In writing about the Metropolitan Opera’s broadcasts of La Damnation de Faust and Der Fliegende Holländer (“The Flying Dutchman”), I neglected to mention what a huge debt Richard Wagner and Arrigo Boito owed to French composer and music critic Hector Berlioz.
Certainly, much of Berlioz’s orchestral coloration, brass fanfares, and choral effects eventually found their way into Boito’s labyrinthine Mefistofele. As for epic dimensions and classical structure and story line, nothing could top Berlioz’s titanic Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), which figured prominently in Wagner’s own theories for his mythic The Ring of the Nibelung.
In turn, one can’t help noticing the similarities between the Ring cycle’s plot — and some of its main characters, i.e. Alberich with Gollum — with the later The Lord of the Rings saga penned by one J.R.R. Tolkien, but I do digress.
For The Flying Dutchman, Herr Wagner drew inspiration from fellow German Romantic Carl Maria von Weber, whose 1821 opera Der Freischütz (“The Free Shooter”) was a period favorite. The plot centers around a young forester, Max, who makes a sinister pact with fellow forester Kaspar in return for the Devil’s aid (here, called “Samiel”) in winning a shooting contest. All for the hand of the lovely Agathe.
Scenes of ghostly apparitions, dead-of-night depravity, and hellish shock effects were also present in the eerie output of musician Heinrich Marschner, a contemporary of both Weber and Wagner. Marschner’s Der Vampyr (“The Vampire”) from 1828 was based on a Lord Byron story (published under his friend and former doctor, John Polidori’s name); whereas the opera Hans Heiling (1833) must have had a profound influence on Wagner’s development of Tannhäuser (1845; revised 1861 for Paris), whose plot bears striking analogies to the Marschner work.
In Hans Heiling, the title character leaves his underworld dwelling to seek out and marry a mortal woman. Complications arise when the woman, Anna, falls in love with the handsome Konrad. It should be noted that supernatural elements are present in both Hans Heiling and Tannhäuser, with both protagonists having set foot in the earthly and mystical realms, and suffering untold indignities because of it.
At one time, Marschner was as popular as Weber — perhaps more so, where his operas were concerned (sadly, Weber died young in 1826 from tuberculosis). With Wagner’s emergence as the prime mover of so-called “music drama,” Messrs. Weber and Marschner were left in the dust. Chiefly known for their overtures, Weber’s operatic endeavors include the aforementioned Der Freischütz, along with Oberon (based on characters from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Euryanthe, and the unfinished Die Drei Pintos (or “The Three Pintos”), completed and orchestrated by Gustav Mahler. The good news is that Weber’s stage works have been revived on more than one occasion, while Marschner’s oeuvre remains comparatively unknown in the U.S.
On the outer fringes of the operatic repertoire, history records that there is another Flying Dutchman-like opus left to be discovered, this one credited to an obscure French composer named Pierre-Louis-Philippe Dietsch. It is titled Le Vasseau Phantôme, or “The Phantom Ship,” from 1842 and adapted from an obscure Sir Walter Scott novel. From the limited research available, this version has but minor similarities to Wagner’s opera.
For Your Listening and Viewing Pleasure
With historical precedent as our guide, it’s a simple matter for readers to muse upon the past. In the case of opera and the performing arts, one looks to antecedents for clues as to where opera has been and where it might go.
That’s all fine and well. However, in these perilous times, with COVID-19 and the still troubling response to the outbreak on our minds and before our eyes, the future of opera in general — and, specifically, for any performing art, including the dramatic and musical theater variety, as well as the motion picture industry — remains unknowable.
What it boils down to is this: Will live opera, in its present state, survive the pandemic? Will the movie- and theater-going experience be rendered pointless as a consequence? Will live- or previously-recorded streaming of these events replace the real thing?
And what of the performers and crafts people involved in their execution — that is, those individuals who make it all happen? Will they ever be able to interact in close proximity to one another? Or will the “stage kiss” make a belated comeback?
I can’t help “laughing” (although in truth, this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a laughing matter) at that last thought. Similar to how the X-rated movie industry has been run of late, the idea that opera singers, and stage and film personalities, may be faced with testing for the coronavirus, or having their temperature taken before interacting with each other on an intimate level, is not as farfetched as we imagine.
Yes, I know it’s a ludicrous notion, but a highly credible one and within the realm of possibility. Indeed, this very situation may soon come to pass and become a permanent part of the entertainment landscape. Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that.
I say this in connection with, and as a consequence of, the altered nature of the 2019-2020 Met Opera Saturday afternoon broadcasts. Beginning with the March 14, 2020 relay of The Flying Dutchman from March 10, all subsequent transmissions were of previously recorded material, presented for our ongoing listening pleasure. As usual, radio host Mary Jo Heath and color commentator Ira Schiff “phoned in” their contributions, supplementing their on-air patter by providing illuminating background information regarding each broadcast work.
Continuing with the March 21 re-airing of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, which featured mezzo Joyce DiDonato and Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, a March 28 re-broadcast of Massenet’s Werther followed with tenor Jonas Kaufmann. April showered listeners with a re-hearing of contralto Stephanie Blythe’s sumptuously executed Orpheus in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice on the 4th of that month.
This gave way to an April 11 re-hearing of Puccini’s Tosca (from an earlier April 20, 2018 performance) that starred the fabulously talented Russian soprano Anna Netrebko putting her personal stamp on the titular diva, with husband, Azerbaijani tenor Yusuf Eyvazov, as a heroic-sounding Cavaradossi, and German bass-baritone Michael Volle as an un-Italianate-sounding Scarpia.
April 18 brought a masterful 2011 Met archive reading of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. A stellar cast highlighted this effort, manned by the late, great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Simon (so viscerally realized and commandingly sung), with Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli as his daughter Amelia, Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas as her lover, Gabriele, cavernous Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto as an intensely vocalized Fiesco, and baritone Simone Alaimo as the devious Paolo. James Levine led the Met Orchestra and Chorus in probably the nearest to an ideal performance this dark and brooding work has ever received there.
The last three broadcasts of the season included one we had previously heard and commented upon. This was of Puccini’s final opera Turandot, on April 25, in the gaudy, overly-busy Franco Zeffirelli production (done to death, I might add). It starred Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as the haughty Princess Turandot, giant-toned tenor Marco Berti as Prince Calàf, Abkhazian-Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava as the slave girl Liu, and American basso James Morris as a thin-of-voice yet physically imposing Timur.
This left only the May 2nd pre-recorded 2004 performance of Leoš Janáček’s rarely heard Kát’a Kabanová with Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, fellow Finn tenor Jorma Silvasti, and Canadian-born mezzo Judith Forst; and the May 9th transmission of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda from 2013 with Joyce DiDonato as Mary Stuart and Dutch soprano Elza van den Heever as Queen Elizabeth I.
With the regular broadcast season over, what is there left for the Met as an institution — or any other opera company, for that matter? At this point, no one can be certain.
Still, the Met Opera’s board of directors, helmed by Executive Chairman Robert I. Toll of Toll Brothers, Inc. (the main sponsor for the Saturday broadcasts), and the company’s general manager, Mr. Peter Gelb, came up with (you’ll pardon the expression) a “novel” approach as to what the future may hold: a live-stream concert of up-and-coming and/or established opera stars singing arias and excerpts from their favorite works, direct from their homes or in pre-recorded venues of their choice.
We’ll have more to say about this extraordinary four-hour Saturday afternoon program, labeled the “At-Home Gala,” in the third and final installment of this post. Until then, a happy and prayerful Memorial Day to one and all!
Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’
(Today’s guest contributor is The Metaplex film critic Brendan Hodges, who has provided a deeply insightful and exceptionally fitting analysis of Japanese anime’s influence on the latter-day Star Wars series of pictures.)
Brendan Hodges (from the Roger Ebert Website)
April 15, 2020
A small, masked scavenger glides through the ruined wasteland, dwarfed by the towering wreckage of old wars. Beneath the mask is the hidden, protected face of a beautiful young woman, flying through a labyrinth of ruin above the sand below. She’s searching for salvage to survive, and rescues someone, or rather something from mortal peril.
Who am I describing: Hayao Miyazaki’s heroine Nausicaä or Rey in the opening of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens? The answer, of course, is both. The openings of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and The Force Awakens aren’t identical, but their similarity is unmistakable and opens a dialogue between not just Nausicaä and The Force Awakens, but Miyazaki and Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy in general.
