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Nov 3/17

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Victoria and Abdul (Movie); The Stranger in the Woods (Biography); The Marriage of Figaro (Opera)

Victoria and Abdul (Movie) written by Lee Hall, based on the book by Sharbani Basu; directed by Stephen Frears; starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Piggott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Paul Higgins, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow and Ruth McCabe.

Again – one of those movies that takes a bit of history about the royals and, with a little elaboration and invention, turns it into a feature movie.

In this case, it’s about a man from India, Abdul Karim, who was brought to England to present to Queen Victoria a special medal to mark her golden jubilee. Liking what she saw – of the man, more than the medal – the Queen asked him to stay on. He became her close associate and friend. She kept promoting him to higher rank, much to the dismay of the members of the royal household, who were affronted at such honour being given to a foreigner of common birth.

Implausible as that scenario may seem – despite its basic authenticity in historical terms – what makes it work as a movie is that Abdul, as played by Ali Fazal, has a charming way of ignoring protocol and rules, thus giving him an entree to Queen Victoria’s affections. At the presentation of the medal, for instance, he has been strictly warned not to make eye contact with the sovereign but, as he’s backing away from the royal presence after the presentation, he can’t resist looking up and catching her attention with a conspiratorial smile that almost amounts to a wink of the eye. That’s such a shocking breach of formality that it makes a profound impression on Queen Victoria, although she’s careful not to let on, at first. Gradually, she asks to see more of Abdul and soon he’s teaching her Urdu.

An intriguing irony runs through the film in that Queen Victoria, although proclaimed Empress of India, is badly informed about the place. Abdul is often required to set the dumbfounded Empress straight. One instance of the royal ignorance has to do with a key fact about Abdul and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), the man who came to England as his companion for the medal presentation. In the royal household, the two men are constantly referred to as "The Hindus" – until it comes to light that they’re Muslims.

Mohammed’s attitude adds some edge to the situation. Quite unlike Abdul, he has no patience with the fawning, the bowing and the scraping. In the privacy of the bedroom he shares with Abdul, Mohammed is constantly cursing these "bloody" English who conquered India. Plagued by the cold and damp, he’s longing to escape to his homeland. You might say his contrariness speaks for movie goers who might have questions about all the hoop-la surrounding this woman known as the"Empress of India."

Which raises the question: would this movie be of interest to anybody who isn’t a fan of all that royal palaver? Maybe not. On the other hand, you could see it as a meaningful portrait of any woman – albeit a very eminent one in this case – who’s surrounded by sycophants who don’t offer the kind of true friendship that one man is providing. Exactly what this woman was like in person, we can’t say, of course, because we don’t have video or audio evidence. However, we do know a great deal about her, given that she and the people surrounding her were given to voluminous letter writing. My main impression of Queen Victoria, from having read a fair bit of the biographical material, is that she was an indomitable person with an adamantine or an obdurate quality that could suddenly take a sentimental, sappy turn. Judi Dench, great actress that she is, doesn’t give us that woman. Although Ms. Dench can, at times, be authoritative and stern – even crotchety – in the role, there is an underlying niceness about her that doesn’t fit with my image of the domineering Victoria. You don’t get the sense of the steel rods at the core of the woman.

However, Ms. Dench, as you might expect, does give us some touching scenes. One of the best would be the one where she reveals her loneliness to Abdul. She hasn’t had a true soul companion since the deaths of Prince Albert and of Mr. Brown, the Scotsman who became her confidant following the Prince Consort’s death. It’s not hard to see how a spontaneous, affectionate man like Abdul would reach a long deserted place in the Queen’s heart.

Was he doing it all for his own preferment? Was he actually a scoundrel faking his feelings for the Queen just to reap the benefits of her generosity? The movie raises such questions – in the voices of the various members of the royal household – but it never does provide a conclusive answer. As I understand it from my reading, Abdul was involved in a lot more skulduggery than we’re shown here. But it’s hard to believe that the character, as played by Mr. Fazal, could be anything but a nice guy.

 

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (Biography) by Michael Finkel, 2017

Everybody, at times, wants to flee this world. (You don’t? Well, I do!) In this case though, we’re not talking about a holiday on a desert island. Or a quiet retreat in a Benedictine monastery. We’re talking about really opting out of the human scene: living totally alone in nature, having virtually no contact with other people for twenty-seven years.

That’s how Christopher Knight lived in the North Pond area of Maine until he was caught by authorities in 2013. (To speak of his arrest isn’t a spoiler because this book starts with that.) The reason for the arrest is that he’d been keeping himself alive in his woodsy hideaway by stealing food and other necessities from nearby cottages and a summer camp. It was only through the extreme vigilance and cunning of Terry Hughes, a game warden, that Knight was apprehended and the tale of his extraordinary exploit was gradually revealed.

