Friday, July 1, 2016

Defiant and Decisive Women

The Goodman Theatre in Chicago recently presented the world premiere of a new musical whose two lead characters are powerful women. With Patti Lupone as Helena Rubenstein and Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden, musical theatre fans are eager to see if War Paint will evolve into a hit show.

For some, the idea of a musical in which the protagonist(s) are strong women quickly evokes memories of Jerry Herman's musicals.
  • Many of Herman's shows (Milk and Honey, Hello, Dolly! Mame, Dear World, La Cage aux Folles) feature a title song that has been cannily crafted to become an earworm.
  • There are love songs ("There's No Reason in the World," "Let's Not Waste A Moment," "Kiss Her Now," and "It Only Takes A Moment") of romantic urgency and exquisite tenderness.
  • There are songs of reassurance, remembrance, and regret ("And I Was Beautiful," "My Best Girl," "Song on the Sand," and "If He Walked Into My Life"). 
Often there is a song which serves as a call to action for an individual to take control of their life (or for a group of people to unite behind a cause). These anthems come from a deep place of personal need, a craving -- come hell or high water -- to live life on one's own terms.

My favorite one of these songs comes from Act I of 1966's Mame, in which Auntie Mame gives her nephew Patrick a credo against close-mindedness that can last him his whole life long.

Free thinkers like Dolly Levi, Auntie Mame, the Madwoman of Chaillot, and Zaza have no qualms about upsetting gender norms. In some cases, the men in their lives (whether husbands, lovers, or sugar daddies) can be easily replaced.

Eleanor Roosevelt claimed that "A woman is like a tea bag -- you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water." Whether viewed from a comic or tragic perspective, it's always fascinating to watch what happens when women, rather than men, hold all the power in a relationship. Especially when the protagonists are smart women who feel no need to tolerate a fool -- unless that fool can be a useful tool to get them what they want.

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Audiences at the 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival were treated to a screening of Mal St. Clair's 1925 comedy entitled A Woman of the World in which Pola Negri stars as the Italian Countess Elnora Natatorini, a wealthy woman who has been living the high life, but doesn't take well to catching her lover in the arms of another women. Furious at his betrayal (especially after she had his family crest tattooed on her forearm), she announces her decision to immediately leave the Riviera to take a trip to "the other side of the world" which, in this case, means visiting her relatives in the small (and small-minded) town of Maple Valley, Iowa.

Pola Negri (Countess Elnora Natatorini) and Chester Conklin
(Sam Poore) in a scene from A Woman of the World

Based on Carl Van Vechten's 1924 novel, The Tattooed Countess, Elnora's visit to the Midwest mines culture shock for a great deal of its humor. Upon her arrival, the Countess gets a hostile greeting from Maple Valley's uptight District Attorney, Richard Granger (Holmes Holbert).

Meanwhile, the Countess's bumbling cousin, Sam Poore (Chester Conklin), is a clumsy fool who would be completely lost without his wife, Lou (Lucille Ward). Watching the proceedings from a nearby porch are two of the town's biggest gossips, Mrs. Baerbauer (Dot Farley) and Lennie Porter (Blanche Mehaffey).

Pola Negri as Countess Elnora iNatatorini n A Woman of the World

Negri's Countess Elnora is a woman who knows how to play with men and put them in their place. Whether teasing an infatuated young man like Granger's clerk, Gareth Johns (Charles Emmett Mack), by suggesting that he “Remember me as half lover and half mother” or horsewhipping the District Attorney in front of the townspeople because she understands how much he wants to be punished and humiliated, this is a woman with a far more sophisticated understanding of what makes men tick than any of the housewives in Maple Valley. In her program essay, Jeanine Basinger notes that:
“Pola Negri and Ernst Lubitsch  arrived in America in 1922. Negri was an immediate success, presenting the image of a woman who possessed a strong sexuality and felt no need to hide it or curb it. She could enact fearless portrayals of erotic passion on-screen, but she could also be humorous, light, and playful -- the qualities that had attracted Lubitsch. She was an actress who could (and did) do everything on-screen in a believable manner. Today she’s often thought of mainly as a graduate of the Norma Desmond school of movie stardom. Negri herself helped promote this myth because she understood that colorful behavior would enhance and prolong her time in the limelight.”
Pola Negri as Countess Elnora Natatorini in A Woman of the World
“Negri played movie star 24 hours a day. She drove around Hollywood in a chauffeured white Rolls Royce upholstered in velvet, sitting in the back under a white fur rug, flanked by two white Russian wolfhounds. She painted her toenails fire engine red, scattered orchid petals on her dressing room floor, kept a pet tiger on a leash, conducted a pseudo-feud with Gloria Swanson, and enjoyed hot love affairs with Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. These outrageous shenanigans made really good copy, but Negri backed them up with talent and hard work.”