Rey’s first scene in ‘The Force Awakens’
The legacy of Japanese cinema influencing the most prolific franchise in the history of film is a strong one. George Lucas famously transposed key elements from Kurosawa’s jidaigeki (get it, “Jedi”) samurai movies for the original Star Wars, especially borrowing from The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo. Yet, if there’s a filmmaker whose work is felt with similar presence in Disney’s own Star Wars trilogy, it isn’t the works of Kurosawa, but the internationally beloved Japanese animation writer and director Hayao Miyazaki, who is sometimes called the Steven Spielberg of Japan. J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson haven’t connected Miyazaki’s filmography as closely to Star Wars as Lucas had Kurosawa, but the similarities between Miyazaki and the sequel trilogy run deep, whether you’re talking about how the films look, feel or what they’re really about.
Look at the closest thing The Force Awakens has to a fresh aesthetic identity. While fairly maligned for indulging in a victory lap of the X-Wings, TIE Fighters and Star Destroyers of a Galaxy not that long ago, it’s wrong to think the sequel trilogy is a completely derivative visual copy. In the new era of Star Wars, J.J. Abrams and production designer Rick Carter endeavored to make literal what the series always has been in spirit: a fairy tale.
The Force Awakens took the classic stormtrooper design and made a knight in shining armor in Captain Phasma. Kylo Ren’s costume evokes the ‘long skirt’ and chainmail scarf worn by templar knights in The Crusades. His lightsaber, co-created by Apple design genius Jony Ive, is a cross-guarded (laser) sword. In the commentary track for The Force Awakens, Abrams calls Kylo Ren a prince and Rey a princess. This leads, inevitably, to the need for a fairy-tale castle, represented in Maz’s castle, perched in a classically European landscape. There’s even a Sword in the Stone moment when Rey and Kylo Ren fight for custody of Luke Skywalker’s former lightsaber. Rey, the princess, wins.
What does this combination of the medieval with the modern sound like if not the fantastical worlds of Nausicaä, Castle in the Sky or Howl’s Moving Castle? Miyazaki’s love of mixing old and new has defined his sense of cinematic style from his earliest works; Lupin the III: The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki’s first feature film, introduces a princess locked inside a classic fairytale castle fit for Cinderella. Only, a castle with lasers and security cameras. The constant blending of the mythical with the technological is key to understanding what gives his worlds their sense of possibility and wonder, limited only by the imagination of its author, a sensibility I call anachronistic foiling.
‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ on the move
Planes and castles to Miyazaki are like lens flares to J.J. Abrams, and nearly every Miyazaki movie with castles (a lot of them) feature great aerial battles in the periphery above, below or to the sides of them. Recall Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle, where Edwardian semi-steampunk airships, never explained with science or logic, loom over castles and classic European cities alike, sometimes obliterating the structures below. Think of the world of Nausicaä, a post-apocalyptic society who live in castles, wear leotards and plated armor, use swords, yet wage wars with techno-magic planes and city-sized airships. These images are iconic and definitive in the brand of Miyazaki, too specific not to recall during the attack on Maz Kanata’s Castle on Takadona, as TIE Fighters blast it into the ground, a Miyazaki-like image brought to life with live-action.
Rian Johnson and production designer Richard Heinrichs continue this anachronistic foiling in The Last Jedi, albeit in a much different direction than invoking the medieval era. In the same way Miyazaki recreated his favorite plane designs from WWI and WWII into magical (but often deadly) machines (he also dedicated an entire film, The Wind Rises, just to celebrating the art and beauty of World War II aircraft), Johnson extends that sensibility to his new slate of Star Wars-like fighter craft. There are his Resistance bombers (reminiscent of B-17 or B-29 bombers), the ski-speeders (rickety old fighter craft) and The Supremacy (a “flying wing” like the Northrop YB-35, similar to the faked plane in Raiders of the Lost Ark), a collection of WWII inspired starships fit for the armies in Howl’s Moving Castle and might remind you Lucas based his dogfights in A New Hope off WWII documentary footage.
Another key anachronistic foil in The Last Jedi isn’t in The Last Jedi at all: It’s a deleted scene. Johnson depicts Captain Phasma armed with the blaster equivalent of a handgun, held close to her chest. This instantly recalls Princess Kushana from Nausicaä, a warrior adorned in golden armor who carries an ornamented handgun in the same position. They are the two greatest movies to ever depict handgun wielding knights.
Captain Phasma – Deleted Scene from ‘The Last Jedi’
In the same way Ozu is famous for his use of “pillow shots,” non-narrative shots of nature or an empty room bridging one moment to the next (something Lucas tapped into in his trilogies), Miyazaki is famous for transitional shots of his own for a different effect. He frequently employs brief, humanist interludes where he gives his characters permission to simply be. Few filmmakers have the courage to pause the plot just to watch a character engage in the beauty of the everyday or the charm of the mundane. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki stops on a busy street to gaze through a storefront window at dazzling red shoes. She’s amazed by them. Howl’s Moving Castle has a sequence where we watch Sophie, the protagonist, slowly cook and eat bacon. These moments reveal the humanist inside Miyazaki, gestures of the familiar to ground the otherworldly and fantastic through simple acts of human behavior.
Miyazaki explained [to Roger Ebert in 2002] why these quiet beats are so vital: “We have a word for that in Japanese,” he said. “It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally … If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.”
Directors J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson recognize the softening power of these intimate intervals, and for the first time in Star Wars, we take breaks to enjoy them. These three films don’t pause for as long or as often as Miyazaki, but the impact is so acutely felt they are beloved by the fanbase. Upon seeing the endless green forests of Takadona, Rey exclaims: “I didn’t know there was so much green in the whole galaxy.” She rushes out of the Falcon to take it all in, a moment mirrored in The Last Jedi, when Rey is excited by seeing rain for the first time. In Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Rey is dazzled by the festival on Pasaana, taking in delight at the laugh of younglings, moments rare or entirely absent in Lucas’ vision of Star Wars.
Rey and BB-8 on the planet Takodana
These humanist interludes endear us to our heroes, but they serve an even more important purpose: they amplify the reality of the world as we see ourselves inside it through the characters. This is crucial in Miyazaki, whose films are so deeply concerned with the natural world. From My Neighbor Totoro to the environmental fable Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki treats nature with a pious, quasi-religious devotion. The Shinto religion of Japan has a literal, enormous presence in Miyazaki’s films, a belief system that posits a system of co-existence with gods and spirits called “Kami,” of which we are not the center. This same sentiment is expressed almost verbatim in Luke’s first training lesson to Rey in The Last Jedi: “That Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies, is vanity. Can you feel that?”
Luke tests the novice Rey in ‘The Last Jedi’
According to the Shinto tradition, our relationship with the Kami is symbiotic with nature; they are invisible to the human eye, yet often manifest as an object, like the sacred tree in My Neighbor Totoro. Lucas or Johnson might call such locations “strong with the force,” hubs with the greatest connection to the energy of all living things, such as Ach-To’s mist-enshrouded Jedi Tree or the mirror cave that gives Rey her second force vision.
To Miyazaki but also in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, we are the failed stewards of the natural world. This is why Miyazaki’s villains are often hawkish abusers of the Earth. Princess Mononoke’s Lady Eboshi goes full Saruman on the nearby forest to build weapons, only to use those weapons against wolf and boar gods outside Iron Town. While she is benevolent to her own disenfranchised residents, her violence and hubris towards the forest and the life inside it triggers a chain reaction that “curses” the main character, Ashitaka, that ignites rage and violence inside him he can barely control, a Miyazaki equivalent of the dark side.
Ashitaka of ‘Princess Mononoke’
The casino planet of Canto Bight is an equal depiction of anti-capitalist fervor to Lady Eboshi’s Iron Town, demonstrating the galaxy’s inhumane status quo of war economy thugs, enabling cycles of violence for power and profit. Their abuse extends to the torture and enslavement of children and horse-deer with anime eyes called “Fathiers.” Miyazaki, a lifelong feminist whose work often celebrates the power of female heroes and villains alike, seems to hope the maternal power of his heroines will restore the forests, hillsides and lakes, which may be why his saviors are so often women. It’s also possibly why Johnson chose Rose, and not Finn, to free the Fathiers and literally smash the toxic status quo to the ground in a glorious stampede.
