Swans Commentary » swans.com December 31, 2007 - January 1, 2008  



Five Films, Three Operas, And A Mystery Symphony In New York


by Isidor Saslav





December 31, 2007 - January 1, 2008   When it comes to foreign films we don't need to be told about the great pictures made in France, Italy, Sweden, and sometimes Germany. However to those of us not ordinarily fans of Spanish films, though we might know well the directors' names Buñuel and Almodóvar, how many others of equally intense talent might be to us, if not closed, at least rarely opened books? Besides the two latter legends how many of us know as well the names Pilar Miró, Judith Colell, and Jaime Rosales? For me and others like me to whom those latter three names were quite terra incognita the recent Spanish Cinema Now film festival at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center drew aside the curtain of ignorance leaving me (at least) in astonishment at the wealth of cinematic talent pouring out of that relatively unidolized country. Miró, Colell, and Rosales were by no means the only names represented at the Reade festival, nor did I have the time to sample more than five of the dozen or so films on offer this season.

Ms. Miró, who died in 1997, (a descendant of the painter?), directed the film The Cuenca Crime (El crimen de Cuenca) in 1979. The film depicts the history of true events in the years 1909-24 in the Cuenca district of Spain. Perhaps the closest American equivalent to these events during a simultaneous era in our criminal justice system would be the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti somewhat later in the 1920s. The differences between the two events being that the two Spanish convicts were not sentenced to death, thus permitting justice ultimately to prevail (the movie is great propaganda against the death penalty); and that everyone agreed that the robbery and murder for which Sacco and Vanzetti were executed actually occurred. In Cuenca, however, the two accused were convicted of a crime that never took place.

But it was the methods by which were extracted confessions from the two Spanish accused, confessions to a crime neither of them committed, nor that ever indeed took place, namely various methods of torture depicted in the most graphic and brutal detail, which make this film so painfully relevant to the United States today even after the 30 years since it was made, shortly after the death of Franco in a time when many criminal acts of previous Spanish regimes were being questioned and uncovered. All of those who are today insisting on the reliability of information gleaned under torture should be made to see this movie.

In the movie and the actual events on which it was based a young man disappears from a public venue without a trace. Though he has a history of disappearing for long stretches and eventually coming back, a hysterical mother backed up by an equally hysterical populace insists that the last two to see him alive be prosecuted for his murder. A new resident prosecutor, backed up by rich landowning conservatives, is only too happy to go after the two friends, men representing the working classes of a nearby village.

Through torture of the two men by the prosecutor's assisting sergeant and psychological attack on one of the two wives the prosecutor gleans a purely made up story as to where the body is buried. Of course upon digging up that locale no body is found. At the trial some years later the defendants are advised by their defense lawyer to plead guilty but ask for mercy. This they do and are not executed, leaving the way open for justice finally to prevail, which happens when the disappeared young man finally shows up perfectly alive and is returned to his home town. The Spanish Supreme Court sets aside the verdict, the two convicts are released and reunited, and the film's epilogue hints that the prosecutor, sergeant, et al., committed suicide. (The return of the disappeared supposed murder victim reminds one of the film The Return of Martin Guerre [1982], based on another actual historical occurrence, with a slightly different twist.)

Many modern Spanish film directors seem to be masters of the mundane, telling us life histories, often three at a time in alternation, of the most ordinary kind of people and the unresolved tensions behind their seemingly controlled facades. Judith Colell's 53 Winter Days has three such completely separate but intertwined alternating plotlines featuring a traumatized attacked school teacher, a cellist as dumped mistress to her conductor-instructor, and a security guard of small income who steals his firm's merchandise to present his pregnant wife with a gift, is fired, and disappears.

Jaime Rosales's Solitary Fragments (La soledad) of 2007 reaches a highpoint of storytelling, again intertwining two families' gloomy histories in which their everyday lives and their normal familial tensions are transformed for the worse by a horrific event pulled straight out of the recent Spanish history of terrorism. Rosales's split screen techniques also add to the disquiet generated by the stories themselves as does his camera technique of long, quiet, unmoving close-up pans of characters' faces as they think their solitary and often depressed thoughts.

Miró's The Engagement Party (La Petición) of 1976 freely adapts a short story of Emile Zola in which a daughter of the upper class seduces her way into two murders, punishment for and detection of which she, thanks to her upper-class privileges, escapes completely. It reminded one of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) in which one of the protagonists literally does get away with a murder.

