A Christie Mystery, or Six

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Just this month, after spending part of August with family at the lake in Vermont and stumbling upon some old paperbacks, I decided it was time to get serious about an Agatha Christie reread. When I did so, I had no idea it was the centenary of the writing of her first novel and that the Royal Mail would be issuing these six stamps today, which each contain concealed clues in the form of microtext and special inks that can be revealed using either a magnifying glass, UV light, or body heat. How fun! Of course, I don’t live in the U.K., but I have convinced some lovely book blogging friends to contribute to my postcard collection and send me a few in action. Hooray!

agatha-christie-stamps-lge

As I wrote back in Part 2 of my series on My Life in Books, I have long loved a good mystery and Christie was one of my first introductions to the genre. In fact, when blogging about my bookshelves over at Savidge Reads, I named my complete set of The Agatha Christie Mystery Collection (81 faux-leather volumes!) as my most prized possession.

My Agatha Christie Mystery Collection, all 81 volumes, double-stacked.

My Agatha Christie Mystery Collection, all 81 volumes, double-stacked.

However, it had been some time since I read any of these beauties. I’ve started a chronological re-read a few times but never stuck with it beyond the first few volumes. As I am just getting out of a massive reading slump, I figured now was as good a time as any. Plus, it has been some time since my last serious book challenge. Of course, with 66 novels, 13 short story collections, and 2 autobiographies, I am unlikely to finish this within my usual challenge time frame of a year, but I am hoping to make solid headway by next September, or at least past my childhood favorite, And Then There Were None, which is just under halfway. [Side note: Yes, of course I’ve created a spreadsheet: It has each of the novels and short stories to make sure I get them all, and in order. There are a few short stories that appeared in U.K. collections but not U.S. editions and vice versa, so I’m hoping to track those down as I go.]

So far, I’ve read the first four novels (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Secret Adversary, Murder on the Links, and The Man in the Brown Suit) and the first short story collection (Poirot Investigates) and so am up to Christie’s sixth book, The Secret of Chimneys (1925). Luckily, while I seem to remember the basic stories and many of the characters, I’m remarkably bad at remembering who committed the crime. So the books are familiar but the mysteries are still fresh. I wonder if the favorites I had when I was younger will remain so…

[ETA: I’ve linked to my mini-reviews of the titles above. As always, you can see all my reading and access other reviews on my Goodreads page.]

Have you read an Agatha Christie mystery before? If so, do you have a favorite?

Opera 101—Liberté, Égalité, Fashionité

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If it’s not too indiscreet, will you tell me who you are wearing? My friend really wants to know.

—A tuxedoed man to your not-so-humble blogger on opening night

Dance like no revolutionary's watching. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Dance like no revolutionary’s watching. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Umberto Giordano, Andrea Chénier (1896)
Based on: the life of French poet André Chénier
Notable Cultural Reference: Philadelphia
Setting: Paris, 1789–1794

Plot in 101 words or less: A winter’s ball, and the countess’s daughter is the envy of all, including servant Gérard and poet Andrea Chenier. But the Revolution’s coming and, after beggars crash the party, Gérard quits. Liberté! Flash forward to The Terror where the countess has gotten her comeuppance but daughter Maddalena is still able to pass her time writing anonymous love letters using former servant Bersi as go-between. Égalité! (Sort of.) As for fraternité, Gérard is now buddy-buddy with Robespierre and jealous of the new It Couple. A few shifting allegiances and a prison switcheroo later and it’s off with Andrealena’s heads. Vive la Révolution!

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: “La Mamma morta”; “Come un bel dì di maggio”

"Même Platon a banni les poètes de sa République"—Robespierre

“Même Platon a banni les poètes de sa République”—Robespierre

Andrea Chénier is a perfect opening night selection, with lovely arias to showcase the singers and excellent opportunities for creative and/or beautiful set design and costume work. San Francisco Opera’s production didn’t let me down on any of these scores. Nor did my fellow operagoers, whose outfits (mostly) rose to the occasion as well.

La Maratonista and I are always happy to see David Laudon and Randy Laroche, or, as we call them, Hat Guys. Photo by Doug Duran.

La Maratonista and I are always happy to see David Laudon and Randy Laroche, or, as we call them, Hat Guys. Photo by Doug Duran.

