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Così fan tutte (1988)
An ambivalent comedy of manners and hearts
Having followed Ponnelle's career via reviews of stage performances, interviews and (all too seldom, I do NOT live in any of the major cities) the occasional performance of one of his many productions, I knew that he and "Cosi fan tutte" go back quite a ways (at least 1969). Unfortunately, my first viewing of this, his last film, was one of somewhat modified rapture.
First, a little background. An elderly, cynical philosopher (Don Alfonso) makes a wager with two Neapolitan army officers, Ferrando & Guglielmo that their fiancées (Dorabella & Fiordiligi, respectively) will prove to be no more paragons of fidelity than any other women. So the men disguise themselves, and with the connivance of the girls' maid Despina, woo each other's sweetheart, with startling (at least to the men) results.
Onward to the performance. All the singers are strong actors--no weak links here. As the other poster in this forum states, Teresa Stratas as Despina pretty much steals the show as one of the most hilariously slatternly maids in history. Giving her work a lick and a promise, making liberal use of her mistresses' powder & perfume and snacking on their untouched breakfasts, she's a hoot. She forms an (uninformed) part of Alfonso's plot to prove the girls' inconstancy, and when she finds out she's been duped as well, the shock on her face is like a kick in the stomach.
Edita Gruberova was to me the other big standout (other than the apparently ageless Paolo Montarsolo's Don Alfonso). I had thought she was more of a singer than an actress, but here she plays a broad range of moods beautifully--amusing hauteur when she defends her morals, equally amusing tentativeness as she starts to give in, and both tenderness and pathos as she gives in to temptation.
Ponnelle has/had a well-deserved reputation as one of the classiest designers in the business, and this film upholds that reputation. His stage production was a model of 18th century sensibility, all two-dimensional flat scenery and beautiful period costumes. For the film, he gives a "realistic" Italian villa with a frescoed interior, set in a lush seaside garden. Artificiality is present too, in that the sea itself is clearly fake (but in its way, almost real looking).
BUT!..... "Cosi fan tutte", for all that it seems blatantly sexist and anti-feminist (the title means "All Women Behave like This"), is actually quite sympathetic to the women (Mozart had a soft spot there, just read his compiled letters), but you wouldn't really catch that from Ponnelle. This is one of those shows where what the director has to say doesn't always mesh with the material itself. The music & words have the lovers reconcile (although the men DO say that they don't wish to test their womens' faithfulness any further)--but Ponnelle ends with all four in the throes of misery, while Alfonso coolly counts his winnings and pays off Despina (who promptly throws it away in shame).
My verdict? Don't miss it, but also get to know the music and words beforehand. And be forgiving with your significant others--Mozart would have hoped for nothing less.
Dialogues des Carmélites (1999)
A shattering experience
This opera is based on an actual event in the French Revolution, the daily life of a Carmelite convent in the very last days of the Reign of Terror.
Blanche de la Force, a cringing young French aristocrat of the 1780's is the central figure, a woman prone to excesses of terror. She stuns her brother and widowed father by joining a Carmelite convent near Paris, although the elderly Prioress warns her (seeing through her feeble desire to "live a heroic life") that the convent is no refuge, but a place where weaknesses will be put to the test.
Blanche butts heads with a cheery young novice, Sister Constance, who tactlessly tells Blanche that she believes the two of them will die together (you can imagine how well THAT goes down), and witnesses the harrowing death of the Prioress, who attempts to confess to Blanche her fear of death. The grim Mistress of Novices, Mother Marie, is assigned to mentor Blanche and instill some firmness in her. A new Prioress arrives as outside events speed toward July 14, 1789--and beyond, into the Reign of Terror.
The heart of this opera deals with how the various characters deal with this crisis--in fear, false courage, or courage informed by God's grace. Blanche only finds her personal answer in the last minute of the opera (sorry, I'm not giving it away, see the show for yourselves).
As the Carmelite order is very austere, it is appropriate that the visual end of this show is simple in the extreme. Little more than the rooms in which scenes take place (sometimes not even that) are depicted, and that's all that's required. Costumes are (for a large part) authentic looking--the thugs were the only exception in their leather trench-coats, which was somewhat jarring.
The cast is uniformly excellent both dramatically & musically. Anne-Sophie Schmidt as Blanche enables you to love Blanche, faults and all. When Mother Marie (Hedwig Fassbender) seeks out the defected Blanche to urge her to rejoin her comrades as they face a prison sentence, the older woman's harsh facade cracks and we see a loving mother figure for the terrified young girl, huddled in the remains of her (guillotined) father's mansion.
Patricia Petibon (as the flighty but kindhearted Constance) has perhaps the most thankless task, playing a sort of Pollyanna set to music. She passes the test with flying colors, as do all her colleagues.
But enough words; as I said above, you simply have to see the film yourselves.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1981)
Sing for your Shakespeare!
Warning: this DVD may make opera lovers out of Shakespeare fans and vice versa. But all joking aside, this is a truly wonderful production. Colors are muted in this forest (until the sun comes up in the end), and the fairies, except for Damien Nash's redheaded Puck, are all in black and silver.
There's a pleasing quartet of young lovers, and a hilariously earnest band of rude mechanicals--the masque of "Pyramus and Thisbe" in the end is absolutely priceless. If pressed for an absolute standout, I'd have to go for two players--Roumanian soprano Ileana Cotrubas is a delicate Tytania and Curt Appelgren makes more than the most of Bottom, the hapless ass-headed weaver. Both performers are non-English speakers with faultless diction. But then, everybody does themselves (and Shakespeare himself) proud in this memorable production from Glyndebourne.
By the way, this show is staged by Sir Peter Hall, who filmed the Shakespeare original circa 1970, with a cast including Dame Judi Dench and Ian Holm. I understand it was quite different from this operatic outing, although I have still not managed to see it. In the meantime, this operatic setting of Shakespeare by Benjamin Britten will give many hours of pleasure.
One viewing is never enough
I just came back from my second viewing of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"--unlike the four Pevensie children, we lucky young-at-heart can use the wardrobe over and over! As so many have said before, Almost nothing is left out, and what little is added does not detract from CS Lewis' wonderful story. At first I wondered if I could accept different looks from my firmly entrenched views on the "look" of Narnia (i.e, the original illustrations by Pauline Baynes), but no fear--and Tilda Swinton's splendidly malevolent White Witch was the only character (here seen with blondish dreadlocks, heavy white gown and an icicle crown) who appeared different. Actually her performance was, I think, an improvement on the somewhat stilted original character, what with her icy (no pun intended) manner, drop-dead eyes and Samurai-like way with a wand.
The plot, once again, is a model of faithfulness to Lewis, with an added prologue reminding us WHY the children are being sent out of London. I suppose though, that it is a little jarring to suddenly see the four children matured into adulthood as rulers of Narnia--just one of those things you accept when reading a book, but find odd in a feature length film.
The technical aspects of the film were very well done--better than "Lord of the Rings", where I could tell differences between real actors and CG "extras". At one point, I actually stopped thinking of the friendly beavers (and Mr. Tumnus' hooves) as CGI. And anyway, shouldn't good film-making help you to suspend disbelief? The acting was wonderful too. In addition to the afore-mentioned Ms. Swinton, four exceptional youngsters more than hold their own--they make you believe in them as a family. I particularly liked the bond of affection between Peter & Lucy, well shown as she cajoles them into a game of hide-and-seek; with a perfect look of weary big-brother kindness, he starts counting "one, two,three..." and Lucy unexpectedly stumbles on the wondrous land of Narnia in her hiding-place.
This can (and should) be enjoyed by anybody regardless of their world view (The Narnia books' Christian symbolism was never a problem for me, it actually brought me closer to God). There is nothing to offend here and everything to delight and warm the heart. I'm off to investigate my walk-in closet.....