Sunday, August 2, 2015

"When I kiss them they stay kissed": Pre-Code Hollywood

Thou shalt not by A.L. Schafer

There is no Pre-Code Hollywood

"Pre-Code Hollywood" is a term that's generally used to refer to movies made between the advent of sound in the late 20s and the establishment of the Production Code Administration in mid-1934. But by 1934 the studios had already been operating for a decade under a series of increasingly stringent content restrictions adopted by the trade organization Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA).

The MPPDA had been created by the studios themselves to deflect criticism about the depiction of sex, violence, alcohol (Prohibition was still in effect until December 1933), drugs, and religion in films. Will Hays, a former chair of the Republican National Committee and a devout Presbyterian, was hired by the studios in 1922 to head the MPPDA because he could convincingly seem to represent middle-American values. Hays' first guidelines were written in 1924, so there is no period in the sound era when studio filmmakers were operating without content proscriptions: there is no pre-Code Hollywood.

The appearance of self-regulation was used by the studios to undercut attempts to impose government censorship. As Mark Vieira points out in Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, the studios were mainly concerned with their long-term financial interests. They wanted to avoid any public ill-will that might lead to anti-trust legislation aimed at the studios' monopolistic practices such as vertical integration, block-booking and blind buying. [1] (Vertical integration was studio ownership of movie theaters; block-booking was the distribution of desirable movies to independent theater owners only as a package with other, less popular movies; blind buying was the practice of forcing theaters to bid on movies on the basis of a sketchy prospectus before the films were even produced.)

When sound became widely adopted in the late 1920s, the moral panic surrounding movies reached a new pitch. Catholic priest Daniel Lord later wrote, "Silent smut had been bad. Vocal smut cried to the censors for vengeance." [2] The studios responded by adopting a new set of guidelines in early 1930 as "A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures." The Production Code, popularly known as the "Hays Code," was primarily authored by Lord and Exhibitor's Herald World editor Martin Quigley. It was promoted as governing filmmakers' approach to any controversial material.

 ...but pre-1934 movies are different

The studios were placed in a double bind: self-censorship made for good press, but sensationalism sold tickets. Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios, told one of his executives that "the public now knows that we stand for clean pictures and that invariably they are too damn clean and they stay away on account of it." [3] So it was in the studios' short-term financial interest to circumvent their own guidelines, and they did it regularly. Before mid-1934 adherence to the MPPDA's guidelines was voluntary, and the organization had no enforcement power. Hays' role was primarily one of public relations, while the content rules he promulgated were often skirted or ignored outright. Until mid-1934, Hollywood filmmakers continued to push the boundaries of what was permissible.

The justification for including forbidden content was "compensating moral values"—a conclusion in which the sinful repent, the erring make sacrifices, and the incorrigible are punished. Thus, the phenomenon of the Hollywood ending: a final scene that slaps a moralistic denouement on all the eyebrow-raising events of the previous 90 minutes.

The Production Code and its discontents


Among the prohibitions of the Code:

"I. Crimes against the law: These shall not be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime...Illegal drug traffic must never be presented."

"Vi. Costume: ...Undressing scenes should be avoided, and never used save where essential to the plot."

Night Nurse (1931, directed by William Wellman, screenplay by Oliver Garrett and Charles Kenyon, based on a novel by Dora Macy) inspires sympathy for not one, but two crimes: bootlegging and murder. Sinister chauffeur Clark Gable is apparently plotting to marry party-girl divorcée Charlotte Merriman and starve her two children to death so that he can seize control of the kids' trust funds. The only thing standing in his way are Merriman's conscientious day and night nurses, Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck.

The compensating ending—spoiler alert, the first of too many to note individually, so be forewarned that the spoilers are in the final paragraph of each film summary—is the killing of Gable by gangster cronies of Stanwyck's affable booze-smuggling boyfriend Ben Lyon. So much for the restitution of the moral order. Along the way we get to see Stanwyck and Blondell frequently stripping down to their lingerie while changing into and out of their nurses' uniforms. Undoubtedly these scenes were essential to the box office plot.


"VII. Dances: Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden. Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene."

"II. Sex: ..Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden."

