‘Lucia’, Your First Best Worst Opera

Romeo and Juliet in Scotland.  That is the easiest way to sum up Gaetano Donizetti’s dramatic opera, Lucia di Lammermoor.

It is, perhaps, unfair to summarize this opera so succinctly, when it is so famous, so much a “classic” of the opera genre.  Following the links on Wikipedia, I learned that Lucia was based on a Waverly novel by Sir Walter Scott – The Bride of Lammermoor – which in turn was apparently based on true events.  That might explain why it is somewhat more credible, and more compelling, than Romeo and Juliet, even though the plot runs nearly parallel.

The Ashton family is archenemies with the Ravenswood family (what a splendid name!).  As these things go, Lucia Ashton (Anna Netrebko) falls in love with Edgardo Ravenswood (Piotr Beczala).  She happens to have a brother, Enrico (Mariusz Kwiecien), and because he is a baritone, we know whose side he’s not on.  Taking her love for Edgardo as a betrayal, Enrico schemes to force his sister into a marriage to Lord Arturo Bucklaw, a political ally.  It does not get better from there.

The story is dreadful in every way, while the music is wonderful.  Unfortunately, I had watched all the best clips before watching the whole opera, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have.  The themes are stirringly beautiful, from the most well-known group number “Chi mi frena in tal momento” to the duet
“O sole, più ratto,” with its bloodthirsty lyrics and (oddly) cheerful melody.  I was constantly torn between shuddering at the storyline and savoring the beautiful music.  Maybe if Romeo and Juliet had been a bel canto opera, I would have liked it, too.

I’m no opera critic.  I thought the performances, by the same trio that starred in Eugene Onegin, were great.  Kwiecien played an absolutely sinister, psycho brother, and Beczala again sang the well-intentioned hero character with sincerity and emotion.  I’m not sure Lucia is Netrebko’s role, but she did an excellent job as far as I could tell, lending some reality to a role that would be hard to portray.  I always like her heartfelt interpretations, and I’m looking forward to seeing her in Iolanta in February.

The costumes and setting were well done.  It did bother me that they were historically impossible – that is, this production is set well after the historical events that are supposed to coincide with it.  However, this is a common fault of modern productions and can (kind of) be overlooked.

Honestly, Lucia is as dramatic, dark, and dreary as 19th century operas get, and yet if that doesn’t phase you, I would recommend it as a first opera.  It’s the most fast-paced opera I have seen; it feels shorter than most, even though it isn’t.  The music is great and the performances are great.  It’s a staple of opera repertoire, and you’ll want to see it eventually if you get into opera at all.  Zero stars for the plot, five stars for everything else.

The "Gloria Scott"

– but first, let me wish you all a (belated) Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

I’m sorry I haven’t posted very much.  It’s been a strange year from start to finish and, very sadly, less bookish than I had planned.  Pretty much the only challenge I completed (apart from Onegin) was o’s Russian Literature 2014 challenge, and even there, I only read Dostoyevsky and Pushkin.  
That said, for a slow year, I’m glad to have read The Brothers Karamazov and Lord Jim, which had seemed so inaccessible before.  I hope to do better next year, but am not making any grand commitments…

There’s one challenge I’m carrying over, and that’s re-reading the Complete Sherlock Holmes.  I haven’t read it in its entirety in about ten years.  It’s a joy to come back to my favorite character in all literature, and I’m reading chronologically this time, following this list which looks pretty good.  (There was a day I would have figured out the timeline on my own, but nowadays finding time is not so easy.)

I’m going to keep these commentaries short and sweet and hopefully frequent.  I will try my best not to post mystery-related spoilers!  Here’s the first segment, “The Adventure of the ‘Gloria Scott'” . . .

Holmes himself says that the “Gloria Scott” was the “first [case] in which I was ever engaged.”  It is instantly interesting that he has these feelings of nostalgia, and he, in fact, is insistent that Watson listens to the story of his first investigation.

