Having just watched BBC's 1972 dramatic series "In the Shadow of the Tower" and then reading of the discovery of Richard III's body in the car park, I decided to go back a little further and learn more about the man who started the dynasty that has become so glamorized and popular, often at the expense of solid fact.
How easy it to overlook Henry VII, who is left in the shade by some of his larger-than-life children and grandchildren! I have been guilty of this myself, having read about the Tudors for a good thirty years now. But in this biography, Thomas Penn brings the story of a complex and unusual man to life.
I wouldn't say Henry Tudor was a man most of us would like --- we might even "love to hate" him. But I found him fascinating nonetheless. A highly intelligent, deeply suspicious and shrewd man, he sometimes reminds one of a spider weaving a web. Or a dark master of marionettes. But there is more to him than his reputation for parsimony and intrigue, as you will find.
One of the great joys of reading history is when you find a book that makes you want to learn even more about the "supporting" characters. I found "The Winter King" to be one of those books. I have a whole list of people I want to learn more about, which means I'll be going back in time to revisit the Wars of the Roses along with much else besides.
I would gladly read another book by Thomas Penn. Simon Vance's narration made this one especially splendid. Highly recommended for devotees of English history.
Also recommended: G.J. Meyer's "The Tudors," a veritable omnibus of the three generations that ruled England.
There is narcissism with a small "n" and there is narcissism with a capital "N" as in "Narcissistic Personality Disorder" or NPD. Our culture is one becoming ever more narcissistic in the first sense of the word. But this book is about something far more serious:
"The word narcissism in its most fundamental sense means a tendency to self-worship. For the narcissist, his excessive self-absorption is a protection against unconscious but powerful feelings of inadequacy. Seduced by the narcissist's camouflage of outer charm or confidence, you are eventually drawn into the nightmare side of this relationship. By the time you realize that something is wrong, the cumulative effects can range from bruised self-esteem to severe depression." Eleanor Payson
You're a very lucky creature if you have never been involved with someone who has NPD characteristics. But if you have, Eleanor Payson offers much to help you here. Catherine Bond Doyle's narration imbues the author's work with an additional feeling of compassion.
Updating the Greek myth of Narcissus, Payson uses the metaphor of "The Wizard of Oz," hence the title. In dealing with a narcissist, there is only one road, and that is the road that leads to them.
She introduces the book with a discussion of NPD, including variations on its definition and diagnosis, and a discussion of overt and covert types. After establishing a broad foundation, she goes on to discuss various relationships, from parent-child dynamics to narcissists in professional and social life. The section on "love" relationships --- and I use that word advisedly in this context --- is particularly enlightening.
May you find healing, comfort, and peace as you bid the Yellow Brick Road farewell.
I just finished all three volumes of the Somerset Maugham short stories from Audio Connoisseur. Each was excellent, but this collection was my favorite.
"The Outstation" is the strongest story, I think, because of the way the author develops the contrast between the two dynamic main characters without turning them into caricatures. "Mr. Know-All" and "The Three Fat Women of Antibes" are laugh-out-loud funny and satirical. All of the stories reflect the author's gift for meticulous observation, and just as often, his thinly-veiled contempt for his fellow humans!
I was never under the impression that Charlton Griffin was British, so that wasn't an issue for me. I love his voice. Even if his pronunciations are sometimes eccentric, I really do enjoy him and the way he adds sound effects and music to his productions. (If you require a British narrator, try "Rain and other Stories," another good collection of Somerset Maugham stories, narrated by Steven Crossley). It's good to have a choice of styles.
Why is this opera called "The Bat?" In a nutshell, two gentlemen, Eisenstein and Falke, in the costumes of a butterfly and a bat, respectively, attend a winter masquerade. On the way back, Eisenstein, taking advantage of Falke's inebriated state, abandons him far from his home. When he wakes up, he has to walk through the town in his bat costume, to his undying embarrassment and the amusement of his fellow citizens. Naturally, he wants to get his own back, and it is for this reason the opera is called, "The Bat."
From this simple premise, the plot becomes "maddeningly complex," as the author rightly says. There are "multilayered and omnipresent infidelities," disguises, deceptions, drinking, dancing, and entirely too much carrying on. An opera featuring "Adele's Laughing Song" should be fun!
As with so many things that seem effortless, back-breaking work goes before. While Johann Strauss II hadn't much experience writing for the theatre before he composed this, you'd never know it. He has more than a few operatic tricks up his sleeve, including the masterful use of crescendo and accelerando. The author brings attention to Strauss' use of rubato, which he refers to as "stealing time to avoid schmaltz." Some of the roles require nothing less than a virtuoso performer. But the result is accessible, light-hearted, and fun.
A bottle of champagne to David Timson for his narration, and to you should you tackle "Die Fledermaus" during this, its rightful season!
Here the multitalented Miranda Richardson performs the stories of seven operas: Mozart's "The Magic Flute," Britton's "The Little Sweep," Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel," Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," Rossini's "La Cenerentola," Gluck's "Orpheus ed Euridice," and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Christmas Eve." It would be nice to have Shahrukh Husain's print book to go along with this, as well as some other opera-related references and photos, if possible. Overall, a valuable addition to classical music education.
If you had crossed Bizet's path in 1875, the year "Carmen" was first staged, you would have met with a plump, bespectacled Frenchman who was forever nibbling sweet delicacies. But while you might overlook this unassuming person, you could not have ignored his music.
From early childhood, Bizet possessed prodigious talent. In the Conservatoire at nine, and winning every prize going, he worked his magic on a variety of instruments. At the age of 19, he won the Prix de Rome. With innate musical taste, judgment, and imagination, he stands above his contemporaries.
As this program points out, Bizet was no "one trick pony." He'd written most of his work before anyone had heard of "Carmen," and some of this sadly neglected work deserves rediscovery and appreciation, such as his opera "The Pearl Fishers."
Harold Schonberg wrote, "Carmen is an opera of passion, power, and truth, infinitely superior to the carefully arranged, prettily served canapés of Gounod and Massenet. They were skilled professionals. Bizet was a genius."
Tchaikovsky and Brahms were fans of "Carmen," too. Wagner, having heard it, said of Bizet, "At last, for a change, someone with ideas in his head!"
All this makes it the more stunning that this perennial favorite did not meet with immediate success. "Carmen" was called "immoral," and accused of being (even worse) "Wagnerian."
In this excellent program, David Timson brings the spectacle of "Carmen" vividly to life, with reference to many important excerpts, the fast and furious scene changes demanded by the complex action, and so much more.
If you're fortunate enough to be going to see the opera or just want to understand it better while you listen at home, you can't go wrong with this exploration of "Carmen essentials."
This was the first opera I heard (at the age of nine) and it left me forever in love with opera itself. My French wasn't under firm control, and I couldn't really understand everything that was happening, but that music! I have never forgotten it. Such is the power of Bizet.
"The Picture of Dorian Gray" continues to fascinate modern readers. It has given us the image of the portrait that holds all the ill-judged actions and age of one's life. It contains a preface that says all one ever needs to know about the arts. The text is a source for many of Wilde's wittiest and most frequently quoted epigrams. But the real enchantment lies in the originality of the story.
Dorian Gray is obviously the center of interest, but I always found the characters of Basil Hallward and Henry Wotton more interesting. It is through these two that Dorian finds out who he really is. At times, one suspects there is no real Dorian, only the reflection and influence of others upon him.
It is hard not to pity the artist of the fatal portrait. Hallward feared his own destruction from his first meeting with Dorian Gray: "I knew I had come face to face with someone whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature. Something seemed to tell me that I was on the verge of a terrible crisis in my life. I had a strange feeling that Fate had in store for me exquisite joys and exquisite sorrows..." Indeed it had.
Hallward's character is disdained by many writing literary criticism of this novel, but it is he who has a depth and wisdom the others lack. For one thing, he knows all too well the truth of his statement: "We shall all suffer for what the gods have given us, suffer terribly."
I also "hate to love" Henry Wotton, who is so deliciously evil. Or at least deliciously amoral. Affecting a world-weary elegance, and as free as only the very rich can be, he is from the beginning, the man who reveals to Dorian who he really is.
Descriptions are breathtaking, revealing layer upon layer of sensual details, evocative, intense, and rich: "It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing before him." The author's understanding of the theatre assures the story unfolds with perfect timing, and the dialogue is pitch-perfect throughout.
"The Picture of Dorian Gray" is one of my favorite books in the English language. It is even more delightful to hear it read aloud. Edward Petherbridge's voice and manner is as ideally suited to the book as any I could imagine. Of the many good narrations I have heard, his is without a doubt the best.
In 1860, while looking through a secondhand market, Browning found a yellow book which recounted the true life story of a murder in Rome. For many years he considered writing about it, and eventually, he did.
Martyn Wade's adaptation is impressive. Browning wrote "The Ring and the Book" as a verse novel divided into twelve books, nine of which are monologues. Interspersed with early music and well-acted by a small cast, it is a brief but intensive encapsulation of the original. Anton Lesser always intrigues me, and the supporting cast was well-chosen, too.
The little yellow book tells about Count Guido Franceschini, who murdered his wife Pompilia, and her parents, Pietro and Violante Comparini.
Violante schemes to marry Pompilia, an innocent "lily with leaf intact," to the aging count. Parents and child-bride go to live with the count in Arezzo, but soon the count throws them out. Returning to Rome, they decide they're not going to give him the rest of Pompilia's dowry. They send a letter to the count informing him Pompilia is a bastard, the result of a late-in-life dalliance of Violante. The parents keep the money, ask for the earlier installment of the dowry to be repaid, and leave their daughter in the impoverished Tuscan home of a madly jealous, sadistic husband.
Meanwhile, the count is making Pompila's life a living hell. If she so much as breathes near another man, he accuses her of being a whore, and continuously torments her with baseless accusations. He forces himself on her, and in all ways treats her shamefully. He becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife is having an affair with a priest, Father Guiseppe Caponsacchi.
When Pompilia gives birth, the count, of course, suspects the child is not his own.
"The Ring and the Book" is melodramatic, violent, and tragic. But it is also an evocative visit to a long-lost Italy, an antique legal thriller, and a strange sort of romance well worth a listen.
"Heart of Darkness," for me, is a book meant for listening. The language, the economy of description, and the brevity of the story are all the more engrossing when read aloud. Phrases ring in the memory: "My ivory, my intended..." So many more.
Conrad's characters continue to live in the imagination: the now world-weary Marlow, the mad charismatic Kurtz, the odd little "Harlequin," the innocent fiancée. Africa itself is a character larger than life. Who could ever forget these people, or these places?
I came to this book later in life, long after reading Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost" and studying African politics at university. So I did not come from an educational system that assigned this for college prep. But when I did read it, it began a long love affair with Conrad and his "voice," if you will, that spins the English language into gold.
I truly think Conrad is someone it takes a bit of life experience to appreciate fully. "Heart of Darkness," like Hesse's "Steppenwolf," is often read very early in life, but both improve on acquaintance. I read each one at least once every five years and find new insights every time. I hope you'll re-read Conrad if he was "forced upon you." There isn't a writer quite like him, and few are as rewarding.
Branagh's narration surprised me. I love him as an actor but didn't know if he would be right for old Marlow the storyteller without a little more age on him! I was wrong. His narration was all it should be.
Meet Charles James Harrington Fitzroy Yellowplush, the perfect footman. In "The Yellowplush Papers" we follow his story from obscurity to the heights of British society in five mini-plays.
In MY FIRST EMPLOYER, Frederick Altamont takes on Yellowplush as his servant. But who is this secretive Altamont, and why does he refuse to disclose his profession?
CAPTAIN ROOK, Yellowplush's next employer, is a flattering, name-dropping rogue who dwells in the Temple and makes his way as a cardsharp. Here our hero learns all about the finer points of plucking pigeons.
Yellowplush's next employer is Algernon Percy DEUCEACE, an aristocratic ex-pat living in Paris. Deuceace is ready to marry his way into the level of life to which he'd like to become accustomed when horror strikes: his father shows up with a few home truths.
MY NOVEL finds Yellowplush in the service of the Duke and Duchess of Diddlesex and their obnoxious family. The Duke is a bit of a bore, the Duchess what we might call a late Georgian cougar. And our Yellowplush, as he frequently reminds us, has quite a fine figure, with the well-turned calves so admired in a footman.
After meeting up with dodgy society novelist Augustus Modicum during his stay at Diddlesex Towers, Yellowplush decides to write a novel of his own. The working title is "Aristocrats Behaving Badly," but after bringing it to the attention of the literary agent Scavenger, it becomes the best-selling "Besmirched Escutcheon."
Yellowplush, having wisely invested the proceeds of his just-short-of-libelous "novel," finds himself in the possession of 30,000 pounds sterling and ready for his DEBUT IN SOCIETY. It's all oak paneling, Axminster carpets, and brocade from now on! But will success change our hero for the worse?
Overall, this was a fun couple of hours. Like a kid with deep suspicions of mushrooms, just knowing he wouldn't like them despite never having tasted one, I suspected I wouldn't like Thackeray. But I liked him in adaptation. Maybe I'll tackle Vanity Fair next. Whatever the case, "The Yellowplush Papers" was great British fun, and made a holiday baking blitz merry and bright.
Turandot is Puccini's last opera. He died while composing the third act, leaving the work unfinished.
The plot is based on an ancient Persian legend, and the setting that of imperial Peking. Turandot is the daughter of the emperor. He wants her to marry but she resists, so the emperor agrees to her terms: any suitor who wishes to marry her must answer three riddles. If he cannot, he will be executed.
As if the story is not dramatic enough, there is the reimagining of ancient China, the evocation of place through pentatonic elements and unusual instrumentation, the costuming, and demanding roles for the performers.
For all that, some parts are silly. For example, ministers named Ping, Pang, and Pong. And the violence and drama feels relentless after a point. Still, other parts are transcendent, most famously, the "Nessun dorma."
The author explains the story, staging, and production very well. David Timson's narration is, as always, simply perfect. For that, five stars.
But I won't be going to a production or purchasing a recording of Turandot. Puccini wrote so much that puts this opera in the shade.
That's just my opinion. Decide for yourself. That is one of the many benefits of the "Opera Explained" series. If you're unfamiliar with an opera, as I was with Turandot, listen and see what you think. You might hate it, or you might become a devoted fan. Either way, it's time well-spent if you love classical music.
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