The Last Jedi takes devotion to the natural world more seriously than any Star Wars movie before it, with Johnson acknowledging to theLos Angeles Times, “I think you can see some of [Miyazaki’s] influence in this movie … how you engage with the natural world.” Johnson brings that philosophy into every planetary ecosystem, but especially on the planet Ach-To. In an epic sequence surveying a day in Luke’s monk-like existence, we observe Luke’s harmony with the island: fishing in the seas, traversing the rain swept hills, and drinking green milk straight from sea-cows called “thala-sirens,” all the while surrounded by the Totoro influenced porgs.
The Last Jedi even has a “circle of life” prayer-like visual mantra on the essence of the force. The camera dives from a wide-shot of the island into close-ups of flowers scored with birdsong, to the bones of death and decay below the surface, that “feeds new life” as we see plants rapidly grows. Of this circle, Luke says “It’s the energy between all things, a tension, a balance, that binds the universe together.” Kinship between all forms of life is reaffirmed in the climax; it is the jingle of the foxlike Crystal Critters on Crait that lead a trapped Resistance to Rey, not the heroics of Finn or Poe. Crait itself is a great visual metaphor for the natural world: when struck with a laser blast, it bleeds in plumes of red dust, only to slowly restore itself to its pearly white surface once the fighting has ceased, like the forest healing itself in Princess Mononoke.
The Battle of Crait from ‘The Last Jedi’
Heroism is a dominant theme in The Last Jedi, and no previous Star Wars movie has placed as much emphasis on the redemptive power on the natural world, redefining that heroism can often mean protection and stewardship. Listen to Master Yoda’s choice quotes: “Use the force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” Or “Your weapons, you will not need them.” Or heed Master Obi-Wan: “There are alternatives to fighting.” These are thematic ideas scarcely brought to the fore in Star Wars, and The Last Jedi is the first to take that subtext and make it text in a serious way. Imagine this: The Last Jedi is the first truly anti-war Star Wars movie.
But it’s Luke Skywalker’s astounding act of bravery on Crait that shatters normative conceptions of what a hero looks like, both within Star Wars and narrative art in general. Luke, standing before The First Order army order in a force projection, sacrifices himself in an act of pure pacifism that defeats the entire First Order and reignites hope throughout the Galaxy, while letting The Resistance flee to safety. He is the ultimate aspirational hero in Star Wars, the first Jedi to embody every positive tenant of Jedi Philosophy in practice. It is one of the greatest feats of cinematic heroism in all of movies.
Luke Skywalker’s sacrifice in ‘The Last Jedi’
Reconsidering the rigid, masculine boundaries of heroism is the core ethic of Miyazaki’s life’s work. Like Rian Johnson, he is an unapologetic pacifist, and he has been unafraid to dedicate nearly each of his movies to that end, depicting his villains as those who misunderstand power and how to use it, the greatest of sins to Miyazaki. Nausicaä’s Princess Kushana and Castle in the Sky’s Colonel Muska want to use ancient technology as personal Death Stars, the war in Howl’s Moving Castle is banal and unending, and Lady Eboshi’s on a mission to murder the Great Forest Spirit for a trifling profit.
In inspiring contrast, Miyazaki’s protagonists often refuse to use lethal force, frequently sacrificing their own well-being for others. Ashitaka defuses a stand-off between Princess Mononoke (the character) and the people of Iron Town, allowing himself to be stabbed in the process. Nausicaä’s Master Yupa permits a sword through his hand if it means saving his princess, prioritizing the betterment of the collective over desire for vengeance.
One of the great acts of compassion in all of Miyazaki comes back to Nausicaä, who like Luke in The Last Jedi willingly sacrifices herself to prevent a slaughter. A horde of enormous insectoids known as Ohms are charging towards the last bastion of human society, and rather than join the battlements to open fire, she tries to rescue a baby Ohm and calm the swarm. She does, but she dies. Miraculously, the Ohms bring her back to life and are pacified, an intervention of goodwill for a pure spirit that puts into action her love of the natural and spiritual world.
Just as the journeys of Rey and Nausicaä begin in parallel, so do their ends. On Pasaana in The Rise of Skywalker, Rey encounters a massive serpent, a symbol in mythology for fertility, as well as cycles of life, death, and rebirth, a continuation of a motif in The Last Jedi. The serpent, like an Ohm, appears deadly until pacified, and rather than fight, she heals its wounds and sets the creature free. Pasaana’s serpent is a living metaphor for Ben Solo; he appears deadly, but beneath his violent nature is a wounded soul whose spirit is “split to the bone,” in need of healing. She does for him what she did for the serpent, and in an act of transcendence that tethers the spiritual and natural worlds in one, Rey, like Nausicaä, dies saving civilization (through an act of defense, no less) only to be resurrected in an act of love, sacrifice, and redemption from Ben back to her, saviors of the Kami and of the force. To Miyazaki and Star Wars, nature itself is restorative, healing, and beautiful. As its custodians, we must aspire to be like our heroes: Rey, Ashitaka, Luke, and Nausicaä.
Stop what you’re doing and take a moment to listen. Did you hear that? It’s the silence.
During wartime, strict radio silence was maintained. But now, our radios are tuned to pre-recorded broadcasts. We also have a new war on our front: the war against COVID-19, the dreaded coronavirus.
There are many casualties along this particular front. Most of them involve the disastrous human toll this war has taken. For lovers of fine music, it’s the performing arts: Broadway, pop and rock concerts, and, of course, classical music and the opera. Closings and cancellations have abounded, along with financial calamities.
One first noticed that something peculiar was going on back in mid-March when New York’s Metropolitan Opera announced it was postponing the remainder of its 2019-2020 season. Shortly afterwards, the company was either laying off or furloughing anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of its workforce. However, its streaming service was called into action as an emergency backup for those interested in pre-recorded performances.
In general, the operatic arts have suffered, along with every other related artistic endeavor. From famous museums and tourist attractions to concert venues and movie theaters; from film studios to the Great White Way, all have experienced an unprecedented number of cancellations and/or outright closings. How long these valued institutions can sustain this present predicament is anybody’s guess. Certainly the deadly toll the virus has taken on artists, performers, actors, singers, and musicians is truly astounding. It has caused great harm to them all.
Not to dwell on the matter, we fans of the performing arts can take heart that, as indicated above, assorted streaming services and pre-recorded performances of many of your favorite works and artists can be viewed and appreciated, in the comfort of one’s home, either free of charge or at a reduced fee. It’s good to know that something — anything! — worth salvaging in this troubled, mixed up world can still be enjoyed, despite the dire situation at hand.
For me, listening to music or watching a good movie or TV series is tantamount to therapy. And goodness knows we need it now, more than ever! Taking one’s mind off our troubles is reason enough to tune in.
The Show Must Go On!
Debuting American tenor Michael Spyres as Faust (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Originally slated as a revival of the lavish, digitally-conceived production by Canadian-born Robert Lepage, this challenging work was given a low number of concert readings due to technical deficiencies or insufficient rehearsal time (or quite possibly both). One missed the technological bells and whistles this amazing presentation called for. Fortunately, the Met Opera rose to the occasion with excellent soloists, a rousing orchestral depiction, and a truly spectacular contribution by the outstanding Met Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus, courtesy of chorus master Donald Palumbo.
The young British conductor Edward Gardner lorded it over the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and to majestic purpose. His reading was swift and potent, most notably in the inspired horn and brass sections. The strings were notable for their “singing” tone and full-bodied sonority.
Relegated to the pit, the sound that emanated from this world-class ensemble (via the radio transmission, at least) was thrilling in its power and sumptuousness. If nothing else, the orchestra proved, once and for all, that Berlioz was a master of storytelling through musical means. Some reviewers noted that it would have been better to place the orchestra front and center on the Met’s stage platform, as long stretches of music were played with little to no action taking place. Point well taken!
Vocally, though, there was a notable debut of sorts, that of Missouri-born tenor Michael Spyres as Faust. Known internationally as somewhat of a Berlioz specialist (mainly in France), Spyres’ belated Met Opera “appearance” was a welcome one indeed. Most tenors, whether they are of a lyrical bent or the gutsier variety, tend to shy away from Berlioz due to that composer’s (ahem) highly individualized treatment of the voice category.
To say that singing Berlioz’s music is a perilous ordeal is no exaggeration. Yet Spyres overcame all doubt with an exquisitely phrased interpretation. His French was ideal in “Nature, immense, impénétrable,” and his brightly colored tone smacked unmistakably of old school lyricism, laced with that spinto quality one rarely hears, even in Italianate throats. He did experience some strain in Faust’s love duet with Marguérite (all the way up to C sharp in alt), but otherwise overcame the challenge better than his Met predecessors.
