Chanel: An Intimate Life
(Lisa Chaney, Penguin paperback)
Chaney has written a strong and stylish book telling the life of Coco Chanel. The strength comes from its giving considerable attention to the background of her life, the era in which she lived, the stories of the various people who were her most important lovers and friends. It is incredibly informative. And the stylishness comes from the writing itself, which is meticulous and readable; and from the intellectual curiosity the book displays. It treats Chanel not just as the creator of ephemeral fashion but as a real artist who understands the uses of fashion and its relationship to its age. I have learned more about what makes the fashion world tick and what are some of the deeper issues that drive its greatest talents than I ever expected—or even knew existed.
This is a thoughtful, well-written and meticulously researched work, and as gripping as a novel. You not only get a convincing and detailed portrait of the woman, Germaine Chanel, who became the iconic Coco; you also get to know pre-World War I France from its lower Zola-esque depths to its high society—plus the impact of World War I, the craziness of the twenties, and then the era of the Depression and Occupation. Was Coco a collaborator? Read and decide for yourself which side her moral predicaments set her down on. The book is as interesting and as exciting as her greatest fashion shows. Highly recommended.
The Dreyfus Affair
(Piers Paul Read, Bloomsbury UK)
This book details, step by appalling step, the miscarriage of justice that was the Dreyfus Case. Carefully researched and written, Piers Paul Read is interested in much more than the details of poor Dreyfus’ humiliation, incarceration and ultimate exoneration. He also portrays with vivid and intense frustration the attitudes that enabled people (who knew perfectly well that Dreyfus was innocent) to justify their involvement in keeping the truth from the public.
Dealing fully with every aspect of the case and every character who either colluded with the betrayal of Dreyfus or fought for his freedom once they became convinced of his innocence, the book directly involves you in the era. It also makes excellent background reading for everything from Proust and Anatole France to a study of the attitudes that led to the fall of France in World War II and the willing collaboration of so many with the German occupation.
The Dreyfus Affair consciously, I think, sets out to show you the attitudes at a certain level of French society that enabled people to consider themselves patriots ,when actually they were complicit in betraying the soul of their country. It’s a good companion piece to Lisa Chaney’s biography of Chanel, too.
Figaro: New and A-Maze-ing at the ENO
It took me a while to get comfortable with (or even figure out) the visual and metaphoric concept behind this ENO production of The Marriage of Figaro but by the middle of the second scene I think I figured it out and I began to like the idea.
The crazy day in the Almaviva household is well-represented by a set that keeps revolving; keeps shifting into a series of mazes; references the maze of the Minotaur myth (Figaro as Theseus doing the bull dance or Almaviva as the cruel king?). There is also a good reason for a story set in 18th century Spain to be full of the imagery of dead bulls, bull masks and the bullfight. I found the design by Peter McKintosh also evocative of the original era of Beaumarchais’ revolutionary, disturbing play. The comedy was paramount, just. But this was a darker and more considered production that you often get of Figaro. Like the famous production a few years ago at the Royal Opera House, this castle abounds with life, with servants and supernumeraries bustling about the maze doing their duties.
But in the end, it is not the concept that drives this production. The evening works so well because the director, Fiona Shaw, knows how to get her singers to act their characters and to understand and convey the nuances and complications of the various relationships. This is a seriously intelligent Figaro and, by the end (though the music is telling you that forgiveness and reconciliation can be transcendent and are possible; though you are basking in the wonderful world of sound that is created by the score and the increasingly fine ENO orchestra), the thrust of the story and the way the actors have shown their reactions suggests strongly that the reconciliations will be short-lived and that the Count will betray his Countess again.
This is an interpretation informed by the third of the Figaro plays, The Guilty Mother (La Mère Coupable); and by the end of the first half you begin to suspect and foresee the affair that’s bound to happen sooner or later between the betrayed, disappointed Countess and the young Cherubino. You can also, of course, see the inspiration that this text gave to Hugo Von Hoffmansthal when he wrote Der Rosenkavalier for Richard Strauss. This is a literate and strongly theatrical interpretation of the opera and of the play behind it—probably because it’s directed by a consummate actress who here shows herself to be a mistress of theatre as a director, as well.
Ultimately, though, it’s the music that carries the emotions and provokes the intellectual interpretation—and Shaw knows how to listen to the music and interpret it dramatically through the singers and their reactions to events.The constant movement of the revolving set and the actors moving through the mazes;
the choreography of all the movement (as well as of the actual dances); and the life going on in the corridors or behind the scenes that we observe and that gives the sense of the very public life of the Almaviva palace; all this enhances the sense of urgency and restlessness in the tale.
The ENO has a strong cast in this first revival of Shaw’s production, with everyone working together brilliantly as an ensemble but also shining in their solo moments. The climax of the evening, as it should be, is the third scene. Each of the events is telling, with the Countess’s solo aria and her duet with Susanna outstanding both musically and dramatically (full praises with no quibbles to Sarah-Jane Brandon as the tortured and lovely Countess and to Mary Bevan, the Susanna who has been promoted from being Barbarina last time). The Count’s fury and psychopathy are brilliantly and frighteningly conveyed in his solo by Benedict Nelson in that scene; and the trio of David Stout’s Figaro, Lucy Schaufer’s Marcellina and Jonathan Best’s crabby, tight-fisted Bartolo succeeds in provoking considerable laughter in the recognition scene, where it turns out that Figaro is the long-lost illegitimate offspring of the couple that are trying to cheat him (leading so preposterously, but delightfully, to happy marriages all round, to the great fury of the Count). One must also note the fine contribution of Samantha Price’s boyish, androgynous Cherubino throughout. As for the Barbarina of Ellie Laugherne, her voice is so lovely and her acting so natural that she is very likely to be Susanna next time round.
Musically, Jaime Martin keeps complete control of the score and offers some really illuminating musical moments. The music and drama develop just as they should, and the confused dénoument in the garden/maze works with a clarity and impact that are very satisfying. Susanna’s big, loving aria and Figaro’s jealousy in the final scene are also memorable highlights, both exquisitely controlled.
This is a fine evening of opera, with all the elements blending seamlessly. The night I attended, Mary Bevan was presented with well-deserved Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent during the applause, having just proved by her singing and acting that she is a very deserving winner.
Note: The revival of Fiona Shaw’s production of The Marriage of Figaro is in repertoire of the English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 23 November 2014.