But first, the opera. With three San Francisco debuts as leads, it was anyone’s guess how the singing would fare, but overall this production was strong. Yonghoon Lee was probably the weakest of the three in the titular role—I thought his singing was a bit thin and his acting unconvincing, though he handled “Come un bel dì di maggio” towards the end just fine. Picking up the slack were Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena de Coigny and George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard, both of whom earned tremendous applause after their arias (“La mamma morta” and “Nemico della patria” respectively). Unfortunately, beyond these few showstoppers, there’s not much melody to this work and I can’t say the opera itself will ever rank up there in my favorites.

George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard (left) and Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena de Coigny (right) in Andrea Chénier. Photos by Cory Weaver.

George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard (left) and Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena de Coigny (right) in Andrea Chénier. Photos by Cory Weaver.

I thought the sets by Robert Jones were quite impressive, but maybe that’s because I was so disappointed by most of the sets last fall season. In any case, they successfully took us from a palace ball to the streets, cafés, and tribunals of revolutionary Paris, and then finally to prison. The lighting by Adam Silverman was particularly effective in this final act, with the shadows of the prison bars cast across the stage. Finally, these transitions were aided and abetted by Jenny Tiramani’s terrific costumes, which were extremely varied and detailed throughout each act.

I didn't love the Easter egg colors used in Act I, but they contrasted nicely with the revolutionary colors to come. Photo by Cory Weaver.

I didn’t love the Easter egg colors used in Act I, but they contrasted nicely with the revolutionary colors to come. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Speaking of costumes…

Models with French poodles were on hand because of course. Photo by Laura Morton for the Chronicle.

Models with French poodles were on hand because of course. Photo by Laura Morton for the Chronicle.

Patricia Ward Kelly had the most beautiful dress I saw all night. Dress by Ali Rahimi. Photo by Leah Millis for the Chronicle.

Patricia Ward Kelly had the most beautiful dress I saw all night. Dress by Ali Rahimi. Photo by Leah Millis for the Chronicle.

This was perhaps my favorite look not captured by the press.

This was perhaps my favorite look not captured by the press.

Belinda Berry certainly caught one's eye in the foyer. Photo by Leah Millis for the Chronicle.

Belinda Berry certainly caught one’s eye in the foyer. Photo by Leah Millis for the Chronicle.

Clearly Komal Shah needs to stick to red and/or Oscar de la Renta. I hated this Marchesa number. Photo by Doug Duran.

Clearly Komal Shah needs to stick to red and/or Oscar de la Renta. I hated this Marchesa number. Photo by Doug Duran.

Deepa Pakianathan (aka head-cage lady) had a killer Alexander McQueen clutch this year. Photo by Leah Millis for the Chronicle.

Deepa Pakianathan (aka head-cage lady) had a killer Alexander McQueen clutch this year. Photo by Leah Millis for the Chronicle.

As God is my witness, one day, La Maratonista and I will make it to the official dinner and ball!

As God is my witness, one day, La Maratonista and I will make it to the official dinner and ball!

There are five more performances of Andrea Chénier at the War Memorial Opera House on September 14, 17, 22, 25, and 30. Better than a trip to the guillotine!

Yonghoon Lee as Andrea Chénier and Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena on their way to the guillotine in Andrea Chénier. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Yonghoon Lee as Andrea Chénier and Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena on their way to the guillotine in Andrea Chénier. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Film Quarterly, Vol. 2016, Issue 2

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@MerriamWebster on Twitter: "Trust us: the feminine form of 'ghostbuster' is 'ghostbuster'."

@MerriamWebster on Twitter: “Trust us: the feminine form of ‘ghostbuster’ is ‘ghostbuster’.”

Yes, I’m late again. I was hoping to get this post up earlier in the month, but it just didn’t seem appropriate given current events; however, then I thought that perhaps people might be looking to add some escapism to their lives right about now. In any case, the delay means that Ghostbusters is among my selections below and really everyone should run out and see that first. And then, if you are so inclined, please rate it on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes, where whiny man children have apparently been down-voting the film without even seeing it. Sigh.