Three on a Match (1932, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, screenplay by Lucien Hubbard) features periodic montages of newspaper and magazine headlines accompanied by film footage to establish the passage of time. For the year 1925, under the headline "What I Found Out About My Daughter of Fourteen" from the (fictional?) True Facts magazine, there's a shot of two women dancing in each other's arms while lasciviously grinding their hips together. The film is another "child in peril from an unfit mother" plot: this time, Ann Dvorak's cocaine-sniffing, alcoholic mother is in an adulterous relationship with Lyle Talbot, her supplier and a compulsive gambler. It was as though the filmmakers set out to violate as many provisions of the Code as they could in one movie.

Dvorak must redeem herself through sacrifice. She and her son are held captive by gangsters led by Edward Arnold and a snarling Humphrey Bogart, who are trying to recover money that Talbot has borrowed and lost at the card tables. After scrawling a message in lipstick on her negligée identifying the location of her son, Dvorak delivers it to the police by leaping out of a window and plummeting to her death in the street below.


"II. Sex: The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing."

Female (1933, directed by Michael Curtiz, screenplay by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola) demonstrates that auto-company president Ruth Chatterton can run a company, drive, and shoot the bowls off of phallicly erect clay pipes as well as any man.

Chatterton takes aim
The clay pipe target
The target is shattered
The castrating woman? Ruth Chatterton in Female.
She also takes on the predatory male sexual prerogative: she invites a series of handsome underlings to her home to discuss business over dinner, plies them with vodka (a comparison is made to Catherine the Great (!)), has her way with them (discreetly off-camera), and then discards them in the morning.

You know, a long time ago I decided to travel the same open road that men travel.
So I treat men the way they've treated women.
Chatterton's bared teeth are a nice touch.
But then she meets engineer George Brent, a man of the "dominant, even primitive" type, who resists her seduction attempts until she's willing to put him in the driver's seat—literally. He proves his virility by shooting clay rabbits (another sort of rabbit test?) and winning a baby...pig (I'm not making this up).

As this mock-family drives off into the sunset—Brent, of course, at the wheel of Chatterton's car—she tells him that she will turn over the business to him, stay home and raise "nine babies" (presumably not counting the pig). Because, of course, a woman's social, economic and sexual equality must be subsumed to her real needs: a take-charge man, motherhood and domesticity.


"Dominant, even primitive" men, though, could also threaten marriage and domesticity. In A Free Soul (1931, directed by Clarence Brown, screenplay by Becky Gardiner and John Meehan, based on a novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns), Norma Shearer is shown to be in sexual thrall to manly mobster Clark Gable. She breaks her engagement to "clean, fine" polo player Leslie Howard to shack up with Gable, whose character reveals his "mongrel" origins by consorting with his Irish, Chinese, and black employees. When Shearer finally tries to break it off with Gable, he threatens her...with marriage.

The compensating moral ending? As in Night Nurse, it's another murder: Howard shoots Gable, and then is acquitted on Shearer's tearful testimony of her own sexual guilt. But there's no marriage: Shearer needs to take some time to get Gable "out of her blood." Evidently it didn't work: in the following year's Strange Interlude, Shearer's character, married to another man, deliberately gets pregnant by Gable.


In The Divorcée (1931, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, screenplay by Nick Grinde, Zelda Sears, and John Meehan, based on a novel by Ursula Parrott), on discovering that her husband Chester Morris has been unfaithful to her, Norma Shearer "evens the balance" by spending a tipsy night with his best friend Robert Montgomery. A divorce ensues, and, it's strongly implied, both Shearer and Morris bed multiple other partners, including (in Shearer's case) a married man.

As in the later Female, though, sexual freedom outside of marriage could not be shown to bring a woman fulfillment. When Shearer encounters Morris again one New Year's Eve, they decide to give marriage another chance. After all, it worked out so well the first time...


"XII. Repellent subjects...[include] a woman selling her virtue."

Waterloo Bridge (1931, directed by James Whale, screenplay by Benn Levy and Tom Reed, based on the play by Robert E. Sherwood) features Mae Clarke as a kind of poor woman's Barbara Stanwyck. An unemployed chorus girl without family or friends, Clarke turns to picking up soldiers on leave in WWI-era London and cadging rent and food money from them the morning after.

One night she encounters Kent Douglass, an earnest volunteer who is unaware of the way she's keeping body and soul together. He falls in love with her, introduces her to his wealthy family, and wants to marry her. But Clarke confesses her past (in fact, her present) to Douglass's sympathetic but sharp-eyed mother Enid Bennett because she feels that she can never marry; she can never bring her shame into the family of the man she loves.

But her resolution wavers as Douglass is about to return to the front, and in a tearful goodbye on Waterloo Bridge he convinces her to marry. Instead, though, immediately after they part Clarke is killed in a Zeppelin raid. As in the later Three On A Match, apparently the only compensation for some transgressions is death.


Although if your transgressions are more upmarket, perhaps repentance will do. In the notorious Baby Face (1933, directed by Alfred E. Green, screenplay by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola) Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way from the street-level personnel office of the Gotham Trust Bank floor by floor to the penthouse apartment of its president, George Brent. In a famous series of tracking shots, the camera actually follows her progress up the side of the building. (Among her early stepping-stones is a young John Wayne; also notable is Stanwyck's loyalty to and friendship with her black maid Theresa Harris.)

In the final seconds of the film, though, after the bank fails and Brent attempts suicide, Stanwyck embraces the role of devoted wife and rejects her former material values (although when rejecting material values it helps to be carrying around a case filled with jewels and a half-million dollars in cash). For me, Baby Face wins the prize for the most patently tacked-on last-minute compensating reversal.


"VI. Costume: Complete nudity is never permitted...Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden...Transparent or translucent materials and silhouette are frequently more suggestive than actual exposure."

There is no last-minute compensating reversal, though, in Red-Headed Woman (1932, directed by Jack Conway, screenplay by Anita Loos, based on the novel by Katherine Bush). This is one film that does not end with moral restitution by repentance, sacrifice, punishment, or death. Along the way it violates pretty much every section of the Code, including a brief glimpse of its heroine Jean Harlow's bare breast; in virtually every scene she's dressed in diaphanous lingerie or a clinging evening gown.

When I kiss them they stay kissed for a long time.

Harlow uses her overwhelming sexual power to wreck the marriage of small-town bigshot Chester Morris, marries him herself, then dumps him for New York industrialist Henry Stephenson. While exulting in the role of Stephenson's mistress, she's simultaneously bedding his suave chauffeur Charles Boyer. When Morris passes incriminating photos of Harlow and Boyer to Stephenson, Harlow confronts Morris. Finding him planning to return to his ex-wife Leila Hyams, Harlow shoots him (wounding him critically but not fatally).

Does a scandalous trial ensue? Prison? No—in the final moments of the film we see Harlow in Paris snuggling with her latest elderly sugar daddy in the back seat of a limousine. In the final shot the camera pulls back to show the professionally impassive driver—Boyer.

Then everything changed

Everything changed in mid-1934, when the Production Code began to be taken seriously. In response to threats of boycotts and blacklists by the Catholic Legion of Decency, the film studios created the Production Code Administration (PCA) to enforce the Code's strictures. As of July 1, 1934, films produced by the major studios were required to receive a certificate of approval from the PCA, which was headed by Hays appointee Joseph Breen. The hard-nosed Breen was given censorship power over stories, scripts and finished footage, and did not hesitate to use it. They really couldn't make 'em like that anymore.

Which may not have been entirely a bad thing. As Bollywood films (which are still subject to censorship) often show, suggestion can be much sexier than depiction. And because movies could no longer rely as heavily on lurid or sensational stories, they had to find other ways to bring in audiences: the next few years saw genres such as the romantic comedy and the musical flourish. I have to confess that if the film archives caught on fire and I only had enough time to save one Jean Harlow film, I would run right past Red-Headed Woman to grab 1936's Libeled Lady, a film produced under Breen's rigid censorship.

And there were occasional (if rare) exceptions to the formulaic application of the Code. In the comedy Too Many Husbands (1940), Jean Arthur's first husband Fred MacMurray, believed lost at sea, inconveniently returns six months after she's married MacMurray's friend and business partner Melvyn Douglas. While the men compete to share her bed, Arthur finds that she can't decide between them. As I wrote in part 2 of the post on The films of Jean Arthur, Too Many Husbands features "amazingly risqué dialogue, and an ambiguous ending that manages to offer the suggestion of a continuing ménage." Breen must have suffered a momentary lapse of attention.

