ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

SFO’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”―an opera of faith, with inspiring conversations sung to beautiful music―through Sunday, October 30

Acclaimed soprano Heidi Stober in her role debut at SFO as Blanche de la Force, a young noblewoman whose world is growing darker. Outside her Parisian manor walls, revolutionaries want her dead, so she takes refuge in a convent of nuns. Instead of sanctuary, she finds her calling and takes the ultimate stand for faith. SFO’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is sung entirely in beautiful French. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Near the end of Act I in Francis Poulenc’s, “Dialogues of the Carmelites” at SFO (San Francisco Opera), the words of the dying prioress, Madame de Croissy (soprano Michaela Schuster), pierced me.  Delirious with pain and fear, and experiencing a crisis of faith, she cries out “Who am I at this moment, wretched as I am, to concern myself with Him! Let Him first concern himself with me!”  It’s heavy. Once death is knocking at her door, the old nun who has spent her life contemplating death, finds no comfort and instead lashes out at God. When a younger nun, Sister Constance (Soprano Deanna Breiwick) in conversation with the heroine, Blanche, later questions why a God-fearing nun like Madame de Croissy had to die such an agonizing death, she hints that perhaps the prioress didn’t die for herself but for someone else who would be surprised to find unexpected serenity when facing her own death. Conversations like this about our deep beliefs, examining God’s absence. and the very path of our souls make Poulec’s 1957 opera thought-provoking and timeless. Add his hauntingly poetic music, performed by SF Opera’s Orchestra under Music Director Eun Sun Kim, and singing by top talent and it all combines for an unforgettable experience. Running at two hours and fifty minutes, the new higher and immensely comfortable seating at War Memorial Opera House makes this an even more pleasurable experience. “Dialogues…” is at SF Opera through October 30 and can be live-streamed. This review pertains to Friday, October 21 performance.

Heidi Stober as Blanche de la Force and Michaela Schuster as Madame de Croissy in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Stunning lighting by Bertrand Kelly, shines through angular openings in the walls, casting characters in dramatic light and defining space, complimenting Olivier Py and Daniel Izzo’s minimalist monochrome staging. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

As SFO celebrates its centennial year and musical landmarks in its rich history, it honors the company’s US premiere of “Dialogues of the Carmelites” in 1957 with a new co-production by Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Bruxelles, conceived by Olivier Py with production design by Pierre-André Weitz and revival staging by Daniel Izzo. SFO’s 1957 premiere was especially noted for Soprano Leontyne Price’s stunning Lidoine–her first role with a major American opera company.  Poulenc wrote his opera in French and his libretto was after the text from a play by Georges Bernanos. The opera’s 1957 SFO premiere and subsequent SFO presentations in 1963 and 1982 used an English translation of the French libretto. SFO’s 2022 performances are the first to be sung in beautiful French using Poulenc’s original text.  

Set in 1789-1794 France, Poulenc’s “Dialogues” is based on the true story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, a community of sixteen Carmelite nuns who were guillotined during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror for refusing to denounce their faith. The opera balances this terrible episode in French history with the inner spiritual journey of the fictional Blanche de la Force, a neurotic young woman from an aristocratic Parisian family whose fear of the oncoming Revolution drives her to seek refuge in the Carmelite order. Once in the convent in Compiègne, she encounters women who are deeply committed to their vocation and who have the strength of character she lacks.

Michaela Schuster as Madame de Croissy and Heidi Stober as Blanche de la Force in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.”

Four women influence Blanche in very different ways and, along with Stober, are the opera’s key singers: the old prioress Mme. de Croissy, the sweet and lovable Sister Constance, the fervent assistant prioress Mother Marie, and the endearing Mme. Lidoine who becomes prioress after Croissy’s death. Despite that these characters are all sopranos, all dressed similarly, it was easy to distinguish their voices.

The opera begins and ends with Blanche de la Force and, once again, Heidi Stober wowed the audience with her stunning voice and mastery of the myriad of shifting emotions in this complex character. Stober made her first SFO appearances in fall 2010 as Sophie in “Werther” and as Susanna in “Le Nozze di Figaro.” She went on to mesmerize audiences with her spectacular glittering range as Pamina in Jun Kaneko’s “The Magic Flute,” and on to Kitty Hawks in “Show Boat” and Norina in “Don Pasquale” and many other roles. Singing flighty Blanche, in her role debut, required Stober to summon her darker tormented side, which she did in spades on Friday from her appearance in Act I as neurotic and fear-ridden to her Act II heartbreaking duet with her brother, the Chevalier de la Force (Ben Bliss) when she asserts her wish to stay and to die, if need be. Her remarkable transformation to a place of deep trusting faith, acceptance of death and sacrifice in Act III was masterful.