My movie-watching was rather uneven this quarter, and I’m a few weeks behind on my 52 Films By Women project, but I nevertheless saw eleven films in the theater and thirty at home.* I continued catching up on the critical darlings of 2015 and also managed to rewatch the entire Star Wars saga.

The second quarter of the year is always a bit slow until the summer movies start rolling out, but this year it seemed slow all the way through since there weren’t many blockbusters I was interested in seeing. Last summer was so great I think we got a little spoiled. Of course, Ghostbusters is a fun summer popcorn flick, but I don’t think it quite reaches the heights of Spy. And where oh where is this year’s Mad Max? I swear, Jason Bourne had better be good. I need a smart thriller right about now.

Still, the 2016 films I saw in the theater between April 1 and now were—for the most part—better than what I saw last quarter. There were two that stood out above the crowd and that I suspect may still be on my Top Ten at the end of the year: Green Room, a locked-room horror thriller by Jeremy Saulnier, and Love & Friendship, a Whit Stillman adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan.

Love & Friendship really captured the spirit of Jane Austen.

Love & Friendship really captured the spirit of Jane Austen.

2016 Top Ten (to Date)
Love & Friendship
Green Room
Ghostbusters
Zero Days
Zootopia
Finding Dory
Money Monster
The Nice Guys
Hail, Caesar!
The Man Who Knew Infinity

Best Film Seen in a Theater: Love & Friendship (2016)

With a pitch-perfect performance by Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan, Whit Stillman really captures Jane Austen’s snarky spirit. The only weak link for me was Chloë Sevigny, who didn’t seem to fit in this world at all. I hope this at least gets an Oscar nod for Best Costume; the dresses were fabulous.

Best Theater Experience: Green Room (2016)

Though wary of the potential gore—and there was gore—I was really looking forward to this horror thriller by Jeremy Saulnier, the director of 2014 favorite Blue Ruin. The crowd of critics and other guests was obviously excited as well and there was even swag at the screening. Plus, it was my first visit to the new Alamo Drafthouse so that added to the fun. Terrific performances all around, including a Patrick Stewart like you’ve never seen him before and the late Anton Yelchin, gone far too soon.

TFW you just want to go home but you're stuck hanging out in the green room.

TFW you just want to go home but you’re stuck hanging out in the green room.

I was hoping to present a definitive Top Ten for 2015 in this post, however, while I managed to watch six more critical darlings from last year (Appropriate Behavior, Creed, Eden, Grandma, Le meraviglie (The Wonders), and Slow West), I still have a bunch more I’d like to get to before I laminate that sucker. So I guess you’ll have to wait until next quarter for that.

As for my 52 Films By Women challenge, I only watched nine films that qualified: Appropriate Behavior (2015), Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World (2015), Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), Dear Frankie (2005), Eden (2015), Le meraviglie (The Wonders) (2015), Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), Money Monster (2016), and Suffragette (2015). So, I have some catching up to do to stay on track for the end of the year. Luckily, there are a couple films in the theaters now that fit the bill, including Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan and Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents, both of which I’ve been meaning to see. You can follow my progress on this challenge at Letterboxd.

More than once I found myself relating to the lead in Appropriate Behavior.

Let’s just say I found the lead in Appropriate Behavior very relatable.

Best Film by a Female Director: Appropriate Behavior (2015)

In many ways, this film is just your typical indie about a young Brooklynite hooking up and finding themselves in the big city. Except the lead is the daughter of Iranian immigrants. And bisexual. The film goes back and forth in time as the main character remembers and re-examines her past relationship with her (now) ex-girlfriend.

Best Film by a Female Director (runner-up): Dear Frankie (2005)

This film shows up on a lot of “female director” lists but it never really stood out to me as particularly interesting. Well, I wish I had seen this earlier as it’s utterly delightful. Not quite a romantic comedy but it has that vibe. Bonus: Scotland!

Best Female Director Discovery: Dorothy Arzner, Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

There are not many female directors to be found in classic Hollywood, but one is Dorothy Arzner. The two films I watched by her were real gems that you should seek out; I got my copies on DVD from Netflix. If you have never seen a pre-code film and want to go dark, try Merrily We Go to Hell, which shows how a quick movie courtship can go wrong. Bonus: a young Cary Grant pops up in one scene. If you like musicals and backstage antics and want to see Lucille Ball playing a “sexpot” role, then Dance, Girl, Dance is for you. Note: Dance, Girl, Dance was edited by Robert Wise, who later went on to direct West Side Story. [A special shout-out to @NitrateDiva on Twitter for turning me on to Arzner.]

