Archive for October, 2010

Great moments in opera: Don Giovanni

October 26, 2010

It is time for Don Giovanni.  Let’s jump right to a couple of highlights.

Leporello tells us that the Don’s powers of seduction conquer all resistance, and the lovely duet La ci darem la mano confirms it.  This has got to be one of the downright prettiest things Mozart wrote.  Note how the Don introduces the main tune, which Zerlina (on whom his roving eye has lit for the time being) takes up in her turn, but hesitatingly (“Vorrei, e non vorrei”).  But just a few minutes later they are singing in unison, “making beautiful music together”, as the saying goes.  It’s a nice musical illustration of the dramatic development. Anyway, here is Samuel Ramey and Dawn Upshaw in a production from 1990, with English subtitles.  (The duet begins at 2:00.)

My other favourite moment in this opera is the finale of Act II, in which the statue of the Commendatore, whom Don Giovanni has slain in the opening scene of Act I, appears as a supernatural dinner guest at the Don’s party, ready to avenge his death.  The Commendatore’s part, though small, is simply magnificent when sung by a bass with sufficient power.  Here is a 2001 performance from Zurich, senza subtitles.  Don Giovanni is sung by Rodney Gilfry, Leporello by László Polgár, and the all-important Commendatore by the Wagnerian bass Matti Salminen.  This is just great:

Damn you, Don Giovanni!

The Bard’s English

October 25, 2010

Just last week I was reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and found myself stumbling afresh over those occasional awkward rhymes:

Is’t not enough, is’t not enough, young man,
That I did never, no, nor never can,
Deserve a sweet look from Demetrius’ eye,
But you must flout my insufficiency?

This happens a lot in poetry of a certain age, of course, but I have never quite grown used to it. Last week I paused awhile over the problem, trying to conjure up an accent that would make the lines rhyme true, but I couldn’t manage it. It is a nice coincidence, therefore, that today I came across a video of actors performing the play with an allegedly ‘authentic’ accent. Sure enough, it rhymes. How linguists go about deciding what does or does not constitute an authentic accent, I do not know — unless it is simply by studying lines like the ones above and trying to come up with a pronunciation that works. In any case, it’s an interesting experiment. It is surprising to hear how un-English the accent sounds.

(Hat-tip: Joe Carter)

Word of the day: kankedort

October 21, 2010

These past weeks my bedtime reading has been Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. It has been slow going, I don’t mind saying, chiefly on account of the fact that I am already half asleep when I pick it up, but also of course on account of the difficulties that Middle English poses for modern readers. Anyway, the other night I was plodding along, nearing the end of Book II, when I came upon a terrific word: kankedort. It comes at the very end of the Book, in a passage that finds Criseyde’s uncle, Pandarus, tricking her into meeting with Troilus, who lies abed, sick with love. Here is the passage, with a bit of context leading in:

Al innocent of Pandarus entente,
Quod tho Criseyde, `Go we, uncle dere’;
And arm in arm inward with him she wente,
Avysed wel hir wordes and hir chere;
And Pandarus, in ernestful manere,Seyde,
`Alle folk, for goddes love, I preye,
Stinteth right here, and softely yow pleye.

`Aviseth yow what folk ben here withinne,
And in what plyt oon is, God him amende!
And inward thus ful softely biginne;
Nece, I conjure and heighly yow defende,
On his half, which that sowle us alle sende,
And in the vertue of corounes tweyne,
Slee nought this man, that hath for yow this peyne!

`Fy on the devel! Thenk which oon he is,
And in what plyt he lyth; com of anoon;
Thenk al swich taried tyd, but lost it nis!
That wol ye bothe seyn, whan ye ben oon.
Secoundelich, ther yet devyneth noon
Up-on yow two; come of now, if ye conne;
Whyl folk is blent, lo, al the tyme is wonne!

`In titering, and pursuite, and delayes,
The folk devyne at wagginge of a stree;
And though ye wolde han after merye dayes,
Than dar ye nought, and why? For she, and she
Spak swich a word; thus loked he, and he;
Lest tyme I loste, I dar not with yow dele;
Com of therfore, and bringeth him to hele.’

But now to yow, ye lovers that ben here,
Was Troilus nought in a kankedort,
That lay, and mighte whispringe of hem here,
And thoughte, `O lord, right now renneth my sort
Fully to dye, or han anoon comfort’;
And was the firste tyme he shulde hir preye
Of love; O mighty God, what shal he seye?

What shal he seye, indeed? The good folks at the Oxford English Dictionary define the word as “A state of suspense; a critical position; an awkward affair.”  This passage from Chaucer is the only example that they cite, and the etymology is simply listed as “unascertained”. In other words, we are dealing here with that rare beast: a literary singularity.

My friends, it is not right that so solid and loveable a word as this should languish any longer in obscurity. Let us all endeavour to introduce it into our conversation as opportunity allows.

House of Words

October 19, 2010

Friend-of-this-blog Jonathan Potter, who blogs (under a cunning pseudonym) at Korrektiv, has just had a volume of poetry published, entitled House of Words.

We all know that getting a book published is a major accomplishment.  I extend my sincere congratulations to Mr. Potter. Here’s hoping the book is as successful as those other Potter books.


Meanwhile, the public relations manager at the Korrektiv Public Library, who bears my initials, shares my interests, and is pretty much exactly like me in every respect, is taking his job too seriously. That man needs a vacation.

