Ben & Wystan

Alan Bennett’s THE HABIT OF ART, April 22, 2010
National Theatre, London—via simulcast at NYU

Is squalid solitude prerequisite to habitual art? A case can be made, no doubt. Yet it was strange to see Auden portrayed so slobbering, forgetful, corpulent—a man in a barely buttonable cardigan, wobbling with fat and pissing into his kitchen sink. Still more dispiriting to feel, after two hours of stage talk, that whatever potential insight into the Britten-Auden relationship, or into Auden or Britten individually, or into habit or art, had been waylaid by throwaway bons mots, obligatory allusions, tweetable bits of philosophy, and well-wrung jokes about rent-boys. The mise-en-abyme was meant for art to permeate art, for the imagined scenario to stay open-ended—okay—but here the meta meddled and one was left with a sense of emptiness. (Past its artful phrasings, the play did not feel much more vivid and penetrating, say, than that other recent account of an Auden-generation pair, the far less sophisticated but earnestly sympathetic documentary Chris & Don (2007).) Giving literal voice to Auden’s wrinkled facescape: the sole brilliant fantasia.

Of course reviews have been (just about) uniformly glowing. Light bawdiness, quippy literariness: so theatre, so English.

CARNEGIE HALL | Boulez Bluebeard

Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 8 PM

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, cond. Pierre Boulez
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

RAVEL | Le Tombeau de Couperin
DALBAVIE | Flute Concerto (Mathieu Dufour, flute)
BARTÓK | Bluebeard’s Castle (Michelle DeYoung, mezzo; Falk Struckmann, bass-baritone)

To carry Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle to its bloodcurdling pitch without recourse to hysterics is to understand the work as tragedy rather than horror. Or to understand that its horror is the bare tragic truth of human needfulness. At its most quotidian, the Bartók-Balázs take on Perrault’s tale flings into a void two souls in a state of needful unknowing. A man craves unconditional love—“Kiss me, kiss me, ask me nothing”—yet mistrusts every expression of such love and so remains murderously unslaked. A woman loves, but her love is fraught by curiosity—jealousy’s arsenal—and so she self-annihilates precisely by asking and asking.

Why she has agreed to join him is his keynote question—a question that shifts in tone from tremulous insecurity to protective fear for her to blame of her for triggering the inevitable. That she loves him is her uniform justification. Her “I love you”s beam out like a weapon—the way too overt selflessness does—shielding herself by clutching him to her: give me the keys because I love you, she sings, let me into every door because I love you. But it’s folly, for so many reasons, to seek such a trade. When the six doors have been opened onto their bloodstained vistas and Door Seven reveals Bluebeard’s former loves, Judith is dazzled into an utterly paltry state of feeling: her antecedents, she sings, have all been fairer than she. Yet it is just as he finally utters the words she’d been aching to hear—“You are queen of all my women, / My best and fairest!”—that she quiescently enters the Seventh Door, finally knowing and accepting her fate to be the same as everyone else’s.

Bartók’s score for the emotionally stark, seething, precipitous world that happens between these two lone voices completely chills and engrosses. Falk Struckmann’s Bluebeard was just right in its melancholy and solemnity, though occasionally more subdued in volume than so large a hall, so great an accompanying orchestra, could really accommodate. Michelle DeYoung, her mettle now proven through Mahler and Wagner, effectively conveyed Judith’s eager, ample-hearted innocence and gave it the slightest tinge of obsessiveness. But more expressive than either singer was the Chicago Symphony itself—whether in the high violin tremolos behind the First Door and evocation of shivering rivulets of blood, the unrelenting trumpet behind the Second Door escalating to a clang of violence, the hypnotic shimmer and deceptive reverie behind the Third Door, or, at the Sixth, the thunderous drumming of tears.

[Postscript: Couldn’t make it to this series, unfortunately, for further Bluebeard meditations.]

METROPOLITAN OPERA | From the House of the Dead

[the trash collectors]

Leoš Janáček, From the House of the Dead
[Z mrtvého domu]
Wednesday, December 2, 2009, 8PM

Production: Patrice Chéreau
Associate Director: Thierry Thieu Niang
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Main Cast: Willard White (Alexandr Gorjančikov), Eric Stoklossa (Aljeja)
Stefan Margita (Filka Morozov)

How to make a narrative of so relentless yet monotonous, time-ravaging and exitless an experience as life in this Siberian prison camp? Janàček’s oneiric, episodic opera—a very selective adaptation of Dostoevsky’s memoir-novel Notes from the House of the Dead [Записки из мертвого дома]—does not err that way. What does happen here: a death, an education, an unredemptive recognition, an evanescent collaboration. Only one of the men has a definite future outside. Other prisoners sing songs that refer invariably to their lives before, what landed them in the hope-shorn present. That one of them falls dead during this lean duration, hardly 100 minutes and sans intermission, gives us but an accidental glimpse into the men’s collectively terminal prospects. (And when Filka/Luka dies while Shishkov insistently, obliviously keeps singing, story-song takes on a Scheherazade effect.) Save the sparse chance encounter, enmity or complicity with one another from the outside—we’re never sure just how long ago—they are joined only by their common condition. Save sympathy for and sublimation through a winged animal they tend back to flight, they seem barely related in feeling. These are men who have wronged and are wronged. Dostoevsky’s stand-in, political prisoner Gorjančikov—whose entrance launches the drama but whose own past stays unknown—is the only character who attempts meaningful action within the prison, but his attempt to give young Aljeja a future (by teaching him to read) occurs only at the very margins.

Patrice Chéreau’s set of minimalist but hulking geometries and gunmetal grays in the prison yard, sparse thin-frame beds in the barracks, lends an industrial air to the premises. Over the course of the overture, materializing one by one from darkness, thirty-some prisoners slowly tread onto stage—lifeless, lumbering figures in search of space. We see the joyless swinging of buckets, hear the cold crackling of ankle shackles. One man in a corner lights a cigarette—retrieving something like personal experience thereby—and in the darkness, by default, the spark and smoke mark him as almost individual. A brawl suddenly erupts between two men for no apparent reason, because in this place there’s every reason, and the way their peers immediately converge at that wrestling knot to break it up reveals at once this group’s self-regulation and, such bare and by now habitual restoration of equilibrium apart, disaggregation as its default. In this meticulous opening scene Chéreau shows two other circumstances under which these men will readily self-assemble: the rough but swift lining up for sop ladled from buckets; the game to be had of kicking around a shoe as a ball.

The eagle, about which there’s been much discussion, soon suggests another, more poignant and more promising coming together. Upon discovering this wounded bird fallen into their midst, one prisoner starts running around with a blanket cape and stew-pot helmet in wishful mimicry. But other prisoners try raising the bird into the air. This image of arms raised aloft, the bird the high vertex of their bodies and their longings, was absolutely unforgettable. Having now seen this in person—from the nearness of the tenth row in orchestra—one can judge as moot the controversy surrounding the intended verisimilitude of this bird. Whatever Janàček’s vision, I’m not sure Chéreau intended this moment to constitute an event any more singular than the characters’ cycling through of twice-told tales. Indeed, when eventually freed into flight—to cries of “The eagle is czar!”—the bird is furtively tucked back, wings folded, into the old man’s coat.

My favorite directorial moment in this staging comes during the transition between the First and Second Acts: an avalanche of paper rubbish crashing in from above onto the vacated stage, leaving the entire set smoking with dust and debris like some aftermath of war. Not manna from heaven but an injunction to useless labor, this mess draws the men back to slowly repopulate the stage with clean-up baskets and a heavy work-song. In an affecting use of real time, the stage by the end of the scene has been entirely cleared.

In the libretto, between personal histories and two pantomimes, some solitary lines cut through. “A prisoner owns nothing.” “My dear children—I’ll never see you again.” “You’re my father!” cries Aljeja when bidding his mentor and friend farewell, while Gorjančikov can only reply, “My child! I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.” But of all the heartbreaking truths surely this is the most tragic: “My eyes will never again see the land where I was born.”

There is much to be written on opera’s treatment of prison life. The pertinent scenes in Fidelio and Don Carlo would be richest next to From the House of the Dead, although in both of those works the inevitable individuations of romantic love get in the way of more radically exploring the possibility of populous camaraderie, while here the possibility proves precarious even when no other relation can suffice to surrogate.

On the issue of the supertitles: shifting placement helped them to melt into the set, and these projections could even have implied a quiet acknowledgment of the drama’s textual origins. I’d love to see the Met incorporate this method into other productions.

Labor histories

Ingmar Bergman, in his introduction to Four Screenplays:

There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, laborers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.

Bertolt Brecht, ‘Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters’ [‘Questions from a Worker who Reads,’ trans. Michael Hamburger]:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song,
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years’ War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

Golden poverty

Federico Garcia Lorca, “Imagination, Inspiration, Evasion,” circa 1928:

The mechanics of poetic imagination are always the same: a concentration, a leap, a flight, a return with the treasure, and a classification and selection of what has been brought back. The poet dominates his imagination and sends it wherever he wants. When he is not happy with its services he punishes it and sends it back, just as the hunter punishes the dog who is too slow in bringing him the bird. Sometimes the hunt is splendid, but the most beautiful birds and the brightest lights almost always get away….

Visible reality, the facts of the world and of the human body, are much more full of subtle nuances, and are much more poetic than what imagination discovers. One notices this often in the struggle between scientific reality and imaginative myth, in which—thank God—science wins. For science is a thousand times more lyrical than any theogony….

The poet strolls through his imagination, limited by it. He hears the flowing of great rivers. His forehead feels the cool of the reeds that tremble in the midst of nowhere. He wants to hear the dialogue of the insects beneath the boughs. He wants to penetrate the current of the sap in the dark silence of great tree trunks. He wants to understand the Morse alphabet spoken by the heart of the sleeping girl.

He wants. We all want. But this is his sin: to want. One shouldn’t want, one should love. And so he fails. Because when he tries to express the poetic truth of any of these motifs, he will have to make use of plastic analogies that will never be sufficiently expressive, for the imagination cannot reach those depths.

As long as he does not try to free himself from the world, the poet can live happily in his golden poverty…. Poetry doesn’t need skilled practitioners, she needs lovers, and she lays down brambles and shards of glass for the hands that search for her with love.

Untimely meditations

We know something about Wittgenstein’s architectural designs, and about Schoenberg’s paintings. Perhaps there’s a book to be written on philosophers who composed music: Rousseau, Nietzsche, Adorno.

More on Nietzsche: in this month’s Atlantic Monthly, Terry Castle’s brief omnibus review of “astonishing memoirs by (and about) deeply repellent people” recommends Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche. Its author, Ben McIntyre, “took a boat trip into the Paraguayan jungle in 1991 in search of the surviving inhabitants of Nueva Germania — an abortive ‘Aryan’ colony founded in the late nineteenth century by the ghastly Elisabeth Nietzsche, racist sister of the philosopher. He found a weird village of unreconstructed white supremacists — inbred, half mad, many of them still speaking a kind of zombie German — and heard some curious and frightening stories Josef Mengele. A true-life Heart of Darkness.” As Friedrich’s posthumous PR, the book argues, Elisabeth retrofitted his ideas for an unambiguously anti-semitic agenda and secured for him a place in the Nazi canon Nietzsche himself (in his later years, at least) would have denounced. For no good reason, imagining this village in the jungle brings to mind Fitzcarraldo; if anyone were to make a film about all this, Herzog should.

Anno Anna

A few very recent, admissibly notable events:

Anna Karenina bolts to No. 1 in bestselling paperback fiction. On her May 27 show, still days before the official announcement, Oprah whispered a few hints to guest Sharon Stone about her next Book Club selection. For any alert lit-critter, Stone’s remarks in response were a dead giveaway: a timeless story, a long novel that isn’t as intimidating as it seems, about a woman of yore, her passions, her todestrieb. This is an event impervious to high-brow snickering: for better if also for (i.e., symptomatic of) worse, Oprah will have done more for this classic than many a literature professor. Just think: across the beaches of North America thousands of women will be reading Tolstoy for the first time! Will there ever have been more copies of a single novel open at the same time under the sun? WGBH Boston seems clued in: this weekend it begins re-airing the 2000 UK/Masterpiece Theatre adaptation, starring Helen McCrory (Anna), Kevin McKidd (Vronsky), Douglas Henshall (Levin), Amanda Root (Dolly; excellent as Anne in Persuasion), and Paul Rhys (Nikolai; excellent in Gallowglass). Ophah’s Book Club proceedings can be found here.

Listening to Furtngler again and more, thanks to the wonderful Wilhelm Furtwängler Orgy on wonderful WHRB. What other conductor, apart from Knappertsbusch, can make Bruckner’s plodding transitions sound so convincing, inevitable even? The EMI remastered 1952 Tristan & Isolde is a fulgent force of nature.

Glassy lass

A shrimp who sought his lady shrimp
Could catch no glimpse,
Not even a glimp.
At times, translucence
Is rather a nuisance.

— Ogden Nash’s Zoo.

Entre nous

“Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known.” — Henry Green, Pack My Bags.


Their individualism is not perhaps the thing that matters most to us when we meet people in ordinary life, but in a novel where they do not want anything from us, our money or our bodies or our advice — nothing, that is, except our interest — it matters very much; and no deep feelings for landscape, architecture, culture, or life just going on and on, […] will console us for its absence.

— W.H. Auden