April 17th, 2009

La Loge

Queens and Goddesses

This week has been full of shenanigans in high places.

On Tuesday, we saw the current British production of Schiller's Mary Stuart, starring Harriet Walter as Elizabeth 1 and Janet McTeer as the doomed Mary.

OK, full disclosure. I'm with Jane Austen on the subject of Mary Stuart. She's not romantic, she's stupid. I mean, really. What did she think Elizabeth was going to do when she would keep plotting and planning and seducing (emotionally, anyway) her jailers? I can't blame her for wanting to get rid of Darnley, but marrying Bothwell? The woman simply had no sense.

That said, I have to say that, properly played, Mary Stuart is an affecting play. It's true that Schiller's Mary would make a disastrous reigning queen, unable as she clearly is to govern her emotions or her temper. But she's got a lot of charm and a lot of life to her, which Elizabeth, hemmed in as she is with other people's agendas and demands and needs, does not. It's an interesting study in freedom and imprisonment, actual and metaphorical. And if finally, Elizabeth remains Queen of England, with lots of power and very nice clothes, and Mary spends her life miserably within the confines of a few rooms, Schiller argues that her life was, finally, richer than Elizabeth's. Of course, being an 18th C. German (Mary Stuart was written in 1800), Schiller implies it's because Mary is a complete woman, whose romantic dependence on the weak men leads her into tragedy, where Elizabeth is a half-woman, whose practical dependence on strong men leads her into an action she doesn't really want to take. All of which makes a modern production problematical, at the very least.

The Mary Stuart currently playing at the Broadhurst in New York tries to be true to the play while giving a nod to modern sensibilities. Janet McTeer is a splendid Mary, spirited, passionate, and ungoverned. When she loses her temper, she doesn't care what she says, or to whom. When she is let out of her prison for a day, she takes off her shoes and her sleeves and frolics in the rain. Harriet Walter's Elizabeth, on the other hand, would like to be passionate and ungoverned, but won't let herself be. She's certainly vain, and a little silly where handsome young men like the Earl of Leicester are concerned. But when push comes to shove, she does what she has to do--and does her best to wiggle out of the responsibility for having done it.

I can't say that the decision to dress all the men in modern business suits did a lot for me (I do like a nice doublet and hose on a man), although I appreciate the idea behind it--that history has always been run by men in suits, arranging things unromantically behind the scenes, while the iconic figures, dressed in black and gold, posture and declaim in the foreground. But the whole thing, in the end, left me emotionally unengaged, in a way that a much rawer and less accomplished production I saw three years ago, done al fresco in Castle Clinton, did not. Still, Walter and McTeer are wonderful, the be-suited men polished and creepy. And the Act 2 rainstorm very convincing. Plus, it's given me a lot to think about. Which is a good thing, right?

Last night, on the other hand, we were invited to go to a benefit teaser concert of the Boston Early Music Festival's production of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione Di Poppea. It was at the Union Club, one of those private gentlemen's clubs on the side streets of midtown New York where men must appear in ties at all times, even at breakfast at 7 in the morning. There were drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the library, stocked with Trollope, Thackery, and Lady Gregory's translation of Moliere, along with Civil War histories, modern thrillers, and about 3,000,000 itsy tiny lead soldiers in glass cases, plus cannon, flags, horses, and supply carts.

The story of Poppea is utterly unedifying: Nero falls in love with the poor but noble Poppea, who keeps asking him whether he loves her and when he's going to get rid of his wife so he can prove his love by marrying her. After much singing, his wife hires a man to kill Poppea, which dastardly deed is foiled by Cupid watching over her while she sleeps. Afterwards, Nero and Poppea rejoice in her survival and Octavia's murder attempt, which allows Nero to divorce her and marry Poppea--who he has killed (although the opera doesn't mention it) something like 2 months later.

So clearly, we're not in this for the story or the characterization or the elevated sentiments. Or (because this is a concert) for the costumes or the setting. We're in this for the music, and the music was divine. Nobody writes duets for female voices like Montiverdi. There was a moment during the opening argument between Fortune and Virtue (which is where the Goddesses come in), when the two sopranos sang a phrase that set the air shivering with overtones and brought tears to my eyes.

The Boston Music Festival is in Boston in June. If you like early music, done with scholarly rigor and exquisite taste, hie thee thither--to Poppea if you can, to some of the smaller concerts if you can't. Having gone religiously the whole time I lived in Boston, and liking early music more than somewhat, I'd say it was absolutely worth it.