On the lower-voiced end of the scale, Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov made for a marvelous Méphistophélès. Dressed in white tie and tails, his was an appropriately devilish portrayal, with a marked improvement in his diction and a delightfully wry and witty repartee. Like his counterpart Faust, Méphistophélès’ music takes the voice upward into high baritone territory (“Voici des roses”), as well as back down to the basso profundo realm. While Abdrazakov may not have conquered all of Berlioz’s hurdles, he certainly had a grand time of it— his repeated shouts of “Hop! Hop! Hop!” near the end were delivered with a fiendish snarl in his voice.
Mezzo Elina Garanca as Marguerite (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Taking the vocal honors away from the men, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča proved the most all-around satisfying of the performers. Her artistry in this repertoire has improved by leaps and bounds, so gorgeously plummy was her tone, yet capable of molding Marguérite’s airs with delicacy, passion, and the right emotional weight. The ballad of “Le Roi de Thulé” and especially her moving Act IV Romance, “D’amour l’ardente flamme” (so similar to Delilah’s “Printemps qui commence” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila), were models of their kind. To have accomplished this without the aid of costumes or props is a coup de théâtre by any definition of the term. Brava, Elīna!
In the brief character bit by Brander, bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi stood out with his firmed-toned delivery of “The Song of the Rat.” Concluding the work, the Children’s Chorus stepped up to deliver the sonorous closing hymn of angels with heartfelt compassion, as Marguérite’s soul rises to heaven. A salvo of bravos greeted their efforts.
I missed the next series of radio broadcasts (i.e., of Massenet’s Manon, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte, as well as Handel’s Agrippina) due to prior commitments.
We Resume Our Irregularly Scheduled Program
When the middle of March approached, radio listeners were informed that the March 14 broadcast of the new François Girard production of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (“The Flying Dutchman”) would be a taped transmission of the performance from March 10. Hmm, now why was that?
The ‘Spinning Room’ in Act II of Wagner’s ‘Der Fliegende Hollaender’ (Photo: Ken Howard/ Met Opera)
Expecting a torrent of sound and fury and little in the way of nuance, I braced myself for an entertaining afternoon of Wagnerian music drama. This visually stunning production (unseen on the radio, of course), blew many critics’ away. However, the idea of the story of the doomed Dutchman taking place in the protagonist Senta’s head was already dated long before this production was unveiled.
In Kupfer’s version, Senta is obsessed with the Dutchman’s portrait from the start (it stays with her throughout the length of the work). In Girard’s modern interpretation, that portrait is blown up to gargantuan proportions; in fact, audiences get to glimpse the doomed Dutchman through a closeup one of his eyes! Lord, how creepy is that? Abstract impressionism abounds, with little in the way of actual physical structures to (you’ll pardon the expression) “anchor” the setting, the sole exception being Daland’s ship.
The Dutchman himself (or “itself,” if you will, noting that musicologists and literary scholars have felt that the ghostly Herr Vanderdencken was dubbed the “Dutchman” after his own vessel) is a pitiable lost soul. The so-called Spinning Chorus is nothing more than a group of women playing around with huge strands of ropes that hang suspended from the stage’s flies — with the Dutchman’s ever-present eyeball keeping watch over the proceedings.
Would that the singing have brought some luster to this misbegotten concept! For that, one had to turn to a solid supporting cast. Stepping in literally at the last minute, Russian basso Nikitin conveyed the Dutchman’s plight in fits and starts. His basic tone is part Bayreuth bark, part mellow-voiced growl. More of a character player than a headliner, Nikitin excels in such personifications as Klingsor, Telramund in Lohengrin, Alberich in the Ring cycle, and as Kurwenal, Tristan’s loyal retainer.
How did he fare as the lonely Dutchman? Reasonably effective, under these circumstances, but not by much. The voice lacked warmth, and his dramatic encounter with Senta (debutante Anja Kampe) went by the boards. Then again, Nikitin was only able to express the Dutchman’s tortured spirit through verbal inflections, for example, in the first act monologue “Dir Frist ist um.” Nevertheless, he cut an impressive figure (as the photographs demonstrate). This is no Byronic hero; and in that Nikitin was less successful as a romantic embodiment than as a ghostly apparition, which is how the director envisioned it. There were times when one wished for a softer, less forceful sound. I like to think that he was miscast and leave it at that.
Dutchman (Evgeny Nikitin) meets Woman, Senta (Anja Kampe), object: matrimony (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Senta, the woman obsessed with this fellow’s massive portrait, was firmly sung by the German-born Ms. Kampe. Incredibly, the nearly middle-aged dramatic soprano was making her Met debut, another belated first. A dancer (Alison Clancy) embodying the young Senta was seen pre-curtain at the start of the Overture. Clad in a red dress, this was the only splash of color in a basically drab gray-black and white atmosphere.
Kampe was this production’s saving grace. Apart from a few squally high notes, she, of all the singers, was the one who most closely identified with her character. Her soft singing was a joy to listen to; she clearly made up in warmth and beauty of tone what her counterpart Nikitin had lacked. As Erik, Senta’s supposed betrothed, Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov was a real find. What a gorgeously pliant sound he emitted! Even and firm all the way through, he excited the listener with anticipation. His third act Cavatina was as eloquently sung as any I’ve heard recently.
In the secondary tenor part of the sleepy Steersman, tenor David Portillo, a native Texan and a fine Tamino in the English-language Magic Flute heard earlier in the season, did exceptionally well. My only beef was that he performed one-too-many yawns prior to his little Act I ditty. This smacked of another of Girard’s directorial whims of injecting “character” into a situation where none was called for. As Senta’s dad Daland, German bass Franz-Josef Selig was satisfactory, but no more. And as Mary, one of those Wagnerian non-entities, debuting mezzo Mihoko Fujimura was sturdy of voice and figure.
Russian maestro Valery Gergiev’s baton was, for this forceful artist, startlingly low-key and reserved. Could thoughts of his homeland and family have robbed him of his concentration? It’s hard to say. Although many critics found his conducting lacking in excitement, I noticed moments where the quieter passages in Wagner’s mighty drama were wonderfully inspired. Generally, his whirlwind style of orchestral leadership has brought much passion to the fore, but not on this occasion.
On a personal note, I would never mistake Gergiev’s way with Wagner with anybody else’s. Certainly not the leisurely approach that James Levine, Herbert von Karajan or Otto Klemperer have brought to this piece. I much prefer Antal Dorati’s electric way with the score (with George London and Leonie Rysanek in the leads), even Sir Georg Solti’s recorded version (with Norman Bailey, whom I saw live at the New York City Opera as Hans Sachs). Those old timers knew a thing or two about raising the temperature in the theater.
Room for improvement is what’s needed. Maybe with another cast, another conductor, the situation might perk up. Given the circumstances we find ourselves in today, who knows when that might be!
Today is Good Friday, a day commemorated across the globe as one of tragedy and misfortune that, leading to eventual triumph and hope, culminates Sunday on a glorious Easter morning. Earlier in the week, Jews from around the world observed the solemnity of Passover, a time when Death passed over their households.
Knowledgeable readers, too, may recall the 2003 protests for and against a controversial ruling involving the imposition of a Ten Commandments monument at the state judicial building in Montgomery, Alabama — a veritable clash between the sacred and the secular.
Concurrent with that story, the 2003 commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington brought to mind how much people of faith have taken this unique and inspiring symbol of God’s ancient law for granted.
Flash forward to 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic, a scurrilous plague of Biblical proportions if ever there was one. Oh, how humanity needs its “manna from heaven” moment!
To echo a well-worn phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt.” You may be under the assumption that everyone has advance knowledge of what Passover, the Exodus, and the Ten Commandments came to symbolize, what ostensibly led to their evolution, and what they entail for us TODAY as far as a spiritual guidepost for these fearful, stress-filled times.
Politics aside, most God-fearing citizens have forgotten the sacrifices that went into the shaping of this gift of His promise for a happier earthly existence. We tend to overlook how God’s chosen people, the Hebrew slaves of Egypt, long sought to put an end to their suffering under the yolk of pharaonic vanity and abuse; how they yearned for freedom, and waited in vain for deliverance to the Promised Land, as prophesied in those same Old Testament passages.
Over the years, we’ve allowed ourselves to overlook the obvious modern parallels to African-American struggles for dignity, respect, and racial equality in other, more socially intolerant times. The same holds true for our growing Latino population, for the millions of poor and homeless people, and for those less fortunate than ourselves.