In her SFO debut, German soprano Michaela Schuster with her powerful turbulent sound was glorious in her death scene as the fear-ridden, almost blasphemous Mme. de Croissy. Deanna Breiwck as Constance, the youngest of the nuns and Blanche’s contemporary and comrade, sung her role with bright energy. She unnerved Blanche by expressing her hope to die young and in her eerie prediction that she and Blanche would die on the same day. Former Merola and Adler Fellow Melody Moore as assistant prioress, Mother Marie, has such a recognizable voice and masterful emotional affect that even in this small role she was memorable as she longed so deeply for martyrdom with her spiritual wards but was denied it. As the Reign of Terror approaches and the nuns are arrested, Michelle Bradley as new prioress, Mme. Lidoine was particularly compassionate in reminding the sisters that one does not choose to be a martyr; God chooses. She was enthralling in guiding the sisters in their vow of martyrdom. At the last moment, in the opera’s brilliantly staged final act, as the nuns are guillotined one by one, Blanche has come out of hiding. She summons her courage and steps out from the crowd to follow Sister Constance to the guillotine.

Deanna Breiwick as Sister Constance and Heidi Stober as Blanche de la Force in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Closest to Blanche in age, fun-loving Constance quickly befriends Blanche but Blanche is unnerved when Constance expresses that she hopes to die young and then predicts that she and Blanche will die on the same day. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Full of Christian references, from crosses to breathtaking mystical scenes enacted by the nuns, such as the birth of Christ using simple flat wooden cut outs against a backdrop of glowing light and the stark woods of Northern France, Py’s staging references the sacred. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Efraín Solís as the Jailor (left) with the imprisoned Carmelite nuns about to be executed. Lighting designer Bertrand Killy paints brilliantly with light and shadow, defining space and giving form to the emotional experiences of the characters. Olivier Py’sand Daniel Izzo’s quiet monochrome set design, features sliding walls in strong geometrics. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

“Dialogues” doesn’t have traditional arias; rather it’s a series of beautifully sung, mostly brief conversations in arioso style singing which adapts speech-like patterns. In Act III’s dramatic conclusion, condemned to death, the Carmelites proceed barefoot hand in hand to an unseen guillotine, chanting the Marian prayer hymn “Salve Regina” (“Hail holy Queen”) against the backdrop of a clear starry night. Their voices grow quieter as the fourteen sisters, one by one, are silenced by the guillotine, until at the end, only Sister Constance can be heard. Just as she is about to be silenced, she sees Blanche stepping forward, and dies knowing that her friend has decided to rejoin her fellow sisters in martyrdom. Instead of continuing on with the “Salve Regina,” Blanche sings the four last lines of another beautiful prayer, the “Veni Creator Spiritus” (“Come Holy Spirit”), a text usually sung during the ordination of priests and at holy confirmation. Poulenc chose this prayer because it is associated with the absolute dedication of one’s life to God. Stober’s singing and acting was piercingly beautiful in these final moments, projecting inner calm and acceptance as she rejoins the Carmelites for eternity. They have all sacrificed their lives in peaceful resignation.

The finale of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Olivier Py and Daniel Izzo arranged the sisters, all in white garb, in a semi-circle, holding hands singing “Salve Regina”, against the backdrop of a clear starry night. One by one, as the sound of the guillotine sound interrupted the hymn, one of the sisters put her head down and walked to the back and disappeared into the sky. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The momentous simplicity of Olivier Py‘s and Daniel Izzo’s staging and designer Pierre-André Weitz’s sets strikes a balance between visual innuendo and the profound spiritual message of the dialogues.  Executed in dark shades of gray and relying on shifting of simple geometric forms—squares and crosses—and their interplay with streams of light; the sparse sets reinforce the sense of fear, of darkness closing in and snuffing out life as the French Revolution approaches.  In Act I, the library in the Marquis de la Force’s chateau is suggested by black wood paneling with a single elegant chandelier. Blanche’s passage into her religious life is reinforced by the four walls of the de la Force chateau cleverly retracting so that she actually walks through an opening in the shape of a cross bathed in light. Also notable is the staging of Prioress Mme. de Croissy’s death marking the end of Act I.  Her bed is affixed to the infirmary’s wall, so she’s vertical and the audience can fully take in her tormented tumultuous passing, with her arms flailing and outstretched, sometimes forming a cross.

