Posts Tagged ‘opera’

L'Opera Seria zie www.reisopera.nl Photo: Marco Borggreve
Netherlands’ Nationale Reisopera — L’opera seria

Dear friends and readers,

Although Kim Witman’s crew has been vigilant to prevent photos of the production this summer of Florian Leopold Gassman’s mid-18th century parody of the conventions of an opera subgenre since the 20th century dubbed “serious opera” from reaching on-line sites, I thought I’d recommend seeing almost any version of this opera anyway. (It’s hard to convey in a review the experience of a production or film without a few varied pictures.) If her superbly inventive, beautifully sung, and richly amusingly staged L’Opera Seria is re-mounted anywhere rush out. The opera has been revived over the past couple of years in Europe (she watched a pirated one from Berlin before deciding), and Witman hopes to see more revivals than hers, but also hers again.

There have not been many reviews, but these have praised the production lavishly (Pat Hilary Stroh, Opera Marseille). In the pre-show talk Witman talked of how hard it had been to get the orchestration of the opera, and that the opera demands virtuouso singers with a varied range unusual for opera companies. These are formidable obstacles in mounting it. She also said its title misleads us: in fact the term “opera seria” for pre-Mozartian serious opera was a 20th century critical invention. She worked to universalize at the same time as using the allegorical roles to refer to a living directors (and other specific individuals in the opera world). Even in this updated version (modern references are substituted for contemporary ones, modern costumes and modern mores in pantomimes), she has provided an enjoyable education in 18th century dramaturgies, opera assumptions and history (which comes into it), gentle but ceaseless satire on the commercialization of art (this then an old trope).

Act I shows everyone discussing, deciding to do, planning the production, enunciating ideals and norms, and ego assertion; Act II the rehearsals

Jonas Hacker, Alasdair Kent, Clarissa Lyons, Scott Suchman

and Act III a portion of the enacted sung opera. The central act is a marvelous funny rendition of 18th century theatrical, marital, sex, and writing/rehearsing/art norms. They were bold in their use of imagery: Alexandra Flood as Porporina had to sing absurd lines about dolphins and fish battling and fornicating, and the stage business included two actor-singers playing stage hands donning dolphin outfits at their stomach and back, lending a good deal of salaciousness to the moment. Act I was not quite as funny to a 21st century audience as it could have been (it was too staid), and Act III is in danger of boring the audience as it’s just this endless hieratic ending. The first was offset by concentrating on how each participant from ballet master to costume designer was in the throes of protecting their property. For the last some of the actor-singers were in the audience to shout boo, and cheer them on, make startling remarks, and the costumes were just so outrageous, and so many, that the audience was not permitted to lose itself elsewhere. Izzy thought the opera needed the intimate atmosphere of the house for us to get the nuanced but swiftly moving depictions of each of the principals.

A trailer on-site

This was our only time at the Barns for an Opera at Wolf Trap this summer, but it was well worth the drive and money. The other two productions were La Boheme (at the Filene Center). a popular warhorse, concerts by the Filene artists, and Britten’s Rape of Lucrezia. The reviews of the other two productions and the concerts have been highly favorable — and seem not to be just hype. I’m told the story of Lucretia is thought to “put people off,” be “too gloomy,” what they would rather forget, but I have seen it at Castleton Festival and know Britten’s take is deeply humane and feminist. The performance brochure included a perceptive, semi-angry essay by Germaine Greer on “the Necessity Narrative of Evil” (about the nature of rape testimony and the necessity to tell).


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From Susan Herbert’s foolish Operatic Cats: The Marriage of Figaro: the ludicrous happy ending (felt totally unbelievable in this production)

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d call attention to an ironically worthwhile Marriage of Figaro playing for another weekend at the Barns Theater at Wolf Trap park. I went with my daughter, Yvette (as I call her) and she has written a concise assessment. I concur with her on the Folger Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (which we also saw this past weekend), adding only that what was so vitally resonant in the 1960s, seemed somehow obsolete; all the hurt idealisms of the wit are gone from the air, what tripped off the original actors tongues’ ever so lightly in despair seemed heavy-handed, hard-going and left this audience flat.

What I’d like to add as an analogous truth about this second production is a similar kind of step-by-step production at Wolf Trap, leaving hardly anything out, processing each gesture fully, had the effect of highlighting strongly those 18th century qualities that no longer work for an audience and or the actor-singers. At each turn of the plot, the jarring between what some of the young singers regarded as emotion they could respect, believe in, tolerate was at a distance from what the character was supposed to be emoting about so often the actor-singer became arch or stiff.

Thomas and Lieberman as Figaro and Susanna

Richard Thomas became stronger as Figaro when he was no longer expected to regard the coming adulterous use of his wife by the Count as a part of some comedy. What the 18th century (and Rossini too) found hilarious (cuckoldry, undermining maleness) is no longer socially funny — and the underlying tones of Mozart are hard and came out.

Susan Herbert’s Figaro (from the Barber of Seville)

Reginald Smith as Count Almaviva sang the whole of his long aria at the opening of the third act where he is indignant that his valet could conceive of happiness for himself, while he, the Count, was deprived of his least whim; the whole thing reeked of egregious disdain for anyone beneath the aristocratic order was pulled out line-by-line; the offensive obliviousness of the man’s utter selfishness and lack of concern for “lower others.” I realized for the first time was what roused audiences to call this opera-play inflammatory. Kim Pensinger Witman and her crew were (like those at the Met) unwilling to present Abigail Levis as Cherubino as a sexually-starved obsessive transvestite so as usual the role of Cherubino made no sense but it was so crassly acted, kept from being banal, that the underlying idea came out. More ordinarily Kerriann Otano sang her notes beautifully, never missed a line, seemed to enact poignancy perfectly but her voice (just that trifle reedy) and acting (just that trifle stiff) failed to move anyone, and the applause was (this is rare for this character) tepid.

Herbert, a drawing of the Countess

Tayla Lieberman as Susanna was trivial to a T (her voice not resonant either). The reform motive was absurd, stuck-out because of this and I felt how much this ironic play owed to the sentimental comedy of the stage.

Herbert, Susanna

The most entertaining singer-actors who might just go on for a career were those who seemed to be able to inhabit these older roles. Christian Zaremba as Bartolo, the guardian of the Countess who wanted to marry her for her money himself and turns out to be Figaro’s father; and Jenni Bank, as Marcellinas his housekeeper, jealous of Susannah who turns out to be Figaro’s mother. They believed in their utter selfishness and stupidity and envy, came up with appropriate funny gestures and had resonant voices.

Herbert, An urchin — her best cat images are the ones where tails are comically featured

One effect is to make the characters all seem half-mad and what is presented as comedy comes out as vexed egotisms clashing in blind obsessions, each of which is utterly selfish or delusional. Perhaps this is what Mozart’s text intends. Ironically then, this was curiously riveting and much better than the HD Met production which smoothed out anything untoward and was acted with banal vagueness about what were the emotions and thoughts involved in the different scenes. If nothing, else go for the music, which is well-played.

I would use more stills or photos from the production if I could, but like so many of these live performances here in the DC area, there has been a severe control on all photos or stills so I could find only one larger (see the site for a few thumbnails). Presumably the Wolf Trap people would love for their audience to promote their production by word-of-mouth, but they cannot seem to understand that this is helped along by good pictures. So I have taken the opportunity to display the gentle and intelligent mockery of Susan Herbert’s insufficiently appreciated and attended-to cats — .

Herbert, The statue, the embodiment of some force against the world’s evil comes alive in Don Giovanni — and cats understandably grow nervous


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Marine Pavilion, Brighton, with 1801-2 ground plan

Dear friends and readers,

We can understand these two letters most clearly by reading them as a pair, utterance and answer, antiphony. We are in danger of accepting and then justifying the lack of any sense of what makes for honest art in Clarke’s previous and this letter as “what everyone does,” unless we have before Austen’s direct rebuttal. So let’s start with the two texts in tandem and then read them as a conversation inside the conversation on Janeites about them:

138(A). From James Stanier Clarke, Wednesday 27 March 1816, Pavilion

Dear Miss Austen,

I have to return you the Thanks of His Royal Highness the Prince Regent for the handsome Copy you sent him of your last excellent Novel — pray dear Madam soon write again and again. Lord St. Helens and many of the Nobility who have been staying here, paid you the just tribute of their Praise.

The Prince Regent has just left us for London; and having been pleased to appoint me Chaplain and Private English Secretary to the Prince of Cobourg, I remain here with His Serene Highness & a select Party until the Marriage.’ Perhaps when you again appear in print you may chuse to dedicate your Volumes to Prince Leopold: any Historical Romance illustrative of the History of the august house of Cobourg, would just now be very interesting.