If only we could make real what was conveyed so wondrously in the pages of Holy Scripture. Similarly, if only we could empathize with the historical, social, and religious contexts that helped shape the thoughts, lives, and social patterns of these same individuals, who so valiantly fought — and died — for their beliefs, so that we, today, might enjoy the blessings of freedom under a merciful, loving, and protective godhead.
For home-bound viewers, there exists a number of cinematic recreations of the Old Testament story of Moses and the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, preserved as a makeshift “visual record” of these events. In lieu of physical Sunday-school lessons (due to social distancing constraints), these films have been made available to one and all via Blu-ray, DVD, YouTube, and/or various streaming devices.
All serve to inspire and enlighten us. But most importantly of all, they can be viewed, singly or as a whole, as filmed reminders of Moses’ symbolic significance to all faiths as the harbinger of Christ’s mission on Earth; and as a powerful lesson to world leaders to humble themselves before nature and the environment.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923): 146 minutes
One of the earliest motion picture representations of the story of Moses and the Exodus that remains widely accessible to movie audiences comes from famed producer-director Cecil B. DeMille.
A former stage actor and Hollywood co-founder, DeMille, even in the silent-film era, was known for his lavish historical pageants and superb handling of mass movement in crowd scenes.
His first crack at the Biblical genre came with the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, starring veteran stage and film actor Theodore Roberts as Moses, Estelle Taylor as Miriam, Charles De Roche as Pharaoh, Julia Faye as Nefertari (sic), and James Neill as Aaron. Released by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation and distributed by Paramount Studios, the production was partially filmed in the desert country of Guadalupe, Mexico.
The sets and costumes are impressive, as is the flamboyant acting by the principals. The mighty Exodus sequence and the handing down of the Commandments are dealt with in expert fashion, while the plagues are given short shrift (only the last and deadliest plague is depicted). Still, the rudimentary effects, particularly the pillar of fire and the parting of the Red Sea, are indeed remarkable for the time.
The second (and longer) portion of the film is devoted to a more “contemporary” interpretation of what happens to one of two siblings who continuously breaks God’s laws. Richard Dix and Rod La Rocque play the battling brothers (one good, one bad) in traditional clutch-and-stagger style. Silent movie queen Nita Naldi vamps it up as the tragic temptress who comes between them.
In the prologue, the haughty Pharaoh Rameses (De Roche) is brought to his knees upon the demise of his firstborn son (Terrence Moore). Alert viewers will notice some startling similarities between the way DeMille captured this and other sequences when juxtaposed with his 1956 remake (see below).
Having doubled Paramount Studios’ initial outlay from US $600,000 to over $1.2 million (and giving nervous backers a mild coronary in the process), DeMille’s gambit paid off handsomely at the box office.
Despite the soap-opera trappings — there are more than enough melodramatic subplots, including a preposterous episode about a lover infected with leprosy — the movie proved a hit with the Roaring Twenties crowd, raking in an incredible four million dollars in its day.
The first part, running about 50 minutes in length, is the more gripping section, and is recommended for joint family viewing. You will want to fast-forward through the stagy second sequence, however, which tends to drag a bit and may prove too mature for young children to fully grasp.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956): 245 minutes (with overture, intermission and exit music)
DeMille’s next attempt at the story was the widescreen Technicolor extravaganza The Ten Commandments, released by Paramount in 1956. It is quite possibly the most well-known and widely viewed religious film ever made. DeMille made the wise decision to drop the modern parallel and stick to the tried and true, especially after the runaway success of the earlier Samson and Delilah from 1949.
The wily director-producer spared no expense in the crafting of his greatest work, which stars the then-relatively unknown Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner (fresh from his Broadway triumph in The King and I) as Rameses II, Anne Baxter as his voluptuous wife Nefretiri, Edward G. Robinson as the overseer Dathan, Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, John Derek as Joshua, Debra Paget as Lilia, John Carradine as Aaron, and a literal cast of thousands.
DeMille went on location to Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula for the Exodus and other desert sequences. Returning to the U.S., the production team resumed shooting on eighteen Hollywood sound stages, with another twelve waiting for them in Paris, France.
While this version is considered pure camp — with such ludicrous plot devices as the bogus romance between Moses and the future Queen of Egypt, and an absurd love triangle between Baka the Master Builder (Vincent Price), Lilia the water carrier, and Joshua the stonecutter — the gargantuan sets, fabulous costumes, gorgeous production values, and memorable music score by novice composer Elmer Bernstein, are all worthy of attention.
As Ole Man Mose himself, Heston steadfastly maintained that his casting as the fiery prophet made him a household name in the movie industry. It was his first successful foray in a long line of religious and historical figures to be interpreted by him on the big screen. His looks and voice, and moving portrayal (plus the apparent sincerity Heston gave to the part) lift this film out of the usual dull run of Biblical epics.
The last of those nasty plagues, the one that brings the Destroyer into the heart of Pharaoh’s household, will send shivers down your spine (it was quite effective in the movie theater, of that I can personally vouch for). It’s one of the few sequences in the three hour and thirty-nine minute epic that is not over the top.
Highly recommended for all family members, the movie is best appreciated in its letterbox format.
MOSES – THE LAWGIVER (1975): 150 minutes; mini-series 360 minutes
A British-Italian-Israeli co-production based on the book of Exodus, the title, Moses – The Lawgiver, did not bear the hallmarks of a primetime ratings grabber, not by any means. Nevertheless, this 1975 foreign-made version was first broadcast on the small screen as a six-hour television mini-series.
It features American actor Burt Lancaster as Moses, his son William Lancaster as the young Moses, veteran English character player Anthony Quayle as Aaron, Ingrid Thulin as their sister Miriam, Marina Berti as Elisheba, and Greek film star Irene Pappas as Moses’ wife. Curiously, it was partially filmed in Rome, Morocco, and the Holy Land during the height of the Yom Kippur war. The script is by Anthony Burgess, author of the futuristic novel A Clockwork Orange.
The story is presented in fairly reverent, straight-forward fashion, the dialogue highly literate, and a low-key Lancaster surprisingly good in the title role. Just don’t expect the usual Hollywood-style histrionics to spice up the proceedings, though, as this version is more dialogue-heavy than most.
Too, it takes a more intellectual approach to the saga. As for the special effects, they are modest in comparison — I’d say pedestrian, to be frank, and not even close to big budget standards.
The mini-series was subsequently released to theaters as a feature-length film, but the extremely mundane atmosphere, dusty sets, and colorless wardrobe did not provide much in the way of competition for the two earlier DeMille flicks. On a side note, many of the crew members, including producer Sir Lew Grade, worked on the subsequent Jesus of Nazareth mini-series from 1977, directed by the late Franco Zeffirelli, a much more ambitious and noteworthy assignment.
Recommended for older audiences but with the above reservations. Younger viewers might find it too talky and the performances lackluster.
THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (1998): 97 minutes
For a change of pace, kids of all ages may want to tune in, along with their parents and friends, to this animated musical account of the Exodus story. The Prince of Egypt, a 1998 production by DreamWorks Pictures, was a joint Steven Spielberg-Jeffrey Katzenberg studio venture.
It incorporates state-of-the-art digital animation effects, and utilizes the services of Val Kilmer as Moses, Ralph Fiennes as Pharaoh, Patrick Stewart as his father Sethi, Michelle Pfeiffer as Tzipporah, Jeff Goldblum as Aaron, Sandra Bullock as Miriam, Danny Glover as Jethro, and Ofra Haza as Yochaved, with Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Broadway’s Brian Stokes Mitchell, in other key roles, to tell the tale of Moses, the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of God’s Laws.
Despite the clash of accents among the talented international cast, the story is clearly and succinctly told. The voice acting, especially by Kilmer and Fiennes as equally-matched combatants, is well done. Much care was taken with the script as well, so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities. If anything, this treatment is almost too mild by comparison to DeMille’s gaudier excesses.
Nevertheless, this visually-stunning animated version, which is vastly superior to most Saturday morning children’s fare (if not quite up to the advanced level of the best of the Disney/Pixar Studios’ efforts), is entertaining and worthwhile.
The visual rendering of the characters favors an elongated look reminiscent of the Mannerist school of portraiture (think El Greco, or possibly Modigliani) that gives the finished product a uniquely original stamp of its own.