There's no doubt the thoroughly modern marriage of Merrily We Go to Hell was filmed pre-code.

There’s no doubt the thoroughly modern marriage of Merrily We Go to Hell was filmed pre-code.

One mini-project I managed to complete was rewatching all the Star Wars films. With all the excitement over The Force Awakens, I had been reading quite a bit about how, for younger generations, the prequels are similar in quality to the original trilogy. I found this hard to believe (as I thought the prequels were pretty god-awful) but I hadn’t seen the originals since they were re-released in theaters in 1997. Because I am very excited about the upcoming Rogue One and that film is set just before the action of the original Star Wars, I figured a rewatch and re-evaluation might be in order.

Ah, Star Wars… nothing but Star Wars… gimme those Star Wars… don’t let them end!

Film_SW Leia

The Definitive Star Wars Ranking
Star Wars
The Empire Strikes Back
The Force Awakens
Return of the Jedi
Revenge of the Sith
The Phantom Menace
Attack of the Clones

I was more than a little surprised at these rankings, but I have to say that Empire just doesn’t hold up as well as I expected. The movie really suffers from the “gang” being separated, the timeline is somewhat hard to follow, and it just sort of wanders all over the place, from the lackluster opening to the cliffhanger ending. It’s just not a complete film unto itself. Still, it’s a solid follow-up to the original, which remains a masterpiece of story and character. Rewatching The Force Awakens I had to admire its pacing, as well as its straddling of old and new. I think the only weak link was the lame villain and can only hope that the character of Kylo Ren improves in the next episode. Finally, while I don’t dislike Return of the Jedi as much as some, it gets bogged down in the beginning on Tatooine. Thankfully, there was less of slave Leia than I remembered, but the fact that almost a quarter of the film’s running time is spent on Jabba the Hut is sort of ridiculous—and people complain about the Ewoks! As for the prequels, the less said the better, they were as awful as I remembered—the acting, directing, and writing (along with most of the CGI) are atrocious. Even if some of the lines in the original trilogy were cornball, they were at least delivered with flair.

With The Force Awakens, the torch has been successfully passed to a new generation.

With The Force Awakens, the torch has been successfully passed to a new generation.

And with that, let’s look at some of my other favorite (and not-so-favorite) selections from this quarter:

Best Classic Rewatch: Star Wars (1977)

I had forgotten how tight this story is. Also, how much of a bad-ass Leia was in the first film. She really loses agency and spark as they go on doesn’t she? Sigh. Despite Luke’s whining, I can easily watch this one over and over.

Best New-to-Me Classic: Experiment in Terror (1962)

I caught this with Sudden Fear in a San Francisco double feature at the Castro Theatre with the Math Greek. This Blake Edwards film has interesting cinematography, a terrific score by Henry Mancini, and, for you sports fans, an incredible finale that takes place at Candlestick Park.

Best Math Greek Selection: Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)

I had meant to see this when it came out, despite my lack of interest in science fiction in general and Dune in particular. Regardless of your own stand on sci fi, this documentary is an interesting look at the pre-production process and the challenges artists face in bringing their vision to the screen.

Best Documentary: Zero Days (2016)

Zero Days is this year’s Citizenfour and it was just as fascinating and terrifying; however, I think the narrative structure is more effective in Zero Days. Furthermore, the film does a great job of explaining the tech involved so that even I could understand it.

Biggest Theater Disappointment: Finding Dory (2016)

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that Finding Nemo came out on top of my Pixar rankings, so naturally I had high hopes for its sequel. Finding Dory was perfectly fine, but, like Zootopia, is really more for kids than adults. In other words, it’s more of a Disney “message” movie than a visual stunner or creative concept. And the incredible animation of Piper, the Pixar short that ran before Dory, only highlighted this fact. [One reason Zootopia ranks higher than Dory in my 2016 top ten list above is its impressive animation.]

