Recent Reading: Plays

I. The Visit [1956] by Friedrich Dürrenmatt – ★★★★★

A story is not finished, until it has taken the worst turn” (Friedrich Dürrenmatt).

“…feeling[s] for humanity…is cut for the purse of an ordinary millionaire; with financial resources like mine, [one] can afford a new world order” [Claire Zachanassian in Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, Grove Press, 1956/94: 67].

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921 – 1990) was a Swiss author and dramatist, and his play The Visit is considered one of his best works. The play is set in a small, poverty-stricken town of no importance Guellen. Its forgotten-by-everyone people can barely make their ends meet, and it is to this scene comes Claire Zachanassian, an elderly multi-millionairess who owns Armenian Oil and Western Railways, among other things. Guellen is her home town, and she brought with her for this visit an unbelievably large amount of money, as well as her husband, her future husband, her sedan-bearers, who are actually convicted gangsters, a panther and…a coffin, because…”she may need it”. It seems that everyone in town reckons that Claire would want to become a much needed benefactor to the town and its desperate community. However, the millionairess makes one shocking proposition: she wants justice for money, and the matter has something to do with her past and with her childhood sweetheart, Alfred Ill, now the town’s most esteemed citizen.

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Puccini’s Opera: Turandot

Turandot [1926]

Opera Turandot is set in Beijing, China and tells the story of proud Princess Turandot and unknown Prince Calaf. Turandot is a haughty Princess who wants to take revenge for a crime once committed against one woman in her ancestry line by condemning young princes from afar to their deaths. To achieve this aim, Turandot demands that every man that wants to marry her has to solve her three riddles. Whoever solves her three puzzles will become her husband, but if that person is unable to solve them – he will be executed. However, despite very probable deadly consequences of this trial-riddle imposed by the Princess, there is no shortage of young men willing to risk their lives since Turandot is very beautiful. Then, comes Calaf, a Prince travelling with his father Timur and a slave-girl Liu, and he will stop at nothing until he completes the challenge and wins the hand of Turandot. Turandot is an opera of extravagant displays, great passions and narrative contrasts and extremes. Puccini’s music diffuses Asian tones and makes use of powerful choirs, providing a kaleidoscopic musical experience, with the heart-wrenching final-act aria “Nessun dorma” rightly deserving its place among the finest operatic arias ever.

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Review: Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello

Six Characters in Search of an Author [1921] – ★★★★

Luigi Pirandello’s plays are considered precursors to the Theatre of the Absurd and this play in three acts I read is one thought-provoking work that satirises the staging of a play, while muddling up such concepts as creation and performance, and an objective viewpoint and its subjective counterpart. In the play, a number of Characters come and gate-crash the rehearsal of a play “Mixing It Up”: the Father, the Mother, the Step-Daughter, the Son, the Boy and the Child. The Manager and the Actors are amazed to suddenly find on stage this group of Character-people, abandoned by their Author and eager to act out the drama of their lives. What then can the Manager do, but allow the Characters to try their hand at staging their performances? This play about a play is also an illusion within an illusion and a triple drama, of a book we read as play, of a stage to be set for a real drama, and, finally, of a play to come to “life” through an artistic vision gone haywire.

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Theatre: Anton Chekhov’s Play Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya [1898/2020]

I watched Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s celebrated play Uncle Vanya [1898], filmed at Harold Pinter Theatre in London in 2020. Directed by Ian Rickson and starring such names as Toby Jones (The Painted Veil (2006)), Roger Allam (V for Vendetta (2005)) and Richard Armitage (Hobbit (2012)), the story concerns an aging Professor Serebryakov, his young wife Yelena, his brother-in-law Uncle Vanya (by Serebryakov’s first wife), Serebryakov’s daughter Sonya, his mother-in-law Mariya (also by Serebryakov’s first wife) and a local doctor Astrov, who all try to come to terms with their different stations and situations in life. Uncle Vanya is living comfortably on Serebryakov’s estate, which belongs legally to Sonya, and “does nothing”, but the situation takes a turn for the worse when Professor suddenly announces that he would like to sell the house and the land. The situation is even more complicating because almost all men in the story are infatuated with Serebryakov’s beautiful wife Yelena and tensions soon reach a boiling point. This is a play which hinges on great performances and the cast delivers. This is a stylish and considerate adaptation of the play which has a very human drama at its centre. 

