When I began to receive promotional material from the City of Pittsfield about a summer-long celebration of Herman Melville last spring, “Call Me Melvile,” I anxiously surveyed Melville’s chronology in one of the Library of America volumes I have on my shelf, looking for some date worthy of commemoration by this busy series of events, and I found none. In 1812, Herman Melville was not yet born. In 1862, nothing happened, except for the continuing decline of his literary and fiscal fortunes as well as his mental state. The following autumn he was to leave Pittsfield for good, much to his sorrow, trading his beloved house, Arrowhead, with his brother for a brownstone in New York City. In 1912 Melville remained in obscurity, the Moby-Dick revival still in the future. Perhaps 1852 was the key year…?
The rise of digital technology in cinema has been a decidedly mixed blessing, and not only due to the concurrent impending demise of celluloid film which it has ushered in. On one hand, it’s become much cheaper and easier to make a film. And on the other…it’s become much cheaper and easier to make a film. Which, when it means that you consequently don’t put much effort into realising the visual element of your chosen visual artform (and that often is the case), is a problem for me.
Occasionally I’ve thought that in my role as The Berkshire Review‘s ‘London correspondent’ I ought to focus sometimes on things that are more culturally British; unfortunately, I just don’t think much of British culture generally, and with the Olympics now here, decimating arts funding and forcing friends and colleagues of mine out of their homes due to massive rent increases, I feel arguably less inclined than ever to take up the baton for this country.
Noble and/or savage. In this Olympic summer the Proms have been lavish with opera productions, and I suppose the sheer Englishness of Peter Grimes made it an automatic choice. The production, done in concert without sets, came from the English National Opera with most of the original cast intact – it was first staged in 2009 – and was conducted for beauty and precision by the ENO’s music director, Edward Gardner. I’m getting the bare bones out of the way because it’s hard to revisit Britten’s seminal opera – the one that ratified his status as the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell – without feeling queasy.
Let’s do the twist! The Count sports a Sgt. Pepper mustache and velvet brocade bell bottoms. The Countess is dressed in a caftan that looks like William Morris wallpaper. Cherubino wears a skin-hugging flowery shirt. Yes, Glyndebourne has dared to set The Marriage of Fiagro as a romp through London in the swinging Sixties, and after holding your breath for the first ten minutes, it begins to work because it’s funny — a ridiculous sartorial period marries into the world of Marie Antoinette. Like a drunk uncle at the wedding, the swingers loosen everybody up. Once Countess Almaviva stops feeling sorry for herself and begins to frug — or is it the swim? — infectious absurdity wins the day.
Preggers. A bloke in a certain frame of mind, namely male, might wonder why he is sitting at Jumpy. April De Angelis’ new play, beginning its West End run after a success at the Royal Court, is very witty but also very hen-partyish. When the women in the audience laugh knowingly at a line like, “Is she metal-pausal?” some men might wince. Their eyes are likely to avert when a whoop goes up at the sight of a hunky young man entering stage left, starkers, except for modestly covering himself down there. This isn’t gender neutral comedy, and the territory it covers — the generation gap between a middle-aged mother and her mouthy sixteen-year-old daughter — has a case of galloping cliche.
Never have I seen the price of forgiveness so costly on stage as in Olympia Dukakis’s singular, and singularly moving Prospera with Shakespeare and Company. Try to find Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son” and look carefully at the hands of the patriarch, large hands fully outspread, each finger more generous than the other, pressing on the back of the wayward son with a touch the painting tells us the weight of. This is radical forgiveness, almost a blank forgiveness. It is nearly immoral in its extremity of love, as the Prodigal’s brother tells us. This is the near opposite of what I saw in Ms. Dukakis’s performance. Hers was an assumption of the role which was drenched, sometimes even drowning, in resentment. She played these emotions fundamentally, but I saw them more clearly in her efforts to be gentle. I’m thinking now of the scene between Prospera and Miranda near the beginning of the play which was like no other performance I have seen. It was slow, way slow, but Ms. Dukakis is the mistress of time.
One of the valuable things the Bard Music Festival teaches its audiences is just how arbitrary the classical canon is. While that can’t be said of Wagner or Elgar, we learned that Prokofiev and Sibelius are most visible in concert programs and recordings through works which are not necessarily their most personal or interesting, or perhaps even their best. As managers, virtuosi, and critics grind the classical sausage from a noble saucisson de Lyon into a hot dog, the nature of the classical loses its individuality and becomes uniform and bland. The fame of Camille Saint-Saëns, on the other hand, is linked to virtually no work at all — perhaps the Carnival of the Animals or the “Organ” Symphony, which is not really performed all that often today. This immaculate work acquired a bad reputation among critics, largely because it is extraordinarily loud in places — just the right places to produce wild applause from an audience — far too effectively for the tastes of the snobbish American critics of the late 1950s and 1960s, when it had two especially potent advocates, Charles Munch and Paul Paray. Curiously, Saint-Saëns has a bad reputation as an opera composer, although another one of his few works in the standard repertory, his Samson et Dalila, is an opera.