The Wire and Breaking Bad

October 11, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I briefly remarked on some positive things I had heard about a television programme called Breaking Bad.  I had heard it compared, favourably, to The Wire, which had caused me to sit up with a startled look.

I haven’t written much about The Wire in this space — in fact, I don’t think I have written about it at all. Without wanting to overstate the case, I will just say that The Wire was the best television drama yet conceived by the mind of man.

The show was set in Baltimore, and was, broadly speaking, about the drug trade in that city. Over the course of its five seasons, it studied various aspects of the city’s life — its politics, its schools, its media, its industry — but the relationship between the police and the drug traffickers remained at the heart of the story. What was so brilliant about The Wire was, first, its characters, and, second, its careful and nuanced storytelling. The characters were so superbly written and acted that they attained a kind of reality reserved for only the rarest creations. In my mind they are still walking around, with a life of their own that went on — if they were lucky — after the show had run its course. The plotting was intelligent and focused, without any of the artificial climaxes at commercial breaks that mar so many television programmes, and it steadfastly refused to settle for simple answers to the social, political, and moral problems that it portrayed. I am not a television enthusiast, but it is fair to say that The Wire changed my conception of what television was capable of doing.

(This praise, I suppose, might incline someone unfamiliar with the programme to watch it, and so I must insert this caveat: if episodes of The Wire were movies, each one would receive a well-deserved R rating. It is emphatically not for children, or even for many adults. Use your judgement.)

Enter Breaking Bad, a programme about an under-achieving high school chemistry teacher who finds himself in desperate financial difficulties, and undertakes to solve his problems by producing and selling “crystal meth”. That’s an intriguing premise. Over the past couple of weeks I have somehow managed to watch the first couple of seasons of the programme (three are currently in the bag), and I think it has given me a reasonably good idea of what the show is up to.

First of all, it has a lot going for it. Its principal strength, I think, lies in the tension it sets up within the main character between his criminal life and his ordinary family life, each of which he tries to keep hidden from the other. His duplicitousness, however, progressively involves him, by a kind of remorseless logic, in greater and more pervasive evils. Having strayed from the straight and narrow, he falls into a kind of moral quicksand from which escape seems impossible. In this respect it bears comparison with the film A Simple Plan (which in my books is high praise indeed).

But, having said that, I must also say this: Breaking Bad simply cannot stand toe to toe with The Wire. The reasons are many. The acting is inferior, with more than one character in Breaking Bad having a cartoonish quality about him. The lead character, Walter White, is well acted, but he cannot hold the screen like Jimmy McNulty or Stringer Bell. The direction of Breaking Bad is often laborious, with too frequent reliance on cheap theatrical tricks like slow motion and intrusive music at dramatic turning points. Most of all, the writing is just not very strong. The dialogue is often flat, the plot is repetitive and hesitant, and the heavy hand of the writer, setting things up, is too often evident. All this in contrast to The Wire, in which, despite the organic pace and logic of the story, one nevertheless felt that the writer had it securely in hand.

I conclude, therefore, that The Wire‘s claim to greatest television crime drama remains secure. I am through with Breaking Bad, I think, and if I should have a hankering in the future for this sort of thing, I’ll just watch The Wire again. Lightning, it seems, only strikes once.

ADDENDUM: Maclin Horton’s comment below reminded me that he wrote some interesting things about The Wire at his blog, which you can find here.

RIP, Joan Sutherland

October 11, 2010

It followed hard upon. Joan Sutherland died yesterday, aged 83. She was called La Stupenda, and had one of the great voices of her time. Her singing brought joy to many, many people, me included. Here she is singing Son vergin vezzosa from Bellini’s I Puritani. They just don’t make singers like this anymore:

RIP, Solomon Burke

October 10, 2010

For the past couple of days I have been thinking of Solomon Burke, thinking that I’d like to find time to sit down and listen to him for a few minutes. I did not find the time, and now I wish I had. He has died, earlier today, at age 70, at the airport in Amsterdam.

Here is a live performance of “Don’t Give Up On Me”.  RIP, Solomon Burke.

Great moments in opera: Saint-François d’Assise

October 4, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and seems a good time to listen to the greatest piece of music that his life has yet inspired: Olivier Messiaen’s operaSaint-François d’Assise. I have written about this opera before, and, despite its length, I try to listen to it each year at about this time. I may not manage it this year, but I am nonetheless content, for a few months ago I had the opportunity to watch a performance of the work on DVD, and it is still reverberating in my memory.

Video clips of this opera are scarce. The scenes that I would be inclined to select as “great moments” seem not to be available online, and I lack the means to post them myself, so I will have to make do. The best excerpt seems to be this one, of a scene in which St.Francis meets a leper on the road and, encouraged by an angelic vision, overcomes his revulsion and kisses the leper. The leper is dressed as a bumblebee — one of the few things about this production that I think off-key. The scene is long, and this clip shows but a portion. No subtitles, I’m afraid. The angel’s voice cuts through the music like hot white light.

Here is another short clip taken from the same DVD. It is a rather odd choice for posting to YouTube — I’d consider this one of the quiet corners of the opera, rather than a highlight — but somebody evidently thought differently. Francis’ brothers are talking together. Subtitles are included.

These clips hardly do this opera — or, needless to say, this saint — justice, but they are all I can manage today.  Have a very happy Feast of St. Francis.