Believe me at all times
Dear Miss Austen
Your obliged friend
J. S. Clarke.
Miss Jane Austen
at Mr Murrays
Albemarle Street

38(D). To James Stanier Clarke, Monday 1 April 1816

My dear Sir

I am honoured by the Prince’s thanks, & very much obliged to yourself for the kind manner in which You mention the Work. I have also to acknowledge a former Letter, forwarded to me from Hans Place. I assure You I felt very grateful for the friendly Tenor of it,
& hope my silence will have been considered as it was truely meant, to proceed only from an unwillingness to tax your Time with idle Thanks. —

Under every interesting circumstance which your own Talents & literary Labours have placed you in, or the favour of the Regent bestowed, you have my best wishes. Your recent appointments I hope are a step to something still better. In my opinion, The service of a Court can hardly be too well paid, for immense must be the sacrifice of Time & Feeling required by it.

You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of Composition which might recommend me at present, & I am fully sensible that an Historical Romance, founded on the House” of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in — but I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem. — I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter. — No — I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way; And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.-

I remain my dear Sir,
Your very much obliged & very sincere friend
J. Austen
Chawton near Alto,” April 1 st – 1816-
[No addressJ

Diana Birchall chose to deal with each letter separately; here she is informative about the first:

It’s a little confusing to deal with Deirdre’s numbering of the letters.  Letter 138A is Rev. Clarke to Jane Austen, written on 27 March 1816, and  Letter 138D is her reply, written on  1 April. Where are B and C I don’t  know. But let’s look at this exchange.

James Stanier Clarke writes from the Pavilion at Brighton. Remember that the domes we associate with the Pavilion had not yet been erected at that date. The structure was still a rather grand farmhouse, with huge stables and some Eastern art, but the work of turning it into a palace was barely begun. Still, it’s where the Prince Regent’s court was at the moment.  Clarke wrote to convey the Prince’s thanks for the handsome presentation volume.  “Lord St Helens and many of the Nobility who have been staying here, paid  you the just tribute of their Praise.” Actually the Prince had just left for London, and perhaps the real purpose of the letter was for Clarke to announce to his friend his new appointment as Chaplain and Private English Secretary to the Prince of Cobourg. This of course was Prince Leopold of Saxe-Cobourg, about to come to England to marry Princess Charlotte, the Prince  Regent’s daughter, which happened on  5 May  at Carlton House. Here Clarke  makes his famously absurd suggestion, “Perhaps when you again appear in  print you may chuse to dedicate your Volumes to Prince Leopold; any Historical Romance illustrative of the History of the august house of Cobourg, would just now be very interesting.” Finishing with an effusive flourish, he directed the letter to Jane Austen c/o Murray, and it had to be forwarded to Henrietta Street, and then Chawton.

Will look at Jane Austen’s reply later –


Then my commentary: Austen’s response to Stanier Clarke’s letter shows that if his suggestion is not to the ambitious author who can churn out what’s wanted for money and fame “what everyone would do if they could,” it is wholly intolerable to Austen — which he should know. He has spent time with her, she has said in a previous letter and perhaps face-to-face, my dear Sir, these themes are not themes I can write on nor am I comfortable with, he has presumably read the passages on how justifying the church as a career requires real work awakening moral and social consciences alike.

Imagine your self with a friend and a friend makes plain some attitude she has: do you blithely ignore it and repeat your urgent suggestion as if she had never spoke.

I hope not. If you do, you in effect (unless you’re a parent and moralizing or think you have the authority to urge something which goes against your child’s character because the child cannot break off relations, is younger, possibly dependent) are careless of your friend’s feelings or whether you irritate him or her. It does not make me doubt the sincerity of Clarke’s friendship in the sense that he really thinks one can churn out novels: it makes me wonder if he paid any attention to Emma , which it is right to point out he does not even name. In his previous he admitted he had not begun to read it or read very little thus far. His descriptions of her novels show some understanding of their value: he anticipates Scott’s main praise — “there is so much Nature — and excellent Description of character in everything you describe.” But his likening MP to slightly idiotic or vacuous descriptions of his own of clergyman makes one wonder if he really thought these were serious books — or just woman’s romances. 

So to his suggestion:

Perhaps when  you again appear in print you may chuse to dedicate your Volumes to Prince Leopold: any  Historical Romance illustrative of  the History of the august house of 
Cobourg,  would just now be very interesting.

Austen replies (and the honesty plainness and fullness of the reply is poignant since she so rarely does give herself away like this: she has it seems given him the respect of a friend:

You are very, very  kind in  your  hints as to the sort of Composition which might recommend me at present,  & I am fully sensible that an Historical  Romance,  founded on the House  of Saxe- Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of Profit  or Popularity, than  such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as  I deal in – -but  I could no more  write  a  Romance  than an Epic Poem. — I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, &  if it  were indispensable for me to keep it up  & never relax  into laughing at myself or other people, I am  sure  I  should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter. –No — I must  keep to my  own style & go on in my  own Way;5  And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in  any other.- 

Austen is not treating him the way she does the Countess of Morley; in her “your Ladiship’s,” she shows she regards herself as of a much lower rank and does not expect the countess really to regard her as an equal. She apparently did expect Stanier Clarke to listen to her. She here gives one of the most valuable of all her statements about her fiction.

Why doesn’t he? I suggested to a man like him the life of sincerity and integrity is unreal; he can’t conceive of it. I now suggest on top of his maybe finally he didn’t respect her art. We must return to his first paragraph: He may have been the kind of person who respond intensely to his surroundings so we have to remember (as we shall see Jane does) he is in this courtier like place where for a person like himself (in effect a sort of upper servant, equivalent of a governess), who has just achieved a post and salary and place with Leopold of Cobourg, the man who was to be married to Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, the girl who it was thought would be queen, and so father of the next royal set. In the event she died from a horrible childbed experience. He is just full of pride, and has been puffed up as he has puffed others up for several days. I’ve no doubt one of his purposes was to boast about his new place – which as we shall see she tells him point blank she regards as one demanding such a sacrifice of thought and feelings that (it’s implied) barely worth it.

Here again is his boasting intended to make Austen feel all is not over with the list-servs (though a friend of hers has just died):

Lord St. Helens and many of the Nobility who have been staying here, paid  you the just  tribute of their Praise. The Prince Regent has just left us for London;  and having been  pleased to appoint me Chaplain and Private English Secretary to the  Prince of Cobourg.

Her reply was originally from a religious perspective much harsher than the one she sent.

She sent this:

Under every  interesting  circumstance which  your  own Talents & literary Labours have  placed  you in, or the favour of the Regent bestowed,  you have my best wishes. Your recent appointments I hope are  a step to  something  still  better.  In my opinion, The service  of  a  Court can hardly  be  too  well paid,  for immense must be  the  sacrifice  of  Time  &  Feeling  required by  it. 

Given that Clarke’s a literary man (who wants to be published) to get the favor of such a person is a guarantee of it, so good. She hopes he will get something better — which if he read her words carefully (which I doubt he did) would seem strange to him. How could he get anything better than the prospective husband of a queen. Maybe she thinks chaplain is not that respected an office really (remember how Mary Crawford looks at it and says others do), but also it’s not likely to further a writing career. Finally that last line – I take it to mean that like Fanny Burney she regarded time at court as a death in life, preventing her from doing what makes life worth while

The original version points to the continual hypocrisy   these positions required: For once LeFaye tells us something to the point:

In my opinion not more surely should They who preach Gospel, live by the Gospel, than they who live by a Court, live by it – & live well by it too; for the sacrifices of Time & Feeling they must be immense.

In other words, at a court the central of religion to be truthful and moral is not possible because you must continually be lying in some way or other so outside the court they had better live by the gospel for real to make up for the Immense sacrifices of time and feeling.

Time shows this is a literary thought for the Bible emphasizes truthful feeling not time. Austen would hate to give up her writing time to be living at that Pavilion. 

Austen is aware of how much she disliked his letter and how hers contradicts his at every point and sometimes deeply so her opening is very courteous, courtier-like one might say, but not untruthful. In her opening she excuses herself for putting off writing back — she thinks that to him this several month interval between his letter of December (still unanswered) would be slightly insulting: after all is he not chaplain to … living with these big shots, did he not tell these great people paid tribute to her book. (I am not so convinced as others appear to be that the court group liked Emma — would they really? come now, a book where nothing happens but an old man eats his gruel and his daughter copes with him — would they even grasp the satire on her snobbery? her use of Harriet would seem to them nothing wrong at all. So what does she say? does she believe it. Not quite. She thanks him “for the kind manner in which you mention the Work.” She is aware she never answered his previous much more decent letter where he offered her a place to visit at the library; now 5-6 days have gone by since this last one and she just forces herself.

I assure You I felt very grateful for the friendly Tenor of it, & hope my  silence will have been considered as it was truely meant, to proceed only from an unwillingness to tax your Time with idle Thanks. —

She is not lying in the sense that he did praise her and repeat praise of her. She was grateful for his stance of friendliness but knows better than to listen to him literally.   He meant well, he means well by his materialistic point of view to her. But all she can offer are “idle Thanks” of a woman who can do nothing for him (that’s why her thanks are idle).

It matters not if the average ambitious person would understand Stanier Clarke’s offer, Jane Austen is not such a person, her books do not come out of such outlooks and she realizes he can’t get that. Yet she does forgive him as she knows there are far worse fools and meaner people. He has after all paid her the compliment of using her to flatter the Prince Regent by connecting him to an author who was being recognized however slowly as having something fine in her books – that’s why Murray took her and keep the relationship up as best a busy publisher could.

