There is more to the exhibit currently underway at the Palazzo di Venezia than meets the eye. What it lacks in size it makes up for in importance. Composed mainly of statuary and reliefs by Donatello, Andrea Bregno, Michelangelo and their pupils, it focuses on the underappreciated stylistic transition that took place from 1460 to 1520 in Roman workshops as they moved, roughly speaking, from the purity of classicism, to the sublimity of humanism, to the energy of Renaissance rationalism.
Good enough for God? Church attendance has been declining in Britain, and in the rest of Europe, for almost two generations, so a play about the irrelevance of God hardly touches a burning nerve. When Canadian-born playwright Drew Pautz chose this theme for Love the Sinner, mounted on the National’s tiny Cottesloe stage, most reviewers showed indifference. The play’s themes were called muddled, and as often happens, the artist was blamed for the critic’s refusal to think. Pautz has updated a respectable genre, the drama of ideas, which fostered another argument about God and human affairs, Shaw’s Saint Joan. Shaw could count upon solid religious conformity as a backstop for his secular ripostes. Today, the orthodoxy has swung so far in the other direction that Love the Sinner includes a major character whose attitude is “God? Are you kidding? Put that Bible down right now.”
(Vacation! debuted at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It is twenty-something producer/writer/director/editor Zach Clark’s third feature film, hot on the heels of 2009’s Modern Love is Automatic, which also premiered internationally at Edinburgh. There, I met with Clark and two of his lead actresses, Lydia Hyslop and Maggie Ross. Press here for its EIFF page and trailer.)
The hollow man. Shostakovich was demoralized and spent after suffering a serious heart attack in 1964. The politically craven Symphony No. 12 and the politically courageous Symphony No. 13 had dangled him between the two poles of his nature. A visit from Benjamin Britten revived his spirits in 1967, and two years later Shostakovich produced one of his late masterpieces, the Violin Sonata, a severe work based, after Britten’s instigation, on the twelve-tone system. But as with Agon, which is twelve-tone but sounds every note like Stravinsky, the sonata’s gray, spare lament could have come from nobody but Shostakovich. It exhausts an audience, even the redoubtable Wiggies (that is, the faithful patrons of Wigmore Hall) but when a committed soloist plays it, a soul beats loudly inside the enervating despair.
Not enough pearls. It has become fashionable for opera houses to invite movie directors in for some cinematic sprucing up, hence Rigoletto turned into a Don Corleone clone, Die Zauberflote with puppetry courtesy of The Lion King, and so on. But when English National Opera invited independent filmmaker Penny Woolcock to stage George Bizet’s rarely seen Pearl Fishers, she didn’t look to Hollywood for inspiration but rather to something like a public service message from UNICEF. When the curtain rose we had been helicoptered to Ceylon, the right setting but updated and now seriously impoverished. On a wharf lapped by the sea were jammed native washer women wringing out their bright saris, sadhus bathing from a bucket, Hindu devotees performing temple rites, and anonymous stragglers emptied out of a kebab shop on Brick Lane. When two Western tourists show up handing out alms, they get eager takers. I stared doubtfully. Exotic doesn’t mean Third World. But Woolcock had no political agenda. The extras mingled in Franco Zefferelli fashion, pretending to occupy themselves with everyday life despite the presence of opera singers quayside.
Five minutes’ walk from St Peter’s, in a quaint hole-in-the-wall on the Via degli Scipioni, is Silvano Agosti’s two-screen cinema – an ex-porn theatre – which boasts a domestic Sony DVD projector (operated by magical remote control) through which the proprietor showcases his very own bootleg video editions against a dark grey board. “Dove il cinema è arte,” reads the picture house’s unpretentious tagline (“Where cinema is art”).
Motiveless malignity. It’s hard to transport one’s mind back far enough to empathize with Jacobean drama, when immorality masqueraded as the It Thing, as if a casual rape was merely the aperitif before fine dining. Today we have summer movies, admittedly, where mass carnage goes down well with popcorn and no harm done. We aren’t frightened or disgusted by how many people the Terminator terminates. Two minutes after leaving the theatre we return to our moral selves. Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (1621), in a stirring revival at the National Theatre, affords an equally mindless vacation from morality. But it wants to be more adult. With an aristocratic audience to please and no Hollywood ratings agency, Middleton could add salaciousness and bawdry to the max. The popcorn has been sprinkled with wormwood and gall.
Museums throughout Italy are hosting exhibits to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the death of Michelangelo Merisi: the so-called “Caravaggio.” The year began in Rome with Caravaggio and Bacon at the Galleria Borghese (http://berkshirereview.net/2010/01/caravaggio-e-bacon-galleria-borghese-rome/) and the slightly less contrived, but equally imaginative, “Caravaggio-Lotto-Ribera” at the Musei Civici agli Eremitani in Padova. Naples spread six thematically related exhibits throughout the city to highlight the connections between Caravaggio and late-Baroque Neapolitan masters like Luigi Vanvitelli and Ferdinando Fuga (Ritorno al Barocco, da Caravaggio a Vanvitelli). The Palatina Gallery in Florence is featuring Caravaggio e Caravaggeschi until October 10th, after which several of those works will move to Rimini for Caravaggio e altri pittori del XVII secolo. Perhaps most notable was an exhibit that recently closed at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. Conceived by Claudio Strinati and organized by Rossella Vodret and Francesco Buranelli, it featured a unique collection of Caravaggio’s most famous works collected from museums worldwide. A record 4,000 visitors thronged to see these masterpieces on opening day, well exceeding the 2,500 printed tickets.