In the 2012 Sight and Sound critics' poll of the 250 top films of all time, six were released by major Hollywood studios in the eight years between 1927 and 1934; fourteen—more than twice as many—were released by major Hollywood studios in the eight years between 1935 and 1942. As film historian Thomas Doherty writes, "The inconvenient truth is that Hollywood's output...reveals no ready correlation between freedom of expression and aesthetic worth." [4]

So-called pre-Code Hollywood films can be highly entertaining; they offer glimpses of major stars such as Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in their formative roles, as well as early stars such as Chester Morris, Mae Clarke and Ann Dvorak whose careers faded a few years after the Code began to be enforced. They are also often surprising and even sometimes still shocking. As Lord wrote, "The stories are now concerned with problems. They discuss morals, divorce, free love, unborn children, relationships outside of marriage, single and double standards, the relationship of sex to religion, marriage and its effects on the freedom of women...These subjects are fundamentally dangerous." [5] Such dangerous subjects were treated far less frequently and openly after 1934.

The Code's demise was slow and painful. It began in the 1950s with the breakdown of the studio system, the rise of television, and Breen's retirement. Doherty suggests that the 1960 release of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho by Paramount Pictures "killed off" the Code. "The notorious montage of murder in the bathroom of the Bates Motel is the scene of the crime," he writes, "the place where Joseph Breen's moral universe went swirling down the drain." [6] The Code was formally abandoned with the advent of the Motion Picture Association of America rating system in 1968.

The relaxation of censorship corresponded with the emergence of a new generation of directors in the 1960s and 1970s (Kubrick, Scorsese, Altman, and Coppola, among others) and what is widely considered a renaissance in American filmmaking. But that's a story, perhaps, for another post.

All of the films discussed in this post can be seen in what are generally the most complete prints available in the excellent "Forbidden Hollywood" series released by Turner Classic Movies.

The photograph at the top of the post, "Thou Shalt Not," was created in 1941 by studio photographer A. L. Schafer to satirize the prohibitions of the Production Code.

----

1. Mark A. Vieira, Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999, pp. 7-13.
2. Quoted in Vieira, p. 13.
3. Quoted in Vieira, p. 14.
4. Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934, Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 345.
5. Quoted in Vieira, p. 55.
6. Doherty, p. 343.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Marriage of Figaro

Nadine Sierra as the Countess; photos courtesy SF Opera
The San Francisco Opera's recent production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), seen at the closing Sunday afternoon performance on July 5, was brimming with problems that would have wrecked a lesser opera:

The conducting by Patrick Summers often resulted in a lack of coordination between the orchestra and the singers. My partner and I speculated that for this closing performance of the summer season much of the orchestra was made up of substitutes. Working against this theory, though, is that the lack of coordination was also apparent in the recitatives. Those were accompanied on fortepiano by Summers himself, so perhaps he was just having an off—really off—day. Whatever the reason, the audible lack of coordination affected at least one aria for almost every major character, especially in the first two acts.

The direction by Robin Guarino highlighted some narrative details, but sometimes ignored essential aspects of character and situation. The Count seemed especially under-directed: in the second act, when he bursts into his wife's bedroom suspecting her of harboring a lover, he was oddly static, often standing in place and singing, instead of striding around the room or otherwise displaying signs of agitation.

And while some minor comic moments were more pointed than in any other production I've seen, some major comic moments were flubbed. In Act I, for example, when Cherubino is trying to hide from the Count, Guarino has him creep across the entire width of the stage covered in a sheet in order to hide behind the famous chair, when there were any number of closer and safer refuges at hand. Better blocking would have placed Cherubino nearer to the chair at the Count's entrance.

John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo, Lisette Oropesa as Susanna, and Luca Pisaroni as the Count
The lighting by Gary Marder was puzzling, often giving little sense of the time of day. The opera's four acts take place over the morning, afternoon, evening and night of a single "crazy day," as the opera's subtitle has it. In particular, at the end of Act III the garden of the Count's chateau was pitch-dark, although the rest of the stage reflected the late-afternoon light. If this was intended to suggest why the characters will later have difficulty recognizing each other in the garden, it needed to be better coordinated with the ostensible time of day on the rest of the stage.

The sets, while handsome, sometimes did not make spatial or theatrical sense. In the first act, for example, when Figaro tells his bride-to-be Susanna that their room is ideally situated because it is located between the bedroom of the Countess and that of the Count, the door to the Count's room is missing. We see only a door to the Countess's room on an upper level at stage right, and another door on the lower level at stage left that apparently leads to the rest of the house (it's the door from which Cherubino enters, for example—he's hardly likely to have walked through the Count's chambers, since the Count is angrily searching for him). And surely the Count's room would not be situated so that he is forced to walk through his servants' bedroom and up a long flight of stairs in order to reach the room of his consort.