He goes so far as to describe his “two years” at college in a couple of paragraphs, where we learn his interests and studies were so different than everyone else’s that he had nothing in common with anyone.  He made one friend, Victor Trevor, and that by accident (a most literal accident).  Holmes inadvertently depicts his own listlessness by describing the opposite trait in Trevor, and through these bits and pieces we get a pretty clear understanding of Holmes before his meeting Watson.  There is, in fact, a very telling parallel between his befriending Trevor and his befriending Watson – they were both someone Holmes could talk to.

The rest of this story is about the mystery of Trevor’s father.  It’s not the most thrilling Doyle plot, but two things are interesting about it:

  1. how Doyle writes a sea story, tapping into his experiences as a ship’s surgeon
  2. how Holmes interacts with acquaintances
// Spoilers in white

It’s particularly depressing that Holmes ends up losing his friend through the very science of deduction that he makes his livelihood.  By the end of telling the story, too, Holmes has come back to “real life,” the cut and dry of the “facts of the case,” and calling Watson “Doctor” with (what seems to me) audible stoicism.  
// End spoilers

These brush strokes of word-painting are something I doubt Doyle thought twice about – he had a true gift for writing characters in few words.  “The Gloria Scott” speaks a great deal about the character of Holmes, and that makes it worth a re-read. 

The Liebster Award

This blog has been so quiet (too quiet) the past couple of months, as I’ve been transitioning into my new job and schedule.  Thanks to Sara from Majoring in Literature, here is a fun tag to break the hiatus!

– Link and thank the blogger who nominated you
– Answer the 11 questions your nominator gives you 
– Tag 11 other bloggers who have 200 followers or less 
– Ask the 11 bloggers you nominated 11 questions and let them know you nominated them!

    11 Questions: 

    1)  What is the first book you remember reading? 

    The first books I remember reading were very vintage children’s readers, like On Cherry Street.  I also have a fairly vivid memory of reading a phonetics textbook, which I actually thought was fun.  🙂

    2)  Where do you like to read?  Do you have a quiet little hideout where you can read undisturbed?

    I like to read in bed, either with the lamp on or in the dark with my new reading light.

    3)  Starting at the very top of your bookcase, what are the first five books you have on your shelves?

    The top is where I keep my “Mass Media” paperbacks:
    1.  The Thirteen Problems (Agatha Christie)
    2.  And Then There Were None (Christie)
    3.  The House of the Seven Gables (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
    4.  The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien)
    5.  The Magician’s Nephew (C. S. Lewis).  Which reminds me – Narnia is due for a re-read!

    If you could meet one author, living or dead, for coffee, whom would you meet?

    Oh…this is a tough question!  I thought about this one long and hard.  I would love to meet Conrad or Kafka, for example, but I’m not sure a chat over coffee would go well with either of them.

    In the end, I narrowed it down, and my honest answer is Lewis Carroll.  I think it would be fascinating to meet an author whose legacy has become larger than life and changed drastically through the generations.  Beyond that, his books are chock-full of wit and mathematical references, and it would be an interesting conversation, for sure.

    How do you feel about seeing a movie adaptation before you’ve read the book?

    Generally, I prefer not to.  Even now, I’m holding off on watching The Great Gatsby until I’ve read the book, despite the fact everyone says it isn’t a great adaptation.  Old habits are hard to break!  I did read North & South effectively after I saw the 2005 miniseries, and I read LOTR and skim-read Little Dorrit concurrently while watching the adaptations.  Of all three, Little Dorrit was the best reading experience, while the others were a little anticlimactic compared to the (excellent) adaptations.

    What is your favourite adaptation of a book?

    I have so many, which is a good problem to have.  🙂

    The Lord of the Rings is a no-brainer.  It is possibly the truest adaptation I have ever seen of a book.  Possibly (probably) my #1 favorite movie.

    My next two all-time favorites are Disney’s 20000 Leagues Under the Sea and Moby-Dick starring Gregory Peck.  Neither of them are purist, but I grew up watching them, and they still leave me awestruck.

    Finally, there’s Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes.  This series is close to purist-perfect – it’s a magnificent adaptation.

    Which character from fiction would you most like to be?

    It would be exciting to be one of the heroes from Dracula – however, I wouldn’t truly want to live that plot.  So I’ll go with one of the scientists from a Jules Verne novel, because those usually turn out well.  🙂

    As for a character I would like to be like – off the top of my head, I’d have to go with Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov.  I would like to have his fearless sense of forgiveness and ability to be a peacemaker.

    Which book do you recommend to others the most?

    Most people I meet have very different tastes in reading, so I don’t usually make recommendations!

    Which book have you re-read the most?

    Probably Narnia or Treasure Island.   I know I’ve read Eugene Onegin four times and Heart of Darkness about three or four times.  (I’m not much of a re-reader, so that’s a lot for me.)

    How do you feel about eBooks?

    I have the original Nook Simple Touch, which I love.  I’ve read many Project Gutenberg books on it, and it makes it very easy to read in bed, not having to struggle to keep pages open.  Also, it lets me highlight and annotate to my heart’s content without making it permanent.

    Ebooks are not perfect replacements for hard copy, especially for textbooks and reference books where you need to be able to flip pages quickly.  However, they’re a great way to access and read classics instantly, and find obscure classics that are rarely published.  Just a couple of years ago, I discovered my favorite translation of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which was a wonderful surprise and seems to be a Gutenberg exclusive.  Also, it ties into Librivox, so there’s a great community of literature fans who are making it more accessible to everyone.

    I’m a fangirl, I guess.  😉  I still love hard copies, too, but eBooks have been only a positive for me.

    Where do you get most of your books from?  Library, bookstore, online?

    I used to check out stacks of books from the library, but now I don’t read enough to warrant it.  😦  Nowadays, I buy books once a year from Powell’s, Amazon, and (once in a while) Barnes & Noble.  I also love library sales, garage sales, and thrift stores.

    Alrighty, 11 blogs you should check out!  Some of you may have already been recently nominated, so feel free to ignore or accept as is convenient.  🙂

    11 Q’s for you:

    1)  What was the most challenging book you ever read?
    2)  Who is your favorite romantic couple from literature?
    3)  What is your favorite friendship from literature?
    4)  Is there a book you used to like but don’t like anymore?
    5)  What was a nonfiction book you were glad you read?
    6)  Name a book someone recommended to you (which you may or may not have read yet).
    7)  How do you order your books on the shelf?
    8)  Is there a character that you wish appeared in more books?
    9)  Which author’s writings intimidate you?
    10)  Describe a memorable setting or scene (spoiler-free) from a book, and how it made you feel.
    11)  The age-old question: paperback or hardcover?

    Kafka (1991)

    “That’s what you’re trying to eliminate, isn’t it?  
    Everything that makes one human being different from another.” 

    Perhaps it says the most to admit that, even so soon, I wouldn’t mind watching this again.

    Hollywood and great authors rarely go together.  If that great author is Franz Kafka, one of my favorites, then the very concept is shaky and a good execution defies all odds.  Interestingly enough, Kafka makes up its own concept and just goes for it.  Somehow even the pickiest of critics can find something to like about it.

    But can we talk about Jeremy Irons for a minute?  Portraying Kafka, he strikingly resembles Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, which is only a good thing.  More to the point, Irons is the glue that holds the show together.  The supporting cast is fine, the script is pretty good, yet he is the one who brings credibility to the setting.  His timidity and humorless perspective bring out the best parts of Gregor Samsa, Josef K., and the rest of Kafka’s book protagonists, and fortunately he has few of their faults.

    We follow Kafka through a tangled plot which, despite its problems, I must applaud for its attempt.  It places the author himself in various Kafkaesque elements, such as the Castle, Gregor’s troubled relationship with his family, and the general unease from The Trial.  Then it combines them all under an umbrella plot of revolutionary terrorists plotting against a dictatorial government.

    I would take issue with this, except that it makes a degree of sense, taking Kafka as a movie, which it is.  You have to give moviegoers a plot – beginning, middle, end.  Kafka manages to present Kafkaesque “monotony,” if you will, in a more palatable and familiar format, without really sacrificing anything important.  Some may disagree, but I don’t think this addition was altogether a negative.