In 1986, Mr. Knight was twenty years old, working at a job installing home and vehicle alarm systems. On an inexplicable whim, he walked off the job without notice, then drove to Florida, eating fast food and staying in cheap motels. At the places where he stopped, he didn’t do much but sit in his car and watch the world go by. On returning north, he drove into the Maine woods as far as he could, abandoning his car, leaving the keys in it, then started looking for a campsite.

For a while, he lived in a sort of cave that he’d made in a riverbank but it proved too dank and dark. Eventually he found the perfect spot: a small clearing in almost impenetrable woods. Access to the clearing was especially difficult because it was surrounded with elephantine rocks that looked impassable until you found a narrow opening between two of them.

This site was only about thirty miles from his family home. Yet, Mr. Knight never reached out to any family members, never risked sending a message that he was alive, for fear that they would try to pull him back into society. The living arrangement that Mr. Knight set up for himself consisted of one tent within another. The outer layer was a tarpaulin stretched over a line strung between two trees. Inside that shelter was a domed tent where he slept. His "home" was furnished with sleeping bags, a Coleman stove, a cooler, some lawn chairs, books, magazines and other accouterments – all stolen from residences a short distance away. His main supply of food was the summer camp; he’d once found a key to the camp’s food storage area and he kept it hidden under a rock nearby.

Two factors of Mr. Knight’s modus operandi made his existence in this mode viable for so long. The first was that his burglaries were always excuted with maximum skill and minimal disruption. More importantly, he was extremely careful in his comings and goings. He never travelled out of his campsite when there was snow on the ground, for fear of leaving footprints. Even when walking on dry ground, he was careful not to leave such a slight sign of his presence as a broken twig. He knew his route to and from his campsite so well, that he could navigate it in total darkness with a kind of smooth and stealthy choreography. Terry Hughes, the game warden who was ultimately responsible for ending Mr. Knight’s solitary existence, professed, after watching Mr. Knight demonstrate his skills, that he’d never seen anyone who could navigate the woods with such finesse: it was almost ghostly and inhuman, the way he could get around.

Mr. Knight always made sure that he was clean and well-groomed on these forays into civilization in case he might bump into anybody. He didn’t want to look like some mythical wildman of the woods. Reports when he was first captured seemed to say that he’d only ever once encountered another human being on his treks through the woods. It was another man; they each said "hi" and continued on their separate ways. Through Mr. Finkel’s investigations, though, it appears that there may have been a few other brushes with humans. In one instance, a young man who was alone at his family’s cottage woke up in the night and heard an intruder on the stairs. The young man hollered threats that made the intruder – Mr. Knight – retreat quickly. In another incident, some hunters claimed that they had stumbled on Mr. Knight in the woods, that they realized, more or less who he was, and that they agreed to leave him in peace.

Although Mr. Knight’s carefulness made him difficult to trace, signs of his presence couldn’t be ignored. All those missing items, for instance. And yet, the thefts were usually small enough not to prompt calls to the police. When you arrived at your cottage, you might be thinking "I thought I’d put some steaks in the freezer last weekend," but you wouldn’t be sure enough to make an issue of it. Still, there were so many instances of things disappearing that legal authorities made many attempts to track down what appeared to be a habitual thief in the area. Some people talked about the "North Pond Hermit" as something of a local legend.

In his twenty-seven years alone, Mr. Knight never got sick. That’s because sickness comes from contact with other people. But he did come close to death through sheer cold and lack of food in the winter. At one time, he had procured a whistle that he intended to blow if he ever got too weak to move; he felt regular whistle blasts would bring help. Eventually, though, he decided against sounding any such S.O.S. He’d prefer to die than return voluntarily to civilization.

The books that Mr. Knight had stolen from cottages provided him with a library of works ranging from erudite philosophy to trashy romances. One of his favourite books was Dostoyevsky’s [sic] Notes from the Underground. The book’s opening lines: "I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man" made him feel that Dostoyevsky was speaking directly to him. He modelled himself on the Stoics who didn’t complain about anything and he had a special fondness for Socrates, who advocated the eremetical lifestyle. But he had no respect for Henry David Thoreau, whom he apparently saw as somebody playing at being a hermit. (In what is, I presume, a slip of the fingers at the keyboard, Mr. Finkel refers, on p 122, to Thoreau as "Knight’s best friend." Perhaps Rousseau is meant, not Thoreau.) One of the main points about the solitary life comes through in Mr. Knight’s comment: "Solitude increased my perception. But here’s the tricky thing: when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself. I became irrelevant."