Interestingly, the rivalry between the young prince Moses and the future pharaoh Rameses is a thinly-veiled reworking of the Judah/Messala conflict found in MGM’s 1959 widescreen remake of Ben-Hur, another superior religious picture. Thankfully, the script for this outing, written by veteran screenwriter Philip LaZebnick (Pocahontas, Mulan, The Road to El Dorado), is on the same high level as that William Wyler-directed opus.
There’s even a hit song, i.e., “When You Believe,” to thrill to (written by composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz), beautifully sung in the movie by Ms. Pfeiffer and repeated, in the end credits, as a power duet between then-reigning pop divas Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. The score itself is by Hans Zimmer.
This is highly recommended for all family members.
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014): 150 minutes
Finally, there’s director-producer Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings from 2014, with the likes of Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Pharaoh, John Turturro as Sethi, and Aaron Paul as Joshua, with Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Ben Mendelsohn.
This version has not yet been viewed by yours truly. But with a cast such as this, it would be unfair of me to pass judgment on its merits. About the best I could say for it, though, is: Buyer beware!
Still, this and the above entries serve to perpetuate the Idea that haughtiness and vanity will only get you so far. The high and mighty will be brought down and laid low before forces too powerful to control.
This morning, I woke up to learn the sad news that Kenny Rogers had passed away at 81. I remember Kenny Rogers in the 1960s as a singer with the folk group The New Christy Minstrels. As a solo artist, Rogers ventured forth not only into country-music land but into the pop and smooth jazz territory. His chart-topping single, “The Gambler,” led to his appearance in several TV movies. And his recording of “Lady,” written by fellow artist Lionel Ritchie, was undoubtedly his biggest hit (especially with the “ladies”).
Kenny had a unique, instantly identifiable sound and voice (gruff and gritty but melodious), an artist who was truly his own. One of my favorite pieces is the Christmas song, “Mary Did You Know,” about the baby Jesus. He sang this beautiful number with fellow country-pop artist Wynonna Judd in a memorable 1996 video.
You gotta hand it to Kenny Rogers, though: He knew when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em. And he knew when to walk away — as he did toward the end of his life. As Kenny reached the entrance to the Pearly Gates, St. Peter probably asked him to pick a card, any card, to complete the deck of his life. I bet you any amount of money that Kenny drew a Royal Flush!
Today is Sunday, March 15. In poetic terms, it’s the ides of March.
According to historians (and to playwright William Shakespeare), Julius Caesar, the “noblest Roman of them all,” was assassinated on that date. He was warned by a soothsayer to “Beware the ides of March” and avoid setting foot in the Roman Senate.
But Caesar ignored the warning. Instead, he was killed at the Theatre of Pompey, where the Roman Senate met.
Look where we are today.
This used to be a time when fans of college basketball could root for their favorite teams. The NCAA championships take place in March, which gave rise to the description “March Madness.” Not this year, I’m afraid. It’s morphed into something else; that is, something approaching “March Sadness.” It’s a sad epitaph indeed, and not just for college basketball.
The NBA, or National Basketball Association, has suspended its season. So have Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the PGA Tour, and the Masters Golf Tournament. The National Hockey League has also postponed its season, as have the XFL, the Association of Tennis Professionals, and the Women’s Tennis Association. The opening run of the Formula 1 racing season has been cancelled, too. And NASCAR has moved back its opening-day events by two weeks or more.
In addition to which, production of many cable television shows has been halted. The nation’s museums are closed, while movie theaters’ doors have been shuttered as well. Lamentably, Broadway’s Great White Way has dimmed its lights. And the Metropolitan Opera House has lowered its golden curtain on upcoming performances. “La commedia é finita!” the house has announced. Translation: “The play is over!”
All this because of the coronavirus outbreak. But that’s not the worst of what’s happened. There are real lives at stake, with so many families and friends being affected. Workers and employers sent home, multiple school closings, businesses and stores shuttered, elderly loved ones and relatives in peril — all at the mercy of this unseen menace. Unable to participate in life’s simple pleasures, we’re about to closet ourselves away, for our own safety and for the safety of others.
Oh, and financial markets around the world have taken a nosedive. While Wall Street is all wound up, we’ve wound our way down. Big time! We ignored the warnings, and now the ides of March are upon us.
Despite the dire news, the final straw occurred the other day when word got out that Tom Hanks and his actress wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for the coronavirus while working on separate projects in Australia.
Oh, no, not him! Not Tom Hanks!!! Please, Lord, say it ain’t so! My God, if Tom Hanks and his spouse can be hit by the coronavirus, is there any hope for humanity?
Who Ya Gonna Call?
The nation is reeling. In times of stress, who do we turn to? Who can we rely on to save us from ourselves, and from our worst impulses?
Why, the self-same Tom Hanks. That’s who! Who better than filmdom’s most reliable and most beloved screen actor?
So let this Sunday homily be my open invitation to Mr. Hanks:
Please excuse the directness of my approach. We need your help. Let me rephrase that: America needs your help. At this terrible moment in our country’s history, when things are looking grim for all Americans — and indeed, for the world at large — only you can save us.
Now, now. Don’t give me that look. You know the one I’m talking about, Tom. That clueless, wide-eyed Forrest Gump stare. I know you can do this. You’ve helped us out before — and you can do it again.
Try taking a look at your own past, Tom. See what you’ve been able to accomplish with your movies. Come on, Woody. Don’t let your get-up-and-go get the best of you. Let’s go over those exploits together, shall we?
In Saving Mr. Banks, you played Walt Disney (and you don’t even LOOK like Walt). As good ole Mr. Disneyland himself, you managed to convince the curmudgeonly P.L. Travers into granting your studio the movie rights to her book, Mary Poppins. Now, if you can charm P.L. Travers, then you can charm anybody.
As Forrest Gump, you FINALLY won the heart of the woman you loved, Jenny Curran. (Just between us, I thought she was undeserving of your affection, but that’s me.) If you can win young Jenny’s heart, you can win anybody’s heart.
As terminally ill AIDS victim Andy Beckett in Philadelphia, you won a wrongful termination suit against your former law firm — with Denzel Washington’s help, of course. If you can beat your former law firm, you can beat any law firm.
In Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, as attorney James B. Donovan, you successfully negotiated a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And you did it by staying true to your profession as a defender of your client’s rights (even if that client happened to be a Soviet spy). Heck, if you can negotiate a successful prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union, you can negotiate anything. Am I right so far?
And, in Saving Private Ryan, as Captain John Miller, you practically lost your entire squad in trying to locate and bring Private James Ryan back to his mother’s side. I can’t help recalling, Tom, that earlier in the picture, you informed your skeptical squad members that, “This Ryan better be worth it. He better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb, or something.”
Do you remember that line?
Towards the end, after Captain Miller is mortally wounded by enemy fire, he gathers what strength he has left and grabs hold of Ryan so he can hear what Miller has to say. Miller’s final words to him are, “Earn this… earn it.”
His meaning was clear: “Earn the sacrifice that my men have made in helping to save you.”
Now, I know you can’t cure this disease, Tom, or invent a longer-lasting light bulk, but surely you can do something, even if you’re holed up in the outback. Let me make it plain, then: You can continue to encourage us by your honesty, your devotion to your craft, and the truthfulness you convey in all your movie roles. No, really, I mean it!
We need your kind of courage, Tom, more than we’ve ever had at any point in our recent history. We need your strength, we need your fortitude, and especially your ability to inspire — as you’ve done throughout your career. That calm, resolute manner you showed as Astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13. That’s what I’m talking about. I know you have it in you, sir.
Pandora’s box has been pried opened. The ills of this world have spilled out and spread a contagion called COVID-19. Help us to close the lid, Tom. Keep giving us hope that better days are ahead. Take away the sadness, help restore the madness. In a pinch, you can deploy Buzz Lightyear! Consider this a really big pinch…
Come on, Tom! Let’s get the ball rolling. You and Rita can overcome this affliction, of that I am certain. In doing so, you would have fulfilled your mission — just as Captain Miller did, just as Jim Lovell did.
You are humanity’s last, best hope. Don’t let us down in our time of need. Get back on your feet, mister. Do it for me, and do it for America. And for the world.
Male cast members of Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (1993)
‘I Fought the Law and the Law Won’
Americans love lawyers.
Now, before you throw a fit or have me committed to Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward, let me elaborate.
We enjoy watching television shows (and movies, if you want to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth) about lawyers because we’re fascinated by the concept of the law and its defenders. Whether we like them personally or not, issues related to lawyers and the law are hammered out in trials, thus giving rise to the ubiquitous courtroom drama.
