Archive for February, 2010

February 26, 2010


HARLAN: In the Shadow of Jew Süss
(Film Forum,  New York,  March 3-16)

What a movie this is! And how elegant! Not since Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect has there been a story about a father’s legacy so gorgeously filmed, structured, and edited. But Harlan is even more complicated, more painful, and wider-ranging. And definitely darker. That’s for starters.

Why not just say it? I was nailed to my seat and left weeping, unsettled, and stunned by the brilliance of this film. Only a German PhD (writer/director Felix Moeller, who has studied history, political science, and communications)—working with a very, very good editor (Anette Fleming)—could have explored the subject so rigorously, or so masterfully shaped it that its progress feels as inevitable as a postlude to Das Ring. Everything happens at exactly the right moment as the story unfolds, including its often shocking revelations and surprises.

In fact, I’ve never actually seen Veit Harlan’s 1940 film version of Jew Süss; it’s kept pretty much under lock and key, as a pillar of Third Reich propaganda—required viewing for concentration camp administrators and members of the SS to keep their mission at fever pitch. Its effect on ordinary Germans, who greatly admired Harlan’s work, was no less inflammatory. Harlan’s eldest son, Thomas, describes it as “a murder instrument.”

Harlan was an enormously talented storyteller who worked in broad, melodramatic strokes, parlaying kitsch, romance, and adventure into a career that began with Madame Pompadour (1935), flowered during the Third Reich, and continued on into the post-war period after he was twice tried for, and acquitted of, crimes against humanity. There is no evidence that he regretted his career choices, including the making of the film that would bring him permanent notoriety.

He lived as large as his movies, with three wives, many children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, whose experiences make up the narrative of Harlan. Bearing a strong resemblance to their charismatic forebear, most work as writers, filmmakers, designers and musicians. They are intelligent and articulate in describing the burden of their heritage. They agree on Harlan’s talent (although, says one wryly, “a better filmmaker would have made a worse film”), but not on his motives or behavior.

Moeller’s interviews are probing; his instincts are impeccable. While the film’s plot, issues, and subjects are complex, its arguments are compelling and easy to grasp. What makes Harlan such a standout, though, is its combination of emotional truth and the lavish use of archival footage–including excerpts from Harlan’s films, (Jew Süss is really hair-raising!), intimate home movies, and a wealth of newsreels and interviews with and about him; he remained a celebrity throughout most of his life.

Harlan is not an easy film to watch, but is, without question, a searing and dramatic exploration of options and consequences. The result is a rich, rich morality play with some extraordinary players,  vivid accounts of human complexity, and a finale still under construction. My tears, in the end, were not for what was past, but for what some of Harlan’s progeny have made of the present, and will try to accomplish in the future. It offers the promise of a measure of redemption, and of hope—always more powerful than perpetual mourning. You really will not forget this family and their struggles with a dilemma they did not create, but cannot escape.

February 20, 2010

 Loaves and Fishes Come to New York!

Every spring since 1981, master magician Rene Rozon has been producing the International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA).









But its real title should be the Miracle in Montreal. It’s the only festival of films on art in the world, and—even in our cosmos of ever-shrinking budgets—has grown ever bigger, ever better, as Rozon continues to pull his rabbits out of his hat. Starting out as a two-day wonder, it’s become a two-week treasury overflowing with films on art, architecture, dance, music and theater, created by the energy and imagination of the world’s leading geniuses on bringing the arts alive.

Good news, of course. But for New Yorkers, it gets better! During the month of February, we can see FIFA’s best of the best on tour at the mid-Manhattan Library (February 19/20)); the Morgan Library and Museum (Fridays and Saturdays); and at the Center for Architecture (February 26/27). (

Every film has its strengths and surprises, but whatever your passion, you will find more than one way to stoke it. From the quirky mobiles of Alexander Calder, to the Harlem Renaissance of Zora Neale Hurston; from the culture of shopping malls to the fantastic modernism of John Lautner’s houses; from an inside view of choreography to the transformation of historical buildings into works of art; it’s yours to experience. Free at the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Center for Architecture; free with museum admission at the Morgan.