Journalist Michael Finkel tells this story with clarity and verve that make for a speedy read through the191 pages. His relationship with his subject was complicated, though. In jailhouse visits with the author, Mr. Knight could be rude, abrupt, even cruel. Given that the two men only had nine meetings, lasting about an hour each, this book can’t hope to provide a full treatment of the subject’s character. But Mr. Finkel comes about as close to doing that as anybody could. From interviews with people who knew Mr. Knight as a youngster, Mr. Finkel learns that, although he wasn’t exactly an oddball, neither was he the Prom King. He tended to be somewhat of a loner, mostly a quiet type, although he could be giddy and foolish at times. His family members – mom and dad, five sons and one daughter – were known to be self-reliant, rather private people. The dad made the kids learn the kinds of basic skills – building, repairing and so on – that would enable the son, Christopher, to survive so well on his own.

Although we never do really learn why Mr. Knight chose to do what he did, we do get a few interesting insights into his character. One of the most intriguing, I find, is that he felt bad about the stealing. Every foray into civilization for provisions made him nervous and fearful. He knew it wasn’t right to do this but he didn’t see what else he could do. In his teens, Mr. Knight had attended a course called Hunter Safety and Outdoor Skills. The teacher told the kids that it was acceptable to break into a cottage and steal food if you had to do it to survive. The teacher tells Mr. Finkel: "I was thinking of a survival situation lasting two or three days, not twenty years."

People’s reactions when Mr. Knight was caught ranged widely. Some were furious. They felt that the sense of danger that he caused robbed them of valuable peace of mind in their cottages. Other people felt that Mr. Knight’s transgressions were, in themselves, slight enough that they should be forgiven in the light of the very difficult life that he had imposed on himself. And there were those who disputed that Mr. Knight could actually have lived as he claimed; to them, such survival in the frigidity of Maine winters was not believable. But Terry Hughes, the game warden who caught Mr. Knight, attested to his supreme survival skills.

Inevitably, possible diagnoses of Mr. Knight’s state come up. He acknowledges that some people see him as crazy. He rejects that charge because it cuts off any possibility of further exploration of a person’s motives. Besides, Mr. Knight’s way of life looked a lot less crazy to him than many of the trends in society. Psychologists have considered whether or not his condition might fit somewhere on the Autism spectrum. Or did he have a schizoid personality disorder? Mr. Finkel reports on some discussion about whether Mr. Knight is the kind of person who necessarily imposes suffering on himself. At one point, Mr. Finkel refers to his subject as a "compulsive introvert."As far as I can recall, no one ever says that Mr. Knight’s actions showed him to be, essentially, a misanthropist. To me, that could be the most likely explanation for what he did.

Read The Stranger in the Woods if you want to know how his case was resolved in the legal system. That’s the kind of plot detail we don’t reveal here at Dilettante’s Diary.

 

The Marriage of Figaro (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; conducted by David Fallis; directed by Marshall Pynkoski; choreographed by Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg; starring Douglas Williams, Mireille Asselin, Peggy Kriha Dye, Stephen Hegedus, Mireille Lebel, Laura Pudwell, Gustav Andreassen, Christopher Enns, Olivier Laquerre and Grace Lee; with the Opera Atelier Chorus and Ballet and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; the Elgin Theatre, Toronto; October 31, 2017

You should always seize an opportunity to see The Marriage of Figaro, given that it’s the greatest opera ever. For a while, my opinion as to which opera owned that title vacillated between Mozart’s Figaro and his Don Giovanni. I finally gave the nod to Figaro because, although the music in Don Giovanni may be a trifle more sublime in some respects, that opera doesn’t hang together as well theatrically. Rather than a well constructed drama, it’s more a series of scenes where people rush on, do their thing then rush off. The proceedings are all connected with the Don, admittedly, but there isn’t much sense of various threads of plot neatly woven together. You get that to much greater effect in Figaro – which makes it the better opera in my opinion. (Which is not to say that I can necessarily follow all the plot threads!)

Of course, you never approach such a masterpiece with the expectation that it will be performed perfectly. You attend in the hope that a given production will capture some aspects of the work’s genius. You have to prepare yourself to accept that a few things will be missed. In this case, the first big disappointment for me was the fact that the singing was in English. This beloved language of ours does have its merits, but it seems to me that if Mozart had wanted his music to be sung in it, he would have sent his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, to the nearest Berlitz school for a crash course in English. Mozart might then have written different music to accompany it.

The music that he did write for Figaro sounds best in Italian. For instance, if you have the melody of Dr. Bartolo’s aria in mind "Il birbo Figaro vinto sar!" sounds much better than "That bastard, Figaro, I’ll make him pay!" And in the Count’s great tirade of vengeance, "di mia infelicit" has more impact than "my unhappy state." Come the Countess’ great aria, "Dove Sono," I was somewhat disconcerted by an association of "remember" and "tender" along the lines of "I remember his love was so tender." That brought on unwelcome echoes of Elvis Presley’s "Love Me Tender."

Part of the problem, I think, is that the translator, Jeremy Sams, was trying too hard for rhyming couplets. The results were clever but often what was being said was quite different from the original: the same mood, perhaps, but not the same thought. A cheapening effect, if you ask me. However, the use of English, abetted by surtitles, did help me to understand better the dynamics of several scenes and the complexities of the rapid-fire dialogue, even if not every detail of the plot did come clear.

My other great reservation about this show was the production style. It was done in something of a Baroque mode, with touches of Commedia del Arte (regarding the latter for instance: annoying and unnecessary snaps of a slapstick). I presume you have to accept this sort of thing in Opera Atelier productions. After all, they pride themselves on presenting period work that’s far from the realism that’s more popular in our day. (And, as far as I know, this could be closer to the kind of operatic production seen in Mozart’s time.) The characters that you have in this production are like little figures from the top of a cake or a music box that have come to life. Every tilt of the head, every flick of the hand is precisely executed for maximum elegance. Servants in stylish livery change sets and props with meticulously synchronized panache. Occasionally, the members of the ensemble freeze in picturesque tableaux.

The overall impression, then, is of tremendous theatricality. It would be too much to say the performers are like puppets but one could say that they seem to have an existence that falls somewhere between puppets and real people. This artificiality makes for an extremely beautiful production – helped not least by lavish costumes and magnificent sets – but you lose some of the all important human connection with the characters. You’re not as emotionally engaged as you might be. And if you miss the emotion, what’s the point?

Take the final act’s famous garden scene. In a production that I saw some years ago at the Met, Figaro was hiding against the wall just around the corner while Susannah, just to tease him, was pretending to sing a love song to the Count. You could see Figaro’s anguish as he flattened himself against the castle wall. It was heart-breaking. In Opera Atelier’s production, Figaro kept hopping from one place to the other, hiding behind a bit of prop shrubbery that he was carrying with him. That theatrical shtick turned the scene into pretty much of a farce. You lost nearly all the poignancy of the scene, which is surely what Mozart’s exquisitely gentle music calls for. But it must be admitted, given the spontaneous and unstinting laughter – not just at this point but at several – that the comedy was working for the Toronto audience.

As for the strictly musical aspects of the production, the Tafelmusik Orchestra, under David Fallis, provided an accompaniment that was cheerily competent but, considering the distinguished reputation of Tafelmusik, I was surprised at the lack of flair in the overture. The singing was all good but it wasn’t until the arrival of some of the principals – Stephen Hegedus (the Count), Mireille Lebel (Cherubino) and Peggy Kriha Dye (the Countess) – that you were getting the kind of voice that you didn’t have to strain to hear.

Mireille Asselin and Douglas Williams, as Susanna and Figaro seemed, at first, to have rather small voices. This was problematic in that it's their scene that opens the opera. Perhaps it didn’t matter so much in the case of Ms. Asselin because the high range of her role meant that her voice, even if light, could usually soar clearly enough over whatever else was happening. The lack of volume mattered more in the case of Mr. Williams because Figaro has to provide a lot of the energy that keeps the plot moving. It wasn’t until his final big aria decrying the wickedness of women that his voice opened up and filled the hall the way you expect from an opera singer.

However Mr. Williams’ youthful freshness did bring something new to the character. Figaro often seems like a cagey, capable guy whose maturity equips him to dish out as good as he gets from the Count. Mr. Williams’ Figaro, however, seemed like a young up-start who might have to struggle for his rights. That made you feel more for him.

For me, this production achieved lift-off – literally – with the contributions from the Opera Atelier Ballet. The production made the most of opportunities for the dancers to strut their stuff. It was thrilling to see much better dancing than you get in the usual operatic production. (This, of course, is a speciality of Opera Atelier’s founding choreographer Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg.) The leaps and twists and turns of the male dancers were particularly exciting. The big dance number in the third act usually involves all the cast and chorus, but here the stage was given over to the artists of the ballet which meant that the chorus members had to sing from the audience boxes overlooking the stage at the side of the auditorium. That was a completely agreeable arrangement but it would have worked better if the door on the stairwell leading to the boxes had been closed so that those of us sitting in the right side of the house weren’t distracted by the sight of the chorus members climbing the stairs.

Just one other quibble about the production. When the Countess and Susanna were garbing Cherubino in women’s clothes, he ended up looking and acting totally feminine, complete with boobs showing above the decolletage of the dress. We know that the role of Cherubino is always sung by a woman but we’ve been trying to put that out of our minds. Why remind us of it now? Granted, the Countess and Susanna have been talking about how beautiful he is, what a pretty girl he makes, but I think it’s more interesting to see Cherubino acting like a boy who isn’t quite sure how to comport himself in women’s clothes.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com