Courtroom dramas are the very essence, if not the bane, of our existence. They’re part of everyday life, based on the incontrovertible view that people tend to commit crimes. Along with their criminal activities come the post-criminal investigations. Witnesses emerge, evidence starts to pile up. Soon, these assorted elements get introduced (or not) in a forum deemed appropriate to the circumstances. That forum happens to be the courtroom.
And where there are courtrooms, there are judges. Judges, as anyone who’s ever been confronted by one will tell you, are the no-nonsense arbiters of the law; they are the experts, the so-called professionals in matters of jurisprudence.
So who are the arbiters of the facts? Why, the jury, of course. And juries are made up of ordinary citizens — with all our biases and prejudices and accumulated knowledge, both pro and con, of the facts. For, indeed, we, the people, are the ultimate judges of what can be deemed factual.
Okay, but who are the individuals who bring these criminal cases to court, to be heard by a jury of one’s peers, to be adjudicated by a judge? Those individuals are the lawyers, the people trained in presenting a case and arguing the merits before a court of law. This is also where the heart of the “drama” takes place. You might call it a ringside seat, where the “ring,” in this instance, takes the form of a large rectangular room.
As obsessed as we are with high-voltage courtroom dramas — and we can cite numerous examples that fit that description — there is one actor I know of who, at one time or another, appeared to have cornered the market in his association with the law, both on the side of what’s “right” and on the side of what’s “wrong.” And that actor is Denzel Washington.
Not only does Denzel make the perfect attorney at law (in looks, manner, and speech), but his recurrent forays into such related subgenres as crime capers, police procedurals, investigative journalism, and criminal behavior — to include his participation in the crimes themselves (via his earlier ghostly “embodiment” in Heart Condition) — have given him a unique perspective quite apart from his fellow actors.
Certainly his stature as a figure of authority has had something to do with it. Writer and movie critic David Thomson, in his book The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, referred to Denzel’s “extra confidence” and the authentic “command” he brings to his parts, even to the “silly films along the way.”
We’ll be exploring his commanding presence (and, along the way, some of those “silly films”) in this next installment, which we have subtitled “The Law is on His Side.”
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Beatrice (Emma Thompson) hears the proposal by Don Pedro (Denzel Washington)
We begin, of all things, with a star-studded production of Shakespeare’s comedy of errors, Much Ado About Nothing. Filmed on location in Italy — specifically in the province of Tuscany, at a real Italian villa blessed with sunny skies, verdant pastures, authentic locales, and moonlit nights — this is your standard-grade period piece.
As straight a screen adaptation of the English poet’s opus as you can get, much ado is made of the fact that good-ole reliable Denzel plays a supporting role, i.e., that of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, instead of his usual male lead. It’s back to ensemble work for the workaholic Mr. Washington!
Heading up this ribald dramedy, then, is Irish-born actor, director, and producer Kenneth Branagh, the closest Hollywood has come to that unrivaled thespian and multi-talented performer, director, and theater manager Sir Laurence Olivier.
An Olivier wannabe in everything but name only, the self-directed Sir Kenneth stars as Benedick, a member of Don Pedro’s court. Arrogant, boastful, and self-assured to a fault, the handsome nobleman has a “thing” for the equally brash yet beauteous and witty Beatrice (Emma Thompson, Branagh’s wife at the time). It’s that age-old gag where the one, Benedick, insists that the other, Beatrice, is beneath his contempt, and vice versa; where “I hate your guts” means “I love you truly.” You get the drift.
The main conflict (besides the obvious one twixt Beatrice and Benedick) takes place when Benedick’s companion, the young count Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), expresses his heartfelt passion for Beatrice’s comely cousin, Hero (the charmingly attractive Kate Beckinsale). Don Pedro is pleased with the match and forthwith blesses the union to everyone’s satisfaction — everyone, that is, except his rebellious half-brother, the jealous Don John (a brooding and bearded Keanu Reeves, who mugs his way through the picture). Don John has designs of his own where the bride is concerned; consequently, he hatches a side-plot to discredit the virtuous Hero before her betrothed. Zounds, the scoundrel (boo, hiss!).
Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) is tricked into accepting Beatrice (Emma Thompson) as wife
Mixed into this exhilarating brew is the cretinous Constable Dogberry (Michael Keaton, who acts as if he had accidently stumbled onto the set of Beetlejuice), accompanied by comparably inept associates. In addition to Branagh, Thompson, and Beckinsale (they sound like partners in a British law firm, don’t they?), the other cast members — among them, Richard Briers as Hero’s father Leonato (and the owner of the villa), Gerard Horan as Borachio (his name, in Spanish, translates to “constantly drunk,” which he is), Imelda Staunton as Margaret, and Brian Blessed as Antonio, Leonato’s brother — bring their proficiency in iambic pentameter to Shakespeare’s words with enthusiasm and zeal.
As the only African American member of the group (and one of a handful of American English speakers), Denzel’s Don Pedro comes off well enough physically. He certainly looks the part of a potentate, who here epitomizes the literal law of the land; and he performs it with the utmost taste and command (there goes that word again) born of self-confidence. It’s evident the actor’s earliest stage encounters with the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon (in Othello and Julius Caesar) make all the difference.
Yet, there is something not quite right. To these ears, Denzel’s dialogue sounds mannered and leaden. His speech does not “roll trippingly on the tongue.” There’s a clash of American English with its British variant in the enunciation department, which is to be expected. However, an absence of spontaneity creeps into passages that demand a less measured approach. Taking nothing away from his delivery per se, one notices an overly cautious reading of Don Pedro’s lines than there needs to be — an over-compensation, if that clarifies things, as if the speaker had placed the emphasis on every word of text so as to make his meaning clear.
There are several examples of this occurring, the first in the scene where Benedick overhears Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio discussing Beatrice’s true feelings for him; the second, in the quieter moments between Don Pedro and Beatrice, where he gazes intently into her eyes and proposes a marital union between them. Thompson, as Beatrice, rattles off her riposte with a gentle but casual air of indifference, accompanied by a toss of the head. Whereas Washington, on the receiving end, ever-so-cautiously articulates every vowel and syllable, along with the appropriate punctuation.
Yes, yes, I know. I’m being excessively picky in my assessment. This is still a marvelously photographed and gorgeously costumed realization, if I can be blunt about it. For instance, those opening slow-motion shots with a lusty male contingent bobbing up and down on their mounts, along with those of buxom young ladies in various forms of undress, are notable for their sex appeal and air of anticipation — a balm to Shakespeare addicts.
More likely, I’m making … well, much ado about nothing!
On a more serious note, the initial pairing of Denzel Washington with everyone’s favorite screen sweetheart, Julia Roberts, in The Pelican Brief was cause for jubilation among their millions of dedicated fans. The onscreen chemistry this oddly-matched couple generate lifted the film adaptation of another of ex-lawyer John Grisham’s windingly dense legal thrillers to near-Olympian heights at the box office.
If magnetism and “star power” can be manufactured, bottled, and sold over the counter, then these two brightest of movie lights might have cornered the world market. Call them the twin “flavors of the month,” which, where their followers were concerned, had placed them at cross-purposes to one another. Despite that handicap, both Washington and Roberts shined at playing protagonists who win the audience’s favor. One couldn’t help but root for their success, no matter what project they took part in.
Warner Bros. Studios’ belief in their staying power as box-office draws led to this faithful if needlessly drawn-out conspiracy yarn about the murder of two Supreme Court justices. The book, published in 1992, was Grisham’s third novel and second literary effort to top the New York Times bestseller list (after The Firm).
In the movie, Julia plays law school student Darby Shaw who unwittingly stumbles across an elaborate plot by a ruthless oil tycoon to exploit some oil-rich Louisiana marshland inhabited by an endangered species of pelican — to wit the raison d’être for the avian title. Her subsequent legal brief on the incipient nature of this scheme spells out the particulars in detail.
Before you can say, “What the hell does all that have to do with the death of two Supreme Court justices?”, the next layer to be revealed connects Darby to the assassin Khamel (Stanley Tucci), the person responsible for those murders. Although the late justices were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they were both staunch environmentalists. The idea is for the tycoon to profit handsomely from this oil venture by getting the clueless U.S. President (Robert Culp), whose campaign for reelection has been financed by this same tycoon, to appoint two new justices favorable to the scheme. Thus everybody “wins,” except for the defenseless pelicans.
We warned you this was a needlessly complicated story line. Having read several of author Grisham’s books, however, I can report that this 1993 screen edition is true to the original tome, a rarity among films of this nature.
Readers may be wondering, too, where Denzel might fit into the action. Is he a cop or is he a lawyer? Actually, he’s neither. On a seemingly unrelated note, Dee plays Washington Herald investigative reporter Gray Grantham, who receives a tip from an informant named Garcia about those two assassinations. One thing leads to another, and soon Darby Shaw links up with Grantham, as the two curious individuals — the rookie law student and the veteran journalist — join forces to begin the laborious task of unraveling the maze of deceptions.
I would be remiss in my sworn duty to keep the dénouement a secret. I will say this: the very antithesis of the usual slam-bang, shoot-‘em-up police/crime thriller, The Pelican Brief, written and directed by veteran filmmaker Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Presumed Innocent), is a more thoughtful case in point. In view of our stated theme (vide the guardians of law and order and their being on the right side of justice), Denzel occupies an integral secondary spot.
Some critics complained that there were no love scenes between him and Ms. Roberts — and why should there be? As a matter of fact, they don’t fall in love at all, which is how the novel played it. “Any romance would have been rather tactless,” wrote Roger Ebert in his December 17, 1993 review, “considering that the story takes place in the week or two immediately after her [law professor] lover has been blown to pieces.”
How about that! A logical, well-thought-out screenplay for once that makes perfect sense. Consequently, audiences ate this feature up, which only goes to show that Hollywood can still shock and awe you when it wants to. On the other hand, in one of the myriad subplots to director Robert Altman’s labyrinthine The Player, released in May 1992 (a year and a half before The Pelican Brief hit the big screen), the little film-within-a-film Habeas Corpus (with Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts, of all people!) subverts the whole idea of staying faithful to one’s original work.
You’re probably wondering: “What the hell is he talking about?” I’m glad you asked! Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to watch both The Pelican Brief AND The Player, in that order. To test your knowledge of each, there’ll be a pop quiz on Wednesday. The best of luck to you!
Lawyer Joe Miller (Washington) refuses to take Andy Beckett’s case
From our current crisis relating to the mounting coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, we harken back to a time when HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and the AIDS epidemic (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) were placed front and center in the debate about how to treat those afflicted with the sexually transmitted disease.
With an all-star assemblage of top-shelf acting talent (Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, Joanne Woodward, Charles Napier, Ann Dowd, Roberta Maxwell, Roger Corman, et al.); an Oscar-winning music score by Howard Shore; and a similarly feted Best Original Song (“The Streets of Philadelphia”) by Bruce Springsteen, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia was the first mainstream Hollywood production that directly addressed the issue of AIDS in the workplace.
Released in December 1993 — in the same month and year as The Pelican Brief — TriStar Pictures’ Philadelphia also took on the related topic of homosexuality. Unfounded fears of being infected with the HIV/AIDS virus through touching and non-sexual transmission were an indispensable subtext in the script’s depiction of associate attorney Andy Beckett (Hanks), a rising star in one of those typical “white-shoe” Philadelphia law firms. With his worsening condition becoming more and more apparent, the firm’s partners contrive of a scheme to dismiss Andy on the grounds of incompetence.
The bulk of the drama follows Andy’s pursuit of justice in a court of law — not only for himself but for others fighting for their choice of lifestyle and/or sexual orientation. This is where Denzel’s participation as ambulance chaser Joe Miller becomes a lifeline for the terminally ill attorney.
Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks) asks lawyer Joe Miller to defend him
Andy wears the marks of his affliction not so much as a badge of honor but as a constant reminder of the life and death struggle that he, and others like him, face on a daily basis.
Combining many of the elements discussed above — that is, the law and its authority in Much Ado About Nothing and the criminal investigation intrinsic to The Pelican Brief — Philadelphia is a film both utterly absorbing and periodically cloying, itself tinged with what used to be termed the “Disease of the Week” syndrome. That it overcomes the worst tendencies of this genre of movies can be traced directly to its screenplay and to its lead actors.
It’s been pointed out that Andy’s parents are depicted as almost too nice to be true. Too, Andy and his gay lover, Miguel Álvarez (Banderas), are loving, caring individuals openly accepted by family and friends (a hell of a stretch at the time), but their emotional relationship to one another is stillborn, as is their steadfast commitment to stay together come what may. (A scene of the two men in bed was cut from the finished product; it’s been restored for the home edition on Blu-ray and DVD).
Joe Miller (Washington) now represents the interests of ex-lawyer and HIV/AIDS victim Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks)
Despite these deferential nods to outward civility, the movie’s best moments look inward at the surrounding characters, most notably at Andy’s legal representative, Joe Miller. Miller, a straight-arrow African American male, is frightened out of his wits with representing a gay man in court. He can’t even bring himself to properly shake Andy’s hand he’s so biased. His hatred of gays spills out in a potent scene with his wife, where his use of the word “faggot” colors his negative view of his client.
Interestingly, the film’s screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, recalled, in a December 2018 BuzzFeed News interview with reporter Adam B. Vary, how “Some people thought that [Denzel],” during a radio talk-show program, “was going to play the gay character. People called in [to the station] and said the most vile things about him. He was stopped on the streets by fans. People were pretty blunt about how they felt about gay people who were carriers of this fatal disease.”
The misunderstanding was eventually cleared up, but it proved the point that Americans at the time had a long way to go in their grasp and understanding of the problems affecting recipients of the HIV/AIDS virus.
How Denzel’s character begins to overcome his prejudices occurs in several of Philadelphia’s key scenes. Reluctant at first to take on Andy’s case for “personal reasons,” Miller reverses his initial thoughts when he observes Beckett at a library doing research for his case. When one of the librarians asks Andy if he’d be more comfortable in a room by himself — where he’d be away from others who are uncomfortable with his presence (including the librarian) — Miller walks over to where Andy is seated and greets him cordially. Miller’s steady gaze at Andy (and at the librarian) forces the librarian to depart, as does another researcher.
We can infer from this confrontation that Miller, an African American, had undoubtedly experienced the same kind of intolerance as a struggling law student, but for racially motivated reasons. After Miller sits down at the table, Andy hands him an extract from a 1973 law equating the carriers of HIV/AIDS with victims of discrimination, which perfectly underscores the dilemma they face: how to overcome the built-in prejudices inherent in their case by citing the applicable law, along with its precedents.
Other moments in the picture either reinforce or obscure the argument, including one where an African American law student, thinking Miller is also gay, tries to pick him up at a pharmacy. The attempt does not end well as Miller erupts with a volley of verbal invectives against the law student.
Andy (Hanks) listens as his attorney Miller (Washington) cross-examines a witness
Once the case is presented in court, the gist of the drama begins to take hold. Thankfully, the trial scenes are handled in non-sensationalist fashion by director Demme. Outside of the occasional objections, they’re almost matter of fact, a respite from the torpor of real-life court trials or the heavy-handedness allotted to TV courtroom dramas (I’m thinking of the worst of Law & Order).
But the most moving episode of all (for opera buffs such as yours truly) is the well-known example of Andy expounding to Miller on the essence of Maria Callas’ art in a recording of the aria, “La mamma morta,” from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Without going into specifics, both Washington and Hanks’ handling of this sequence is a case study in how to convey emotional intensity with only their eyes and bodies as props. Miller is touched by Andy’s love for the art form, which symbolizes his love of life.
In the film’s final sequence, a terminally ill Andy is greeted by family, friends, and well wishers at home. But his most welcome visitor is Joe Miller, who caringly places Andy’s oxygen mask over his mouth so the ailing attorney can take one last breath before expiring. Upon seeing Andy’s pitiful condition, Miller extends his two hands on either side of Andy’s face. He is no longer afraid to touch Andy or of becoming infected with HIV/AIDS. His only sentiment is sympathy for the man. Where fear once dominated his relationship to his client, empathy and love have taken over. Miller has finally come to terms with his prejudices: He gives back to Andy that which Andy had given him — his humanity.
While Philadelphia proved to be a feather in Hanks’ cap (he won the first of two back-to-back Best Actor Awards for this and the following year’s Forrest Gump), Denzel reconfirmed his own status as a co-equal contributor — both for the subtlety of his performance and the camaraderie he shared with fellow actor Hanks. Their dual roles as lawyers, one the defendant and the other the defendant’s counsel, secured Tom and Denzel’s positions as two of this country’s hottest screen properties.