    The dialogue was the main disappointment.  There were times it didn’t feel genuine, or it glossed over things such as the development of the female character, Gabriela.  This was when the Hollywoodization was most apparent (as an aside, there are exceptions to every rule: Lincoln, for example, had very well-written dialogue.)  Probably not so noticeable if not compared to the books…but that’s what I’m here for.  🙂

    Production-wise, I enjoyed the soundtrack of Eastern European-inspired music and black-and-white cinematography.  That’s kind of an understatement – the visuals were stunning.  The scenes of the office, streets, and Castle were properly cluttered and claustrophobic and eerie.  The chase scene down the elevator was way creepy.  Is it strictly Kafkaesque?  No, but it is cinematically Kafkaesque.

    I’m not sure that I would recommend this film to non-Kafka fans.  It really depends on what you like to watch.  As a fan, I thought it was worthwhile, and in a sense, much less “dark” than the books themselves.  Dramatization takes some of the mystery out of it.  What you lose in psychological subtlety you gain in entertainment value, and that trade-off, in this unusual adaptation, turns out mostly for the best.

    Content:  Rated PG-13 for some frightening scenes and a nude image.  One of the villains goes into a restroom to look at photos of female models.  A maniacal assassin chases people at night; one character seen in the distance is stabbed; a man is tortured off-screen…unsure if anything is later shown.  Near the end a man is shown strapped down while his brain is being examined, a little graphic.  Overall, comparable to some Doctor Who episodes, without the lightheartedness.  On a positive note: no profanity or language that I recall.  (Also, it is easy to anticipate scenes to fast-forward, if you are a bit squeamish like me.)

    Disclaimer: I don’t own the images in this post; they are used here only for illustrative/educational purposes (fair use). 

    White Nights in October

    Оз. Соколиное

    For my next read after Brothers K, I returned to White Nights and Other Stories, which includes several Dostoyevsky short stories translated by Garnett.  This collection was a mixed bag; in spite of that, I give it a cumulative 4 out of 5 stars based on enjoyment level.

    1. The first and feature story is White Nights, a very romantic, fanciful sketch about unrequited love.  Previously, I had read some quotes from it online, and reading the entirety, I was not disappointed.  The ending was so depressing, but the story itself was bittersweet and thought-provoking.  Recommended if you want to read Dostoyevsky in a nutshell.
    2. I skipped Notes from Underground, having already read it.
    3. A Faint Heart was a psychological mystery, reminiscent of Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” which I read in September.  (Not to sound like a broken record, but it is worth mentioning that Dostoyevsky’s so-called “existentialist” themes are sometimes compared to Kafka, as was “Bartleby,” and I think I must have a knack for finding this genre everywhere!)  It was very intriguing and also depressing.
    4. A Christmas Tree and a Wedding centers on a minor character from “A Faint Heart” – at least, I think it does.  Either that, or two characters share the exact same name.  This Yulian Mastakovitch reminded me of Totsky from The Idiot.  I really have nothing else to say, except the story made me sick, and also, that Dostoyevsky is very good at portraying evil characters going about their “everyday” disgusting pursuits. 
    5. I got a bit lost reading Polzunkov – not quite sure what it was about. 
    6. A Little Hero was another strange plot, about a boy who has a crush on an unhappily married woman.  Kind of a coming-of-age story, borderline inappropriate, vaguely Dickensian.    
    7. The last story Mr. Prohartchin is about an eccentric old man and his irrational fears.  Definitely Dickensian.  Not gripping, but one of those interesting, obscure sketches that gives you a good idea of “life back then.”
    It was fascinating to read Dostoyevsky on a small scale.  I felt his social commentary came through pretty strongly, and he is good at short stories, in the sense he can get you to care very quickly about the characters.  The plots were hit-and-miss, yet overall I’d recommend this book.  In fact, with Notes from Underground, it’s an excellent introductory volume to this author.