From Diane Reynolds’s reading of the first and second letter:

The ostensible reason for this letter is to thank JA for the advance copy of Emma sent to the PR. Oddly, he refers to it not by name, but with the generic boilerplate, “your last excellent novel.” Does he even remember it’s called Emma?

All through the letter, Clarke’s worldview shines through, leading to the question: how sincere is he in his “friendship" towards Austen? Does he really admire her works or does he sense, with the instinct or calibration of a professional courtier (or in our world, marketer) that the wind is blowing in her favor, and he wants to be on board  with a rising star? Or is it both admiration and calculation? … Clarke does sound uncomfortably like Mr. Collins in this letter in his language towards higher-ups …

I couldn’t agree more with what Ellen’s interpretation says, which certainly echoes my own: that regarding her vocation (what she was supposed to do with her life) Austen had a rare integrity, a singleness of purpose. She knew what she was meant to be–a writer– and what kind of writer she was meant to be … When she says she could only begin such a romance if her life depended on it and even then probably not get beyond the first chapter, she is not joking.

Another voice in this conversation (written earlier) appeared on WWTTA: Fran to whom we may give almost the last word:

I can’t help feeling the fact that she wrote this letter on All Fools’ Day may have been an example of her warped sense of humour as well. She’d gone as far as dedicating Emma to the Prince that year, but I’m rather glad she finished Persuasion before her untimely death, rather than attempting the kind of sycophantic potboiler Clarke suggested.

To be fair, Austen did write a parody version of the sycophantic potboiler, which has been typed out on Republic of Pemberley and includes a father modeled on Stanier Clarke whose adventures

comprehend his going to sea as Chaplain to a distinguished naval character about the Court, his going afterwards to Court himself, which introduced him to a great variety of Characters and involved him in many interesting situations, concluding with his opinions on the Benefits to result from Tithes being done away, and his having buried his own Mother (Heroine’s lamented Grandmother) in consequence of the High Priest of the Parish in which she died refusing to pay her Remains the respect due to them. The Father to be of a very literary turn, an Enthusiast in Literature, nobody’s Enemy but his own …


As Chapman’s notes show (interestingly, from Austen’s own marginalia), Stanier Clarke is not the only acquaintance and friend Austen burlesques in this parody


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anna karenina 2012blog
Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina (2013)

Dear friends and readers,

Although 20th century awarding of recognition for achievement in movie-making may not seem appropriate for a blog intended for matter Austen, 18th century and women writers, artists, and I admit I write just about all my film studies blogs on Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two; nonetheless it is rare that an art that can so exquisitely capture aspects of life’s fantastical array of qualities be treated on TV with the equivalent of “Hail Stupidity!” so that Pope’s Dunciad becomes relevant. Since I went to most of the movies I saw with Izzy, it’s no wonder I agree with her favored list, and her assessment of the prize-receiving fool’s gold and the way the program was handled.

I am just now listening to a recording of a dramatic reading aloud of the whole of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; the reader is Davina Porter, and I see how brilliant and right was Matthew MacFayden as Stiva. And Knightley was as good as ever I’ve seen Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan. Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for actress in a leading role (Haneke’s Amour). No one dared not vote for Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln. I assume the grave seriousness of the film was embarrassing to the voters. The great genius of film-making, Ang Lee, walked away with 3.

Still for the most part the choices and proceedings merit:

O Muse! relate (for you can tell alone,
Wits have short Memories, and Dunces none) [620]
Relate, who first, who last resign’d to rest;
Whose Heads she partly, whose completely blest;
What Charms could Faction, what Ambition lull,
The Venal quiet, and intrance the Dull;
‘Till drown’d was Sense, and Shame, and Right, and
Wrong— …
In vain, in vain, — the all-composing Hour
Resistless falls: The Muse obeys the Pow’r.
She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primæval, and of Chaos old! 148 [630]
Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rain-bows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain, [635]
The sick’ning stars fade off th’ethereal plain …


What new movie in a paying movie-house did I see this year in the movies worth seeing and great? The only ones that remain in my mind are Coriolanus, last February; Alfred Nobbs, last March. I admit since we go to HD operas, I don’t get to see enough new movies.


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I did not often see my Aunt with a book in her hand, but I beleive she was fond of reading and that she had read and did read a good deal. I doubt whether she ever much cared for poetry in general but she was a great admirer of Crabbe. She thoroughly enjoyed Crabbe … and would sometimes say, in jest, that if she ever married at all, she could fancy being Mrs Crabbe … — Caroline Austen, My Aunt Jane Austen

No. I have not seen the death of Mrs Crabbe. I have only just been making out from one of his prefaces that he probably was married. It was almost ridiculous. Poor woman! I will comfort him as well as I can, but I do not undertake to be good to her children. She had better not leave any . . . — Jane Austen, Thurs, 21 October 1813

The set for the Teatro alla Scala Peter Grimes — the rooms in which the actions take place are all inside trailers in a sort of car park, in front is the crashing dangerous sea and cliffs; to the back tenement apartment houses

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been thinking about writing about George Crabbe’s poetry here, and possible sources for Austen’s deep affinity with his spirit as seen in his poetry, partly because a while back now (more than two years) a couple of us on EighteenthCenturyWorlds @Yahoo read a number of his poems in The Borough and Tales 1812, and found them compelling in their grim realism. Since then I’ve read his son’s biography of him, and my good friend, Nick, has carried on reading Crabbe and books on his verse and every once in a while sends me a specimen of verse with his comments.

Then today Jim and I went to see an HD version of Richard Jones’s brilliant production at Teatro alla Scala (Milan, Italy) in the beautiful theater of the American Film Institute in Silver Springs. If the film is shown anywhere near it (or you are lucky enough to be in the vicinity where this is being performed live), rush out to see and hear it. Like other of the Britten operas I’ve seen, the perspective of Peter Grimes comes out of a mind imbued with the finest of humane values as he puts before us the dense unexamined needs, desires, angers, conscious and unconscious of people in and pushed outside of communities. Britten’s Peter Grimes is rightly sometimes called the greatest opera written in the 20th century and this is a production which makes all its parts understandable.

The daring Britten story and characters: Britten makes a victim and community scapegoat of a man who is violent, has cruelly driven one boy and drives another by relentless hard work in unameliorated circumstances to their deaths. He had not meant to kill them, but he had not taken care of them, and he was not adverse to roughing them up, beating them to get them to obey him and work harder, and we see him take out his resentments on the second. He certainly shows them no affection. The community is right to condemn him (in the opening scene, a court room in a trailer), but we are made to see that in their better circumstances they behave not much better than he does in his worse ones. His perverse (given their real indifference to him) need to prove himself better than them by growing rich and building himself a house (which paradoxically he says will enable him to stay apart from them) has been picked up by the town’s spinster-librarian, Ellen Orford, who sees in his character and goals an opportunity to marry and find a place for herself to thrive. When the community refuses to enable Grimes to hire another apprentice after the death of the first, she steps in to promise she will soften the boy’s life and make sure he is treated decently. And so a second boy is bought.

Peter Grimes (John Graham-Hall) and Ellen Orford (Susan Gritton)

But Ellen does not protect the boy sufficiently at all. She cannot control Grimes. He works the boy very hard all week and will not give the boy off on Sunday. She has tried to pretend to make friends with the boy (her caring for him is certainly limited as we watch her complacently embroider while she asks him to talk to her, confide in her), but the boy (rightly) will not speak. He is a bought slave. We see other boys his age jeer at him, and seem to threaten him. The citizens are not prepared to befriend Grimes in any way, nor take the one help he has, the boy, away from him until they see proof of beating; their laws and customs (making profits from such sales included) invite Grimes to act out his worst self. They include types: Mr Swallow, a libidinous lawyer, a judge, Rev. Adams, a hypocritically pious priest, Mrs Sedley, a female nosy-neighbor who is thrilled by the notion of violence and fueled by the excitement of relating slander (how true she doesn’t care); there is a tavern owner, Auntie, at which dances are held (very modern club like), her two nieces who are presented as over-sexed cock-teasers, the very quintessence of sick heterosexuality (some of the male dancers have shaved heads and dance with these sopranos). We see them “service” Mr Swallow and how he despises them, and enjoys the experience all the more for the triumph over them.

From another production which did emphasize the connection with Crabbe (older costumes, at the Royal Opera House, London)

How does this opera relate to Crabbe’s Borough, especially the two poems most central: “The Poor of the Borough: Peter Grimes” and “Ellen Orford.” Crabbe’s The Borough is a narrow-minded repressive culture which makes an already hard-scrabble life much harder to endure. In Britten’s play Grimes has not deliberately murdered the boys; he didn’t take care of them properly but the final deaths are accidental (if clearly being slowly engendered). Crabbe’s central figure hated his father who hated him. Old Peter Grimes was a religious hypocrite who made his wife and son pray while he also made their lives a misery and when he dies, they are at least free of his tyrannies. The son, Peter however has been taught to be violent and longs to hurt others as he has been hurt; he is gleeful when he gets his first boy and really enjoys subjecting the boys to his blows. Britten’s Grimes wants to make the boy work harder. Crabbe’s central Peter despises the second boy who becomes lame under the terrible treatment; the town sneaks him fire, food, and comfort, but he drowns after beatings with a knotted rope because he can’t hold on during a storm. The town then will not allow Grimes another boy, and we see him living alone, struggling to keep up his fishing trade. He is haunted by his father’s ghost and the ghost of the two boys, left in isolation and slowly goes mad. One of the epigraphs to Crabbe’s poem comes from Macbeth: “The times have been,/That when the brains were out, the man would die …” The poem ends with a long soliloquy from Grimes begging his father’s ghost for mercy, imagining demons (the boys?) around his bed.