But quite another centerpiece of the recent Reade festival, besides the 7-film Miró retrospective, was an 8-part documentary on the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, The War on Film (La Guerra filmada) as filmed by crews from all three sides: the Loyalists, the Fascists, and the Soviets. It brought back to mind so many great movies on WWII of the last decades from so many countries: Closely Watched Trains, Shoa, Lacombe-Lucien, The Black Box, Saving Private Ryan, etc. But here original films of the time, not retellings, served as the basis of the series. I got to see only the second film of the eight, which covered that period just after the start of the war when the Fascists had just launched their attack on points in the south and were threatening Madrid.

The first series of Spanish-language newsreels depicted the young Republicans/Anarchists, after having captured and occupied all of Barcelona, setting out in a caravan of wagons, cars, trucks, and armored vehicles to relieve and reoccupy those points in Aragon in the south which had just been taken by the Fascists. It was poignant and heartbreaking to see those gallant young men, so cheerful and confident of victory, so spurred on and encouraged by a happy and triumphant populace, setting out on a journey which was to bring them so much disaster and eventual defeat. Even an idolized and much filmed leader was reported in the next series of newsreels as having been treacherously assassinated from the back during the siege of Madrid not long afterward.

The Soviets too had sent a newsreel team to cover the war. And from Spanish the narrative voice turned into Russian. Events covering the siege of Madrid by the Fascists and the attempts at defense by the Republicans were the subject of the reportage. It was the Russians who reported the assassination of the popular leader, and one wonders, following Orwell's writings, whether they had anything to do with it. Numbers 10 and 11 in a series were shown. Finally the Fascists, with their heavy sprinkling of swarthy Moroccan troops, weighed in with three of their reels, as they marched north to "save" the country, depicting the horrors of destruction of buildings and bridges left by the retreating Republicans. I wish I could have remained in New York for a few more weeks to take in all of this spectacular and revelatory festival.

Torture eliciting confessions to crimes played a role as well in the opera by Verdi, I Due Foscari (1844) as performed by the Opera Orchestra of New York (OONY) on December 13. To be sure the torture in question, unlike in the movie, took place in Greek style -- that is, narrated, but not depicted on stage. Even the reappearance of the non-murdered victim in the movie found its parallel in the opera, based on a tragedy by Lord Byron as adapted by Piave, when a letter was sung from the actual murderer confessing to the crime that had started the original feud and absolving the family falsely accused. (I mention the opera as "following" the movie, which was made 150 years later, because that was the order in which I saw them.)

Conductor Eve Queler continued in her unique role of searching out and forcefully directing rarely heard operas to her fortunate public in New York. (Last year I saw and enjoyed her production of L'Amore dei Tre Re of Montemezzi.) Here Maestra Queler was joined by the magnificent chorus of The New York Choral Ensemble, Italo Marchini, director; as well as by soprano Julianna di Giacomo as Lucrezia Contarini, wife of Jacopo Foscari, tenor Aquiles Machado as Jacopo, and baritone Paolo Gavanelli as Francesco Foscari, doge of Venice, and Jacopo's father.

I chatted with Eve backstage afterwards. (Our collaboration goes back some 30 years: I was her concertmaster for a New Year's Eve OONY performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at Carnegie Hall in 1979.) We traded observations on which operas she had brought to New York audiences: though she had not yet brought Richard Strauss's first opera, Feuersnot, to New York, she had indeed brought his second, Guntram. Though she has yet to present Puccini's first opera, Le Villi, later this season she will bring his second, Edgar, and actually for the second time in the OONY's history (originally 1977). I owe to Eve one of the most exciting experiences I have ever had in the operatic theater: her direction of Wagner's third opera, Rienzi, at the Kennedy Center in Washington some 25 years ago. Whatever Rienzi's history of performances at the Metropolitan Opera might be, Eve observed to me that in its entire history the Met had not once brought I Due Foscari to its stages, though this was the second time for this opera to appear on the OONY series (originally 1981).

(Wagner's second opera, Das Liebesverbot [1834-36], is about to receive only its second full staging in North America at the Glimmerglass Opera next summer. Glimmerglass is presenting an all-Shakespeare season and Wagner's opera is based on Measure for Measure. The Lyric Opera of Los Angeles gave it its North American premiere last year. I attended a concert version of this opera 30 years ago at the Waterloo Festival in New Jersey as directed by Gerhard Schwarz. Imagine having to wait 170 years for an opera by Wagner! I guess he just didn't have a big enough reputation.)

Unless you are a student of the history of the Venetian Republic in the 15th century or the works of Lord Byron, the title, "I Due Foscari" (FOSS-ka-ree, not fos-KAH-ree), might remain a puzzle to you, as it did to me for many years of reading about it. Heaven knows what I imagined "foscari" to be. It turns out that "Foscari" is the surname of the Venetian doge, Francesco (1453-57) and his son, Jacopo. It is the son who, for various crimes, has been tortured and banished to lifelong exile from Venice by the malevolent council of 10 who actually run the show despite the elder Foscari's facade of authority. A member of the council, Jacopo Loredano, has a revenge score to settle with both Francesco and Jacopo, and succeeds mightily and tragically in this before the opera is over.