Best Opening Scene: Ghostbusters (2016)

The audience spontaneously burst into applause after this opening. It captures the spirit (hah!) of the original film’s library sequence but ups the ante by actually being scary. That’s something I really appreciated about the new Ghostbusters; I was genuinely scared at times. Much like an SNL sketch (and the original Ghostbusters), the finale goes on far too long, but I thought the writers modernized the story well and came up with an excellent origin story for the team.

Best Closing Scene: Creed (2015)

One thing I love about Creed is how it works very much within its sports film genre but takes it to another level by building on the Rocky legend in just the right way, staying true to its roots but expanding the vision. So it seems only fitting that the movie closes on the “Rocky Steps” overlooking Philadelphia. Creed (along with Niki Caro’s McFarland, USA) is an excellent argument for supporting more female and PoC directors whose unique viewpoints can help revitalize stale genres.

"One step at a time. One punch at a time. One round at a time."

“One step at a time. One punch at a time. One round at a time.”

Worst on Rewatch: Ghostbusters (1984)

Yup, I went there. It is hard for me to objectively judge this childhood favorite, but on rewatch the misogyny hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s creepy and sexist and simply not funny enough to overlook that. It may be “better” than the remake because of its originality and quotability, but it’s really not based on the quality of the comedy.

Most Overrated: Patton (1970)

This is a decent biopic but certainly not the must-see classic I was expecting given its reputation. Yes, it has an incredible performance by George C. Scott and a great opening shot, but not much more to recommend it. It mostly made me want to rewatch The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

John Wayne award for hyper-masculinity: Thief (1981)

After finally watching and enjoying Manhunter and Heat last year, I thought for sure I would love Thief, but this Mann film was a bit too “man’s man” for me. From the opening shots of heavy machinery, it was all toughness and tough dialogue, with no real heart (though that did make the Tangerine Dream soundtrack remarkably apropos).

Gloria Steinem award for proto-feminism: Suffragette (2015)

This film suffered from a tone-deaf marketing campaign which is unfortunate since it is a rather good (albeit overly earnest) period piece. I liked the choice to profile the real movement in Britain through main characters that are fictional, keeping real-life suffragettes in the background of the action and drama. Carey Mulligan is outstanding. I’m sorry to say it (not really), but if this movie was about a man and directed by someone like Spielberg, it would have been up for numerous Oscars.

Cutest Kitten: Keanu (2016)

I don’t even like pets but this kitten was adorable. And not just because he was named after my man Keanu.

Keanu "starring" in Point Break.

Keanu “starring” in Point Break, aka January.

Best Dragon: Dragonslayer (1981)

While the story is a bit muddled and not really my thing, the dragon special effects used in this film are great even by today’s standards.

Worst Dragon: Pete’s Dragon (1977)

A childhood favorite of the Math Greek, I think the less I say about this rambling tale the better. I’ll simply note that the effects are not good and they really should have just committed to the invisibility gimmick.

Best Bees: Le meraviglie (The Wonders) (2015)

Best Use of a Dictaphone: Sudden Fear (1952)

The Rupert Giles Award (aka Mathiest): The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016)

Most Existential Ennui (aka Frenchiest): Eden (2015)

Best Worst Dancing: Ralph Fiennes dancing to “Emotional Rescue” in A Bigger Splash (2016)

Worst Geography: The Age of Adaline (2015)

This popped up on Hulu so I decided to rewatch what I remembered as a not-great selection from last year. The boyfriend is still too stalkery for my tastes, but it bothered me less on this second go-around and I found myself enjoying this romance fantasy more than I expected. On the other hand, the geography of San Francisco as presented in this movie bothered me just as much as in the theater. So much wrongness.

Five Films I Can’t Recommend
Attack of the Clones
Man of Steel
Oz the Great and Powerful
The Phantom Menace
Revenge of the Sith

Sure Oz was a hot mess, but it was very, very pretty.

Sure Oz was a hot mess, but it was very, very pretty.

Tune in next quarter when I tackle the Bourne filmography, more female directors, and make a final stand on the films of 2015!

For Vol. 2016, Issue 1, click here.

*The movies I saw or rewatched this quarter include:
2016: A Bigger Splash, Demolition, Finding Dory, Ghostbusters, Green Room, Keanu, Love & Friendship, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Money Monster, The Nice Guys, Zero Days

2015: The Age of Adaline, Appropriate Behavior, Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World, Creed, Eden, The Force Awakens, Grandma, Le meraviglie (The Wonders), Slow West, Suffragette

Released prior to 2015: Attack of the Clones; The Cheat; Dance, Girl, Dance; Dear Frankie; Dragonslayer; The Empire Strikes Back; Experiment in Terror; Ghostbusters; Jodorowsky’s Dune; Man of Steel; Merrily We Go to Hell; Oz the Great and Powerful; Patton; Pete’s Dragon; The Phantom Menace; Return of the Jedi; Revenge of the Sith; Star Wars; Sudden Fear; Thief

Note: These posts are in no way affiliated with the Film Quarterly journal published by the University of California Press.

Opera 101—Vicious Circle

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“Don’t mess with the bull, you’ll get the horns.” But the danger is not always inside the ring in Carmen. Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo.

Georges Bizet, Carmen (1875)
Based on: a novella by Prosper Mérimée
Notable Cultural Reference: The Bad News Bears
Setting: Seville, ca. 1820

Plot in 101 words or less: Carmen works hard for the money in a cigarette factory. When she cuts a bitch during a fight, head dragoon Zuniga orders minion Don José to arrest her. Carmen uses her wily ways to free herself and José pays the piper with a month’s detention. In the meantime, sexy matador Escamillo comes to town. Oh, and there are smugglers, because why not? After all, José has to flee with someone after fighting Zuniga. Stupid. These life choices eventually bore Carmen, who runs off with Escamillo. Naturally, José then stalks and stabs Carmen during a bullfight. But he’s very sad about it.

Sung in: French
Memorable Music: “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (aka the Habanera) and “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre” (aka Toréador)

Zachary Nelson as Escamillo in Carmen. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Zachary Nelson as Escamillo in Carmen. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Of course, La Maratonista and I have already seen Carmen at the San Francisco Opera, but we were rather looking forward to this new production, staged by enfant terrible (and radical re-interpreter) Calixto Bieito. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect after hearing vague grumblings about it, but, wow, what a breath of fresh air it turned out to be. I felt like I was seeing Carmen for the first time. Maybe I’ve just turned an opera corner or something but, like with Don Carlo earlier in the week, I just felt it was all so real. Or maybe this was simply a killer summer season and David Gockley is going out on a high note. It is going to be hard to distribute my Figaro awards come December because I loved all three of these summer productions.

First, the singing. This was more uneven than in Jenůfa or Don Carlo. I thought Irene Roberts, last seen as a bewitching Giulietta in Les Contes d’Hoffmann was excellent as Carmen (and I could understand her French—hooray!) and Brian Jagde, who I voted Adler Fellow of the season back in 2012 for his turn as Cavaradossi in Tosca, was a strapping Don José. (Apparently he will be Radamès in Aida this fall. I may have to look into that. It’s one of the operas that La Maratonista and I dropped from our subscription.) However, I thought Zachary Nelson was a bit of a weak link as Escamillo and Ellie Dehn’s Micaëla just didn’t seem to fit in this very earthy production (though Dehn was in fantastic voice).

Irene Roberts as Carmen and Brian Jagde as Don José in Carmen. Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo.

Irene Roberts as Carmen and Brian Jagde as Don José in Carmen. Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo.

Speaking of earthy, have I mentioned the nakedness? Because, damn. And, for once, it was the male body on glorious display throughout. From the opening, where a man literally runs circles around the soldiers’ camp in his underwear, to the entr’acte ritual dance of a lone, naked toreador (discreetly shadowed), this was like a Claire Denis film version of Carmen. It was no “Carmen for Families” that’s for sure.

Overall, I thought the production design was very well done. I think this may be my favorite re-setting of an opera ever. Though set in a relatively modern Ceuta, a Spanish autonomous city on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, there was more than a whiff of Castro’s Cuba, as well as an ode to the Osborne bull, the sherry advertisements one sees along the highway throughout southern Spain. The scene change involving the bull literally made us gasp. Too bad that creativity was missing from the first act, which had one of the most awkward transitions I’ve ever seen. A double shame since the young girl who danced just after the first entr’acte did a really good job but I think people didn’t quite know what was going on and whether they should applaud or what.

I loved the ode to the Osborne bull in the set design of Carmen. Photo by Cory Weaver.

I loved the ode to the Osborne bull in the set design of Carmen. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Otherwise, everyone’s acting was on point and the chorus crowds seemed very fluid and natural as they came and went. In particular, I felt they really conveyed the spirit of a bullfight crowd in the final act. This spirit gave added impact to the final scene, whose blocking emphasized how the action between the two leads is simply a mirror of what is happening offstage in the bullring.

SFO_Carmen 03

After today, there are only two more performances of Carmen at the War Memorial Opera House on July 2 and July 3. The July 2 performance will be broadcast live at AT&T Park. Check it out.

Opera 101— “Fetch… the comfy chair!”

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René Pape as King Philip II and Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo in Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

René Pape as King Philip II and Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo in Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Giuseppe Verdi, Don Carlo (1867)
Based on: a play by Friedrich Schiller
Setting: Madrid, mid-16th century
Sung in: Italian

Plot in 101 words or less: Don Carlo, heir to Philip II, falls for French princess Elisabetta while traveling on the down low in Fontainebleau. She’s like, same. But, wait, she needs to marry King Philip to keep the peace between France and Spain. No bueno. What’s a not-poor boy to do? I know, save Flanders! Buddy Rodrigo is all over that and swears eternal friendship. Dad and Carlo cross swords and jealous Princess Eboli (for realz?) sets Queen Elisabetta up for a fall. Rodrigo ends up sacrificing himself for Carlo, who nevertheless gets dragged off by a ghost. What?!? Moral: No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Fear and surprise... and ruthless efficiency all on display in Don Carlo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Fear and surprise… and ruthless efficiency all on display in Don Carlo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

I was a bit wary of Don Carlo given its length (four hours and thirty minutes, including two intermissions), but was pleasantly surprised to enjoy almost every minute. And it had a lot to live up to after Jenůfa. This has turned out to be an incredible summer season at the San Francisco Opera.

The thing that struck me most about this opera was how utterly believable it was. I’m not sure how to explain, but usually these highly dramatic works involving illustrious personages seem emotionally distant to me. I just don’t often buy that the characters are real people. Not here. My companion (La Maratonista being off in the wilds of Wyoming) agreed and thought it had a lot to do with foreshadowing and structure. Maybe it was just that the singing was so darn good. Because was it ever.

I was expecting as much from Michael Fabiano, who we last saw in Luisa Miller where he unfortunately had zero chemistry with his leading lady, but who had thoroughly impressed me in his SFO debut in Lucrezia Borgia, as Edgardo in the Lucia di Lammermoor I saw in Paris, and as Rodolfo in La bohème, a production I awarded a 2014 Figaro for Best Ensemble.

Michael Fabiano as the eponymous hero in Don Carlo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael Fabiano as the eponymous hero in Don Carlo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

What I hadn’t expected was the stellar singing surrounding him, especially from the men, which is where I generally tend to find fault. Fabiano’s duets with baritone Mariusz Kwiecień as Rodrigo were quite simply angelic. Bass René Pape as Philip II proved an excellent regal counterpoint to both of them, but also tender and frail with wife Elisabetta, played by Ana María Martínez in a remarkably controlled manner that was perfect for the character. Throw in a fierce Nadia Krasteva (in her SFO debut) as Princess Eboli and it is hard to imagine this cast won’t take home the Figaro for Best Ensemble in December.

Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo and Mariusz Kwiecień as Rodrigo in Don Carlo. Photo by Dan Honda.

Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo and Mariusz Kwiecień as Rodrigo in Don Carlo. Photo by Dan Honda.

Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo and Nadia Krasteva as Princess Eboli in Don Carlo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo and Nadia Krasteva as Princess Eboli in Don Carlo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The sparsely dressed sets, especially in the first few acts were somewhat disappointing, but they improved as the opera went on. Still, I expected something grander. The costumes were impeccable. Princess Eboli’s dress in Act IV was to die for; it looked velvety rich. You can see some of the details of the costumes in the video below:

There is just one more performance of Don Carlo at the War Memorial Opera House on June 29. Catch it if you can.

René Pape as King Philip II in Don Carlo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

René Pape as King Philip II in Don Carlo. Photo by Cory Weaver.