There is no Ellen Orford in the original tale. Instead she is the focus of a tale just as hard and grim. She is also one of the poor of the borough. Crabbe opens by bitterly regaling the reader with typical sentimental romances and then says he will show you what real life is like, real tragedy. Ellen was the daughter of a woman who when widowed remarried a violent angry husband who mistreated her and her children; a young upper class man took advantage of her need for affection and friendship and when she became pregnant deserted her; her baby-daughter was born an idiot. After many years of isolation and menial work, a tradesman takes pity on her, marries her, but their hard life sours the husband, and all her children but two die, her one son is corrupted away from her (like the son in Wordsworth’s poignant “Michael”), another son a seaman drowns. Her retarded daughter had the same fate as she, worse, she dies too. Now Ellen is blind and lives alone, and is imagined telling this tale to show how she survives still, loving mankind and thankful to God (“my friend”).

These are typical tales for Crabbe. My friend, Nick and I have mused over their ambivalent meanings. The director did not indicate why Britten turned to this kind of material, nor did anyone else in the intermission of the opera (where there were interviews played as in the Met broadcasts). Britten did spend the last part of his life in East Anglia (Aldeburgh, Suffolk) where Crabbe was born and lived. It is a place which has fishing communities, probably narrow-minded villages where people live out a hard life. Crabbe would have been a well-known local poet-hero. The sea is central to the opera: a dangerous realm where people have to wrest a living and where they can die doing it.

You might say this is a homosexual take on Crabbe’s original story. He shows no desire for Ellen Orford. It’s a social bargain. The conductor, Robin Ticciati, mentioned this and from the production it’s clear this was in Ticciati and Jones’s perspective. the costume designer suggested the way she designed the nieces’ clothing took this perspective in mind too.

Ticciati said the play and music were written by Britten in the 1950s (correction: actually 1942-45) when he and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, returned from the US where they had waited out WW2 as conscientious objectors. Britten was an outsider at risk from overt hatred as someone who was a pacificist, an open homosexual, regarded as something of a traitor. He is in danger from the small town people. At some level especially in the last scenes when Grimes shows intense remorse and fear as well as frantic anger and a sense of alienation and loss, Britten is identifying with this man, the lowest of the low. He deserves punishment; he ought to be controlled, but he is nonetheless not a monster; he cries, deranged. The one person who shows some disinterested concern for him is Captain Balstrode (Christopher Purves) and at the play’s close, Balstrode tells him there is nothing left but to sink himself in his boat into the sea. Grimes leaves the stage quietly and a messenger reports drowned himself. Meanwhile the citizens have reconstituted the court the opera opened with and Ellen is about to swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The opera was sung and acted beautifully. There were only some 17 people watching it on Thursday afternoon, but just about all looked very moved. We were taught some lessons about life. Were we any of those people or Ellen Orford? did we recognize aspects of our own experience as we watched and listened to Grimes going through his. My only qualification or objection to the show was at the end the young boy who had played the apprentice was not singled out for special applause. He looked around 14 at most and he was directed to be depressed, frightened, attempting to get out of a beating, accept hitting, lay down and cry, and finally slip over a cliff to his death. Not easy for any youngster to enact. The company’s nonchalance towards him during the bowing time (except for one man who seemed to encourage the boy to smile) paralleled the way the community in the play had not looked out for Grimes’s apprentice.

The Crabbe poems are are not poems we might expect Austen to feel deep congeniality with, though since she loved Samuel Johnson’s dark work and he promoted and thought very well of Crabbe’s early poems, we can see a direct line or connection or parallel here. She also loved the tragic book, Richardson’s Clarissa. Fanny Price, her character, has a direct parallel character in one of Crabbe’s poems, “The Parish Register” (see Selwyn, JA and Leisure, pp 204-7). I’ve discovered parallels with Anne Elliot’s story where characters are pressured to wait until a seaman makes good and the lives of both are ruined (see Sarah Raff’s “‘Procrastination, Melancholia, and the Prehistory of Persuasion, Persuasions, 29 (2007):174-180). Crabbe’s milieu was her own: clergymen, well-educated, connected to richer relatives, but themselves fringe people. Austen spent a few years in Southampton, her brothers were sailors, and she experienced a meager genteel poverty existence from 1805, the time of her father’s death, moving about on a precarious income until her brother took her and her mother and sister, and the beloved friend, Martha Lloyd in permanently in 1809 in Chawton. Frank had tried to provide in 1807 at Southampton but the arrangement did not work out: he was away a lot and his first wife, Mary, uncomfortable, fled the Austens to nearby friends, and would not return. Austen had eyes for what she saw around her, even if she did not put it too often into her book. The most consistent treatment is The Watsons

Emma Watson … “I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like.” Elizabeth, her sister, “I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school … I have been at aschool,and I know what a life they lead …” — The Watsons

But Jane Fairfax similarly dreads becoming a governess, a form of slavery she calls it.

Jane Fairfax (Ania Marston) in a bad moment, the anxious Miss Bates (Constance Chapman) standing helplessly by (1972 BBC Emma)

Perhaps it’s well to end on Crabbe’s compassion for his characters, for he does have that. These lines by Crabbe bring very vividly to life the world of the dependent woman in the later 18th, early 19th century: they are from Tale 16 (Tales, 1812) “The Confidant”….

Now Anna’s station frequent terrors wrought,
In one whose looks were with such meaning fraught,
For on a Lady, as an humble friend,
It was her painful office to attend.
Her duties here were of the usual kind –
And some the body harass’d, some the mind:
Billets she wrote, and tender stories read,
To make the Lady sleepy in her bed;
She play’d at whist, but with inferior skill,
And heard the summons as a call to drill;
Music was ever pleasant till she play’d
At a request that no request convey’d;
The Lady’s tales with anxious looks she heard,
For she must witness what her Friend averr’d;
The Lady’s taste she must in all approve,
Hate whom she hated, whom she lov’d must love;
These, with the various duties of her place,
With care she studied, and perform’d with grace:
She veil’d her troubles in a mask of ease,
And show’d her pleasure was a power to please.
Such were the damsel’s duties: she was poor –
Above a servant, but with service more:
Men on her face with careless freedom gaz’d,
Nor thought how painful was the glow they raised.
A wealthy few to gain her favour tried,
But not the favour of a grateful bride;
They spoke their purpose with an easy air,
That shamed and frighten’d the dependent fair;
Past time she view’d, the passing time to cheat,
But nothing found to make the present sweet:
With pensive soul she read life’s future page,
And saw dependent, poor, repining age.

Let us recall what Austen and many another woman of this era who remained unmarried and threatened by her inability to get a decent job of what is written of governesses etc. – are these lines not brilliant descriptions of the horrors of a woman dependent? But also the lines about the male gaze – quite extraordinarily modern really? the very use of the verb. And those great last 4 lines – nothing to console in past, present or future …


Miss Austen Regrets: Jane Austen (Olivia Williams) meets a Member of Parliament who quotes lines from Crabbe at her, and she acknowledges she often carries Crabbe in her pocket (probably ironic).

The lines: With awe, around these silent walks I tread
These are the lasting mansions of the dead … The Library

In Austen, Crabbe and now Britten we can see how in a particular group we are led to feel ourselves an outsider and alien when we don’t share the views of all and are often silenced and depressed by the experience … (Marianne Dashwood anyone?). We see also the theme of the outrages of social life so pervasive in Crabbe. A central motif of the opportunity once lost never gotten again swirls around this: the person doesn’t take the opportunity because they are persuaded out of it … (in all the novels, but especially S&S, P&P, MP). All three can empathize and recognize that crass, stupid, narrow, mean, bigoted people have inner lives too, suffer too.

I recommend Terence Bareham’s Twayne George Crabbe. He opens with a fair and concise resume of Crabbe’s life and then prints a long letter someone wrote after the person visited Crabbe late in life. Much of what’s known of Crabbe’s inner life emerges from this letter as well as what an
innately cordial man (when given the rare opportunity of a like-minded
intelligent person to talk to) he was, someone (not uncommon) who in
effect lived in and upon himself.


P.S. For discussions of other operas, HD and live, see Opera archive at Ellen and Jim Have a Blog Two and further operas in Austen Reveries.

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Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), Pilgrimage to Cythera

Dear friends and readers,

It is probably more than time for me to share my notes from this enjoyable conference at Asheville, North Carolina.

The first session I went to was on Thursday afternoon just after lunch (Panel 1, 12:30 – 2:00 pm): Terrifying Prospects and Psychological Landscapes: Visions and Vistas of the Gothic. This was the one where I gave my paper on “The Nightmare of History in Ann Radcliffe’s Landscapes”. I give the general gist of the two other enjoyable and concise papers: Robert Kottage (“Coining the Counterfeit: Truth and Artifice in Horace Walpole and his Castle of Otranto“) argued that although Walpole’s famous gothic “first,” is of poor aesthetic quality” (it does not succeed in doing what it sets out to), it’s a highly original work where we find massive pain behind the gothic masks. The characters are surrogates for Walpole, and the book an entirely serious attempt to express Walpole’s unconventional sensitive self; its themes are those of the gothic earnestly meant.

Jan Beerstraten (1622-66), Warmond Castle (1661) (Amsterdam, The Netherlands) — the secular historical landscape begins in mid-17th century

J. David Macey (“Panoramic Vistas and Prospective Deaths: Mary Hamilton, Munster Village and the Gothic Novel”) argued that Mary Hamilton employed unusual strategies in her novel: her characters retire to an estate and create a sort of Arcadia. Her novel is a Rousseauistic (many allusions to Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise) recuperative gothic wehre the characters try out tableaux of historical dreams against the nightmare of history. Prof Macey felt Radcliffe was influenced by Hamilton.

The second session I attended (Panel 7, 2:15 – 3:45 pm), “Animals in the Eighteenth Century.” This time two relatively brief suggestive papers. Killian Quigley (“Seemingly Divested of the Ferocity of His Nature: Dean Mahomet’s Imperial Wild”) discussed The Travels of Dean Mahomet, A Native of Patna in Bengal, Through Several Parts of India, While in the Service of The Honourable The East India Company where the author championed the British presence in India. Mr Quigley suggested the presentation of the tiger in this book combined a de-mythologizing impulse with picturesque and 18th century Indian traditions.

This 18th century Royal Tiger Hunt clearly shows little compassion for the tiger (India, Rajasthan, Mewar, Udaipur)

Kathleen Grover (“Sense and Sentiment: Conflicting Views on Animals in the Writings of Descartes, Johnson, and Others”) discussed a shift in attitudes towards animals which encouraged people to empathize with them as having feelings equivalent in strength and quality to human beings; there was a growing anti-vivisection movement. She quoted to great effect some of Johnson’s writing.

Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), Portrait of Scottish violinist and composer Niel Gow (1727-1807)

The first plenary address was on a major theme of the conference beyond picturing: music, especially Scottish music. Professor and fiddler Jane MacMorran gave us a detailed survey of the modes and phases of “18th century Scottish Fiddle Music”. Basically she traced traditional Scottish music, the influence of sophisticated European art music (Italian) and local or regional forms. She or one or both of two of her students (also fine musicians) would play examples of each kind of music after she described its genesis, described it and told where it was popular. I really enjoyed listening to all the pieces, bagpipes, minuets, reels, gigs. The audience was just filled with people.


After the two first sessions, there was lively talk, sometimes supplementing what was said (on the development of animal rights and how far we have to go as yet), qualifying, objecting. In the session on the gothic, the political complexion of the mode was debated; in the session on attitudes towards animals we discussed how far we were still away from regarding animals as having an equivalent right to a life of quality. There was not much general talk after the musical lecture, but some specific questions. What was the kind of music heard in Scottish middle class drawing rooms in the later 18th century. What did Prof MacMorran mean to refer to by some of her terms? After the musical lecture, everyone adjoined to a reception area in the corridors overlooking the vast green landscapes around the hotel (appropriate to the theme) and we drank and had snacks and talked. Then Jim and I were fortunate enough to go into town to have dinner (Italian) with an old friend and new acquaintance.


Leicester Square, a Panorama

The next day began early, 8:00 am (Panel 3, to 9:30 am), and I went to a session whose subject was squarely that of the conference: “Anticipating the Long Eighteenth Century: Vistas in Literature and the Arts.” Three papers were accompanied by fold-out panoramas, scientific drawings, and plates commemorating events, city, town, and country places. Martha Lawlor (“As the Story Unfolds”) brought from the library where she is an Assistant to the head librarian the actual rare printed visions from the era. What I noticed most was that these were printed in small numbers and meant for an elite audience; what knowledge they did offer pictorially could not have spread far.

Panorama of the Battle of Sedan, Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Anton von Werner (British Library)

Linda Reesman (“Botanical Places and Poetical Spaces”) showed us images meant to accompany poetry by Coleridge (which idealized family, children, private sociability); she stressed how this poetry is nostalgic and shows his longing for childhood innocence. Kelly Malone (“Microscopic Vision: The Scientific Vision from the Other Side of the Lens”) showed us how people were disquieted (they had to question the validity of what they could see) by the perceived ugliness and totally different scale from the human one of the microscopic world, at the same time as it was influential and began an important useful journey in understanding the full universe (from diseases, to the structure of living things).

There really was not much talk afterwards as the papers were long and it had taken quite a time to get the power-point aspects of the talks to work. What there were were these panoramas from the rare book room of the Noel Collection spread out on desks. And people looked at them.

There was an Austen session, Panel 12 (9:45 – 11:15 am), “All About Austen.” Two excellent papers. Jena Al-Fuhai (“Gothic Letters: Austen and the Remnants of the Epistolary Novel”) demonstrated the Austen carried on using letters centrally in her novels; while parodying she retained, affirmed, re-created in her own idiom many gothic motifs we find in other novels of the era. Austen does not use letters as windows on the self so much as interventions in the stories which give rise to rupture and thus questioning (of the social order.) What was good about hers was the subtlety of her argument and her examples.

Anne Hathaway (who apparently embodies a modern desirable image for Austen) in Becoming Jane (2008)

Robert Dryden (“Knowing Jane: Pleasure, Passion, & Possession in the Jane Austen community”) basically talked about Austen fandom, how her readers are able to intimate narratives of her life that they fervently believe to be true because there is only the briefest suggestive evidence. She becames a portal, a site through which her readers dream of returning to an idyllic past. The audience afterward discussed the problematic questions of why Austen prompts this reaction, when the cult began, and why she appeals so, especially to women.

At this point there was a break for lunch; then Jim and I and many others went by three buses to the Biltmore mansion where we spent a long (tiring) afternoon. I felt the huge crowds I saw testified to how in the year 2012 the strongly hierarchical class-ridden society this Vanderbilt museum was run on is still central to American life.

A front view of the Biltmore castle (to the back are extension landscaped gardens)

It was telling to see that the rooms for display, the ones the family would have been least likely to use were the first we had to get through. Large with lots of flattering portraits, uncomfortable furniture and the visibilia of wealth and high connections. As we climbed higher, we saw evidence of family life (much idealized). Higher up the guests’ rooms (fancy, done according to color and thematic schemes), then higher yet the narrow corridors and bare rooms of servants. All the way down in the bowels of the building were the places the servants had worked very hard in, and a gym and pool for the wealthy visitors and family to use. In one room there were murals on the wall, evidence of a several day party where obviously the paricipants had gotten quite drunk at times. The prettiest things we saw where the gardens where much money is spent and time to make sure the tulips grow.

It was a mirror of what we were experiencing at Grove Park Inn. Where the 1% were served by those of the 99% docile or desperate enough to be let in. At Grove Park Inn I loved the landscape all around the many huge windows across its walls, and to see the super-expensive luxurious spa set in a vista of rocks; but the place never let one forget one was in this special rare environment only a tiny percentage of people get to enjoy. Jim remarked: “It’s a really glorious setting up in the mountains. People who bet on football refer to $50 bets as “nickels” and $100 bets as “dimes”. In that sense, the hotel nickeled and dimed us.”

I kept wondering where the people who worked in this hotel lived as the bus tours took us only through streets of exquisitely appointed Edwardian mansions. I did glimpse some apartment houses in the distance and hoped for their sakes there were supermarkets, reasonably priced malls, and other amenities (even physicians) to provide for their needs. They all smiled so while they wandered about the hotel, ever eager to help Jim and I (though one person did remind us that the people at the bar no longer had their tips included automatically in the bill — naturally she wanted to make more than $2.13 per hour).

As so often the slave cabins in US plantations now set up for tourists are torn down, so the places where servants must’ve gathered water in mid-century were no longer there (this photo comes from Pamela Horn’s study of the Victorian servant).

We could have done wine tasting and visited an artifcial village and shopping center on the other side of the huge estate; but as it promised to be much hype and was basically a place for the family to make money, we skipped it.

We got back in time to have a light supper with a friend at one of the many bars in the inn. Very pleasant.

Although blurred I show this image as it is from the production we viewed: the dancer has her arms arched to pump them up and down like a rooster

At 8 o’clock went with a group of people to a screening room where Gloria Eive and Colby Kullman played excerpts from a DVD of a production at the Paris Opera house of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes: Gloria and Colby discussed the music and (reactionary) meanings of the opera, and then we saw how in the Euro-trash version these were both delightfully parodied and rendered absurd (as when lead dancers imitated the gestures of chickens, hens, roosters) while wearing the extravagant costumes that are intended to make people numinous figures.

