturer at Princeton University in the early 1990s. Perhaps distance invited reflection: it is the Murakami work that engages most directly with the legacy of Japan's imperial wars in Asia.

At the opening of the novel, the situation is familiar to readers of the short story "The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women": the aimless (but this time not nameless) 30-year-old narrator Toru Okada is sent by his wife Kumiko in search of their missing cat, who disappeared more than a week ago. It will come as no surprise to the reader that the cat has a larger significance:

"I want you to understand one thing," said Kumiko. "That cat is very important to me. Or should I say to us. We found it the week after we got married. Together. You remember?" (p. 47)

That the symbol of their union has gone missing is a strong clue to the reader, if not to Toru, that his marriage of six years is in trouble. Additional clues include the new earrings his wife is wearing, along with the unfamiliar perfume she's dabbed behind her ears. And the strongest clue: after returning increasingly late from work for the past few weeks, one night Kumiko does not return home at all.

Now Toru is searching for both his cat and his wife. His wife had told him to be sure to search for the cat at a vacant house at the dead end of the alley that runs behind their home. (The metaphors are multiplying.) At that house he encounters a neighbor, the boldly curious and precociously provocative 16-year-old May Kasahara. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle continues the pattern in Murakami's fiction of the semi-autobiographical narrator seemingly being irresistible to women of all ages, including an anonymous phone-sex caller, an about-to-be-married colleague who worked at the same law firm, and the psychic Creta Kano. May voices a question the reader may also be entertaining: "Just how many women do you have hanging around you?" (p. 215).

In the yard of the vacant house May shows Toru a dry well (another metaphor, of course; wells and subterranean spaces recur throughout Murakami's fiction). After his wife disappears Toru descends to the bottom of the well to think things through. Sitting at the bottom of the well he falls asleep, and May pulls up the rope ladder, stranding him in darkness. Memories of his marriage, encounters with an alternate reality, connections with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and a dawning realization that his wife's brother is not only unlikeable but actively malign, will follow.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle includes elements familiar from previous Murakami works: it features a lone protagonist on a quest who crosses the barrier into an alternate reality and does battle with agents of evil in that world and this one. But the Manchuria sections show Murakami depicting the futility, waste, and horror of war with a descriptive power and moral complexity that he had rarely deployed before. The Manchuria sections portray a universe where all available choices are abhorrent, and yet choices still must be made.

The text was significantly shortened in its published U.S. version (just as Hard-Boiled Wonderland had been). Knopf had contracted for a 125,000 word novel. When translator Jay Rubin turned in a manuscript that was 290,000 words long (the book was published in three volumes in Japan), he was asked to cut. Rubin estimates that ultimately he removed about 25,000 words, requiring the rearrangement of some of the material.

Murakami's former editor at Kodansha, Elmer Luke, told David Karashima that "the prose—of the translation, that is—had no tightness, it was flabby, and the novel went on and on and on far too long. . .It should have been cut more" (p. 239). Even with Rubin's cuts the hardback is over 600 pages long. But Murakami's editor at Knopf, Gary Fisketjon, saw the novel as "a giant step forward. . .in terms of scale and scope and ambition" (Karashima, p. 232). [1]

The novel's length and structural complexity—it includes flashbacks/memories, events that happen in a dreamlike alternate reality, lengthy stories (which have their own flashbacks) told by several characters to the protagonist, as well as interpolated transcriptions of letters, a newspaper article and a computer chat session—did not daunt reviewers. With the exception of Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, the book received strong to glowing reviews, and garnered a readership for Murakami among other influential writers such as David Mitchell, Junot Diaz and Pico Iyer. The Japanese-American writer and critic Roland Kelts said of the novel,

"For anyone who'd read Murakami before, the book felt like the author had marshalled his talents and concentrated them into one dazzling performance. For readers new to Murakami, he was a portal to another universe, another way of looking at and experiencing both the isolation of urban anomie in Tokyo and the repressed, unprocessed memories of the war in Asia." (Quoted in Karashima, p. 234)

Sales of the hardback doubled in comparison to his earlier books, to 14,000. Even more importantly, his paperback backlist titles also surged. Fisketjon noted to Karashima that "each and every one of his books in Vintage paperback sold more copies year after year. . .This demonstrated that if a reader enjoyed his or her first Murakami, he or she would then read another and another, and introduce friends to his work, and then they would do the same. I can't overestimate how important this is, and how rare" (p. 233). Murakami's international success, so long sought by his translators and editors, was now established.

In writing this survey of Murakami's English-language translations from the first English Library titles through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I've drawn heavily on two works:

Cover of Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami by David Karashima

Image source: Soft Skull Press

David Karashima's Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami recounts the story of Murakami's first appearances in English translation. It features interviews with many of the main figures involved, with a particular focus on his first translator, Alfred Birnbaum, and the editor with whom Birnbaum worked closely, Elmer Luke. Karashima approaches his task journalistically. While this allows the actors in this story to speak for themselves, it also means that Karashima passes virtually no judgments of his own on the relative quality of the translations he covers or on Murakami's original work.

Image source: The Fictional Julie Koh

For judgments (almost always highly positive, verging on the uncritical) about Murakami's work, and comments (sometimes misguided) on the relative quality of translations, readers can turn to Jay Rubin's Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. Rubin offers a translator's perspective on the many issues involved in "carrying over" Murakami's work from Japanese to English. He also provides interpretive summaries of the books through Kafka on the Shore (2002/2005), and a valuable bibliography (now, of course, in need of updating).

Murakami in English, three decades on

My own re-encounter with Murakami's earlier fiction has left me with mixed feelings. When I first discovered him in my 20s through Alfred Birnbaum's translations, I was drawn to what I've described elsewhere as his "self-sufficient but emotionally incomplete protagonists, indifferent to or alienated from worldly measures of success, who find themselves unexpectedly thrust into the role of detective when they come into contact with a dreamlike alternate reality." I found his conversational prose style very readable (thanks to Birnbaum) and the alternate worlds he created brilliantly imaginative at times. He became one of my favorite contemporary writers, and I eagerly anticipated each new release.

Three decades later, I still perceive all those strengths; at the same time, I now find that the symbolism can be heavy-handed, the moral lessons banal, and the available roles for women often limited. The novels can also be contradictory; as an example, while they critique consumerism, they also celebrate it: brand names, especially of high-end stereo equipment and imported whiskey, are often specified. And my responses have also been complicated by the disappointments of some of his later novels, particularly the 900-page behemoth 1Q84 (2008-10/2011) and his next novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013/2014). 

Colorless Tsukuru is, and may remain, the last Murakami novel I've read. I confess that despite the allusion in its title to Mozart and Da Ponte's Don Giovanni, I haven't been tempted to read Killing Commendatore (2018), and I also doubt that I will pick up the forthcoming The City and Its Uncertain Walls. "Lately I've begun to wonder," I wrote in my post on Colorless Tsukuru, "whether I wasn't really a fan of his early translator, Alfred Birnbaum." It's a question which may not be resolvable.

Murakami on film

Murakami has long attracted filmmakers. The first film adaptation of his fiction, Kaze no uta o kike (Hear the Wind Sing), came out as early as 1982. Seven additional feature films, eight short films and a TV series episode based on various short stories and novels have followed. As a coda to this series, in my next post I will look a recent feature film adapted from Murakami's short stories.

Next time: Film adaptation: Ryūsuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car (2021)

Other posts in this series:

  1. Also published within a year or so of Murakami's novel: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (Little, Brown, 1996), Don DeLillo's Underworld (Scribner, 1997), and Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (Holt, 1997), all of which were even longer than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Big books (by men, at least) were in fashion.