Saturday, September 17, 2016

Is The Pen Really Mightier Than The Sword?

In an odd way, the opening of San Francisco's 2016-2017 theatrical season paid homage to three icons of French literature. By stepping back in history, two arts organizations revisited works which played a major role in their initial seasons.
Kimberly King and Michael Ray Wisely in a
scene from Dear Master (Photo by: David Allen)

As the playwright recalls on her website:
“In the late 1980s I fell into writing my first play quite by accident. A distinguished Bay Area actress, upon hitting her 60th birthday, complained to me that there were few interesting roles for older women. I rashly offered to 'excerpt a little dialogue' from the 13-year correspondence between George Sand and Gustave Flaubert. What I expected to be a month's work stretched into 18 months of research, writing, and rewriting. Another year of public readings helped me to revise and tighten what had become a play. The final result was a very successfully staged production.”
Gustave Flaubert (Michael Ray Wisely) and George Sand (Kimberly
King) in a scene from Dear Master (Photo by: David Allen)
“This friendship (beginning when she was 60 and he was 47) makes the most fiery love affair seem tame. During a period as violent and politically polarized as ours, these two people, who agreed on virtually nothing -- artistic, political, religious, personal -- were able to argue vehemently, dramatically, and yet able to sustain a deep, affectionate, supportive, and respectful relationship, brought to an end only by the death of George Sand. Their correspondence is partly paraphrased from their letters, partly created from biographical/historical sources.”
Kimberly King and Michael Ray Wisely in a
scene from Dear Master (Photo by: David Allen)

With one play set in the last years of the 18th century (following the political upheaval of the French Revolution) and the other in the mid 19th century (George Sand lived through France's first three Republics, starting with the reign of Napoléon Bonaparte), the two productions offered a glimpse into the idealism (both poetic and political) that gripped the new citizens of France and the battle between optimism and cynicism that gripped two of France's beloved writers in the later years of their lives.

Do these two works offer any insights into whether, as Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in 1839, the pen is mightier than the sword? Or should they be examined through the lens of La Société des Ecrivains Mortes?

Michael Ray Wisely and Kimberly King in a
scene from Dear Master (Photo by: David Allen)

One thing is for sure. In an age when texting has become a new form of language and the word "art" has pretty much been stripped from the meaning of "language arts," it's fascinating to witness how passionately these three writers viewed the power of words.
  • Whether expressed in the simple terms of a romantic ode or the heartfelt paragraphs of handwritten letters (whatever happened to the "Age of Letters"?), both stories reek of familial drama, problems with writer's block, social upheaval, and unbridled lust. Yet, whether in false accusations or despairing of loneliness and ill health, words were a constant source of solace and inspiration.
  • Whether as a romantic conceit or a statement of their principles, these writers seemed to hold themselves to a higher moral standard than most of the people around them.
Kimberly King and Michael Ray Wisely in a
scene from Dear Master (Photo by: David Allen)

Despite a handsome unit set designed by Annie Smart, Kent Dorsey's sensitive lighting, and Anna Oliver's elegant costumes, the rigid structure of an epistolary format leaves little room for any face-to-face interaction between the two main characters in Dear Master. As a result, the lack of dramatic tension can foster a strange sense of tedium unless one remembers that letter writing was the only way for people to communicate over any distance before telecommunications were invented.

Thus, an audience fully accustomed to text messaging, instant replay, videochat, and easy accessibility to long-distance telephony tools (such as VoIP) might find it difficult to maintain any sense of urgency as they listen to two actors trying to breathe life into a recitation of their personal frustrations and declining health. Despite being tenderly directed by Joy Carlin and lovingly brought to life by Michael Ray Wisely as Gustave Flaubert and Kimberly King as the older and wiser George Sand, the production tended to lose steam. As much as I admired their performances, I left the theatre feeling decidedly underwhelmed by Bryant's play.

Kimberly King and Michael Ray Wisely in a
scene from Dear Master (Photo by: David Allen)

* * * * * * * * *
One might think that an opera set in the years following the French Revolution would have little relevance to today's democracies. One would be wrong.

All one has to do is consider the growing wave of anti-intellectualism that has been created by the dumbing down of the American education system and it becomes easy to understand how a highly-regarded poet favored by the aristocracy could have become the accidental target of a bloodthirsty society drunk on its newfound political power.  In the first act of Andréa Chénier, the title character is asked to recite a poem at a salon being held by the Countess di Coigny. While his presence titillates many of the women in attendance, his words touch the heart of the Countess's daughter, Maddalena, who might not be quite as superficial as most of her peers.

It's been a long time since I've seen a fully-staged production of Giordano's verismo opera. My first exposure was in San Francisco in 1975, with a cast headed by Placido Domingo, Josella Ligi, and Cornell MacNeil in a co-production with the Houston Grand Opera that had been designed by Wolfram Skalicki and directed by Lotfi Mansouri. The second was a 1979 performance by the New York City Opera starring Ermanno Mauro and Marilyn Zschau as the young lovers. At that time, I couldn't have cared less about poetry or its impact on society.

The poet, André Chénier (Yonghoon Lee) attends a salon being
held by the Countess di Coigny (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

The San Francisco Opera's presentation of David McVicar's new staging of Andréa Chénier marks the American premiere of a shared effort with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and the National Centre for the Performing Arts in  Beijing. With handsome sets designed by Robert Jones and period costumes by Jenny Tiramani, it offers rich visuals while remaining a model of efficiency. The use of surtitles (unheard of during the 1970s) helps to underscore the sense of poetic urgency in Chénier's life upon meeting and being entranced by the young Maddalena di Coigny (Anna Pirozzi)

In her program note entitled André Chénier: Poet, Prodigy, Political Martyr, author Jane Ganahl writes:
“Born in 1762 in Constantinople, where his father was French consul, Chénier became an ardent admirer of the language and civilization of ancient Greece while still in his teens. While studying at the Collège de Navarre in Paris, he excelled in the translation of verses from the classics. A 1784 visit to Rome, Naples, and Pompeii cemented his ambitions to write in the neoclassical style of the time. Chénier’s poems are a moving testimonial to the human spirit in the face of persecution. He came to view the role of poet as the conscience of a movement, and in his poetry wrote poignantly of his hopes to live long enough to continue the fight.”
Tenor Yonghoon Lee as the French poet, André Chénier
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)
“When Robespierre recalled Chénier’s incendiary poetry in Journal de Paris, Chénier was taken before the Revolutionary Tribunal and sentenced to death. A poet until the end, as he stepped onto the cart with his friend Roucher, they both started reciting verses on their way to the guillotine. Chénier was executed on July 25 (ironically only three days before the Reign of Terror would end with Robespierre’s own death). Chénier could not have imagined, when his life was cut cruelly short at the age of 31, that he would one day be lauded as one of the greatest poets of the 18th century. After all, until the moment he was guillotined during the French Revolution, he had only published two poems. But 222 years after his death, Chénier is far more famous in death than in life: lauded as a poet-hero and political martyr of near mythological status, and providing inspiration for numerous plays, works of art, poems, and especially the opera Andréa Chénier.”
Like Abel Gance's sprawling 1927 silent filmNapoléon, and the blockbuster musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel, Les Misérables, Giordano's opera offers a large number of comprimario roles for singers, filled here by J'Nai Bridges as Bersi, David Pershall as Roucher, Jill Grove as the blind Madelon, Matthew Stump as the vengeful Fouquier-Tinville, Catherine Cook as the Contessa di Coigny, and the booming basso, Robert Pomakov, who gave a most impressive performance as Mathieu. Joel Sorensen was appropriately villainous as the sneering L'Incredibile.

Joel Sorensen as the villainous L'Incredibile in a scene from
Umberto Giordano's Andréa Chénier (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

At its heart, Luigi Illica's libretto deals with a clumsy love triangle between the poet, Chénier, the Countess's daughter, Maddalena, and Carlo Gérard (George Gagnidze), a former servant to the Countess whose 80-year-old father is still groveling in service to the Coigny family. After allowing the street rabble to invade the Countess's salon, Gérard gains political clout and abuses his power to get his hands on Maddalena, whom he has loved since childhood. Although the burly Gagnidze shone in his big moments, the highlights of the evening really belong to the two lovers.

Yonghoon Lee may not be the most dramatically expressive actor, but he is a solid musician with a stentorian tenor voice that can be both thrillingly romantic and tenderly heroic with breath to spare. As Maddalena, Anna Pirozzi did a fine job with her Act III aria, "La mamma morta." Nicola Luisotti's conducting was passionately driven throughout the evening.

No comments: