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Archive for January 21st, 2010

                              

by Sam Juliano

     Georges Bizet’s Carmen is arguably the most popular opera in history, and it’s almost never off the yearly schedules of the largest and smallest companies.  Only Puccini’s La Boheme is in its stratosphere of adoration,  and it stands alone as the indoctrinating vehicle for neophytes to the form.  The opera’s central role is perhaps the defining one for a soprano, and over decades it provided some of the greatest singers with their most electrifing moments onstage.  For the second time this season, the Metropolitan Opera has replaced a long-running Franco Zeffirelli staging, (and a shorter one after it)  but unlike the first instance, where the desision drew ire from traditionalists, (Tosca), this new incarnation by Richard Eyre stands among the season’s most distinguished stagings, with an outstanding Carmen and Don Jose and some virtuoso conducting by a gifted newcomer.  The new Carmen, wields the raw power of the 1875 work, but the underpinnings are more contemporary than the Zeffirelli production, which typically was traditional.

     Carmen, which contains some of the greatest passages in all of music (“The Toreador Song”,” “The Flower Song” and the “Habanera” are musical masterpieces) is a work of superbly balanced construction and extraordinary precision, on in which Bizet is able to express in 16 bars what almost any other composer would need 160 for and might still not succeed.  The opera with it signature sexuality, smoldering passions and violent denouement, has often been understood as a story of ill-fated love between two equal parties whose destinies happen to clash.  But to read the opera in this fashion is really to ignore the faultlines of social power that organize it, for while the story’s subject matter may appear idiosyncratic to us, Carmen is actually only one of a large number of fantasies involving race, class and gender that are known to have circulated in nineteenth-century French culture.   Most interpretations of the opera either assume Carmen’s treachery or else try to eradicate the differences in class, race and gender between Carmen and Don Jose.  To be sure, the illicit sexuality of the opera continues to be acknowledged; but as it took it place within the canon many decade ago, Carmen became a locus for socially-sanctioned titillation rather than a cause for moral indignation.  A self-congratulatory smugness seems to characterize much of what was written about Carmen after it became a staple of the repetory, as subsequent critics gloat when recounting the prudery of Bizet’s initial audiences, along these lines: “The libretto is effective, but far from shocking a generation that now considers Strauss’s Salome tame.  The tragic ending is so seasoned a convention that we accept it without thought.”  In any case the popular literature on Carmen tends to highlight the elements of femme fatale and male victim, often rendering the plot in a gleefully naughty, insinuating style. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1927 119m) DVD1/2

The Hole in the Sock

p  William Fox  d  Frank Borzage  w  Benjamin Glazer  play  Austin Strong  ph  Ernest Palmer, J.A.Valentine  ed  H.H.Caldwell, Katharine Hilliker  m  Michael Mortilla  song  “Diane” by Erno Rapee, Lew Pollack  art  Harry Oliver  cos  Kathleen Kay

Janet Gaynor (Diane), Charles Farrell (Chico), Gladys Brockwell (Nana), David Butler (Gobin), Brandon Hurst (Uncle George), Ben Bard (Colonel Brissac), Albert Gran (Boul), Jessie Haslett (Aunt Valentine),

Seventh Heaven’s reputation has risen, fallen and risen from the ashes again much like that of its director Frank Borzage.  It won him an Oscar in 1927, and for a few years he was the Academy’s darling, winning another award a few years later.  Yet for many years, after World War II, Borzage’s doomed romanticism seemed phoney, out of date with the prevailing cynicism.  Only in recent decades have Borzage and his films undergone a bit of a revaluation.  He’s now seen as a master by many, and though I don’t think he ever made an outright masterpiece, of his silents this came the closest.

            The setting is Paris in 1914.  Diane is a timid mouse of a girl who lives with her bullying, absinthe addicted whore of a sister in a slum dwelling.  One day news reaches them that their aunt and uncle have returned from overseas to take them under their wing, but will not do so if the girls have not been good.  Despite vicious arm-twisting and threats from her sister, Diane cannot lie, and when her aunt and uncle depart, tossing money on the floor like a client leaving payment on the dresser, Diane’s sister beats and whips her savagely (McDowell acting like she’s in an Erich Von Stroheim or Cecil B.de Mille film).  To the rescue comes Chico, a live-for-the-moment sewer worker, who threatens the sister with violence of his own if she doesn’t leave off.  But the sister, having been caught by the gendarmes, volunteers Diane as a vagrant, and Chico pretends they’re married to keep the law off her back.  He takes Diane up to his rooftop garret on the seventh floor, closest to heaven (hence the title).  Needless to say, they fall in love.  (more…)

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