After whetting your appetite at home, consider making the pilgrimage to Montreal and feasting
at the source: FIFA 28 (March 18-28), with hundreds of films on view, often with filmmakers present, and—in between screenings—some of the best food in the Western hemisphere. If you love the arts, love film, and relish feeling like an insider, it doesn’t get any better than this……………Complete schedule available after February 25 at (

Cooper’s London

February 14, 2010






Up and Coming in London:
from winter snows through chestnut blossom time

by Mel Cooper


English National Opera: Donizetti x 2

The ENO is doing something very interesting by performing side-by-side one of Donizetti’s great comedies (L’Elisir d’ Amore), and what is considered to be the quintesential bel canto tragedy—Lucia di Lammermoor. Lucia is such an iconic work that the iconic Madame Bovary saw it and mused on its meaning for her life; Tolstoy, and even Mahler, considered it their favorite!

The Jonathan Miller production of L’Elisir runs at the Coliseum from 12 February to 23 March, in repertory. Miller–who famously set Rigoletto in a Mafia-ridden, West Side Story-era New York; Cosi fan Tutte during the war in Bosnia; and The Mikado in Brighton in the 1920s—relocates the action this time from 19th-century rural Italy to small-town 1950s America.

Canadian tenor John Tessier, who recently made a notable ENO debut in the 2008 revival of The Barber of Seville (another brilliant Jonathan Miller production), plays the lovesick Nemorino, for which he has the perfect voice. He’s also very good-looking and stylish. But my money is on scene stealing of a high order from Andrew Shore’s Dulcamara, who offers the solution to Nemorino’s woes. Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado will make his British opera debut in this new production. If you’re based abroad, you may have a sense of déjà vu: Sets and costumes were provided by the New York City Opera, and originally created for the Royal Swedish Opera.

The ENO is also reviving their production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha between 25 February and 26 March. But the newest next big thing will be a fresh take on Janacek’s compelling Katya Kabanova. David Alden, whose Lucia I found questionable, nevertheless did a very fine Olivier Award-winning Jenufa a couple of years ago, so I am very curious to see what he does for Katya. Besides, Janacek’s operas are always a powerful experience. The line-up of performers is consistently exciting and sounds apt. For a start, Patricia Racette is making her ENO debut as Katya, Mark Wigglesworth is conducting, and the under-rated Alfie Boe sings Vanya. Again, there is some recycling—very sensible in these hard times: costumes were done by The Dallas Opera Costume Workshop for a co-production with Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon, and Theatr Wielki-Opera Narodowa, Warsaw

Also start booking now for the annual visit of the ENO to the Young Vic: from April 26, they will be performing Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers in a new production directed by Fiona Shaw.






Royal Opera House: Prokofiev x 2

Aside from the production starting in March of Handel’s Tammerlano (Placido Domingo and Kurt Streit sharing the role of Bajazet; a Graham Vick production with Ivor Bolton conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment), the most exciting event at the ROH is the ongoing series of performances of the Kenneth Macmillan production of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet–yes, the same one famously danced by Nureyev and Fonteyn four-and-a-half decades ago and a true masterpiece of choreography matching a brilliant, nay perfect, score. You might also want to try to get to Prokofiev’s The Gambler, in a production by Richard Jones, still on til the end of February, and with a strong cast conducted by music director Antonio Pappano. Tammerlano is one of  Handel’s five or six greatest works , and should be exceptional; with a top ticket at £210, however, this quality does not come cheap.


The new play running at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs will be by Bola Agbaje and is called Off the Endz. The RCT admirably takes seriously its mission to develop new talent. Agbaje came through the Royal Court’s Critical Mass program. Her debut play, Gone Too Far!, premiered at the Royal Court in 2007, and won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement and a Most Promising Playwright nomination at the Evening Standard Awards 2008. I hope to review this once it opens officially. It’s in previews as I write, and runs til mid-March. Remember, they do £10 tickets on Mondays!

Meanwhile, in tandem, the RCT Upstairs is also following up on a playwright–with Anupama Chandrasekhar’s second play, Disconnect. Chennai-based playwright Chandrasekhar was discovered and developed by the Royal Court’s International Department. Her first play, Free Outgoing, opened at the Royal Court in 2007, transferring Downstairs in 2008. It was an exceptionally exciting first play, entertaining, surprising and universally comprehensible, while at the same time illuminating aspects of life in India. The construction was tight, the dialogue brilliant. The new play, set in a call centre in Mumbai, is one to watch out for, and to see from 17 February to 20 March.

Michael Attenborough is directing a new production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure at the Almeida with Anna Maxwell Martin, who scored a triumph as Esther Summerson in the BBC Bleak House not long ago, as well as playing a very louche Sally Bowles in Cabaret in the West End; and I would also suggest The Whiskey Taster at the Bush Theatre, by James Graham, and starring Samuel Barnett.

Coming up at the National Theatre: watch out for Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance, if only because it stars the inimitable Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw, though it is a brilliant play in its own right, too-rarely seen. Also there are two really important early plays by men who later went on to prominent careers: Tennessee Williams (Spring Storm) and Eugene O’Neill (Beyond the Horizon). Neither gets done often, and the O’Neill was so potent in its day that it won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for drama. It will be interesting to see how these plays stand up when viewed through the filter of the playwrights’ later works.

Finally, if you’re looking for evenings out in London, I would consider the new production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker with Jonathan Pryce at Trafalgar Studio 1; and if you like dance, the season of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, which will be at the Coliseum while the ENO is at the Young Vic.










I’ve Loved Lucy (but not this one)….

I finally caught the ENO Lucia di Lammermoor last week, a production by David Alden. The press has gone nuts for it, and I am clearly turning into an old curmudgeon: I increasingly find this kind of deconstruction of old operas not merely beside the point and irritating, but actually insulting to my intelligence.

Alden’s Lucia takes place in a dilapidated 19th-century mansion (the period when Scott wrote it; get it?, and Scotland is in decline, get it?), though all the references in the text are the same as in the Italian original. All the references in the production are another matter.

Thus, when the hunters arrive in the first scene, they have to climb in through the windows to talk to Lucy’s brother Enrico, then climb out again to track down her lover, Edgardo. The brother is a strangely angry guy and, in the first scene of Act II (where he tricks his sister Lucy into believing a forged letter from Edgardo (supposedly ditching her cruelly), the siblings are in the crumbling nursery playing with dolls, and Enrico gropes Lucy her under her skirt (ah, incestuous sub-text; get it?). Lucy, meanwhile, is dressed like Alice in Wonderland (immature and innocent, and unable to handle the perfidy of the grown- ups; get it?), while Edgardo wears kilts (he’s a traditional Scot and a scion), and they have their meeting in Act One in a dilapidated theatre in the mansion, but there is no damned fountain or ghost, specifically required by the libretto!

Then, in the wedding scene, Edgardo–who also enters through a window–gets so mad he stands up on the table and winds a tablecloth around himself while he sings. I decided it represents a shroud, but it could be that he wishes to be Julius Caesar.

The audience was swooning at the originality of it all (none of that boring literalness you found in Zeffirelli’s version for Sutherland), but I found it what my mother called Too Mucking Fuch. I mean, there must be better ways to convey subtexts. I remember Peter Hall once casting Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni as a man the same age as Donna Anna’s father; that was a bright idea that cleared up, in one fell swoop, a lot of textual problems, yet also let the audience work things out for themselves.

Whenever I’ve seen a David Alden production, I feel less impressed than I do stupid because I don’t usually get half the symbolism—which seems to be both arbitrary and obscure much of the time—with all those chairs being dragged across the floor and distracting you while someone is trying to sing. What happened to simple stagecraft?

In need of a reality check, I went home to watch last year’s Lucia di Lammermoor from the Met on DVD (with Netrebko), and with all the glosses and 19th-century re-setting. Mary Zimmerman’s production was a model of lucidity and explication of the original text and score by comparison. There was even a ghost!

But it has to be said the ENO production was musically pretty fine: Lucia-Anna Christy; Edgardo –Barry BanksEnrico – Brian Mulligan; Raimondo – Clive Bayley; AlisaSarah PringArturoDwayne Jonesall very good singers—and they did their characterizations well (though I sometimes objected to what the director made them do.) Also the Mad Scene was so good (because Anna Christy actually hit the notes and the runs bang-on) that you went out humming, and forgetting the weird production.

Lucia is one of my favourites,  and I don’t mind having my expectations shaken up when it’s for some purpose. But deconstructionists often have a field day without illuminating or serving the work itself; I learned more about David Alden this time than I did about Donizetti, Sir Walter Scott, or the librettists—not necessarily the best sequence of contributors from which to learn about the opera.

But the music … ah, it is a truly superb score, well-performed. And there is something terrific about having two contrasting Donizetti operas to see in such short order. Well, Elixir of Love is next, under Jonathan Miller’s stewardship, so it should be good!

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