Here’s a short list of my favorite cultural finds from 2007. If you happen to have seen, read or heard one of these, be sure to leave your own opinion in the Comments section below. I’d like to hear from you.
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The one film from this past year I can’t get out of my head is from Italy: Golden Door, (Nuovomondo). Anyone who had a relative immigrate to America through Ellis Island will not want to miss this movie. Directed by Emanuele Crialese, the film stars the amazing French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg who seems able to create on screen any kind of character she wants. Not blessed with great beauty, Gainsbourg, nonetheless, commands the screen so much you have to remind yourself to watch the other characters.
It opens in Sicily where Salvatore, an impoverished widower, has made up his mind to take his family to the United States. As they are being cleared by Italian customs, he meets Lucy (Gainsbourg), a British lady, who, for an unknown reason, wants to marry someone before arriving at Ellis Island. Salvatore is genuinely smitten and accepts her proposal. The pragmatic Lucy is unexpectedly challenged by the love of a kind, sincere, and pious man from another class and country.
Put together Placido Domingo with today’s most exciting young soprano and tenor – Anna Netrebko and Ramon Villazón – on a summer’s night in Berlin, when all the performers were inspired, and you have not merely a concert but a celebration of opera and song. Part of the fun of this video is watching the interaction of the singers. Netrebko and Villazón make a romantic, handsome couple, and they play it for all it’s worth. When they are joined by Domingo in “Dein ist mein ganzes herz,” the two men are pitted against each other in their ardent wooing.
Other highlights include Villazón and Domingo singing the great duet from “The Pearl Fischers,” “Au fond du temple saint;” Villazón and Netrebko’s “O Soave Fanciuilla” from “La Boheme;” and “Tonight” from “West Side Story.” Not for opera aficionados only, The Berlin Concert is a reminder of why great singing trumps any other kind of art form.
Three of Ralph Vaughn Williams most tuneful works led by the new conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Robert Spano. Telarc also provides the best possible audio quality and soundscape, especially if you have SACD capacity.
It’s nice to hear the Atlanta Symphony come back into its own after its years of wandering after the death of the great Robert Shaw. The members of the Atlanta Symphony chorus make the most of the gorgeous “Serenade to Music,” a setting for sixteen soloists of Shakespeare’s “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank…”
The “Tallis Fantasia,” if you have never heard it, is a lovely modal work for string orchestra based upon an original tune by the Elizabethan Catholic composer Thomas Tallis. The 5th Symphony, along with the 3nd Symphony (“Pastoral”), is the best place to start sampling Vaughn Williams’ nine symphonies. Its basic themes were taken from Williams’ setting of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. (If someone were to ask me what composition I would most like to see staged before I die, I might ask for Pilgrim’s Progress – it’s that beautiful!)
Javier MarÍas is one of Spain’s leading literary figures. Many of his novels have been published in English translation, but this is the first time readers without Spanish have had the opportunity to sample MarÍas’s opinion on other, mostly classic, writers. The chapters are short, the perfect length to read before falling asleep, and they bear titles like “William Faulkner on Horseback,” “James Joyce in His Poses,” and “Arthur Conan Doyle and Woman.” Yes, these are not the ponderous essays of a literary critic from the New York Review of Books – MarÍas shares his irreverent enjoyment of literature in a way that not only illumines well-known books and writers from an unusual angle, but also makes you want to go back to the books themselves.
Take this passage from his chapter on Robert Louis Stevenson:
As a child, as well as harboring strong religious feelings, feelings that drove him to hold forth, along in his bed at night, on the Fall of Man and the Fury of Satan, he had thrown himself with great enthusiasm into committing ingenuously ‘sinful’ acts, an enthusiasm, he confessed, that he never again felt about anything in his adult life.
I don’t think The Great Gatsby should be read before you reach forty – it’s one of those many books force-fed to high school and college students, most of whom simply don’t have the life-experience or imagination to appreciate it. This recording by Tim Robbins is an ideal way to return to Gatsby and give it a second chance, just in case, like me, you didn’t get it on the first time around. Most great books have their greatness amplified by a good reader, and the lean, lyrical writing of this Fitzgerald classic particularly comes alive when taken in by the ear rather than the eye. More and more people are discovering audio books — thanks in part to the MP3 file — and Robbin’s reading of Gatsby will not disappoint you.
My Most Unusual Discovery of 2007: Blood Wedding, a film Carlos Saura
I’ve always been a fan of great dancing in films, from Busby Berkeley and the Golden Days of Hollywood with Astaire, Rodgers, Hayworth, and Gene Kelly, to the choreography of modern musicals by Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins. In 1992, an early Baz Luhrmann film called Strictly Ballroom was a rare and delightful foray into the world of ballroom dancing competitions. Buhrmann’s film had one scene in which a couple of veteran Flamenco dancers show a young ballroom dancer their moves, and the result was magical. It always made me curious to see more of Flamenco.
Flamenco dancing, as it turns out, is not about heel-pounding. As Gades presents it, Flamenco makes great use of the arm and hand gestures, which, by themselves, have the power to move you. The one moment that has to be seen to be believed is the knife fight between the jilted husband and the married man at the end. As I watched those long switch-blades pass back and forth between their bodies I held my breath waiting for the blood to spurt – it looked that real and that close! Great dancing and a great moral tale based upon the play of the same name by Federico Garcia Lorca.