Music Director Eun Sun Kim, conducting the opera for the first time led the orchestra in a beautiful and vibrant reading of Poulenc’s score, stressing the tonality of the score as well as its passages of plush lyricism.

Since this opera has such an intense psychological dimension, if you do go, your best experience will be had sitting close to the stage where you can see the singers’ expressions.

Details:

There are two remaining performances of “Dialogues of the Carmelites”: Wed, 10/26 at 7:30 pm; Sun, 10/30 at 2 pm. Run Time: 2 hours and 50 min, with one intermission following Act I. Tickets: Purchase online: https://www.sfopera.com/operas/dialogues-of-the-carmelites/ .

Traffic alert: If you are driving in from the North Bay, allow at least 45 min travel/parking time from the Golden Gate Bridge to War Memorial Opera House. For a list of parking garages closest to the opera house, visit https://sfopera.com/plan-your-visit/directions-and-parking/

October 25, 2022 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The 45th Mill Valley Film Festival starts Thursday—what to watch

Still of M.F.K. Fisher from Gregory Bezat’s documentary, “The Art of Eating: The Life of M.F.K. Fisher,” which has its world premiere Tuesday, October 11, at MVFF. Fisher,”Mary Frances,” to her family and friends, wrote thirteen books during twenty-one years of residence in her “Last House,” in Glen Ellen which was built for her by Bouverie Preserve landowner and architect David Pleydell-Bouverie. It was there, between 1971 and 1992. that she welcomed friends such as Julia Child, James Beard, and Maya Angelou for conversations at the table. Photo: courtesy Gregory Bezat.

The forty-fifth Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF45) kicks off Thursday evening (Oct 6) with Rian Johnson’s all-new whodunnit, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” with plenty of talent on stage in conversation, followed by the always wonderful Opening Night Gala at Marin Country Mart Larkspur. Screenings start full force Friday and run for 10 days with a line-up of 145 films representing 34 countries, including 49 premieres (four of them world premieres), 74 features, and 71 shorts.  Big Nights (Spotlights/Tributes/Centerpiece/Special awards) were covered in my previous article (read it here).  Here are films from the standard line-up that stand out for their exceptional storytelling and relevance. Many of these have guests in attendance and brief engaging discussions will follow most screenings. 

ARThound’s top flicks:

“The Art of Eating: The Life of MFK Fisher,” world premiere Tuesday, Oct 11, 7pm, Smith Rafael Film Center & Thursday, October 13, 2pm, CinéArts Sequoia

M.F.K Fisher in Whittier, CA, January 4, 1938. Image: courtesy Gregory Bezat.

Steeped in beauty, Gregory Bezat’s sumptuous documentary is a must-see, exploring the life and legacy of M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992), one of America’s most influential writers who spent the last decades of her life in the Wine Country. The film pieces together Fisher’s life over three-quarters of a century: from her upper middle-class childhood in Whittier, CA, through her marriage and move to Dijon, France, her divorce and return to the US, her remarriage and young widowhood, and her emergent role in shaping our ever-evolving relationship with what we eat and how we live. She was best known for her incisive gastronomic writings in hundreds of magazine articles and thirty-three books including “Consider the Oyster,” “How to Cook a Wolf,” “An Alphabet for Gourmets,” “Map of Another Town,” “With Bold Knife and Fork,” and “The Story of Wine in California.” When Fisher settled in Napa Valley, it was 1952, and a local food revolution was underway, with chefs and activists intent on supplanting industrialized food with a cuisine based on simple, fresh, local ingredients. Over time, she took her place as the patron saint of this new movement. With thoughtful comments by Alice Waters, Anne Lamont, Ruth Reichl, Clark Wolf, Jacques Pépin, and Michele Anna Jordan, all of whom considered her a friend, this is a finely-crafted homage to a woman whose humor and appetite for life inspired millions. The visuals are stunning: instead of a simple pastiche of old photos, the camera gazes directly at certain photos for extended periods, frequently returning to shots of her at her typewriter or to glamorous Hollywood-style shots that capture her beauty and verve—especially her miraculous eyebrows whose unruly arches were as individualistic as she was. Like the nourishing dishes that Fisher wrote about, thrown together from the bounty on hand and to suit one’s mood, I can imagine watching this film once a month forever and never growing tired of it.

¡Viva el cine!