Guarino's direction undermined what little sense of real space there was: Later in that same act, when a crowd of servants enters Susanna's and Figaro's room, half of them come through the Countess's door. Did she really sit there while a dozen servants trooped through her boudoir? I won't even discuss the absence in the last act of pavilions in the garden, which undermines the comedy.

And yet…, despite the miscommunication between pit and stage and the directorial and design misjudgments, this Figaro was rescued by its brilliant young cast. Philippe Sly, who had previously been terrific in the SF opera productions of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in 2013 and Handel's Partenope last fall, as Figaro became a star. His charismatic, comic and physically agile Figaro made the continuity with Beaumarchais' Barber of Seville especially apparent. But when in the garden scene we see him wounded by what he thinks is Susanna's infidelity, he revealed unsuspected depths of emotion.

Philippe Sly as Figaro and Lisette Oropesa as Susanna
His Susanna was Lisette Oropesa, who also added layers to her character's endearing charm as the performance progressed. At times in Act I she was covered by the orchestra (another issue with Summers' conducting), but by the later acts her sweet-toned soprano was clearly audible.

Nadine Sierra brought a rich, lyrical voice to the sorrowing Countess. She was also convincingly youthful—in Figaro it is only a few years after the action of Barber of Seville, which would mean that the Countess is in her mid-20s—and was recognizably an older and sadder version of Barber's spirited Rosina. Her final forgiveness scene brought tears.

Nadine Sierra as the Countess
I've rarely seen a Count who brought to the role as much dark magnetism, both physical and vocal, as Luca Pisaroni. His third-act aria "Hai già vinta la causa," where the Count moves through suspicion, anger, frustration, and dejection to vengeful resolution, was a mini-symphony of emotion.(Pisaroni was also a great Figaro in SF Opera's last production, one of my Favorites of 2010.)

With all the vocal and dramatic powerhouses onstage Angela Brower's Cherubino sometimes seemed a little overshadowed. But she was winsome and convincing as a teenaged boy buffeted by new feelings he barely understands and can't control. Guarino's direction suggested that Cherubino's attraction to the Countess was reciprocated—if not fully acknowledged—by her, foreshadowing developments in the third play of Beaumarchais' Figaro trilogy, The Guilty Mother.

Utimately this production mirrored Figaro's schemes to thwart the Count: constantly threatening to slip into disaster, but in the end, a triumph.


For more on the background, characters and music of the opera, see Opera Guide 2: Le Nozze di Figaro.

Friday, June 26, 2015

June 26, 2015

Photo: Zach Gibson/The New York Times

Boston Early Music Festival: Monteverdi's Poppea

David Hansen (Nerone) and Amanda Forsythe (Poppea)
L'incoronazione di Poppea
Sunday, June 14, Boston University Theater. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Gilbert Blin, stage director and set designer.

The culminating performance of the Monteverdi Trilogy at the 2015 Boston Early Music Festival was, fittingly, Monteverdi's last and greatest opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppea, 1642). In his essay "Thoughts on Late Style," (London Review of Books, 5 August 2004), the critic Edward Said wrote that "the accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works....But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction?" Poppea, composed when Monteverdi was 75 years old and first performed just a few months before his death, is one such dark and challenging late work.

As I wrote in the Opera Guide to Poppea, Giovanni Busenello's libretto contains some of the most cynical, corrupt and ruthless characters in all opera. The Roman emperor Nerone (Nero, sung by David Hansen) sleeps with Poppea (Amanda Forsythe), the wife of his subordinate Ottone (Otho, sung by Nathan Medley), and forces his advisor Seneca (Christian Immler) to commit suicide when his counsel becomes inconvenient. Nerone's wife Ottavia (Octavia, sung by Shannon Mercer), seeing herself supplanted, blackmails the cuckolded Ottone into conspiring to murder Poppea. In this attempt Ottone is aided by Drusilla (Teresa Wakim), his former lover, whom he dumped for Poppea; Drusilla hopes that, once Poppea is dead, Ottone will return to her. When the murder conspiracy fails, Ottavia is repudiated, Ottavia, Ottone and Drusilla are banished into exile, and Poppea is crowned the Empress of Rome.

According to Tacitus and Suetonius, the fates of most of these characters would be grim. In exile, Octavia was murdered on Nero's orders. Poppea was empress for two years, until Nero in a fit of rage kicked her and her unborn child to death. A few years later Nero would be overthrown and killed; his death would inaugurate a civil war. During Year of the Four Emperors that followed Nero's death, Otho would become the ruler of Rome for all of three months; his brief reign would be ended by suicide.

The BEMF production of Poppea, with stage direction by Gilbert Blin, did full justice to multiple modes of this complex work. Poppea encompasses comedy, tragedy, irony, and pathos—sometimes all in the same scene—and still has the power to unsettle us more than 370 years after its first performance. As with the other operas in the Monteverdi Trilogy, it was superbly cast, with many of the same ensemble of singers who had performed in L'Orfeo and Ulisse.

David Hansen as Nerone was on the incisive, if at times acidulous, end of the countertenor tonal spectrum. In his timbre and free use of vibrato Hansen reminded us more than anyone of David Daniels. Hansen's sound wasn't always appealing, but it was always illustrative of his petulant, imperious and mercurial character.

The most alluring voice in the cast belonged to Amanda Forsythe, the singer portraying the opera's most alluring character, Poppea. Forsythe's sweet-toned soprano offered a striking contrast to Poppea's utter shamelessness, and at the same time beautifully exemplified her seductive power and blithe heedlessness of the destruction she's wreaking on the lives of everyone around her.

Another excellent performance was given by Teresa Wakim as Drusilla, a woman who, perhaps knowingly, deceives herself about her former lover's residual feelings. Drusilla has to inspire the sympathy of anyone who has ever convinced him- or herself that, in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, the object of their passion returns their feelings; and isn't that an uncomfortable position that's been occupied at one time or another by every one of us?

And Nell Snaidas was delightfully irrepressible as Amore (Cupid), who, in the opera's prologue, correctly predicts his victory over La Fortuna (Fortune, sung by Erica Schuller) and La Virtù (Virtue, sung by Danielle Reutter-Harrah)); Snaidas also excelled as the comically amorous page Valleto.

The strong cast, the dazzling playing of the Boston Early Music Chamber Ensemble under the musical direction of Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Blin's elegant set and Anna Watkins' handsome costumes combined to make the final production of the Monteverdi Trilogy exceptional.

Poppea itself ends with one of the most gorgeous duets in all opera, "Pur ti miro" ("I gaze at you"), sung by an ecstatic Nerone and Poppea at the moment of their victory. But this duet is as bitter as it is beautiful. As I wrote in the Opera Guide to Poppea, "as they sing so gloriously of their love, Nerone and Poppea are surrounded by the bodies of their victims, and this moment of Poppea's triumph is shadowed by our knowledge of her later violent death...As Nerone and Poppea sing 'Più non peno, più non moro' ('No more pain, no more death') their voices clash on 'pain' and 'death.' The opera may be ending 'happily' but there will be plenty of pain and death to follow."

Sylvia McNair (Poppea) and Dana Hanchard (Nerone) perform "Pur ti miro" with the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:



In the final moments of the BEMF production, Blin devised an understated but disquieting gesture. As the lovers sang the affirmations of the final words, "si mio ben, si mio cor, mia vita, si" (Yes, my love, yes, my heart, my life, yes), Nerone turned away from Poppea and stared out at us. It was a chilling look, a reminder of the darkness we'd witnessed and a suggestion of the horror to come. A brilliant end to an unforgettable experience.

Other posts on the 2015 Boston Early Music Festival:
Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610
L'Orfeo
Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Boston Early Music Festival: Monteverdi's Ulisse

Caitlin Klinger and Melissa House (Naiadi) and Matthew Brook (Nettuno). Photo: Kathy Wittman
Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria
Friday, June 12, Boston University Theater. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Gilbert Blin, stage director and set designer.

At the end of the 1630s Monteverdi was over 70, and it had been nearly a decade since he had composed an opera. But in 1637 the first public opera theater, the Teatro San Cassiano, had opened in Venice. Before this, opera had been almost exclusively a courtly entertainment presented in private palaces to an audience of aristocratic patrons and their invited guests. But after the success of the initial season at the Teatro San Cassiano, other Venetian theaters as well soon began presenting opera productions to paying audiences of aristocrats, tourists, courtesans, gondoliers and servants.

Monteverdi was drawn to these new venues for his work, and the 1639-40 season featured a revival of his 1608 opera Arianna (from which only the famous "Lamento d'Arianna" now survives). And he soon began working on a new opera.

Monteverdi's return to opera was inspired by the story of another unexpected return, derived by librettist Giacomo Badoaro from the second half of Homer's Odyssey: Penelope, the wife of Ulisse (Ulysses), has been waiting for him to return from the Trojan War for 20 years. In the meantime, she is being besieged in her home by wealthy suitors eager to take Ulisse's place. Penelope refuses to consider remarriage, despite having no hope that she will ever see her husband again.

Here is Marijana Mijanovic as Penelope, accompanied by Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie, in the production of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The return of Ulysses to his homeland, 1640) from the 2002 Aix-en-Provence Festival:




But Penelope is unaware that Ulisse, under the protection of the goddess Minerva, has secretly made it back to Ithaca and, reunited with his son Telemaco (Telemachus) and the loyal shepherd Eumete, has begun to plan how—despite being unarmed and vulnerable—he will regain his home, his wife and his throne.

Public opera represented an enrichment of certain possibilities for Monteverdi, but a diminishment of others. Elaborate stage machinery and spectacular sets were constructed to attract audiences with new visual effects. In Ulisse these included Minerva and Telemaco flying through the clouds, Giove (Jupiter) and Giunone (Juno) descending from the heavens in a machine, Ulisse vanishing (through a trap door) amid smoke and flames, and Nettuno (Neptune) rising from the sea. But to hold costs down, the theaters hired only small orchestras and did not have separate choruses. The score of L'Orfeo, an opera presented privately for the ruling Gonzagas in Mantua, called for more than 30 instruments; the score of Ulisse has only five string parts in addition to a small continuo group.

But in exchange for the rich musical palette of court opera, public opera offered the freedom to depict a wider array of character types. Court opera had an elevated tone and focussed on mythological stories. Public opera also drew on stories from classical literature, but in addition to noble and divine figures the librettist Badoaro included in Ulisse characters who were scurrilous (the drunken, gluttonous Iro), underhanded (the suitors), comic (the aging nurse Ericlea), and amorous (Penelope's handmaiden Melanto).

Mary-Ellen Nesi (Penelope) with Laura Pudwell (Ericlea). Photo: Kathy Wittman
The Boston Early Music Festival production of Ulisse was strongly cast, well-directed and -designed. Mary-Ellen Nesi brought a queenly bearing and powerful emotions to the sorrowing Penelope, while Colin Balzer offered in presence and voice a convincingly heroic Ulisse. Other standouts in an excellent cast included Zachary Wilder's Telemaco, Mireille Asselin's Minerva and Danielle Reutter-Harrah's ardent Melanto.

Gilbert Blin's elegant and versatile set and Anna Watkins' costumes were appropriate to the periods of the opera's composition (the set) and setting (the costumes). But there were some elements that didn't work quite as well: the singers' wigs, intended to evoke the elaborately braided hairstyles of ancient Greece, were a bit too obviously fake, and some of the props were cheap-looking.

Colin Balzer (Ulisse). Photo: Kathy Wittman
And while most of Blin's directorial choices were effective, one was not. The final duet between Penelope and Ulisse, the key moment when she finally opens her heart again to love, was accompanied by a distracting set-change. As Nesi's and Balzer's voices intertwined, clouds descended, the rear wall of the stage disappeared, and the sea was once again revealed. Perhaps this was intended to remind us of the great distances Ulysses has travelled to reach this moment. Or perhaps it was meant to suggest that even as he returns to his longed-for wife and home, Ulysses yearns to voyage again (as in Tennyson's great poem "Ulysses"). However, in my view the set-change would have been more effective had it occurred in the final moments after, rather than pulling focus during, this gorgeous and moving duet.

From the 2002 Aix production, Kresimir Spicer (Ulisse) and Marijana Mijanovic in the final duet, in which Penelope, after 20 years of self-sacrifice and self-denial, finally allows herself to say "yes":



Despite minor misjudgments, the BEMF Ulisse was a wonderful production of an opera that is far too rarely staged. And it would have been our peak experience of the 2015 Festival—except that Sunday's performance of L'incoronazione di Poppea was even better.  

Next time: L'incoronazione di Poppea  
Last time: L'Orfeo