Friday, June 28, 2013

Your Cheatin' Heart

Some men are luckier in life than in love. Whether they become top athletes, matinee idols, or wartime heroes their trust in the goodness of people makes them loyal to a fault. Like big old dogs that can't stop wagging their tails with excitement once they see (or smell) a familiar face, these guys cling to idealistic fantasies about the women in their lives.

Alas, mothers and lovers are rarely as perfect as their men would like to imagine. Temptation rears its head at every turn (whether in the form of a new dress, some luscious chocolate, a hot stud, or the opportunity to don a new dress to impress a hot stud who arrives with some luscious chocolate).

Sometimes fantasies become reality and a woman is forced to make tough choices. At other times, she can have it all. As Mae West boasted in 1978's Sextette: "I'm the kinda girl who works for Paramount by day, and Fox all night."

How much should any man risk on a woman's desire for monogamy? From Mozart to Hitchcock, some stunning examples of spousal infidelity were on display this month in San Francisco.

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As part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's weekend devoted to the nine silent films made by Alfred Hitchcock, audiences were treated to two movies in which love triangles provided the dramatic conflict. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who made the mistake of thinking that the title of 1927's The Ring (Hitchcock's fourth film) referred to the boxing ring in which two pugilists (Carl Brisson and Ian Hunter) vied for the attention of a polyamorous woman named Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis).

The only original screenplay that Hitchcock wrote in his career, The Ring is actually about the jewelry Mabel wears to indicate the object of her affection. If it's a small ring worn on one of her fingers, she's thinking of "One-Round" Jack Sander.  If it's the snake-like bracelet given to her by Sander's rival, she's thinking of Bob Corby,

Some of the scenes at the fairgrounds (built especially for this movie) show Hitchcock experimenting with various camera angles and techniques. Others are masters of suspense.

In The Ring, the two boxers are cursed by their competitiveness and the fact that they are in love with the same woman. Gordon Harker (the character actor seen getting drunk in the middle clip) plays Jack's trainer with the sad gruffness of a man who never really had a chance to shine.

This screening was accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a favorite of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. While the plot is quite straightforward, Hitchcock's skill at building moments of suspense and jealousy is obvious from the start.

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Brisson (whose son, Frederick, married Rosalind Russell) also starred in 1929's The Manxman as Peter Quilliam, the good-natured, dumb hunk who pledges to his best friend from school, Philip Christian (Malcolm Keen), that they will remain friends for life and always look out for each other's best interests. Unfortunately, both men fall in love with Kate Creegan (Anny Ondra).

What makes the plot of The Manxman so curious is that there is no real villain. Peter is a hard worker who realizes that, unless he goes away and makes a fortune, he will always be a poor fisherman to Kate's father (who refuses to let them marry). In a puppy-love kind of way, he extracts a promise from Kate that she will wait for him to return. However, Kate is already in love with Peter's best friend, Philip, who is now studying to be a lawyer in hopes of becoming a judge. Needless to say, Philip is torn between his affection for Kate and his professional conscience.

Then something remarkable happens. Word reaches their village on the Isle of Man that Peter has drowned in Africa. Kate and Philip are finally free to love each other and plan to marry. But when Peter returns to town (very much alive), he is eager to claim his bride and have Philip be the best man at his wedding.

Poster art for The Manxman

There's good reason for Kate to feel upset (she's carrying Philip's child) and if that fact couldn't kill Peter's spirit, there's more betrayal in store. This screening was accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, and accordion, and Diana Rowan on Celtic harp.  You can watch the complete version of The Manxman (without sound) in the following clip. While there isn't much in the way of intertitles, the film reaffirms Norma Desmond's statement that "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

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Which is worse? To discover that your lover has been unfaithful or to have bet money on her faithfulness and then had to stand by and watch as your best friend seduces her?  This month the San Francisco Opera revived its 2005 production of Cosi Fan Tutte (a joint venture with the Opéra de Monte Carlo). First performed in 1790 (barely two years before Mozart's death), this opera has always been a model of structural balance and style. With a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte (who was 51 at the time of the premiere), its plot is a work of remarkable maturity.

Did you know that, after becoming a naturalized American citizen in 1833, at the age of 84 da Ponte founded the New York Opera Company (the first opera house in the United States)?  Hell's bells, neither did I!

Despina (Susannah Biller) and Dorabella (Christel  Lotzsch) compare
their opinions on men in Cosi Fan Tutte (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Although purists may react strongly to one of Christopher Bergen's supertitles (when Don Alfonso tries to enlist Despina's cooperation in introducing the "new" Ferrando and Guglielmo to Fiordiligi and Dorabella, she asks "Are they well endowed?"), the production (devised by John Cox and staged this time by Jose Maria Condemi) remains solid. Although the action has been updated to a Mediterranean resort town in 1914, conductor Nicola Luisotti notes that:
"Così is a story of our weaknesses and the choices we make, especially when we are young and presented with new opportunities. It’s human nature to be drawn to exploring these opportunities (often without thinking about the outcomes). We’re doing something new with the accompaniments to the recitatives. Fiordiligi and Dorabella are really baroque characters whose music is florid and ornamented. They will be accompanied by a theorbo, a kind of baroque guitar. Despina and Don Alfonso are characters firmly set in the 18th century, the present time of the opera. They will be accompanied by the traditional continuo, harpsichord, and cello. Guglielmo and Ferrando are already living in the future, so they will be accompanied by a fortepiano (an instrument popular in the 19th century). I think this will highlight the characters’ qualities and circumstances."
Sisters Dorabella (Christel Lotzsch) and Fiordiligi (Ellie Dehn) plan
to indulge themselves in Cosi Fan Tutte (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Designed by Robert Perdziola, the San Francisco Opera's production of Cosi Fan Tutte neatly stresses the symmetrical structure of da Ponte's libretto and Mozart's score. Luisotti kept a tight rein on the proceedings, eliciting some beautiful work from Philippe Sly (Guglielmo), Francesco Demuro (Ferrando), Ellie Dehn (Fiordiligi) and Christel Lotzsch (Dorabella) as the impassioned -- albeit naive -- lovers. Marco Vinco (Don Alfonso) and Susannah Biller (Despina) helped engineer the comic moments onstage. Here's the trailer:

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