MVFF’s ¡Viva el Cine! series has captured my heart and I’ve been a devotee for its nine years of programming. This year, it offers 11 award-winning Latin American and Spanish language feature films from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Spain, the US and Uruguay. Curated by MVFF programmer João Federici, the series’ spellbinding storytelling and special guests make it an increasingly influential forum for the exploration of Latin American and indigenous history/justice, culture and identity and an increasingly important anchor for the festival.

“Argentina, 1985” Monday, Oct 10, 6:45 pm & Tuesday, Oct 11, 11 am, both Smith Rafael Film Center.  (Santiago Mitre, 2022, Argentina/US, 140 min, Spanish with English subtitles)   

Ricardo Darín as prosecutor Julio Strassera in a still from Santiago Mitre’s “Argentina: 1985,” Argentina’s 2023 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film.

One of the most significant legal trials in Argentina’s history is the basis for Argentinian director Santiago Mitre’s (“Paulina,” “The Summit”) riveting new feature, arriving at MVFF fresh from rave reviews at its Venice Film Festival world premiere. This compelling courtroom drama begins in 1983 when, after finally re-establishing democracy following decades of military coups, Argentine President Raúl Alfonsín authorizes prosecutors Julio Strassera (Ricardo Darín), Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), and their young legal team to try nine military leaders for crimes against humanity.  It’s an enthralling high-stakes David vs. Goliath battle. The team works under constant threat and roadblocks to gain justice for those estimated 9 to 30,000 citizens who were tortured, murdered or disappeared under the terror of Argentina’s right-wing dictatorship and its ruthless silencing of political opposition. The trial was the world’s first major war crimes trial since Nuremberg in 1945-46. Through courtroom testimony — adapted from original records — Mitre lays out the harrowing wake of the last junta whose impact still resonates in the country today.  Veteran actor Ricardo Darín’s psychologically charged portrayal of the uncompromising bulldog Strassera is a sight to behold.  As a foil to the heavy intensity of the courtroom, Mitre intersperses scenes from Strassera’s family life with his kids.

“Chile 1976,” US premiere, Oct 8, 7pm & Oct 13, 2pm, both Smith Rafael Film Center (Manuela Martelli, Chile, Argentina, Qatar, 2022, 95 min, Spanish w/ English subtitles)

Aline Kuppenhiem as Carmen in a still from Manurla Martelli’s debut film, “Chile: 1976.”

Chilean director Manuela Martelli’s debut feature is set during the country’s dreaded Pinochet era (1973-1990) when the country was ruled by a military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet,who seized power after the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a U.S. backed coup d’état.  Pinochet’s systematic suppression of political parties and persecution of dissidents lead to thousands of deaths and thirty years later, the country is still reeling.  “Chile 1976” tells a powerful fictional story that delivers a sharply-focused snapshot of Chile’s sociological cosmos in this period.and that, by any stretch of the imagination, could be true. The elements are familiar to those devotees of Latin American cinema—a wealthy upper-middle class housewife, Carmen (Aline Kuppenheim) so ensconced in her cozy bourgeois lifestyle—renovating her elegant beach house—that she is unaware of what evil is transpiring in the country; an intermediary—local priest Father Sanchez (Hugo Medina); a victim—Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), a young fugitive from the law who has been shot and urgently needs help and a hiding place.  Hardly cliches, these components/characters are masterfully deployed by Martelli. The idrama hinges on Kuppenheim’s acting and transformation into someone suddenly shaken into political awareness, who commits to helping and, in so doing, joins the fight to end the reign of terror. 

“Holy Spider” Bay Area premiere, Tuesday, Oct 11, 4pm, Smith Rafael Film Center (Ali Abbasi, Denmark 2022, 106 min, Iranian languages with English subtitles)

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, winner Best Actress at Cannes 2022, in a still from Ali Abbasi’s thriller, “The Spider.” Image”

An Iranian film is a rare treat at MVFF.  Here’s a Cannes winner with a storyline about a female Iranian journalist hot on the trail of a serial killer who is murdering prostitutes in one of Iran’s holiest cities.  This thriller is Iran-born, Denmark-based director Ali Abbasi’s third feature, (“Border” MVFF41, Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Award winner and Oscar nominee) and he delivers a mesmerizing cat and mouse nail-biter based on the embellished true story of Iranian serial killer Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani). Nicknamed “Spider Killer,” he slew 16 prostitutes in 2000 and 2001 in the northeastern city of Mashad, Iran’s third largest city and a major Islamic pilgrimage site, dumping their bodies in plain sight.  After his conviction, Bajestani became a folk hero to the religious right for claiming to be on a holy mission to cleanse the city of prostitution.  Abbasi shot the film in Ahman Jordan and employs a violent murder mystery to deliver a critique of Iran’s punishing theocratic system, where women seem to always be guilty of something, even when they’re the victims of cold-blooded murder. The film takes artistic license in introducing a fictional investigative journalist from Tehran, Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi), who won Best Actress at Cannes 2022, where the film screened in competition), who shows up in Mashad eager to solve this long-running case.  When she teams up with a local reporter (Arash Ashtiani) who is in contact with the killer, they concoct a plan to use her as an undercover sex worker to lure the killer out.  What unfolds is a mesmerizing push-pull game between journalist and killer.

