Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mozart + Branagh = Pure Magic!

So I watched the whole thing on YouTube last night and my initial enthusiasm was confirmed – and then some! This really is a delightful film and a wonderfully fresh adaptation of Mozart’s great opera, The Magic Flute. If you are a fan either of Mozart or of Branagh (and who shouldn’t be?) you really should check this out. The production has strong echos of Moulin Rouge, despite being decidedly less dark overall. (And of course the music is superior!) Branagh has received some criticism for a few of the casting choices, but I really don’t find fault with anyone; I think most are really superb in their respective roles. My only complaint is that the discernability of the lyrics is rather inconsistent, especially with the choruses and ensembles. But that just sort of goes with the territory of opera and doesn’t really present much of a problem – you pretty much get what is going on anyway. If you watch on YouTube, follow the posts by operafan1975. They are numbered sequentially (Overture, Act 1.1, 1.2, etc.) and pretty easy to follow. Also might not hurt to read a short synopsis of the libretto, if you’re unfamiliar.

Let me mention one specific thing which I find intriguing about this production. Mozart, as many are perhaps aware, was a devoted follower of Freemasonry, and this opera was originally conceived as an embodiment of Masonic beliefs and ideals. (Mozart composed the music and his friend and fellow Freemason Emanuel Shikaneder wrote the libretto and also performed the part of Papageno in the first performances.) What this amounts to, in the original version, is a rather thickly spread adoration of Enlightenment rationalism on the one hand and the infusion of a good deal of quasi-pagan mumbo-jumbo on the other, both of which have always made this opera rather off-putting for me. But in this adaptation both of those aspects (especially the second) are considerably downplayed and there has even been a subtle but effective replacement of much of the original symbolism and language with that which is more explicitly Christian. All very interesting and rather surprising. I can’t say what Mozart and Shikaneder would have to say about it, but I’m delighted that Branagh opted to give it that delicate fine-tuning. As a result, the gospel, latent in virtually all myths and fairy tales, shines forth in this work with even greater clarity.

This is one I’d like to own (to say nothing of simply being able to watch in greater clarity!), and I really hope it is available in the U.S. soon.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Where’s Branagh’s Magic Flute?

I was not even aware (until I stumbled across it on YouTube) that celebrated Shakespearean interpreter Kenneth Branagh has produced an English film adaptation of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. I’ve watched the trailer, opening sequence and some snippets from the rest and I am sold! The World War I-ish re-imagining of the rather bizarre and fantastical singspiel seems to work delightfully in Branagh’s creative hands. But here’s the kicker: looks like you’ll have no other option – no realistically viable one for the foreseeable future, anyway – than to watch as much of it as you can on YouTube. (A far less than ideal choice for a number of reasons, but what’s a fellow to do?) The film is going on three years old, but despite modest critical acclaim elsewhere it is not available for distribution in any form in the U.S. To paraphrase this L.A. Times writer, “What’s up with that?!”

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Nashville Unrealized

Here are some of the more notable images that go along with that Nashville Scene article referenced in the previous post.

The Public Square: Emmons Woolwine and Frederic Hirons, 1937

The Pinnacle: Henry Bledsoe, 1977

Growing the State Capitol: Harry Frahn, 1917

Growing the Downtown Post Office: Tuck Hinton Everton Architects, 1989

The Central Loop, General Neighborhood Renewal Plan: Clarke & Rapuano, Inc., New York, December 1963

Form, Function and City Planning

I read an interesting piece in a local rag yesterday regarding Nashville Metro Council’s plans for future development of the downtown area. Urban planning is a very tangled web of competing concerns and I don’t really pretend to be equipped to offer any detailed critique. But since it involves two things I hold dear, design and my native city, I take an interest. The upshot of this article, which I find refreshing at least, is that aesthetic and pragmatic concerns appear to be receiving more equal weight than in bygone days. Of course, one matter leads to another and there is always a question of which aesthetic is being embraced, what its guiding principles are, etc. And of course, the pendulum can swing too far in either direction. But if folks are at least beginning to realize that function shouldn’t be allowed to browbeat form, as it has for so long now, we will not despise the day of small beginnings.

This article also reminded me of another fascinating one which the Nashville Scene ran several years ago regarding past proposals for re-making downtown Nashville which were (thankfully, for the most part) never realized. (At least none of them in full. Unfortunately the online version of this article is severely hamstrung by the fact that the accompanying architectural renderings from the original edition are left out. Perhaps I will scan some and post myself.)

Sunday, May 3, 2009


And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
Genesis 2: 19 (AV)

In addition to dressing and keeping the garden, Adam was also given the privileged task of naming the other creatures which inhabit the earth. Anyone familiar with the Bible knows that naming and names are very significant things in Scripture. Juliet’s dictum notwithstanding, (What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.) it takes but little consideration to realize that names have tremendous power to influence our perception of a thing. Just start by considering your own name. Have you ever considered how your life might have been influenced differently if your parents had given you a name other than the one they had given you? For better or for worse, people would perceive you differently – and you would perceive yourself differently – if you wore a different name. What the net effect of this would be is impossible to say, but it would undoubtedly make some sort of difference. (And to date this post by referencing current events: does it matter whether we call it Swine Flu, or the H1N1 Virus – or Mexico Flu, as Israel’s Health Department has decided to do? Is the chosen name going to affect how people react to it? Which name do you think is going to stick?)

As an initial consideration, we should be reminded that God Himself has a Name and that Scripture attaches great importance to this fact. (Ex 3:13-15) God’s Name is to be carefully guarded. (Ex 20:7) Next, it should be noted that the act of naming in Scripture represents authority, which is an obvious aspect of dominion. The fact that Adam (Man) is charged with naming the creatures is a symbolic aspect of his authority over them. Adam also names his own wife – twice! (2:23; 3:20) Eve names her own children (4:25), a maternal privilege which is generally (with exceptions) observed throughout Scripture. (Gen 29 & 30; Judges 13:24; 1 Sam 1:20; Luke 1 provides an interesting variation on this custom.)

Naming also involves creative application of the faculties of observation. Some commentators have referred to the short stanza surrounding Adam’s first instance of naming Woman in Genesis 2 as the first poem. Sometimes the scrutiny exercised on the part of the one naming involves taking stock of the qualities of the person (or thing) being named or their surrounding circumstances. (Esau, Gen 25:25) Sometimes it involves a look backwards in time. (Manasseh, Gen. 41:51) Sometimes it involves a look forward, often in the prophetic sense. (Abel, Gen 4:2. Interestingly, the name means vanity or emptiness, but is also very similar to the Hebrew word for pastureland.) Sometimes it is various combinations of the above. (Ichabod, 1 Sam 4:21)

So naming is an important aspect of man’s general calling to exercise dominion and, to offer a glimpse at where this might lead in some future posts, I would submit that it has particular relevance to those involved in artistic pursuits. In brief, others have observed1 that it is possible to view creative works of art in every media as instances of naming, which I think is a very interesting line of thought to pursue.

1 Veith, State of the Arts, p147; Wilson, Credenda Agenda v9 n1