Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Is Henry James's "Watch and Ward" As Bad As He Thought?

Written in 1871 when Henry James was only twenty eight, Watch and Ward was his first attempt at a novel. It was originally serialized in the Atlantic Monthly and eventually published as a book in 1878, but James later repudiated the novel, disowning it entirely and calling his second novel, Roderick Hudson, his first. The story is an odd one, perhaps better suited to theater or opera where absurd plots are more easily tolerated, particularly in the works of that era. Roger Lawrence, rejected by a lover, adopts on a whim the twelve year old daughter, Nora, of a ruined gambler who has committed suicide in the adjoining room of his hotel. Within a few weeks, Roger decides to raise Nora to be his wife, though without telling her of this plan, sending her to school, providing her with every luxury, and eventually sending her to Rome as a sort of fashionable finishing school with his friend and former lover Mrs. Keith. Even this brief description of the plot can begin to give one an idea of why James may have disliked his first novel so much in later years.

The relationship between Roger and Nora is examined in minute detail as it progresses through each chapter. Roger wishes to feel that Nora's life began with her adoption and yet feels considerable anxiety about the state of her past: "He trod on tiptoe in the region of her early memories, in the dread of reviving some dormant claim, some unclean ghost. Yet he felt that to know so little of her twelve first years was to reckon without an important factor in his problem; as if, in spite of his summons to all the fairies for this second baptism, the godmother-in-chief lurked maliciously apart, with intent to arrive at the end of years and spoil the birthday feast." Roger romanticizes his relationship with Nora from the first, imagining himself as Rochester to her Jane Eyre and wishing that he could shut her up in a convent, a common and convenient plot device in eighteenth and nineteenth century theater, opera, and literature. (The most salient example is in Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses; the painfully innocent Cécile de Volanges is explicitly raised in a convent in order to ensure that she is entirely virginal and uncorrupted, physically, emotionally, and psychologically, so that her future husband - happy to pay for the privilege - can corrupt her in his own way.)

By the end of chapter two, and before Nora has reached her sixteenth birthday, Roger has already confided - to the woman who refused his proposal! - that he intends to raise Nora with the express purpose of making her his wife. Roger makes no bones about his goals in regard to his adopted daughter/future wife: "It seemed to him an extremely odd use of one's time and capital, this fashioning of a wife to order."

Far more disturbing, Roger wants a romantic marriage: "He aimed at nothing more or less than to inspire the child with a passion. Until he detected in her glance and tone the note of passionate tenderness, his experiment must have failed. It would have succeeded on the day when she should break out into cries and tears and tell him with a clinging embrace that she loved him." Though James is typically abstruse, the conflation of emotional surrender with sexual surrender should be obvious to any adult, but I was even more deeply bothered by the vein of domination that stains Roger's desire. He wants Nora to prostrate herself before him, despite his frequent verbal protestations that he would never compel her to anything, to beg and plead him to love her, while it is she who is loved by him.

James confidently affirms that, "Assuredly [Roger] was not in love with her: you couldn't fall in love with a child. But if he had not a lover's love, he had at least a lover's jealousy..." It's true that the cult around female children during the nineteenth century took some decidedly creepy turns and many, most prominently Lewis Carroll, expressed sentiments similar to those Roger espouses, worshiping at the altar of female youth and purity in the person of actual little girls. But, frankly this assurance strikes me as a hollow and entirely unsuccessful feint. Had James been more sophisticated himself at the time, he might have drawn a line between Roger's perspective and the narrative voice's, but, alas, the narrator is blissfully in ignorance of any untoward interpretations of Roger's feelings and in full sympathy with his dubious ambitions.

But the creepiest and most Humbertian moment in the text, describing Roger's feelings before Nora is yet sixteen, is this: "The ground might be gently tickled to receive his own sowing; the petals of the young girl's nature, playfully forced apart, would leave the golden heart of the flower but the more accessible to his own vertical rays."

There's no way to redeem that particular line - that's a poetic and flowery description of sexual assault if ever there was one. Prudish, uncomfortable, feigning innocence, but clearly and obviously not acceptable, either in this century or the nineteenth, and all the more so given that the analogy of sowing with sex is an ancient one, hearkening both to classical sources and to Chaucer.

In fact, Nora almost seems to understand her position, though she lacks understanding of sex and therefore fails to grasp the implications of Roger's passion for her. When Roger is ill and possibly dying, in despair, she cries out, "'My love for Roger's no choice, it's part and parcel of my being!" Worse, Nora expresses undying and extreme gratitude from the age of fourteen and fifteen, which Roger interprets as protestations of lifelong devotion in a romantic context, while Nora, utterly inexperienced and alone, desires above all else to love Roger as a father. Any shadow of free consent is banished the moment Roger takes it into his head to marry the girl, believing and inculcating the belief in her that his generosity puts her in debt she can only repay with total obedience and love.

While Roger compares Nora to Sleeping Beauty and thus creates in himself the idea of the awakening prince (and reinforcing in the reader the idea of him as a putative rapist), Nora describes herself, in letters home from Rome, as Cinderella, an excited girl emerging into the glamorous world with the blessing of her fairy godmother, from her point of view, a twin deity made up of Roger and Mrs. Keith. Mrs. Keith is a deeply problematic character; acquainted with Roger's plan from the beginning, she makes every effort to preserve and develop Nora for him, ultimately accusing her of rank ingratitude when she is shocked by the revelation of Roger's plans. Her motives for doing so seem rather required by the plot than organic to her character.

However, as creepy as all this sounds to modern ears, it's not an unfamiliar scenario in eighteenth and nineteenth century works. One thinks of the aforementioned Les liaisons dangereuses, Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia in which Rosina's guardian hopes to marry her for her money, and Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho in which Emily is besieged by assaults by various guardians after she is orphaned, as well as veritable dozens of Victorian melodramas, most of which prominently featured the proverbial damsel in distress. There was also the disturbing historical case of Thomas Day, who raised his intended wife along Rousseauian principles, described in Wendy Moore's How to Create the Perfect Wife. But, James's inexperience and naivete, both as a man and a writer, render his execution of similar material uncomfortably accepting and lacking in the irony, satire, and implicit social critique in the other works.

The quasi-incestuous, semi-pedophiliac relationship between Roger and Nora, never really criticized as unnatural, uncomfortable, or even just inappropriate, makes it nearly impossible to salvage much from the book as a whole. The narrative voice is fully in sympathy with Roger, never once questioning whether his passion might be indecent. As a result, it's difficult not to get queasy reading Watch and Ward and I suspect that James, always rather blushing and reticent when it came to sexual matters, was appalled once he'd achieved enough distance from the work to recognize the seamier aspects of his tale. The text does, however, have significant problems over and above its subject matter. The prose style, though obviously Jamesian, is occasionally clumsy and repetitive and he has not yet mastered his later perfect fluidity in his explorations of the interior lives of his characters. This could be more easily overlooked if the characters were not so poorly constructed. Roger comes to creepy life and his cousin Hubert for the most part seems to act from motives that spring from his described character, but Mrs. Keith remains a total enigma, while Nora is a cardboard cutout from a bad melodrama, her supposed cousin George a weird idiosyncratic mixture of stereotype and specificity, and most bizarre of all, Miss Sandys, apparently and inexplicably in love with Roger, simply makes no sense at all.

I rather question - though I've never seen this in any other source, so it's just my own idea and not supported by scholarship - whether James might have been considering writing this story as a play. His only play, Guy Domville, staged in 1895, was a total flop, but James was interested in theater his whole life and The Spoils of Poynton was originally written as a theatrical scenario. I do think that great actors, when faced with this material, might more easily have salvaged the work, at least in part, but something is certainly wanting. Certainly there are shades of James's later greatness - occasional moments of insight, the offhand witty quip, a dizzying ease with the most arcane and erudite vocabulary. But, this is undoubtedly a first novel.

Interestingly, the most entertaining parts of the book are Nora's letters from Rome. They are not at all convincingly written by a teenage girl, especially such a simpleton as Nora, but they do give a glimpse of the sort of wonderful correspondent James himself must have been, as well as an early foreshadowing of the travel writing of his maturity. He writes very well about Rome, though he leans heavily on his favorite author Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, and he is clearly more at his ease describing art and landscapes and launching barbed witticisms at those he finds ridiculous. Overall, Watch and Ward is, in fact, as bad as James thought, but it does offer insight into his early process and the inception of many ideas - Americans abroad, young women granted unexpected fortunes and uncomfortable proposals, art as a revelation of character, money and its various meanings in the American social milieu - that would color his later masterpieces. For those seriously interested in James, especially from a scholarly point of view, it's a rather tantalizing, if frustrating book, but for those looking for a fine nineteenth century novel, Watch and Ward is not it.

Monday, June 15, 2015

6 Victorian Realities (We Never See in the Movies)

Queen Victoria's reign, the longest in British history (1837-1901), was a particularly dynamic and complex period and it's one that is frequently portrayed in historical fiction and period films, but, even though many of these films are adaptations of Victorian literature, certain aspects of Victorian life remain obscured and quite astonishing for us moderns. Certain assumptions about life in Victorian England, particularly regarding sex, are rarely challenged in new works set in that era; here are six realities of Victorian life that definitely surprised me:

Etching by W.H. Shelton
6. Children were dosed with laudanum to keep them quiet.
Laudanum, derived from opium, was something of a cure-all drug and many, many Victorians were addicted to it. The common injunction that children should be seen and not heard was taken rather literally, and while opium addicts, particularly men rather than women, are fairly common in films set in the Victorian era, child addicts were quite common because the drug was administered to them to keep them from fussing. Laudanum, aside from being highly addictive and the cause of constipation and respiratory problems, varied significantly in terms of potency, leading many to overdose and contributing to high mortality rates.

5. Proto-feminist groups were at the vanguard of the abolitionist movement.
Early political agitation by women and women's groups was based upon the then-unquestioned idea that women were morally superior to men. Throughout the nineteenth century, women campaigned to redress social wrongs and they were key to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, after which they turned their attention to the plight of the poor and the significant population of prostitutes. Though it would be entirely incorrect to deny the importance of such men as John Locke and William Wilberforce, abolitionism had its roots in an eminently feminine and proto-feminist political sphere of action.

4. Women were led to believe conception was impossible without orgasm.
Contrary to the common belief that the Victorians were prudish and repressed, the centrality of motherhood to female identity rendered her sexual and reproductive roles paramount. Though there were some who disagreed, most Victorian doctors encouraged husbands to attend to their wives' sexual pleasure in order to maximize the chances of conception, while telling women that orgasm was an absolute necessity. Ironically, this led many women to feel afraid of sexual pleasure, especially if circumstances - whether financial or marital - did not favor a new baby, and all the more so given the absurdly high mortality rates for both women in childbed and their infants.

Photo-etching from drawing by Frederick Dielman

3. 500,000 "redundant women" were a surplus on the marriage market.
In 1851, the census found that there were 500,000 more women than men in Britain, sparking debates about what to do with the female surplus. Among the solutions proposed was shipping these so-called redundant women to the colonies, swelling the British-extracted populations and preventing the population of prostitutes from ballooning. If an unmarried woman had an independent income, she could live fairly well, though she would face myriad social hurdles and be considered a failure, in that a woman's larger purpose in the Victorian era was above all motherhood, but for women without an income, remaining single was a severe disadvantage, leaving them at the mercies of abusive and exploitative employers and also forcing them to hold themselves to even stricter standards of conduct, lest they be mistaken for prostitutes or become one. Even today, the stereotype of the woman desperate to get married is an object of ridicule, but before we laugh, perhaps it's worth remembering that these "redundant" women had few decent options and many were compelled to remain single - literally because there weren't enough men to go round.

2. Mass-produced condoms were available by the second half of the century.
Though today there's a general assumption that there was no birth control during the nineteenth century, in fact, a number of methods of birth control, of varying utility, were available, including primitive diaphragms, sponges, douches, and, most surprisingly, affordable, mass-produced condoms, which were publicly advertised. Birth control was particularly imperative for working class women, for whom each child was a significant financial burden and health risk. Even for bourgeois and aristocratic women, the physical hardships of pregnancy and labor led many to seek means of preventing conception.

Photo-etching from drawing by F. Childe Hassam

1. Half of Victorian marriages were preceded by a pregnancy.
Using parish registers, scholars have discovered that perhaps a full half of Victorian brides were already pregnant at their weddings. Though a girl's virginity was highly valued and lauded, it seems to have been quite common for couples to engage in pre-marital sex and only get married once the girl was pregnant. There are examples in Victorian literature of women seduced and abandoned (Hetty in Adam Bede, Oliver Twist's mother, Tess in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the Colonel's ward in Sense and Sensibility), but the social imperative to condemn extra-marital sex meant that tragedy was imposed upon these characters. However, with so many pregnant brides, it's safe to assume that many of these "ruined" women simply got married and carried on with their lives. Pregnancy was a taboo subject, despite the cult of motherhood, but I imagine that a good many speedily married characters, like Kitty Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, were, at least by implication, possibly pregnant. Class was also a major factor; pre- and extra-marital sex was progressively less taboo as one descended the class hierarchy.

Further reading:
Reading the Pre-Raphaelites - Tim Barringer
Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais - Suzanne Fagence Cooper
The Victorian Woman - Suzanne Fagence Cooper
Victorian and Edwardian Fashion - Alison Gernsheim
At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England - Walter Dean Myers
Table Rappers: The Victorians and the Occult - Ronald Pearsall
Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age - Amanda Mackenzie Stuart

The above illustrations are from an Edition de Luxe of George Eliot's Felix Holt: The Radical, published in Boston in 1886, hand-numbered 143 of 500.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Which Opera You Should See This Season, According to Your Favorite Literary Classic

Having devoted a number of years of my life to the study of la lirica, or operatic singing, I'm often disappointed by the steep decline of interest in opera, especially among Americans. Nevertheless I remain optimistic that an interest in opera can be fostered, especially in those who are enthusiastic about other art forms. Thus, I offer to you, the ever-more-cultured and ever-more-interesting reader, a guide to which opera you should see this coming season at the Metropolitan Opera, based upon your favorite literary classic. It seemed simply too boring to me to recommend the literary source material for the operas, thus, while the lover of Shakespeare's Othello would certainly enjoy Verdi's Otello, I tried to think more broadly and find more scintillating choices. This coming season is roundly dominated by nineteenth century Italian opera, not that I'm complaining, but it's unusual for the Met to have a season with so little German opera (and only one Wagner work!) and one single solitary French opera. You can buy your tickets to the Metropolitan Opera here.

If you love Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales, see Giacomo Puccini's Turandot:
Having sung in the children's chorus for Turandot and scampered about among the principal players, I can say from personal experience that it is one of the most thrilling of Puccini's works. Turandot is a cruel and icy Chinese princess who executes all suitors who fail to win her hand by answering three riddles. An exiled prince of Tartary, though discouraged by his blind father and his faithful servant Liù, nevertheless presents himself for the challenge. By far the most tonally modern of Puccini's operas, with bitonality and pentatonic harmony faultlessly integrated into his lushly romantic scoring, Turandot recalls the themes of Andersen's The Snow Queen, The Little Mermaid, and The Nightingale

If you love Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, see Gaetano Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore:
Donizetti's popular comic opera is a Cinderella story with the gender roles reversed. Nemorino is a poor, rather bashful peasant, hopelessly in love with the wealthy Adina, but certain that he could make her love him if only he could get hold of a love potion. An itinerant quack, Dulcamara, is more than happy to supply the desired potion, in fact a not-so-harmless bottle of Bordeaux. Fast-paced and deliciously witty, this opera is a showcase for a lyric tenor, who gets to sing the showstopping aria, Una furtiva lagrima. Austenites will love its effervescent wittiness, its satiric yet never cruel depiction of class, and its richness of romantic misunderstandings.

If you love Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, see Gioacchino Rossini's La Donna del lago:
Rossini's lavish romantic melodrama, based on a book-length poem by Walter Scott and for many years absent from the repertory, is set in the Highlands of Scotland. Two rivals for the lovely Elena's hand, Rodrigo and Malcom, unite in battle against the Scottish throne, but unbeknownst to them, Elena has a ring with which she can beg a favor from the king. Scott was a favorite author for the romantic opera composer and this lavish adaptation, though far more Italianate than Scottish in style, is, if anything, more dramatic and suspenseful than the original poem. Its decidedly dark depiction of violence, passion, and self-sacrifice echoes the gloomy ardors and miseries of Emily Bronte's lovers on the moors.

If you love Gabriele D'Annunzio's The Child of Pleasure, see Giacomo Puccini's Tosca:
This richly decadent opera, one of the most iconic of all time, offers to the dramatic soprano one of the most challenging roles in the repertory, both vocally and dramatically. Floria Tosca, a prima donna, and Cavaradossi, a painter, become entangled in the evil machinations of Scarpia, chief of police, who hopes to infiltrate the pro-Napoleonic resistance and take Tosca for his lover. Puccini never used motifs to better effect than in this savagely violent opera (multiple murders occur on stage and the plot includes torture and attempted rape) and the music, including the aria Vissi d'arte, is heart-stoppingly gorgeous. Artistically stunning, the opera surely pleased D'Annunzio's aesthete Andrea Sperelli, lover of art as passion and passion as art.

If you love Dante's Inferno, see Richard Strauss's Elektra:
In this, the most tonally modern of Strauss's operas, Elektra seeks blood revenge after her father Agamemnon, and later her brother Orestes, are murdered. Though it's now regularly performed, its first scheduled Met performance was canceled because of the opera's brutal and salacious material. The starring soprano remains onstage for the entire duration of the opera, a remarkable challenge for even the most accomplished singer. Interestingly, despite her ruthlessness and blood lust, Dante placed Elektra in Limbo, among the righteous pagans, because her vengeance was, in his eyes, justified; that being said, the ghastly atmosphere of some of the lower circles of Hell is sweepingly evoked by Strauss's music.

If you love Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers, see Gioacchino Rossini's The Barber of Seville:
Though it's unfortunately being presented in English, Rossini's most popular opera, which includes Figaro's Largo al factotum and Rosina's Una voce poco fa, is a comic farce about a wily barber who schemes to unite Count Almaviva with his lover Rosina, whose miserably old guardian covets her for himself. When well performed, this opera can be one of the funniest ever written, and its broadly humorous characterization is very much in keeping with the outrageously outsize characters of the Pickwick Society.

If you love Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, see Gaetano Donizetti's Don Pasquale:
Don Pasquale is a crotchety old codger, whose vain pretensions at marriage are exploited by the devious Dr. Malatesta in order to reunite Pasquale's erstwhile heir Ernesto with the poor widow Norina. Norina is a particularly wonderful character, lively, inventive, and intelligent. There is a vein of wry pathos running through the farcical happenings in this delightful opera buffa that elevates it above many comic operas. As in Tom Jones, the hilarity ensues as sex, money, and social status become confused, while egos inflate and are punctually deflated.

If you love Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, see Giacomo Puccini's Manon Lescaut:
The opera that made Puccini's reputation at the beginning of his career, Manon Lescaut is about the bewitching young Manon who effortlessly and gaily seduces men as they offer whatever she happens to want at the moment, whether it happens to be sex or luxuries. Her true love, however, is the poor Des Grieux. The opera, inevitably, ends in tragedy. Manon and Emma Bovary share a desire for love as a romantic adventure, and an allergy to a settled bourgeois marriage; though Flaubert's naturalistic writing style could not be more different from Puccini's romantic musical story-telling, the two doomed heroines are sisters in frustrated sentimental ambition.

If you love Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, see Georges Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles:
This new production of this stunningly beautiful fairy tale opera is a special treat, as it will be the first time the Met has presented it since 1916, when Enrico Caruso sang the role of Nadir. Nadir and Zurga are two fishermen bound by friendship, but that bond is threatened by their love for a Brahman priestess. The plot is fairly unimportant, essentially a backdrop for the characters' passions, expressed in some of the loveliest melodies of French opera. The exotic half-magic and eroticism of the opera are echoed in Marquez's richly imagined novel about true love in a world unfriendly to such sentiments.

If you love Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, see Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto:
Verdi's tragic masterwork follows the unscrupulous, vengeful Rigoletto, court jester to the womanizing Duke of Mantua, who finds himself the victim of the sort of cruel prank he'd often played for the Duke, when his beloved daughter Gilda is seduced. Two of the most famous arias of all time, La donna è mobile and Caro nome, are showstoppers, as is the quartet in Act 3, in which Verdi's mastery of musical perspectives takes the fore. Both Hardy and Verdi were masters of tragic composition, literary and musical, and both excelled at creating heroines of depth, moral courage, and bottomless passion.

If you love Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, see Gaetano Donizetti's Anna Bolena:
Donizetti's first great success, this retelling of Anne Boleyn's brief reign as queen of England is in distinct contrast to the story as told in contemporary sources, like The Tudors and Wolf Hall. In this opera, Anna is a victim of Enrico VIII's fickleness, and Giovanna Seymour, far from a rival, is in sympathy with her predecessor, whose tragic demise is spurred forward by the return of her former lover Riccardo Percy. The solicitude of the two women for each other forms a striking contrast to the cat-fight most of us are accustomed to. Adultery, motherhood, scapegoating, and womanly sacrifice are themes in common with Hawthorne's masterpiece. 

If you love Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard, see the double bill of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci:
These two brief tragic operas are essentially inseparable in modern performance. Both tell stories of jealous passion that end in murder and both are set in the south of Italy, Cavalleria in Sicily and Pagliacci in Calabria. Cavalleria, based on a play by father of the verismo movement Giovanni Verga, is about the violated Santuzza, who avenges her misery by betraying her former lover to the husband of his new mistress; it includes the great aria, Voi lo sapete. I Pagliacci, based on historical incident, follows Canio, leader of a troupe of traveling players, who suspects his possessively adored wife Nedda of a clandestine affair with a villager; it includes the great tenor aria, Ridi pagliaccio, one of the most heart-breaking of tragic opera. These operas, like Lampedusa's novel, reflect a vision of the vanished South, dramatic, fiery, and provincial, but already in a state of advanced decay.

If you love Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, see Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème:
One of the most popular works in the repertory, La Bohème follows the love lives of a group of Bohemian artists living in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Rodolfo is the archetypal unpublished poet slaving in a garret and in love with the lovely consumptive Mimì, while his best friend Marcello, an equally unsuccessful painter pursues the fiery, vivacious Musetta. Act 2, set in the Café Momus, was according to Debussy the best description of Paris of that period. In its delicate exploration of youth, poetic idealism, and romantic fatalism, the opera would surely have pleased Alcott's Jo March, authoress of sensational tales, and has much in common with some of Alcott's own romantically inclined novels, such as Moods or Rose in Bloom.

If you love William Shakespeare's As You Like It, see W. A. Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro:
I must admit that Le nozze di Figaro is my least favorite opera ever, but as I am decidedly in the minority, I nevertheless proffer it to the Shakespeare enthusiast as a fitting choice. Mozart's perennial favorite follows the fortunes of the valet Figaro, his love the maid Susanna, and the unhappily married count and countess. Couples are made, unmade, swapped, and reunited, tricks are played, and the pretensions of  the pompous are punctured. Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto is poetically and fluidly written, though not on a par with the work of Shakespeare.

If you love J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, see Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser:
Though I myself dislike Wagner intensely, there is no denying that he is one of the giants of opera and his lengthy settings of Medieval legend and Northern mythologies should delight the Tolkien fan. Tannhäuser travels from the couch of Venus to seek his fortunes in the world of men, where he falls in love with the beautiful Elisabeth, but his pagan views on sensual love clash with her Christianity and she begs him to crave absolution from the pope. There is a definite Wagnerian influence on Howard Shore's scores for The Lord of the Rings films, which should further please the Tolkien fan.
If you love Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, see Alban Berg's Lulu:
This twentieth-century opera is certainly the most challenging production of the Met's season, daring tonally and dramatically. In a series of phantasmagorical episodes, the entrancing, irresistible Lulu takes lover after lover, tumbling headlong to her doom and refusing to compromise her own desires, wheresoever they lead her. Berg used Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique but in a particularly unique fashion, delineating different tone rows for each character, so that they almost function like motifs. Though Lulu is distinctly more sexually explicit, like The House of Mirth, it follows the ambitions and eventual decline of a woman whose desires and abilities are either coveted as possessions or disregarded.

In addition to those listed above, the Met will be presenting Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Gaetano Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux, Giuseppe Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, Otello and Il trovatore, W.A. Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and Richard Strauss's Die Fledermaus, which will be performed in English.

If you're looking for more resources, Naxos has a handy site with succinct summaries of dozens of operas, while The Grove Book of Operas, edited by Stanley Sadie, is an excellent guide to the most frequently performed operas in the repertory and includes synopses, performance history, and a smattering of musical and social analysis.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Anne Shirley's Most Adorable Outfits in "Anne of Green Gables"

Though at the beginning of her story, Anne Shirley is a penniless orphan reliant on charity even for the clothes on her back, as she grows up at Green Gables, she develops a romantic fashion sensibility of her own and becomes one of the most stylish girls in Avonlea. Martha Mann was the costume designer for Kevin Sullivan's wonderful Anne of Green Gables adaptation (as well as the first sequel, Anne of Avonlea a.k.a. Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel) and she did a fantastic job recreating beautiful period clothes for the films. Anne, played by Megan Follows, in particular wears some lovely ensembles throughout the films. Here are Anne's 14 most adorable outfits:

 At the Sunday school picnic, Anne's first social outing in Avonlea, she wears one of the first dresses Marilla sews for her and it reflects Marilla's conservative, practical tastes. Anne would like puffed sleeves, but instead gets this rather somber, fitted dark blue dress. With it, she wears a straw hat with blue ribbon trim and black stockings. In contrast, Diana Barry (Schuyler Grant) wears a much more fashionable pink dress, with casually puffed sleeves and a sailor collar, white stockings, and a hat modishly trimmed with flowers.
When Anne invites Diana to tea, once again the difference in their social status is highlighted in their clothes. Anne wears a grey house dress with subtle wide red checkers. It is also quite modest, though unlike the blue dress she wears to the picnic, it has a few design details, such as the subtle capped oversleeve, that make it a prettier, more feminine dress. Diana, in contrast, wears an elegant blue and white ensemble, with impeccably white gloves.
Anne's mourning ensemble consists of a classically simple black two-piece suit with a full but not overly ample skirt and a tightly buttoned jacket with moderately puffed leg-o'-mutton sleeves and a grey blouse with a ruffle around the neck. Anne also wears an unadorned black hat.
After Matthew's funeral, Anne and Marilla would have worn mourning for a significant period, between six months and a year. Thus, Anne continues to wear the same clothes she wore at the funeral service, though for taking a walk with Gilbert (Jonathan Crombie) she forgoes the jacket. The grey blouse is loosely fitted, unlike many of her white and pastel-colored blouses.
Anne, Diana, and their friends Jane (Trish Nettleton) and Ruby (Jennifer Inch) recreate Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott" in this scene. Anne's white dress, with a sailor style collar, is made suitably modest with a white high-necked vest worn under the dress and features Anne's favorite puffed sleeves. All four girls are wearing light, girlish colors and white stockings for summer, but they are well covered to the neck and all wear full-length sleeves.
 Anne is wearing a pretty pink patterned house dress under one of her more elaborately lacy aprons while washing dishes. She wears this dress frequently throughout the film, but almost always with aprons and pinafores. This dress has an unusual collar, in the same material, which crosses over and is fastened with two buttons.
Anne wears a white, high-necked blouse with a blue and grey plaid skirt, hemmed below the knee, and a hand-knitted blue cardigan (most likely her own or Marilla's creation). Though quite modest by modern standards, this would still be an attractive winter ensemble for a pre-teen girl. Notice that Marilla (Colleen Dewhurst) is engaged in studding oranges with cloves - an old-fashioned and wonderful-smelling Christmas decoration. The oranges can be hung on ribbons.
Having just taken her entrance exam at Queens College, Anne thanks her inspirational teacher Miss Stacey (Marilyn Lightstone). She wears a blue and beige two-piece ensemble, consisting of a full skirt hemmed below the knee and a rather dashingly cut vest. Her white blouse has a high, almost boyish collar and tastefully full sleeves gathered at the cuff. She wears a cameo brooch at the throat and a slightly the-worse-for-wear straw, upturned at the back and trimmed with a dark ribbon.
Here, Anne, come to apologize to Diana's draconian Great Aunt Josephine, again wears her blue and beige two-piece suit, this time with a pretty white blouse with a pink floral pattern and a dramatic poet collar. Underneath this blouse, she wears a ruffled, lacy vest, though with other ensembles she wears the blouse with the throat exposed.
Anne and Diana are driving to Charlottetown for Anne's exams when Anne wears this stylish grey plaid cloak with a Puritan collar. Her hat is elegantly fitted over her hair and trimmed with a high feather (perhaps a pheasant feather?). This is the first time in the film that Anne's fashion sense begins to overrule Marilla's practicality in dress, though underneath she's wearing the grey house dress from above.
Anne had always coveted a dress with puffed sleeves, so in honor of her first ball, Matthew buys her this elegant, though still becomingly modest, dress. While in the book, the dress is described as brown, the costume designer for the film chose to give Anne this elegant blue dress, with stylishly puffed sleeves, a wide and lace-trimmed Peter Pan collar, a wide sash tied in a bow, and lace at the cuffs and throat. As Anne is only fifteen, she wears her hair brushed and loosely held back with a matching blue bow and her dress is hemmed at the ankle.
One of Anne's most attractive and modish ensembles is this pink and white plaid suit, which she wears when Gilbert drives her home (after some persuading). The skirt is full and falls to the ground, while the jacket has leg-o'-mutton sleeves and a shawl collar, which falls open to reveal a lovely white lace blouse. Anne's straw hat is trimmed with pink, green, and white ribbons and a wisp of veiling. She wears white, heeled high boots.
Anne has just won the Avery Scholarship at Queens College and is overcome with surprise. She is wearing the skirt and blouse as above, with the cameo brooch. Though she is out in public, the warm weather and casually convivial atmosphere of the college make a jacket unnecessary, though the hat, of course, is required.
Anne's loveliest and most elegant ensemble is made especially for her public recitation of "The Highwayman" at the White Sands Hotel. White was the favored color for an unmarried woman's formal wear at the time and thus the most appropriate choice for Anne. The gown is simply cut, but material is lavished on the ruffled hem, collar, and sleeves, which are the very puffiest of balloon sleeves. Anne wears full-length white opera gloves, a pinkish lilac sash, and a triple string of pearls (given to her by Matthew). Her hair is in a simple chignon, but it has been tightly and fashionably curled.