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)

Our long day was done and we returned to our room to read, have some white Riesling wine together, talk and then sleep.

White Riesling

For my third report, see South Central ASECS: Women Writers, poets & actresses and myths.


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 Dear friends and readers,

I read this remarkable sequel last night — thanks to Edith Lank on Austen-l who told me it exists, and may be found printed in Hill’s There are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union.  I make this blog on it because it has the merit of an intriguing parody and ironic commentary on Austen’s Emma which I don’t think Hill would have had the courage to make explicitly.  (It would not have helped his standing in Janeite circles in the British Jane Austen Society where he was invited to speak.) Nokes too (I think) adopted the dramatic imagination approach in his effective and intelligent biography of Austen in order to be able to say or imply things about Austen and her life and works which if he made explicit in the argumentative way would have made his book controversial in ways that would inhibit sales. I hope to make a blog about Nokes’s book (to match the one I wrote about his wonderful book on Johnson) too before summer’s end.

It’s funny and may be described as a kind of satire or parody-commentary on Austen’s Emma, which carries us further into the character’s imagined later lives. It’s short, story length. 

It’s a better pastiche-type sequel than most I’ve tried (as in very bad, P&P and Zombies; and very weak, My Dear Charlotte) — I use the word to mean a fiction which is really rooted in Austen, replays out of the Austen’s novels the characters, plots, and some of the themes. One of its merits or what makes it good is the style. Like Diana Birchall, Hill imitates Austen’s style with verve and facility; he’s lighter than Diana, more sparse and had made the feel more modern. At the same time "poor emma" is clearly a parody and yet in a way or at moments to be taken seriously.

The parody and critique.  I’ve read other sequels which are sharp comments on Austen’s novels and through fiction expose a critical point of view on Austen the person might not want to present in a clear argument (for it could be attacked).  One is Elizabeth Jenkins (yes her) [Miss] Harriet [Woodhouse]: if a Harriet could possibly exist, she’d be an imbecile. Of course Austen’s character is at times part caricature.  Jenkins takes the character seriously, and we see how she can’t survive in a world of real people-characters.

So I take it Hill doesn’t like Emma: she’s not just arrogant and proud and seeking power, she’s frigid; Mr Knightley is more than a prig with his advice: he’s self-satisfied.  Mr Woodhouse is an invalid who enjoys the power of his illness.  He develops the characters in directions which make this reading of their natures clear but it’s by adding things that could not happen in Austen’s world.

Kate Beckinsale as Emma bullying Samantha Morton as Harriet by describing Mr Morton in mortifying terms (Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma)

Emma (Doran Goodwin) having trouble persuading her father, Mr Woodhouse (John Eccles) to let her marry (1972 Denis Constanduros’ Emma)

He does indeed make a shadow story but the way this is brought off without seeming sordid or overdone is the light imitative style which I’ve not got time to quote. For example, Knightley leaves Emma to live in London and becomes a gambler, is promiscuous (secretly); Emma is irritating; she may have little to vex her, but boy she vexes others. Actually she has much to vex her. Frank is now a widower (yes Jane died of consumption) and made a scamp, frivolous, and to make a short story even shorter, he manages to seduce Emma and impregnate her. They have a quiet affair, but when he wants to marry her when he discovers she’s pregnant, she comes out with comments against marriage that remind me of Austen’s own heroine. With less trouble than she rejected Mr Elton, he’s out the door and as the story ends Emma is a widow expecting a baby — thought by everyone to be Mr Knightley’s.  This is good as this baby will be the heir to Hartfield. .

The brothers’ rivalry comes out.  Again this is done by departures:   John Knightley loses his business and has to go live at Donwell Abbey and George takes out post-obits to survive. We see Emma and Isabella spat. Mr Weston dies and Mrs Weston turns Roman Catholic — her need or at least compliance with being ordered about is here.

There are little jokes or insights:  he suggests by implication little Henry who was to inherit all Donwell is Austen putting her brother Henry’s name into the fiction. There are other moments and details where he is suggesting that Emma too is a family fiction just the the way the Juvenilia are with hidden allusions and motifs. One made me want to revive and write my essay on Bad Tuesdays in Austen: there’s a reference to time and the calendars in Austen’s novels also as reflecting specifics we find in the letters and her family’s histories as far as we know these.  He has fun replaying some of the motifs of the novel and undermining them. Such as poor Emma, poor Miss Taylor, poor Harriet …

I said it has its more serious quiet moments and again these come out of the style — and also are about time and seasons. Then the style will change to something modern and become briefly descriptive with a feel of the passing of time and seasons:  Thus, Emma thinks: "perhaps, after all, her father would outlive her husband. And a little flurry of brown leaves drifted down from the summer trees."  (Mr Woodhouse does die, leaving Emma at last truly in charge — though she does not run to the sea; this fiction was written before feminism which the close of Sandy Welch’s 2000 Emma testifes to). 

Penultimate scene of Emma 2009:  Mr Knightley takes Emma to the sea

The fiction begins and ends with a light parody on the opening sentence of Emma; when we conclude it we (ironically) feel indeed Emma seems to escape vexation, what would certainly bother if not traumatize others seems to leave no trace on her thick-skinned and rich (in property) and single (she does not live a sexualized life at all, even if we are told Frank Churchill breeched her bedroom door upon occasion) complacent.  This is no diary-writing Emma, nothing soft here, all manipulation.

Peter McGraths’ 1996 Emma (Gweneth Paltrow) made Emma generous-spirited and open-hearted

Underneath the ironies of this sequel Reginald Hill’s Emma is a poor Emma because she is so constituted that life passes her by.


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Dear friends and readers,

This posting probably belongs more on Jim and Ellen have a blog, two, where I’ve been writing about the operas transmitted by HD to our local movie theater live from the Met.  But I have no photos or stills from the opera beyond conventional promotional stills — and on that blog I try for significant pictures.  It is also a woman-centered, tragedy-she-queen story (in 18th century terms), swirling around a sorceress so it may fit in amid blogs on women artists (with Austen and Dickinson my muses) and female mythic types. I have written here about Britten’s sympathetic take on the governess in James’s Turn of the Screw and Britten’s (astonishingly) feminist Rape of Lucretia.

So, on Saturday afternoon, the admiral, I, and Izzy went to see Rossini’s Armida live at the Met through the magic of HD transmission into movie houses around the US (and globe too). I enjoyed it very much, especially the second and third acts. While it’s not the greatest opera ever written and not all that moving when it’s supposed to be, it is so well-done that it’s almost great, reaches nearly magnificence at key points of the soprano (Renee Fleming) as a powerful sorceress, has stunning ballets, and much of interest to anyone interested in the 18th century especially.

Renee as sorceress amid snake men

This might seem paradoxical. After all Rossini? 1816. But the opera did seem the last gasp of 18th century motifs, of a Handelian opera. First of all the source story: Armida from Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, a very popular story throughout the Renaissance and into the later 18th century. Armida as an opera was done over and over again in the 1770s. It appears to have died a sudden death in 1816 and was not re-staged until our own time.

As performed in the Met version, the paradigm is a classical one: Rinaldo in type is a kind of Aeneas who has to abjure love and sex with his beloved Dido; and the closing scene of the opera at moments reminded me of the situation at the close of Purcell’s and the poignant aria, "Remember me". The difference is striking too: Rinaldo is not stiff, and does not just walk off like some prig (as Aeneas does in Purcell’s opera — granted it’s a thankless role "the hero" does this and that), but succumbs, falls to pieces, looks distressed and wants to stay with his beloved; feels hurt and distressed, indeed is presented as having impulses which are "unmanly" (maybe why this paradigm died once this was seen). 

Armida (Renee Fleming) and Rinaldo (Laurence Brownlow): he cannot act and she can, but then again it’s mythic

He is also the person between Vice and Virtue, with Armida playing Vice and two soldiers who come to urge Rinaldo out of the bower playing Virtue. The production also used the allegorical figures of the text so we had a ballerina who danced and stood for erotic enthrallment within Armida and a fierce male dancer who stood for Hatred and Revenge within Rinaldo and also Armida. (In the first act one of the Frankish soldiers is jealous of Rinaldo and Hatred appears; then there is a duel and Hatred stands for Rinaldo’s inner self.)

Armida is presented very sympathetically too — like Gluck’s Armida (about which see in the comments). The arias Fleming sang were just gorgeous, beautiful, lilting, and playful, and her duets with Laurence Brownlee (tenor, and he’s now lost weight so he can look the part better) were entrancing. She really loves the hero and uses her magic to hold onto to him.  This is Renee Fleming’s project and she matters, Ellen (Renee Fleming fan, I own CDS of her singing Strauss’s last songs and other Strauss too and next year she’ll be in Strauss’s Capriccio)

The production was simple and let the story speak for itself. Some of the psychology in the words (surtitles are important here) revealed a way of articualting the conflicts very like Restoration dramas. Duty and Honor versus love. In a way this did at moments make for tedium, especially at the opening of the opera which was also confusing. The librettist omitted a segment from Tasso which shoudl have been part of Act 1. Armida wants Frankish soldiers to help her fight Muslims; in the poem she is a Muslim princess and when she gets them, she captures them. In the opera, she wants Frankish soldiers, but then when Rinaldo appears, she seems to forget all about this aim and just want to take Rinaldo away to her bower after Rinaldo kills his rival. This is done for concision but it’s a little confusing why we have this Act I about Frankish soldiers and the fuss and then it’s all dropped.

But once we get to the love affair and the coyness and paraade some of the ceremonial gestures which just don’t go over any more, the opera becomes alive. At the close of Act 1 Fleming as Armida is all powerful in a magnicent gesture in her wonderful white outfit; at the close of Act III (end of opera) she stops wailing (like Jacques Brel in his famous "ne me quitte pas") and turns into a sorceress vowing revenge, all in black. The final tableau is fierce.

Also very good were the ballets. We had male ballerinas in women’s dress up on toes, and they were very athletic. Lots of subtle depictions of sexually transgressive tastes in the ballets at the bower, plus you ee men overcome by women in the chorus. It’s a scary place for men, Armida’s bower. There were two long dances, with the outfits of the men and women remarkably animal like. The Met this season has tried hard to appeal to modern tastess using Broadway and other pop theatre primitivism. One deep voiced man (Bass?) had to dance as well as sing and he was interviewed on the difficulty of this.

I like the interviews each time because in the midst of all the coos and laddled on flattery, you learn something about the attitudes of the singers and other people on the stage. I enjoy specially the cameras behind the curtain, on the stage, showing the scenery changing and the people movning.  We got to see close up (due to the fantastic equipment controolled from some caravan in a back street) all the sculptured insects, birds, and animals made for the bower. One mechanical insect walked along and the audience did see that for
they tittered.

It was playful and self-conscious too.  A not-so-small pleasure is observing the distance between this opera and say Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered.  This is an adaptation — or maybe we should call it an appropriation. The changes between the source text and this build-up of fragments from it are fascinating. I mentioned that Rinaldo and Armida are a kind of Dido and Aeneas; she is also a tragedy-she-queen, and all very different from the presentation of the enchantress-type in her bower that you find in the early modern period (Shakespeare’s Titania, in Spenser’s poem). And then to see how it’s done for an audience in 2010 is another angle or facet — the ballet for example, the mechanical stuff for birds and insects and flowers in the bower and so on.

I recommend going to see it; it’s not going away, money was spent  and it has garnered good reviews, so it will be around for some time.  For women viewers the interest is in its woman-centered version of Tasso’s huge epic, the presentation of this sorceress as a Dido figure or she-tragedy queen (18th century style), and the transgressively sexual ballets.


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Dear Friends,

Last Saturday for the fourth of July and now this Saturday, Jim, Isabel and I drove about an hour and one half into the middle of Virginia to visit the beautiful 600 acre estate of Lorin Maazel (now retired director and conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) where he has had built a small concert theatre, just about suitable for chamber operas; a grandstand inside a tent for larger concert performances; buildings enough to house a summer school for musicians, singers, orchestra, and other people involved in music and the arts (like pianists, coaches, set designers, directors); and of course a large home for himself, his wife (a German actress, many years younger than he), and children (now apparently near grown up).

The manor house seen from below where there is a lake

We thought of ourselves as just going to three operas, all by Benjamin Britten, but found that beyond that we were having an experience of a exquisitely landscaped so almost every inch near the houses is picturesque in some varied way, and the places beyond all green and refreshing to the eye.  And of other people like ourselves who arrived by car and wereferried about by a buses (last week only one to which another as added and this week two) and talked to us and one another. The place is huge and the only way to get around is by bus or bicycle.

Last Saturday he held an open house and literally hundreds of people came to see (and gawk at, probably) his manor house (there were tours), and listen to live concerts in the afternoon in two different places (under large awnings in shell structures) and eat picnic lunches with choice of wine, soda, or coffee (that was charged for).  There are animal too:  a zebra, a donkey and a zonkey (child of said zebra and donkey).  He was said to have bought them so his children could have animals about.  You could see stacks of hay and the fields criss-crossed like in England.

Most of the people were not there for the opera, and just came and went.  They were occupying themselves for July 4th.  This week there was a tiny group in comparison, but sufficient to nearly fill the opera house, and this evening there was a concert.  Next week there will be another opera. This is the first time there has been a full season of operas in summer. Whether there will be another remains to be seen. This cost a huge amount (tickets couldn’t begin to cover it), and Maazel is an old man. He has patrons and organizations helping him to pay for it, but it takes a long time to build an institution.

I wanted to write about the operas under the sign of Austen as both are heroines texts (so to speak), contemporary ones.  The July 4th one was (or is, if the production is taken elsewhere) an adaptation of a Henry James story, The Turn of the Screw, and whether he wanted to admit it or not, Henry is a son of Jane. The libretto is by a woman, Myfanwy Piper, and unlike James, very sympathetic to the governess

A cover for James’s story

Today’s was The Rape of Lucretia, libretto, Ronald Duncan and there was no open house, so far fewer people, only those coming to the opera (who had paid for it).  The opera basically frames this traditional story and interprets it as parable coming out of World War Two: the production and presentation of the central rape put me in mind of the 1960 great Italian movie, Two Women (adapted from a powerful novella by Elsa Morante, about two women raped by a bunch of American soldiers in a church just as the war is ending),

Poster for Two Women

The men in the production and Lucretia’s nurse and maid were dressed n WW2 costumes, with paraphernalia suggestive of Roman times; Lucretia was in spotless white, a dress which was half evening dress, half nightgown.

The production of The Turn of the Screw was superb; The Rape of Lucretia, magnificent, and the opera itself one of the great operas of the repertoire which appears to be infrequently done, perhaps because it’s a chamber opera, but more likely the content (and title) frightens audiences off and worries producers who want large audiences coming in. 

I think both operas of real interest to anyone interested in women’s art, literature, and issues.  They are both sympathetic to central women types who in the original takes the author is either highly ambivalent (James) or where the character is scapegoated and women distrusted deeply (Lucretia — for what is a rape story where a woman kills herself for a vicious murderous crime committed against her).

They left me hopeful — paradoxically  — about how women are regarded, but then perhaps it was just Britten who was a gay man, and gay man sometimes identify with women.

There follows a review of each.


First James’s ghost story:  What’s astonishing is really how many interpretations you can derive from it, even if you acknowledge that the ghosts are really there. You can even deny that, but usually in such stories the ghost are really there. It’s not until post-MR James (and that’s not MR James but post him) that you get psychological projections as the final explanation for sure, or cruel tricks by other people.

It’s a Christmas tale. A group of peope are sitting about scaring one another, and one man says what about a story where not only one but two children have "visitations."  Then the first turn: he’s not going to tell it, oh no, it’s manuscript.  This reminded me of  Umberto Eco The Name of the Rose, which begins (tongue-in-cheek), "naturally, a manuscript."  As you begin to read the frame falls away (you forget it), but then again towards the end you realize that this governess telling the story may not be alive right now as this is a manuscript.  In brief, a governess (never named) is hired to go to a house deep in the country to care for the two wards of a man (rich, never named, lives in Harley Street so perhaps a physicia) who does not want to be bothered about anything that happens there at all.  When she arrives, she meets a housekeeper; as she is a vicar’s daugher, thrown on hard times we are in classic Jane Eyre tale, only there are two children, a boy, Miles, about 13; he has just been permanently expelled from his school and a girl, Flora, slightly younger than he. She gradually learns the governess who was there before, Miss Jessel, just left one day, shattered, and then died.

Miss Jessel in the opera

There was also a man on the property whose role is not clear, Peter Quint; he too is now dead.  The govrerness begins to see Quint and Miss Jessel as ghosts; they are (it seems to her) trying to take the children with them to the world of the dead, and it seems to the governess, that something sexual happened between Quint and the boy and Quint wants Miles for more sex. Perhaps Miles was complicit and his appetites aroused made him chase other boys; but perhaps he was innocent.  Maybe Quint had sex with Miss Jessel; perhaps Miss Jessel wants Flora for sex, perhaps Quint wants her.  Perhaps this is all in the governess’s mind, but I think not. The children act very oddly and if the governess is repressed, it really makes life harder for her, for she cannot express aloud what she thinks. She appears to be infatuated with her cold boss; she is alone. It’s not clear if the housekeeper believes there are dangerous ghost or believes the governess is the danger to them all.

To make a medium size story short, after several terrifying adventures and appearances, and the children found on the estate at night, out of their beds, and everyone becoming more and more traumatized, the manuscript stops dead as if cut off because the boy’s heart stops beating and that’s it.  So we don’t know what happened to the governess, ghosts, housekeeper, Flora. Perhaps finally their guardian (whose name we are not told) finally took an interest: one which would probabl not be in the governess’s favor (whose name we are not told).

It’s probably not a healthy tale for everywhere everything swirls about unspoken suspicions of sexual action: be it the boy since he was expelled from a school who never want him back (all boys’s school we are told), or between the boy and Quint (who "wants" him we are told) or the boy and Miss Jessel, or Miss Jessel and Flora or Miss Jessel and Quint. 