It doesn't take much for the Countess to turn Maple Valley upside down and inside out. When she discovers that Granger is being celebrated at a local bazaar as the man responsible for the town's waterworks -- and that her relatives have set up a tacky fundraising scheme so that people can pay 25 cents for a chance to "talk to a real Countess" -- she uses her feminine wiles to take control of the situation.

Poster art for A Woman of the World

While A Woman of the World puts a delicious new twist on the battle of the sexes, it also gives audiences (male and female alike) an opportunity to drool over Pola Negri's costumes. In describing Mal St. Clair’s approach to directing comedy, Basinger notes that:
“In 1925, he already understood how important it was to build a strong alliance between the viewing audience and a character such as the ‘tattooed countess.’ Since the film is all about Negri’s star power, St. Clair showcases her gift of interior acting, in which she allows an array of clearly, but subtly defined emotions to play across her expressive face. (A radiant beauty, wide-eyed and broad-cheeked, Negri had one of the great faces of silent cinema and she knew how to use it. She’s a completely commanding movie presence.) St. Clair holds on Negri’s close-ups, giving her all the time she needs, letting her create an unspoken ‘dialogue’ with her viewers.”
Pola Negri as Countess Elnora Natatorini in A Woman of the World

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This fall marks two important 50th anniversaries in my life as a culture vulture. In September 2016, the Metropolitan Opera moved from its old home at Broadway and West 39th Street to a gleaming new facility in Lincoln Center. At the same time I fell in love with the operatic art form, attending performances at both the Met and the New York City Opera.

How I was "converted" is an amusing story. While at Brooklyn College, I built a close friendship with Mark Topkin, who shared my love of theatre. As we began to attend more performances together, it became clear that I was better at deciding which shows to see and finding discounted tickets for them. When the Met moved to Lincoln Center, Mark told me that he wanted to go to the opera. I ended up on the standing room line, met a community of dedicated opera fans who shared a mutual passion, made plenty of new friends, and learned how to get backstage after a performance. The rest, as they say, is history.

Irene Roberts (Carmen) and Brian Jagde (Don Jose) in
a scene from Bizet's Carmen (Photo by: Cory Weaver) 

As I look back on 50 years of attending live performances in cities from Anchorage, Aarhus, Honolulu, and Houston to Chicago, Cairo, St. Louis and Sydney, I've received an amazing education. Whether watching a performance of Gluck's 1770 opera, Paride et Elena, in Sweden's historic Drottningholm Palace Theatre or taking a whitewater raft trip down the Colorado River with singers from the Portland Opera who performed the quintet from West Side Story on a sandbar under the light of a full moon, it's been quite an adventure. Needless to say,  I've also sat through quite a few performance of Bizet's Carmen.
  • Many productions were designed in such a way that the scenery dwarfed the drama.
  • In some, the costumes and mannerisms overwhelmed any sense of realism.
  • Some, like Peter Brook's famous production of La Tragedie du Carmen (which was staged in Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre) were hailed as theatrical breakthroughs.
  • Others, like the Jean-Louis Barrault production which the Met introduced on December 15, 1967, were less than thrilling. 
Irene Roberts (Carmen) and Brian Jagde (Don Jose) in
a scene from Bizet's Carmen (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

I can still remember nights when (because a friend was singing the role of Frasquita), I purchased standing room at the Met and, as the clock approached midnight, found myself watching Carmen fight for her life while hoping she would die quickly because I had a chemistry exam the next morning.

Because Carmen is such a staple of the operatic repertoire (and a sure way to boost subscription sales), many productions are built to last so that their sets and costumes can be used to generate additional revenue by being rented out to other opera companies. Designed and directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, the San Francisco Opera's production of Carmen that debuted in 1981 (and had an impressive run of seven seasons over the course of 31 years) was last seen on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House in 2012.

When David Gockley announced that the San Francisco Opera would present a new production of Carmen conceived by Calixto Bieito (and directed here by Joan Anton Rechi), some people breathed a sigh of relief while others worried that the production might allow a certain amount of Eurotrash-influenced regietheatre onto the sacred stage of the War Memorial. I found it incredibly refreshing.

Amina Edris (Frasquita), Irene Roberts (Carmen), and Renée Rapier
(Mercédès) in a scene from Bizet's Carmen (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Much to my delight, this staging eliminates a lot of the dramatic clunkiness and tired shtick associated with so many traditional productions. To my mind, it goes much further than the Peter Brook production in explaining Bizet's tragic opera as a story in which streetwise gypsy women must compensate for the shortcomings of their men and cope with the arrested development of those who joined the military in order to compensate for a lack of genuine machismo.

Updating the story to the present time, set designer Alfons Flores (aided immensely by lighting designer Gary Marder) uses a black cyclorama to keep the audience's attention at street level. No mountains, no bullfighting arenas -- just a crowd of poor people trying to get through their grubby lives, one day at a time. The only glare troubling the audience's eyes comes from the headlights of the gypsies' cars as they roll across the stage.

This is truly a production in which it's best to expect the unexpected.
  • Instead of making a dramatic entrance from the cigarette factory, the audience first spots Carmen dressed in a raincoat as she stands in a phone booth arguing with someone (perhaps a lover whose shelf life has expired).
  • Instead of acting like obedient soldiers, the male chorus in Act I resembles a group of men whose level of emotional maturity never progressed past middle school. To these buff yet sexually insecure men, copping a feel off a woman's breast (or attempting to stroke her ass) is the biggest thrill they may ever experience. One quickly gets the idea that even if they did graduate from high school, their hearts never left their school's playground,
  • As they say in Texas, the two lead guards, Moralès (Edward Nelson) and Zuniga (Brad Walker), are "all hat and no cattle."
  • The staging of Carmen's Habanera and Séguidilla makes it crystal clear that, rather than her cleavage, it is the sexual heat emanating from between her thighs that drives grown men to distraction. While Carmen remains in icy control of the situation, the soldiers (like adolescent boys who have learned a dirty word) obviously have no idea what they would do with her if they ever even got a chance.
Carmen (Irene Roberts) brings all the boys to her
yard in Act I of Bizet's opera (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

As the opera progresses, it becomes clear that:
  • Mercedes (Renée Rapier) is a single mother with a small child who has already learned how to pick pockets.
  • Carmen's gypsy friends, El Dancairo (Daniel Cilli) and El Remendado (Alex Boyer) may strut about, but clearly understand that they need their women to distract other men in order to pull off any kind of a heist. Cilli, in particular, shows great promise as a comprimario tenor.
  • It's not surprising for one of the gypsy men to lead a woman behind a car in order to get a quick blowjob.
  • Other than Carmen, the only character who is truly secure in his sexuality is Escamillo (Zachary Nelson), the toreador who can have any woman he wants.
Zachary Nelson as the toreador, Escamillo, in a scene
from Bizet's Carmen (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In addition to the action above, below, and inside cars, there are some stunning visual effects in this production.
  • Rather than taking place in front of the walls of the cigarette factory, Act I is set in an open plaza where a flagpole provides a convenient tool for shackling a disobedient gypsy girl into submission (in sharp contrast to the Spanish flag, which has been freely waving above the plaza in the breeze).
  • A soldier clad in only his underwear keeps running around the plaza while holding his rifle until he collapses from exhaustion.
  • Act III begins with a naked toreador re-enacting a popular form of moon baptism (a ritual among superstitious bullfighters that is often performed on the night before a bullfight). 
  • The transition between Acts III and IV is achieved with a stunning coup de theatre for which words can do no justice.
Irene Roberts as Carmen (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

For this new production, the principal roles were double cast, with Carlo Montanaro conducting all but the last performance. I found Irene Roberts to be a fascinatingly lithe and intelligent Carmen, fully capable of treating men as disposable objects in the way men have been taught to treat women. As Micaëla, Ellie Dehn was in fine voice, drawing snickers from the audience with her attempts to use a cross and the mention of Don Jose's mother as manipulative tools to steal him back from his newfound gypsy love. This was the first time I've ever heard an audience laugh out loud at some of the "good girl's" ploys.

Ellie Dehn (Micaela) and Edward Nelson (Moralès)in a
scene from Bizet's Carmen (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Brian Jagde (a favorite artist for San Francisco audiences) did a sterling job as Don Jose, singing with the kind of passion and musicianship one longs for in a tenor. Although I found Zachary Nelson's Escamillo to be surprisingly bland, the gypsy quintet "Nous avons en tete une affaire" was beautifully performed. Special kudos go to chorus director Ian Robertson and fight director Dave Maier for their contributions to this production.

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