Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 3

title card

Le Million (1931, directed and written by René Clair, after a play by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemaud)

Michel (René Lefèvre), like all artists, is perpetually broke. But in the middle of a confrontation with the local merchants to whom he owes money, Michel discovers that he has hit the jackpot: the lottery ticket he bought with his last sous matches the winning number. Of course, the attitudes of his creditors are immediately transformed: suddenly nothing is too good for Michel. They just want to see the ticket, to confirm Michel's good fortune.

How do we know you have this ticket?

Realizing that he must have left the ticket in the tatty old jacket he'd asked his long-suffering fiancée Béatrice (Annabella) to mend, Michel rushes to her place—only to discover that the jacket has been taken by Père-la-Tulipe (Paul Ollivier), a rag-picker who hid in her apartment when he was being chased by les flics.

Would you mind if I kept the jacket?

The race is on to find the jacket and recover the winning ticket.

But before Michel reaches Père-la-Tulipe's secondhand shop (which is really just a front for his high-tech gang lair!) the threadbare jacket has been sold to Ambrosio Sopranelli (Constantin Siroesco), a singer appearing at the Opera Lyrique in the (fictional) Les Bohémiens. The jacket is perfect to complete his costume—so authentic!

I'm all set to sing The Bohemians in this costume

Everyone descends on the theater to find the unsuspecting Sopranelli and his jacket: Michel and Béatrice, who is a dancer in the opera; Michel's opportunistic roommate Prosper (Louis Allibert), who wants to grab the ticket for himself; Prosper's new girlfriend, the equally opportunistic Vanda (Vanda Gréville); and Père-la-Tulipe and his henchmen.

Backstage before the curtain rises Vanda and Béatrice separately enter Sopranelli's dressing room; each makes a play for the lottery ticket, without success:

Beatrice and Vanda fumble for the ticket

Vanda, seeing which way the wind is blowing, then makes a play for Michel:

Vanda kisses Michel

Witnessing Michel's apparent betrayal, the distressed Beéatrice flees onstage. Michel follows to try to make up with her. But at that moment the curtain rises, Sopranelli and his diva Madame Ravellina (Odette Talazac) enter, and the feuding lovers are trapped behind the scenery.

The feuding lovers hide

Sopranelli and Madame Ravellina launch into the opening duet, "Nous sommes seuls" (We are alone). The lyrics provide ironic commentary on the lovers' situation; as Michel and Béatrice sit silently amid the artifice of the stage, anything but alone, the tenor and soprano sing "Truth is what we find here."

Truth is what we find here

And because the lovers must remain silent, they can only "speak" through the words of the duet:

Thou lovest me not, I who love thee
I lack the force to resist thy pleas

As the opera characters reconcile, so do the real-life lovers hidden behind them:

The two couples kiss

And they are not the only ones who are moved by the music; members of Père-la-Tulipe's gang, in the audience, also find it affecting:

The gang cries

Clair portrays the power of opera to transcend its means of production. We witness Sopranelli's vanity, his bickering with the diva, the bored stagehands who create the magical theatrical effects (the falling blossoms, the waxing moon), and the patent artificiality of the sets. Nonetheless, emotional truth is indeed what we find here.

But there's work to be done: the lottery ticket still hasn't been found. Michel and Prosper sneak out onstage during the performance disguised as extras in a crowd scene, and in the middle of an aria begin a tug-of-war over the jacket (Michel and Prosper are in the broad-brimmed feathered hats):

Tug-of-war

Mayhem follows (and for good measure, a parody of Harold Lloyd's The Freshman (1925), as one character after another grabs the jacket and tries to escape with it, only to be tackled by the others).

If Sous les toits des Paris was inspired by street-singers, Le Million is not only set in the world of comic opera, but makes use of its techniques—including occasional songs. Père-la-Tulipe's henchmen begin their meeting by singing a rousing anthem of class solidarity:

We take back the spoils of social injustice
 
Other songs interspersed throughout the film tell the story or comment on the action, as if giving voice to the musings of the characters' consciences. It's all very clever and funny, as is the ultimate fate of the lottery ticket.

But despite the film's many virtues, the comic-opera ambience also makes it ultimately feel a bit lightweight. Père-la-Tulipe's gang may find themselves tearing up at the opera; we're in no danger of doing the same over the fate of Michel, whatever it turns out to be. His world is too unreal, and Michel himself is a bit of a heel, with an artist's wandering eye (and hands, and lips). He will probably make Béatrice miserable. Apart from under-appreciated Béatrice, only two other characters earn our sympathy: Père-la-Tulipe, who upholds the thieves' code of honor, and an increasingly exasperated cab driver (Raymond Cordy), whose comic despair mounts along with the unpaid fare on his long-running meter.

Clair may have recognized that Cordy's rumpled Everyman was one of the best things about Le Million, because he cast him in next film as well, his masterpiece.

Next in the series: À nous la liberté (Give us freedom! 1931)

Last time: Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 2

Rene Clair

One striking thing about René Clair's The Italian Straw Hat (see René Clair's early films part 1) is how few intertitles it has, even though it is the adaptation of a play. Clair not only found visual means to convey information that in the play would have been related in dialogue, he introduced visual jokes (such as the clip-on tie and the tight, unfamiliar dress gloves and shoes) that tell us about the social status of the characters.

Like many other silent film directors, Clair dreaded the arrival of sound, which he called "the monster." In May 1929 he wrote,
Can the talking picture be poetic? There is reason to fear that the precision of the verbal expression will drive poetry off the screen just as it drives off the atmosphere of the daydream. The imaginary words we used to put into the mouths of those silent beings in those dialogues of images will always be more beautiful than any actual sentences. The heroes of the screen spoke to the imagination with the complicity of silence. Tomorrow they will talk nonsense into our ears and we will be unable to shut it out. [1]
But like some other directors making the transition to sound (Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind, as does, thanks to a friend, Fritz Lang) Clair found innovative ways to juxtapose sound and image. And he looked for stories to which sound would add an essential dimension.

Opening scene of Sous les toits de Paris

Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930):
At the time I was shooting my second or third silent picture, I heard a circle of street singers in Paris, on my way home from the studios. I thought how sad it was that I had no sound with which to make a picture. Four years later, sound came, and I returned to my street-singers idea. [2]
The film Clair wrote and directed was Sous les toits de Paris, in which the street-singer Albert (Albert Préjean) pursues the flirtatious neighborhood beauty Pola (Pola Illery). She agrees to become his fiancée, but unluckily Albert is arrested. He refuses to rat out the guilty thief whose stolen goods he is caught holding. (That he doesn't even particularly like the thief is beside the point; class solidarity is more important than personal feelings.) While Albert is sitting in a cell, Pola turns to Albert's friend Louis (Edmond Gréville) for comfort. When Albert is released, he learns the unwelcome news that Pola and Louis are in love. In the final shots of the film, he is back selling songs on the street, looking for another pretty girl.

In the silent Italian Straw Hat Clair's camera was often fixed; from the first moments of Sous les toits de Paris the camerawork is fluid. The film opens with a slow, continuous tracking shot that takes us from rooftops to street level. We hear voices singing the title song, first faintly and then increasing in volume as the camera approaches. It's soon revealed that what we're hearing is Albert leading a group of passers-by in the refrain from his latest number, "Sous les toits de Paris" (the songs were composed by Raoul Moretti, with lyrics by René Nazelles).

Albert (Albert Prejean)

As Albert leads the group in another refrain Clair pans up the side of a building, and we see the reactions of the residents on each floor: a pretty young woman (whom we will soon discover to be Pola) who is drawn to the music and the singer; a boy throwing spitballs at the crowd; a man exasperated by the noise; and a newlywed couple enjoying the impromptu concert. Later, as evening falls this same day, Clair will pan back down the building and we will hear each of the residents whistling, humming, singing, or picking out on a piano this opening song. Sound is essential to the gentle humor of these sequences, as the song is passed from person to person.

Pola (Pola Illery)

But where sound is inessential, Clair is reluctant to employ it. In his 1929 essay on sound film, Clair reports watching the recent release of Show Boat:
'Remember your father, remember your past, remember the old boat, etc.,' the old prompter in Show Boat said, to a weeping Laura La Plante. I stuffed up my ears, and then saw on the screen only two troubled people whose words I no longer heard: the vulgar scene became touching. [3]
To avoid banal recitation, throughout the film Clair gives us sequences where the dialogue is unheard. In the opening scene a pickpocket (Bill Bocket) working Albert's streetcorner crowd rifles Pola's purse, despite Albert's attempt to mime to her what's happening.

Pickpocket Bill (Bill Bocket) steals money from Pola's purse

After Albert finishes the song he pursues the thief, and they get into an argument in which we only hear their first exchange. Soundtrack music accompanies the rest of the scene, in which Albert takes the money back from the thief and heads after Pola. She has just met up with her dandyish boyfriend Fred (Gaston Modot), and they discover that her money has been taken. Fred goes back to confront the thief, but instead of threatening him, shakes his hand: Fred, we've just discovered, is the leader of the thief's gang.

Fred searches the thief and finds a purse on him; meanwhile, Albert catches up to Pola and pretends to have found her money on the sidewalk. Fred returns and offers the purse to Pola, who shakes her head: it's not hers.

The first triangle: Albert, Pola and Fred (Gaston Modot)

Fred shrugs, pockets the purse and walks off with Pola; the thief catches up to Albert and their argument continues, only to be ended by a sudden friendly embrace as a gendarme walks by. The action and the relationships among the characters are completely clear, and it all occurs without our being able to hear the dialogue (which in any case we can supply without effort).

Another scene shows Clair's ability to use sound to tell a story without visuals. Pola has been locked out of her apartment (Fred has stolen her key), and warily accepts Albert's invitation to stay at his place. When Albert turns out the light and crawls into bed next to her, the screen is almost completely dark, but we hear Pola's angry remonstrances and Albert's rather unconvincing protestations of innocence.

Pola: Will you leave me alone!

Eventually the light comes back on, and Albert is rubbing his face ruefully: he's evidently been slapped. Ultimately they both choose to sleep on the floor, on opposite sides of the bed.

When the alarm goes off in the morning, there's another visual joke: Albert, on the floor, fumbles around and presses the heel of Pola's shoe, and magically the alarm is silenced—

Albert presses Pola's shoe

—because Pola (who has gotten back into the bed during the night) has found the clock on the nightstand and turned it off.

Clair also uses unexpected diegetic sounds to avoid the obvious. During Albert's fight with Fred over Pola, the sound of a train roaring past drowns out the sounds of struggle. Later that same night, when Albert fights with Louis over Pola, they are in a bar where a record of Rossini's William Tell Overture is on the gramophone (and starts to skip).

When the two men reconcile, their conversation is shot through the glass pane of the bar doors, and so once again the dialogue can't be heard. (Shooting an unheard conversation through a window was a technique later borrowed by Sacha Guitry for his comedies.)

Louis (Edmond Greville) reconciles with Albert

In Sous les toits de Paris Clair used sound as a dramatic element and reconceived his approach to direction to adjust to the new medium. It was also the first in Clair's series of now-classic comedies set in the streets and cafés of working-class Paris and drawn from the lives of ordinary Parisians.

Next in the series: Le Million (1931)
Last time: Entr'acte (1924) and The Italian Straw Hat (1927)


  1. René Clair, reprinted in Cinema Yesterday and Today, Dover, 1972, p. 144.
  2. Quoted in John Kobal, Gotta Sing Gotta Dance, Hamblyn, 1970, p. 85.
  3. Clair, Cinema Yesterday and Today, p. 144

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 1


In 1924 the Dada and Surrealist artist Francis Picabia wrote a scenario and designed the sets and costumes for a two-act "instantaneist ballet" entitled Relâche (Cancelled), with music by Erik Satie. Picabia planned for the ballet to have an "entr'acte cinématographique," a film shown between the acts. He outlined a series of situations and asked a little-known young filmmaker, René Clair, to direct.

The previous year Clair had directed his first feature film, Paris qui dort (Paris Asleep), in which a group of adventurers wander through a Paris where time has been frozen by a mad scientist's immobility ray. The film's theme and visuals may have appealed to Picabia and prompted his invitation to collaborate.


Entr'acte (Intermission, 1924) consists of two sections: a brief introduction shown before the ballet featuring Satie and Picabia firing a cannon at the camera/audience, and a longer section that was shown between the acts. The film features various kinds of photographic effects (double exposures, moving in and out of focus, stop-motion animation, rapid pans and zooms, positioning the camera at odd angles, slow and reverse motion, etc.). A bearded ballerina doing leaps and pirouettes is shot from below a glass floor; matches crawl onto a man's scalp and burst into flame; Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray play chess on a rooftop until they are washed away by a torrent; a paper boat sails over the roofs of Paris as though they are storm-tossed waves.


A hunter (Clair himself?) shoots an egg, releasing a bird, and is in turn shot by Picabia and plummets from a roof. A funeral procession leaves a church, bounding in slow motion behind a hearse pulled by a camel. The hearse slips the harness and rolls through the streets; as it picks up speed, the members of the procession jog, then sprint after it to try to keep up. Finally, the coffin falls out of the careening hearse; the hunter climbs out, dressed as a magician. Pointing a wand at each member of the procession, he makes them disappear. He waves the wand over the audience, and then turns it on himself. As he fades from view, "Fin" comes onscreen, and then a man (Picabia?) bursts through the screen. He lands face down on a sidewalk; when he is kicked he flies back through the screen in reverse motion.

The provocations and incongruities of Entr'acte clearly influenced other experiments in Surrealist filmmaking. It seems also to have inspired later purveyors of absurdist humor: the funeral procession sequence, with its leaping mourners and runaway hearse, is like a silent Monty Python sketch. Picabia said that Entr'acte "respects nothing except the right to roar with laughter." [1]



Un chapeau de paille d'Italie (The Italian Straw Hat, 1927, adapted by Clair from the play by Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel):

In the opening minutes of Clair's film, a wandering horse munches on a straw hat it finds hanging on a bush in a park. Concealed by the shrubbery is a married woman (Olga Chekhova) having a rendezvous with her lover, a hotheaded Hussar (Vital Geymond). With her hat half-eaten, the woman can't return home to her husband without uncomfortable questions being raised. So the adulterous couple follow the owner of the horse to his home and demand that he replace the hat or face the wrath of the Hussar.

So begins a day in which the horse's owner, Fadinard (Albert Prejean), will be caught in a cascading series of misadventures, not least because it is his wedding day. His unsuspecting bride Helène (Maryse Maia) is increasingly bewildered by his distracted air and frequent disappearances as he races against time to find a substitute hat, while Helène's irascible father (Yvonneck) thinks that Fadinard is getting cold feet.

This must have seemed like time-worn material even in 1928. Clair does enliven the proceedings by incorporating a bit (though not enough) of the surrealistic visual sensibility of Entr'acte: there's a fantasy/nightmare sequence in which Fadinard imagines the slow-motion defenestration of his chairs, and the mass abandonment of the house by the rest of his furniture. There's also a sequence in which, as Fadinard tells the cuckolded husband (Jim Gerald) the story of the ruined hat, the scenes are portrayed as though melodramatically enacted on a theater stage.


But most of the action is shot by a fixed camera that, as Iris Barry has suggested, may have been intended to suggest the style of early movies (the action is set in 1895, the year of the Lumiere Brothers' first film screening). Or perhaps the fixed frame is intended to evoke the experience of sitting in a theater watching the play. Either way, the visually static direction can feel at odds with the comic action.

In translating the dialogue-driven play into a silent film Clair devised a series of running gags featuring recalcitrant objects—which include a myrtle plant, a clip-on tie that won't stay clipped, a blocked ear trumpet, an uncomfortable new pair of shoes, a missing glove, and a stray hairpin—that cause their owners recurring problems over the course of the day. But for this viewer, at least, the repeated jokes eventually wore out their welcome. At 105 minutes the film lacks the relentless pace that farce demands. Instead of irresistible laughter, the movie evokes the occasional rueful smile.

Spoiler alert: by the end of the film the straying wife has received a replacement for her half-eaten hat (in a way that we'd predicted in the first moments of the film), the potted myrtle has finally made its way into the home of the newlyweds, the ear trumpet has been unblocked, the bride's father has exchanged his tight new shoes for the cuckold's comfortable broken-in pair (a lewd joke?), and the missing glove has been found (the donning of gloves is also suggestive). . .


The gloves and the shoes

. . .but what about the hairpin? The bride's cousin inadvertently drops it down the back of Helène's wedding gown as she's helping her dress, and it keeps poking her throughout the day. Somehow, though, Clair forgot to wind up this running joke at the end of the film. It would have made the perfect ending: when Fadinard and Helène are finally alone and able to embrace on their wedding night, Helène should have flinched as the hairpin made its presence known once more. The placing of the pin on the nightstand would have been the perfect image of the happy resolution of all the day's distresses. Clair simply missed the opportunity.

Although Clair disapproved of movie adaptations of books and plays, after the success of Un chapeau de paille d'Italie his next film (and last silent feature) would be an adaptation of another Labiche comedy, Les Deux timides (Two Timid Souls, 1928). But it was with his first sound films that he broke through to international success, and they will be the subject of part two of this series.

Next in the series: Sous les toits de Paris (Under the roofs of Paris), Le Million, and À nous la liberté (We shall be free)




  1. Steven Higgins, Still Moving: The Film and Media Collections of The Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Modern Art, 2006, p. 104.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Suggested reading: Misogynist economists edition

Ingrained sexism in higher education, attacks on what is already a flawed voting system, and our willing participation in our own surveillance: yes, it's another cheery edition of Suggested Reading!


Janet Yellen, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

1. Misogynist economists

Alice Wu's senior thesis at UC Berkeley examined the language of posts on Economic Job Market Rumors, a forum "established to share information about job applications and results in each year's hiring cycle." Although the forum is anonymous, from internal evidence the majority of users are economics graduate students and recent Ph.Ds.

In this forum Wu found incontrovertible evidence of gender stereotyping. After analyzing the language of more than a million posts, she found 3600 words that had "meaningful predictive power" to determine whether the subject of a post was male or female. The top five words that predicted whether a post was about a woman were "hotter," "hot," "attractive," "pregnant," and "gorgeous." The top five words that predicted whether a post was about a man (that is, negatively predictive of it being about a woman) were "homosexual," "homo," "philosopher," "keen," and "motivated." (That "homosexual" and "homo" were the most predictive words for posts about men—"lesbian" was #8 for posts about women—says something as well about academic homophobia.)

In case you think this is "just" about language, the American Economic Association's Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession has shown that women are underrepresented in academic economics programs at all levels, from first-year economics Ph.D. students (only one-third are women) to full professors (only 13% are women). As Justin Wolfers writes in the New York Times, this is "Evidence of a Toxic Environment for Women in Economics." And it's not just economics: although for the past two decades a majority of bachelor's degrees have been earned by women, they are underrepresented in many other academic and professional programs, including law, business, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math-related) fields.



Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. In June 2017 he suggested that "patriotically minded" private Russian hackers may have interfered in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. (Reuters)

2. The hacking of our electoral system, part 1: Russia

Speaking of the New York Times, it recently published a report suggesting that, as the headline had it, the Russian election hacking effort was wider than previously known. The danger is apparently less that vote counts were changed—although without paper trails in many states that may never be determined—but that voter registration rolls can be altered to make it appear that voters aren't registered or have already voted. You would think that hacking of our voting system by a foreign power would result in well-funded and well-coordinated investigation at all levels, but "local, state and federal agencies have conducted little of the type of digital forensic investigation required to assess the impact, if any, on voting in at least 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian hackers."



19th-century caricature of the "Gerry-Mander," a Massachusetts voting district drawn to favor candidates of the Democratic-Republican Party of Gov. Eldbridge Gerry (Wikipedia.org)

3. The hacking of our electoral system, part 2: The Republican Party

As the Republican Party has long known, keeping people from voting at all is easier than changing their votes afterwards. It has relentlessly engaged in efforts to suppress the votes of people likely to vote against Republicans. As Rebecca Solnit writes of the Republican Party in Harper's Magazine, "rather than attempting to win the votes of people of color, they attempt to prevent people of color from voting."
I imagined that it was suicide for the G.O.P. to ignore the concerns of people of color, to craft a platform based on white grievance. Surely, I thought, John McCain and Mitt Romney lost their elections in part because a party run for and by white people had no future. But there was a fundamental flaw in my thinking: demographics matter only in a democracy, in a system in which every citizen has equal power and equal access to representation. That equality is threatened today [has it ever existed?], thanks to the Republican Party’s long campaign against those who are likely to vote against them. Today’s Republicans are democracy’s enemy, and it is theirs.
And alongside outright voter suppression comes voter dilution through gerrymandering. Emily Bazelon's recent article in the New York Times details the results of gerrymandering in Wisconsin: while the Republican share of the popular vote in Wisconsin State Assembly elections between 2008 and 2016 has increased from 43% to 53%, their proportion of State Assembly seats has gone from 47% to 65%. The Supreme Court will soon decide Gill v. Whitford, a case brought against Wisconsin's hyper-partisan redistricting, but in the past has declined to intervene in redistricting cases.


Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Platon/Wired.com)

4. Facebook is watching you

Who are Facebook's customers? If you answered "its users," you hold a common misconception. Facebook's customers are advertisers; as the headline of John Lanchester's London Review of Books article has it, "You are the product." The more data Facebook can gather about your activities, preferences, income, friends, "friends," etc., the more valuable you are to the company.

And where does Facebook get all that information? You give them most of it. As Lanchester writes,
. . .anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company. In 2014, the New York Times did the arithmetic and found that humanity was spending 39,757 collective years on the site, every single day. Jonathan Taplin points out that this is 'almost 15 million years of free labor per year.' That was back when it had a mere 1.23 billion users.
So if advertisers are Facebook's customers and we are its product, what is its business?
. . .even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens.
If you think that this doesn't have consequences beyond the ads you see, think again. To give just one example, the personal data that advertisers have access to results in personalized prices. When Spanish researchers created 'budget conscious' and 'affluent' online personas, they found that the affluent persona saw much higher prices (sometimes four times higher) than the budget conscious persona for the same goods and services. This is not just about being a smart consumer: even when the only difference between personas was location, quoted prices differed by as much as 166 percent.
It's sort of funny, and also sort of grotesque, that an unprecedentedly huge apparatus of consumer surveillance is fine, apparently, but an unprecedentedly huge apparatus of consumer surveillance which results in some people paying higher prices may well be illegal.
And how "unprecedentedly huge" is Facebook? Here's a list of the internet sites with the greatest number of monthly logged-in users: Facebook (now more than 2 billion), YouTube (1.5 billion), WhatsApp (1.2 billion), Messenger (1.2 billion), WeChat (890 million), and Instagram (700 million). YouTube is owned by Alphabet (Google), and WeChat by China's Tencent. Facebook owns the rest.

If you're under any illusion that Facebook exists (in the words of its mission statement) "to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together," Lanchester's article is essential reading.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Magic Flute


The entrance of the Queen of Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), 
designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1815.

How is it possible not to like Mozart's The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte, 1791), perhaps his most beloved opera?

As a measure of that universal appreciation, Die Zauberflöte is Mozart's most-performed opera by far, and in the 2015-16 season was the second-most-performed opera worldwide by any composer, according to Operabase.com. And the fairy-tale-like story has sparked the imagination of many visual artists. In the mid-70s Ingmar Bergman made a famous film version (performed in Swedish); in the early 2000s Julie Taymor directed a colorfully syncretic production at the Metropolitan Opera (performed in English); and more recently William Kentridge has created a production involving his striking animated projections.(Samples of all of these and more are easily findable on YouTube.)

So how is it possible not to like The Magic Flute? Let me count the ways:
  1. The libretto is racist. The libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder features Monostatos, a "blackamoor," who is portrayed as cowardly, impulsive and lustful and who tries to rape the heroine.
  1. The libretto is misogynistic and sexist. The Queen of Night represents darkness and evil while her male enemy, the philosopher-priest Sarastro, represents light and wisdom. And Sarastro tells the abducted heroine Pamina (daughter of the Queen of Night) that he won't allow her to return to her mother because without male influence they will inevitably go astray: "A man must guide your hearts, for without him all women tend to step out of their proper place."
  1. The libretto is hypocritical. When Pamina begs Sarastro not to punish her mother, whose actions have been motivated by "the pain of losing me," he tells her that "within these sacred portals revenge is unknown" and "enemies are forgiven." At the end of the opera—spoiler alert!—the Queen of Night, her Three Ladies and Monostatos are swept away and plunged into "eternal darkness." Forgiveness is sweet.
  1. The dialogue is spoken. In recitative (words that are half-sung, half spoken, with instrumental accompaniment) the music can emphasize or ironically comment on the words, anticipate or echo themes, and become part of the musical as well as dramatic structure of the opera. Spoken dialogue, instead of being part of the musical flow of an opera, is an interruption of that flow. And particularly for home listening, long stretches of dialogue in German are not an appealing prospect for those of us who aren't fluent in the language.
  1. The hero is a tenor. Prince Tamino is a tenor role, and if you're a regular reader of this blog you're already aware of my feelings about tenor heroes.
My hesitations about the opera seemed to place me in a distinct minority, though it was not a minority of one. The composer and critic Jan Swafford reports that his reaction on first hearing The Magic Flute was "I hated it." More of his reactions: "The story of Prince Tamino and his journey to love and wisdom appeared to me unmitigated flapdoodle. . .out of date. . .moronic. . .supposedly amusing. . .tedious. . .the whole thing struck me as hopeless."

My reaction was never that negative, but I had seen Bergman's film and wondered why it was so deeply appealing to so many. What was I missing?

Then last week I found a recording of the opera, the version conducted by Otto Klemperer in 1964, which features Gundula Janowitz as Pamina and Lucia Popp as the Queen of Night. If you've seen my posts on Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs or on orchestral versus piano lieder, then you know that Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp are among my favorite singers.

As soon as I took this recording home and put it on the stereo, what I had been missing was immediately apparent: Mozart's sublime music. To my surprise and delight, Klemperer omits the spoken dialogue. It is easy to fill in the missing action (the booklet libretto is complete), and without the dialogue you get to immerse yourself in two hours of peak Mozart. This recording was made when both Janowitz and Popp were at the start of their careers: Janowitz was 26, and Popp, who was, of course, playing the role of her mother, was 24.

Here is Janowitz performing Pamina's aria "Ach, ich fühl's" from that recording. Tamino has taken a vow of silence as one of three trials he must undergo to prove himself worthy of Pamina's hand in marriage. But Pamina thinks his refusal to speak means that he is spurning her, and her heart is broken:



The words:

Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden,
Ewig hin der Liebe Glück!
Nimmer kommt ihr Wonnestunde
Meinem Herzen mehr zurück!
Sieh', Tamino, diese Tränen,
Fließen, Trauter, dir allein!
Fühlst du nicht der Liebe Sehnen,
So wird Ruh' im Tode sein!
Ah, I feel it, it has vanished,
Love's happiness is forever gone!
Never again will the hour of bliss
Return to my heart!
See, Tamino, these tears,
Flowing, beloved, for you alone!
If you no longer feel the longing of love
Then I will find peace in death!

And here is Lucia Popp performing the Queen of Night's aria  "Der Hölle Rache," in which she urges her daughter to kill Sarastro:



The words:

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
Tot und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!
Fühlt nicht durch dich Sarastro
Todesschmerzen,
So bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr.
Verstossen sei auf ewig,
Verlassen sei auf ewig,
Zertrümmert sei'n auf ewig
Alle Bande der Natur
Wenn nicht durch dich
Sarastro wird erblassen!
Hört, Rachegötter,
Hoert der Mutter Schwur!
Hell's revenge boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro by your hand does not feel
The agony of death,
Then you will no longer be my daughter.
Forever you will be disowned,
Forever you will be abandoned,
Forever will be destroyed
All the bonds of nature,
If Sarastro by your hand does not feel
his life's blood draining away!
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother's oath!

Jan Swafford ultimately had a Magic Flute conversion experience. He writes that "Today I number Die Zauberflöte among the dozen or so works of art that in my experience represent the highest, most potent, most moving things human creativity can achieve. . .Now as the curtain comes down I am usually dissolved in tears. Few works affect me more."

At least so far, I'm in no danger of being dissolved in tears at the curtain of The Magic Flute. (That does happen to me infallibly at the conclusion of The Marriage of Figaro, which remains, in my view, Mozart's greatest work.) But I now appreciate to a far greater extent the sheer beauty that Mozart poured into this opera. Of course I had known its famous arias, but hearing the complete music for the opera revealed that it is filled with wonderful ensembles. From Bergman's film, here are the Three Ladies rescuing Tamino and then arguing over him:


https://youtu.be/l17SQeytHN8?t=9m28s (the scene ends at 14:10)

(Britt-Marie Aruhn, Birgitta Smiding, and Kirsten Vaupe are the Three Ladies; they are accompanied by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eric Ericson. Wagner's Rhinemaidens are obviously the Ladies' granddaughters.)

And as is also true of Cosi fan tutte, another late Mozart opera with a problematic libretto, the depth of feeling expressed by Mozart's music complicates the plot and contradicts its misogyny. Sarastro may assert that women need a man's guidance; Pamina's emotion-filled aria and her rejection of her mother's burning desire for revenge tell us that she is fully capable of feeling and acting on her own behalf. Schikaneder's Magic Flute may be racist, sexist, and at times silly or incoherent; Mozart's, I've come to realize, is a deeply humane and ravishingly gorgeous. No wonder everyone admires it; and now, at last, Klemperer's recording has enabled me to hear why.