Quint and Miles

Is it all made up by a hysterical governess?  Well she’s hysterical only after a while and partly that’s because she hasn’t got the nerve to tell and was told by her employer not to bother him, no matter what. James makes that boy’s voice halfadult.  Is he complicit? 

The atmosphere is everything and in reading the story I do find myself unnerved as I read. As with M.R James I get to teh point where I loo round fearful I’ll see something.  James is saying (another level of teh ficiton), you think you’ve read ghost stories, well I’ll show you what I can do. At the opening there’s an allusion to Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho too where a terrible secret is said to be at the heart of the tale and when we get there we find nothing very much.  On one level, the story is a sort of joke.  James is outdoing all ghost stories ever.

I’ve not begun to do justice to the pyschological feel of the story. James was gay and is talking about himself of course in part; he probably detested the narrow minded bigot but he does sympathize with this governess. She is the archetypal heroine of 19th century tales, naturally all alone, and she is working ever so hard to educate these children, with them night and day. Miss Jessel went away shattered; this reminds me of the man (father) in Wings of the Dove who lives furtively in an apartment scared to go into the streets. As Alan Bennet has shown in his stories, there is no safety for homosexual man, and one photo fo James shows him looking nervous and rumpled. On the other hand, she is insinuatingly presented by the governess as super-sexy.  We are not told much about Quint.

Well the opera was powerful.  It did opt for the governess seeing real ghosts. It almost had to.  You have people playing the ghosts. Of course they could be presented as visions, but we see them on stage arguing about what to do next and they are clearly there.  The governess (Charlotte Dobbs sang beautifully, full round tones) clearly loves the children and is not out to hurt them herself. The housekeeper believes the governess.  The boy seems innocent but it also seems that Quint is after him since he’s had him before.  Otherwise why does he have an heart  attack.

It was staged against a black wall and mostly black curtains. Everything dark. Quint was a very high tenor (Jim thought Steven Ebel was peculiarly great as a singer and actor in it — this was the Peter Pears part).  The governess and housekeeper (Rachel Calloway) were sopranas and Miss Jessel a very high soprana (Greta Ball).  The content was daring.  It was clear we were watching an opera about pederasty (that’s the avoided word for what went on between Quint and Miles).  Jim says it’s common in Britten operas to find very high tenor voices and a boy or boys’ voice(s). This is something you find in other of Britten’s operas, a feature rarely frankly or openly discussed.  It’s in Peter Grimes (who also abuses a boy who dies of it).  Piper built on the part of James sympathetic to the governess, left alone, innocent in a way in her falling in love with her employer, one of the motives for her taking the job. Clearly we are to think poorly of the employer for not wanting to know anything that goes on in the house or about the children.  There is her isolation and and relationship with the housekeeper (who is as fearful of talking candidly as she) as her only confident..

The governess and Miles

Lorin Mazell was the conductor, and the orchestra a group of graduate students from London, the Royal London college of musicians (or something like that).


I was just stunned by The Rape of Lucretia.  I actually hadn’t wanted to go.  I feared the opera’s story would be presented in a manner that distressed or angered me.  Previously all versions of Lucretia as a story I had read were probably from the Renaissance and they present her after the rape is over, remembering and then killing herself at great length. They seem to me ugly, filled with a distrust for women’s sexuality, using this figure as a scapegoat. Why should she kill herself?  As an exemplum it’s pernicious. I dislike the luxurious garments she is usually dressed in; there is something lascivious in the tone of the authors and painters who present her.  The story was not usually done in the 17th through 20th centuries (none in Racine, Corneille) nor the Romantics who went in for rape and incest too (say Beatrice Cenci).

But this one framed the story by two people in modern dress, presented as Christian believers (a man, sung by Tyler S. Nelson and this was Peter Pears’s role, very high tenor) and woman (Arainan ZUkerman) dressed in contemporary suit and tie for the man and blouse and skirt for the woman) who are horrified by the story they watch.  Tarquinius, Junius, and Collatinus are out drinking in the fields, and talk and it seems only Collatinus has a faithful wife.  It may be misogynistic to present all women but one as sexually unfaithful, but 1) it feels like men boasting and tormenting one another (not necessarily true stories) and also if they did so, what then?  Why should they stay true to these savage men? 

Tarquinius is the son of a usuerper, a vicious, cruel man and he decides to head back to Lucretia’s house to rape her to get back at Collatinus and Junius for their mockery of him.  And that’s just what he does.  Lucretia at first does not want to let him stay but sees no way out of being hospitable.

Then he wakes in the night and comes to where she is sleeping under the gauze. At first she is dreaming of Collatinus but when she realizes who it is she tries to fight him off. Throughout he and then afterward she carries a sort of group of switches or whips and chains which don’t seem to have much overt function but as a symbol. 

Her women wake the next morning; it’s beautiful and they sing,

Nurse and maid gathering flowers.

But then their mistress comes out and they see something terrible has happened.  Collatinus is called home suddenly and sees his wife so shattered and horrified: the way she talks about her shame suggests maybe that she did feel that some sexual passion could have been or was roused in her and this appalls her; also the way it’s staged seems to deliberately suggest he raped her anally at first.  Collatinus tries to comfort her and tell her there is no shame as it was forced on her but before he can reason with her, she kills herself.  Junious then vows to overturn Tarquinius and his parents and free Rome to make her a republic (this is part of the original myth).

There were specific allusions too:  The props included a naked light bulb hanging over Lucretia as Tarquinius rapes her precisely like that in the 1951 Streetcar named Desire (above Blanche and Stanley), and there was a gauze curtain separating them just like in the movie.  Also Othello:  again the gauze curtain was wrapped around Lucretia’s bed just as in Othello it usually is, and as I saw it last week when I watched a movie, A Double Life where Ronald Colman plays Othello and in the movie really attempts to murder his wife playing Desmona. Not to omit Richardson’s Clarissa who is raped and similar to Lucretia in this version refuses to dismiss this from her mind. 

Admittedly there is stereotyping.  The women are presented as endlessly sewing and waiting for Collatinus to come home.  Lucretius is a Penelope.  The woman who sang Lucretia, Tamara Mumford, a superb mezzo-soprano (off to sing Dido at Glimmerglass on Sunday), was dressed sexily, and the hint she felt sexual passion during the rape (or for however long it went on) misrepresented what rape is. The opera is more than a half-century old. But written just after WW2, it means to show us the savagery of man and war.  It’s an anti-war opera and relevant to us today where nowadays openly it’s admitted soldiers rape and kill women and slaughter children out of bloodlust and revenge. The two Christians were there to register moral horror, and especially the woman (a soprano). Her expressions were to enact the feelings of the audience, perhaps especially the women.

I liked the music and voices in the Rape of Lucretia better than The Turn of the Screw.  Tarquinius was a low tenor; Collatinus ws sung by Allen Boxer, a bass-baritone.  Tarquinus was sung by Matthew Worth who acted the part fiercely. I much prefer a mix of voices and like lower ones.  The acting was superb, and the music so well done.  A lot was spoken and the surtitles essential in carrying the meaning.  Really both operas were splendidly done and unexpectedly I was moved by both and I hope I’ve shown they are modern heroine’s tales.


A final highlight of last week:  I heard Michael Fennelly played the piano four times at two different locations. He seemed to be in charge of the live concerts going on,a kind of master of ceremonies for these.

Michael Fennelly with one of his teachers

He is just spectacular. It was rare pleasure and enormous treat to listen to this man play George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and then Wagner’s Tannhauser prologue as set the piano by Lizst. Indeed I could scarcely believe how that man’s fingers did the latter. I think I really enjoyed his playing more than anything else I heard musically. While the opera was fascinating and well done, I can’t say I enjoyed the music the way I did Fennelly’s choice of music as well as playing.  He did two other numbers too, another Gershwin and Mozart. He is there as the Rehearsal Pianist/Coach for Maazell has set up a school for musicians, performers, design people and composers for the summer season while the festival goes on.

This does look like the grand piano he played in a beautiful room we found ourselves in at one point. It had Venetian windows and looked out over an alluring landscaped scene.  There was a second piano (standup) in one of the shells.  

Maazell made just oodles of money as Philharmonic Conductor and Director (a big salary and then payment for each time he conducted) and is now sharing it beautifully.  Taxes for the rich are low in the US, and so he accumulated a helluva a lot.  Even the outdoor bathrooms (Johns) in the place were exquisitely well done in good taste.  Tiled floors, fancy seat, mirrors, cabinets. 

Money well tim’d, and properly apply’d, will do anything.
 ——-John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera

Next week we see Britten’s Beggar’s Opera.  Now I enjoy Gay’s play and have seen it a couple of times on stage (once with Raoul Julio) and used to screen Jonathan Miller’s TV The Beggar’s Opera. for my students.   I’ve seen Brecht’s and used to listen to a record of it.  I look forward to a third contemporary version.

A recent Mrs Peachum in Gay’s musical play (2007).

I once played the role of the much put-upon brothel madame (she has a hard time making ends meet she says) in the second half of the play in a fun production we did at an Eastern Region meeting.


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