This plot is probably the reason why I Due Foscari has never made it to the center, or even the fringes of the Verdian canon. It's certainly not for lack of magnificent choral episodes and of continual brilliant orchestral contributions, nor an absence of virtuose roles for all three leading protagonists. Indeed the final baritone scena and arias of the elder Foscari in the fourth act brought forth what seemed like a five-minute ovation from the audience for baritone Paolo Gavanelli for which the artist had to take several bows.

The parallel in character and vocal style between the elder Foscari and Rigoletto (1851) cannot be overlooked by anyone who thinks about both deep emotional baritone roles even briefly. Rigoletto, like Foscari, faces a curse from an aggrieved protagonist and despite his best efforts and machinations is unable to avoid a disaster to his family. But despite this downward trajectory to both plots, Rigoletto remains a standard but I Due Foscari an operatic exile, just like the younger Foscari within the plot of the opera.

I may be wrong but I think the problem with this opera (besides the need for great singers) is that all the protagonists in Foscari are simply too pitiable in their inabilities to alter the course of their events. The elder Foscari is simply a pawn of the Ten, unable to save his son from them, and eventually driven from his office by them; while the younger Foscari remains a physically tortured and twice-exiled victim. The younger Foscari's wife shows heroism in her efforts to defend her twice-exiled husband, but this is not enough to efface a certain feeling of disgust towards the two male protagonists for their ineffectuality. There is thus nothing for the audience to identify or empathize with, unless perhaps for those having a sadistic pleasure in seeing otherwise worthy characters being trampled underfoot.

A few days earlier I saw and heard for the first time in my life Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride (Iphigeneia in Tauris) as presented at the Met for the first time in 90 years and conducted by the French director Louis Langrée. Again, an opera with a plot of downward trajectory, full of lamenting, gloom and doom, and ineffectuality until a turn in the plot provides it with a triumphant ending in what has to be the quintessential key of 18th-century operatic triumph, C Major. (I have no real idea; my absolute pitch is not that good. I'm only speculating about what sounded like that key.)

Like Strauss' Die Aegyptische Helena, presented at the Met last year, Iphigénie is a "speculation" opera, a sort of variorum on Greek history as created by the Greek playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides. Helena's plot asked and resolved the question "What happened after Troy when Menelaus got Helen back?" To make it easier on everyone's saved face it was not supposed to be the real Helen at Troy making love to Priam's son for nine years, but a double, while the real Helen was spirited off to Egypt (hence the title).

In Iphigénie, while the victimized heroine was indeed sacrificed by Agamemnon as prescribed by the gods to assure him of victory against the Trojans, in Euripides' "what if" play the intervention of the goddess Diana resuscitated the dead girl and she was flown off to live for 15 years among the Scythians where and when the plot of the opera begins. Iphigénie's brother Orestes shows up in disguise (in the person of Placido Domingo in his 130th-plus role) in flight from the furies who have set upon him for his murder of the siblings' mother Clytemnestra as his revenge for her having murdered their father Agamemnon for sacrificing Iphigénie. The two protagonists don't realize they are siblings until much later in the opera. (Which just reminds me that this is roughly the same plot as the first act of Wagner's Die Walküre: another Wagnerian plot borrowing; just as he borrowed the basic plot of Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini, the very first thing he saw upon his arrival in Paris in 1839, when he later created Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.)

There is still human sacrifice among the Scythians of whom Iphigénie (as sung magnificently by soprano Susan Graham) has become Diana's priestess, especially toward suddenly-appeared strangers like Orestes and his best friend Pylade. Will she/won't she sacrifice her own brother becomes the big question of the opera. There's another plot concerning which of the two, Orestes or Pylade, will undergo sacrifice and which one will escape and deliver an explanatory letter to the siblings' sister Elektra, still back at home in Mycenae, and still glorying in the death of their mother. The escaped Pylade brings back with him an army of Greeks who show up in the best tradition of the American West and dispatch the Scythians and their king, Thoas, and everything ends happily and triumphantly as described above.

Gluck's operatic innovations, originally for the Viennese and later for the Parisian theaters are in full evidence: rationalized recitatives and simplified melodic lines which enable the plot to be emotionally and directly expressed by the singers without excessive florid decorations. Plenty of coloristic moments in the orchestra also make for a lively evening: accompanying vigorous choruses, storm scenes, Turkish effects, etc.

By the most interesting of coincidences, the Pierpont Morgan Library, just across town on Lexington Avenue, has on display in a glass case within the rather tiny area devoted to displaying a minuscule part of its ton of significant musical autograph manuscripts a hand-written score of this very opera. But not by Gluck himself but by the young 20-something Hector Berlioz. Berlioz went to the Bibliothèque Nationale, got Gluck's manuscript, and copied out every blessed note in order to teach himself something about operatic composition. A few months later, in the early 1820s, when he actually saw the opera presented, he was so bowled over that he wrote a letter to his father back in the provinces and declared that as far as his, Hector's, career was concerned into the dump goes his career as a doctor and onto center stage steps his new career as a musician. And this was the very opera being presented at the Met. And Berlioz was to repay his debt to Gluck not only through his avowed reverence in his newspaper reviews of the master's operas through the years but in creating his only opera on a Greek legendary/historical subject, The Trojans at Carthage (Les Troyens), his second-last.

I had seen still another historical opera at the Met the night before, Prokofieff's War and Peace. I had been waiting years to finally see this monumental work as well and my patience was well rewarded. The opera, besides Napoleon himself, sung by Vassily Gerello, features characters drawn from the Tolstoy novel: Prince Andrei, sung by Alexei Markov (debut), Natasha Rostova, sung by Marina Poplavskay (debut), Tsar Alexander I, sung by Scott Graham, and many others in the proverbial "cast of thousands" conducted vigorously by Valery Gergiev.

Musically there are several leitmotifs within the opera. Especially beautiful is the song sung in the first scene by Prince Andrei representing so well his spring-inspired ardor and love for Natasha, which reappears at significant moments in the work. The chorus, in the full tradition of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Khovantschina, represents with full throat and many ensembles the indomitable Russian soul and spirit. Their songs of triumph over the invading Napoleon are obvious re-glorifications of that same country's triumph closer in time over the recently crushed Nazis. The opera is truly a sequel to its 19th-century predecessors. But Prokofieff's elegant ballet scores are also frequently recalled through the numerous Onyegin-like ball scenes.

In Harper's Magazine there appeared recently a purported conversation between Stalin, Zhdanov, and Eisenstein about the production of the film Ivan the Terrible. During this conversation Stalin is said to have uttered several political/historical insights into Ivan's role in history, perhaps not correctly conveyed in the movie. A two-year delay for the final episode resulted as Eisenstein absorbed these criticisms. It could well have been that Stalin and Prokofieff also talked about the opera before both of them died within a few months of each other in 1953. If so then any conversations were all to the good, as the opera came out quite excellently.

But Shostakovich too, like the later Eisenstein, had to take some Stalinistic criticisms. Early in 1936 Stalin saw and loathed Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk and had no hesitation in saying so. An actual backstage consultation between composer and bureaucratic hacks at the final dress rehearsal of the composer's Fourth Symphony in C Minor in December 1936 led to the composer's gloomy conclusion that he had better pull that work from production so as not to further provoke the Stalinist wrath. And indeed that work's mysterious disappearance from the repertoire lasted until the 1960s when, well after the dictator's death, the symphony triumphantly re-entered the canon of performed Shostakovich Symphonies.

We as an audience had the opportunity to reassess the mystery symphony recently when the New York Philharmonic (NYP) performed the work in December. Russian guest conductor Andrey Boreyko made his NYP debut in this very work, whose dress rehearsal I had the chance to attend. So what was the hoo-hah all about? The symphony is certainly loud and noisy in its outer movements, and with a Mahler-like waltz intermezzo for its second. The first movement starts with a slow and expressive woodwind section that builds up its momentum and orchestration in the expected fashion to ear-splitting climaxes; while the last movement does it in reverse: big noise calms itself down into consoling fadeout helped along by a lyrical, contemplative, and extensive concertmaster's solo, thoughtfully and expressively played by concertmaster Glenn Dicterow. Along the way there is a wild string fugue which taxes everyone's technique to the max. There is no lack of the usual Shostakovich folk-style and surely audiences of those days would have found much to associate with and enjoy. True, the work is at times fiendishly difficult and virtuose and perhaps the complaints of the under-rehearsed musicians had something to do with Shostakovich's final decision to withdraw the work.

But as heretical as it may sound, we do owe to Stalin and his acerbic criticisms Shostakovich's aesthetic turnaround, which resulted in his immediately after withdrawing the Fourth composing his Fifth Symphony, which has proven to be his most popular and often-played work. Witness Aaron Copland's parallel turnaround in the 1930s, which after a decade's worth of dissonance in the 1920s in works rarely heard today, also resulted in his most popular and often-played works. (Ditto Bartok.) Thus a little insight into the artistic convictions of the philistine masses is not always a bad thing whether conveyed by bureaucratic edict or market-driven survival instinct in the face of changed historical circumstances.


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Published December 31, 2007 - January 1, 2008