This is an outstanding title in the "Opera Explained" series, one free from a lot of extraneous detail and unneccessary introduction. We get right into the opera almost at once. And what an opera it is, containing as it does a political message, a paean to the joys of married love, and a score so demanding one wonders at the endurance of its performers. While the plot appears at first glance to be somewhat commonplace, it nonetheless shows the triumph of good over evil, justice over tyrrany, and hope over despair.
Furtwängler praised the opera, saying its political message and music "will always represent an appeal to conscience." But perhaps just as much, it is a monument to its composer's own statement: "Strength is the morality of the man who stands out from the rest, and it is mine."
Even if you're not a great fan of opera, if you love Beethoven, you're likely to enjoy this brief look at the incredible work he swore would win him "a martyr's crown" for his trouble. It is nothing less than a wonder to behold.
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.
I should have listened to the previous reviewer, but thought that maybe the content problems had been repaired in the years since his review. Wrong!
Do not buy this book. It is barely audible, even with excellent earbuds.
I hesitate to give this one star overall because I love Zola and Walpole, but sadly, I couldn't hear the stories. The narrators are very good --- I've listened to them before --- but couldn't hear them either.
Audible, please make this title unavailable for sale until the content is remastered.
"How does art get done? Why, often, does it not get done? And what is the nature of the difficulties that stop so many who start?"
These are the questions the authors ask, and more importantly, answer, in this concise, brilliant book. By turns philosophical and pragmatic, insightful and witty, ART AND FEAR is a gift for the creative soul.
It's valuable to working artists, artists who have given up, and artists who have yet to begin.
And if you remove the charged word "artist," one might say it's valuable to anyone who struggles to create anything.
You need not be writing a symphony or a novel, dancing a principal role, or attempting to release a sculpture from a hulking block of marble. Maybe you're designing a dress, creating a new dish, keeping an illustrated journal, or teaching yourself to play a ukulele. What creative thing you do isn't the point. Continuing to do it is:
"What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don't quit."
This is at the heart of the authors' message. They've written it to help us figure out how to stay in that first group. To stay in it, you must be able to combat fear, which includes facing any issues, preconceptions, misunderstandings, or even delusions about yourself or anyone else that may be holding you back from doing your work. What is involved will be as individual as your work. There are no easy answers or magic formulae. But it can be done, and is, every day you refuse to give up.
When my brother gave me this book, I didn't hold out much hope, but I kept my reservations to myself. After all, I'd read a sea of books about creativity, many of which turned out to be filled with useless pop psych clichés and other nonsense. But this one is different. It provides something deep and true, something everyone who creates can use.
Or as another artist friend said, "This is the straight stuff, straight up."
Indeed it is, and it just might change your creative life.
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