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Ballet: Roland Petit’s Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris [1967/2013] 

I watched this 2013 Bolshoi Theatre-Teatro alla Scala production of Roland Petit’s 1967 ballet Notre Dame de Paris, based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. This is a magnificent ballet based on my all-time favourite classic book. Esmeralda is played by Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova, who is currently a principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet in London, and Roberto Bolle, a well-known Italian danseur, is Quasimodo. This avant-garde ballet fuses traditional ballet elements with modern dance techniques, and tells the story of a poor gypsy girl Esmeralda who becomes the object of ardent desire on part of three distinct men: strict priest Claude Frollo, hideous, but kind-hearted bell-ringer Quasimodo and handsome Captain Phoebus. Flamboyant, colourful costumes, designed by no other than Yves Saint Laurent, as well as music by film composer Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia [1962]) help turn this production into a real feast for the eyes (and ears!), as the ballet also deals in such themes as religious devotion, duty, romantic love and erotic longing.

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Puccini’s Opera: Madama Butterfly

Madama (Madame) Butterfly [1904

This is an opera by Giacomo Puccini, with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on a short story Madame Butterfly by John Luther Long, which, in turn, was inspired by Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysanthème [1887]. In this story, Lieutenant Pinkerton of the US Navy stationed in Nagasaki marries a fifteen-year old Japanese girl from a once rich, but now impoverished family. Pinkerton is restless, fickle and is simply looking forward to romancing a pretty girl, while Cio-Cio-San (his new wife (Madame Butterfly)) seems to have taken her vows with the same zeal and devotion one takes holy orders. Pinkerton disappears shortly after the wedding, promising to return. But, will he? When the Lieutenant finally decides to return, the situation is far more complicating that either he or Madame Butterfly could imagine. First premiered in Milan in 1905, Madama Butterfly is an opera of great emotional depth and psychological insight. The beautiful music with lots of drama and touches of light charm often accentuates hope born, dashed and then re-born as Madame Butterfly tries to come to terms with her situation throughout the story, clinging desperately to her unreachable western ideal.

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Review: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans

Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet [2010] – ★★★★

This book is about once purely aristocratic and social dance that was elevated to an art of purest form and principles, which then required almost inhuman perseverance and training, and whose spectacle simply takes one’s breath away – classical ballet. From France and Russia, to Denmark and the US, and from Giselle [1841] and Swan Lake [1877], to Cinderella [1945] and Spartacus [1956], Jennifer Homans traces the history and tradition associated with classical ballet in this book, from its origins in the royal courts of France and Italy to its modern variations of the twenty-first century. The result is a well-researched book that pays as much attention to the dates and principles as it does to the aesthetics and social context.

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Mozart’s Opera: The Magic Flute

The Magic Flute Poster The Magic Flute [1791] 

This opera (see this great production) was composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and is based on a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder. The opera premiered in 1791, just two months before the composer’s demise. The story is about the adventure of Prince Tamino and bird-catcher Papageno in the kingdom of Sarastro, after the Queen of the Night persuaded Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina. The Magic Flute was pretty much the product of its time, encompassing humanistic messages which stress the victory of reason and love over vulgarities and superstitions. Notoriously, Mozart is said to have incorporated some “secrets” of Freemasonry into his opera, especially those connected with the initiation process (such as a trial by four elements), see some explanation here. Indeed, the opera is all about mystical symbolism as it fuses family drama, “striving for social utopia” ideas, fantasy and humour. Exotic settings and elements, transformations and miracles also form part of this opera. Continue reading “Mozart’s Opera: The Magic Flute”