“Living” CA premiere, Monday Oct 9, 7pm & Tues 10/11, 2:30pm, both CinéArts Sequoia (Director: Oliver Hermanus, UK, 2022, 102 min)

Bill Nighy in a still from Oliver Harmanus’ period drama, “Living.”

Sometimes life offers you a second chance…it’s called tomorrow.  

In Oliver Harmanus’ beautiful period drama, “Living,” English actor Bill Nighy, gives a brilliant performance as a severely repressed career bureaucrat in a public works department in 1952 England.  His robotic, joyless paper-shuffling routine has earned him the nickname “Mr. Zombie” and, indeed, he seems hardly alive. When he learns he has six months left to live, he vows to make his final days meaningful.  But how? The rift between him and his only son and daughter-in-law is so wide that even his attempts to communicate about his diagnosis fail.  It is through a fortuitous conversation with a young kind co-worker (the sparkling Aimee Lou Wood), that he finds connection and hope.  He shifts his focus to bringing happiness to others through shepherding a small public works project and, in this generous act, is able to face death with peaceful acceptance.  Adapted by Nobel prize winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, this poignant remake of Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece “Ikiru,” which translates as “to live” in Japanese, finds its meaning in its name and message. Nighy’s mastery of every expression as a buttoned-up person who blooms briefly but so meaningfully is thoroughly inspiring.  The production design and period costumes are Oscar worthy. 

“Tukdam: Between Worlds” North American premiere, Wednesday Oct 12, 6:30 pm and Friday, Oct 14, 5pm, both Smith Rafael Film Center (Director: Donagh Coleman, Finland, Ireland, Estonia, 2022, 91 min)

A still from “Tukdam: Between Worlds” of a commemoration ceremony, prior to cremation, at the Benchen Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. Image: Donagh Coleman.

In what Tibetans call “tukdam,” some advanced Buddhist practitioners who meditate at the deepest level of consciousness right before death, die but their bodies do not show the usual signs of death—rigor mortis, smelling/decomposition—for days or even weeks.  They remain slightly warm around their heart area with radiant skin and complexion and in the meditation position without their trunks collapsing.  According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, consciousness is still present and they are between two worlds.  Director Donagh Coleman, who is currently working on his medical anthropology PhD at UC Berkeley, where his dissertation is on tukdam, tracks a team of forensic anthropologists at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds. He captures interviews with Western scientists, Tibetan medical professionals, the Dalai Lama, and respected bhikkhus in the U.S. and Tibetan refugee communities in Dharamshala and Chauntra, India, and in Kathmandu Nepal. This spellbinding documentary explores current research into tukdam, in which the cessation of brain function, breathing, and heart activity, all Western indications of death, are not necessarily life’s clear-cut end but instead a pliant threshold. Applying Western science to ancient traditions and belief systems proves there is more data to be mined.  Beware:  you will see lots of corpses, some in severe decomp.

Details:

MVFF45 is October 6-16, 2021.  Tickets: purchase online and in advance as most films will sell out. Most films are $16.50 general admission, $14 CFI members.  Special events, parties, and receptions are more.  Streaming pass (for CA residents only) allows access to all online films, programs, conversations. $145 general, $105 for CFI members.  Single streaming of film or event $8 general; $6 CFI members. Complete schedule and ticket purchase: https://www.mvff.com/.

Don’t despair if the film you want to see is “at rush.”  Check the film/program’s specific page on the MVFF website at noon on the day of the program you want to see.  Tickets may be released and available for immediate purchase online.  Rush tickets are also available 15 minutes before show time at the screening venue.  It’s first come, first serve, so join the line to wait about an hour before the screening.

Venues: Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael; CinéArts Sequoia, Mill Valley; Lark Theater, Larkspur; BAMPFA. Berkeley; The Roxie, San Francisco; Sweetwater Music Hall, Mill Valley; Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, San Francisco

October 4, 2022 Posted by | Film, Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment