The Fall of the Damned by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1620
The Fall of the Damned by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1620
Whenever we discuss the experience of “reading” as we recognize it today, it is always important to keep in mind that we recognize as “reading” is a relatively young phenomena in the history of humanity, one that only exists because of the technological invention of the book. What past civilizations understood by “reading” often looked very different (and, it should be noted, literacy itself was generally the domain only of the privileged).
Still, I find my affection for sustained reading experiences–by which I mean focused reading for thirty minutes or an hour without interruption–growing deeper in our age of sensory onslaught. If reading does not exist in opposition to what we think of “technology” (indeed, the technologies of our age are very reading-dependent), sustained reading, whether you do it on a codex or a Kindle, forces us into a different mode of engagement than many of the technological structures we utilize and inhabit on a daily basis, structures that are designed to distract through stimulation. In a world of seemingly endless noise, sustained reading increasingly feels like a respite.
The Head of Saint John the Baptist by Francesco Cairo, c. 1635
It goes without saying that much art extends from personal experience, and it’s neither unusual nor shameful for songwriters to draw and comment on their own experience, but when pop celebrities tie their music so explicitly and openly to their (generally unremarkable) love lives generally robs their music of its malleability, forcing listeners to experience the song as a component of a broader celebrity-gossip conversation.
Another way of saying this is to note that, whatever else I might say about the tune, shackling “thank u, next” to the memory of Pete Davidson does not help my experience of the song.
Found Drowned by George Friedrich Watts, c. 1850
After the Gala by Serafino Macchiati, 1905
Undine Comes into the House of the Fisherman by John Henry Fuseli, 1821
The death of the author (or, more accurately, author-as-imaginary-construct) is the primary concern of Roland Emmerich’s most personal and artful film, his Shakespeare-conspiracy-theory melodrama Anonymous, in which art overwhelms and obscures the circumstances of its creation. Those circumstances are decidedly outrageous, mingling political revolts, attempted assassinations, illicit romances, and unspeakable family secrets.
Among Anonymous‘ many fine attributes (including a memorable turn from Vanessa Redgrave) are the sublime images of cinematographer Anna Foerster, which are better seen rather than described:
It sometimes seems that each of us who have grown up celebrating Christmas has a film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that we know well and have seen repetitively over the course of our lifetime.
The 1951 Alastair Sim version may be the most “canonical” of the various adaptations, but each cinematic take has its partisans. For me, the reigning film adaptation will always be Ronald Neame’s Scrooge (1970), which I watch every Christmas Eve as a matter of firm tradition. It came out at the right time to be a major event in my parents’ childhoods, and they ensured it was part of mine.
Neame’s Scrooge was one of the last gasps of the old-fashioned epic musical film spectacular, and much of its charm was diminished in the pan-and-scan days of VHS. Now that it has released on Blu-ray, Scrooge‘s lavish production design and cinematography can once again be properly admired and esteemed. Scrooge is a proper Christmas feast of a film, a bit overstuffed, but satisfying and pleasurable nonetheless.
As with any familiar, oft-retold tale, the pleasures of a retelling lie in the grace notes applied to the familiar beats, and many of Scrooge‘s greatest coups are simply matters of astonishingly good casting. Albert Finney delivers an irresistibly amusing, astonishingly well-calibrated performance in the title role. Finney understands that Dickens’ Scrooge was always an absurd caricature, and he finds freedom in the character’s cartoonishness, effortlessly charting the character’s journey from extreme malice to abundant joy with surprising fluidity. But if Finney is the centerpiece, his performance is buttressed by a series of great turns from a supporting cast that includes Alec Guinness (surely the best Jacob Marley of them all), David Collings (a tender and endearing Bob Cratchit), and Kenneth More (a Ghost of Christmas Present who feels as great as he is supposed to be).
Bricusse’s lovely score provides the film’s throughline, and perhaps the only reason that its songs haven’t entered into the broader cultural lexicon is that its soundtrack has been stuck in limbo, unreleased. “Christmas Children,” in particular, should be a firm entry in the Christmas songbook.
Il Trittico, Puccini’s triptych of one-act operas, is back at the Metropolitan Opera this season, complete with a star turn from Placido Domingo. At the grand age of 77, Domingo has lost little of the vitality and virtuosity that propelled him to opera stardom, and he gives a vigorous, joyful performance in the title role in Gianni Schicchi, the opera that concludes Puccini’s Il Trittico.
The balance between the three operas that comprise Il Trittico can shift dramatically from production to production. Purely in terms of musical composition, Il Tabarro, the dark tale of adultery and murder that opens Il Trittico, may boast the greatest riches; certainly, it’s the most diversely composed and intricately structured of the three operas, layering vocal lines and musical modes in thrillingly unexpected ways. Suor Angelica, which follows, seems comparatively more straightforward, though it excels its companions in its seamless synthesis of drama and music. The lighthearted conclusion, Gianni Schicchi, features Il Trittico‘s most popular aria, but is not as musically complex as either of its predecessors, even if Puccini has a great deal of fun setting the comic libretto to music.
The current production, directed by Jack O’Brien with sets by Douglas W. Schmidt, originated in 2007, and it grants each of these operas a lush presentation with few key striking images. O’Brien has a better feel for momentum and movement than he does for dramatic nuance, which makes him a great fit for the manic madness of Schicchi. Tabarro perhaps lends itself to greater intimacy than O’Brien gives it, but the expansiveness of Puccini’s score means it can survive the sweeping treatment O’Brien applies to it. O’Brien seems to stumble somewhat when it comes to Angelica, which works best when presented with a level of psychological vividness that O’Brien’s broad strokes do not quite convey.
At least Suor Angelica boasts the fine talents of Kristine Opolais, who has become something of a recurring star at the Met, and her achingly sincere interpretation of Sister Angelica grounds Suor Angelica even as the artifice of the staging comes close to overwhelming it.