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Purefoy, Hinds, McKidd in Rome
© HBO/Photographer – Franco Biciocchi/Photofest 2013
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Robert Carsen's Carmélites staging at La Scala
Andrea Tamoni/© Teatro alla Scala 2013

Essential Giulio Cesare Primer: HBO/BBC's Rome. The twenty-two-episode TV series from 2005 puts ancient Rome in better context than anything else we've seen. It spans the twenty-five-year period between the end of the Gallic Wars and the coronation of Augustus Caesar — all told through the eyes of plebs Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus (Ray Stevenson and Kevin McKidd). Casting for the show was extremely tasteful: Ciarán Hinds plays Julius Caesar's hubris with an expert sleight of hand; James Purefoy makes for an oily, somehow likeable Mark Antony; ditto Lyndsey Marshal as Cleopatra. Even the Brutus of Tobias Menzies is complex and tragic. We get to know Pompey (Kenneth Cranham) a little better than we do in Handel's opera, but we again see his head in a basket. The cinematography is suffused with grit and carnage, and the plot includes ample amounts of coitus. Best of all, though, is Bruno Heller's script: Caesar dies on the verge of saying something, thus denying all history/literary nerds the chance to hear Hinds say "Et tu, Brute?" But during the next episode, while talking to his domineering mother, Brutus delivers the line, "You too, mother?" spacer Broadcast coverage of Giulio Cesare begins on p. 44 

Essential Patrick Summers Bel Canto Moment: La Cenerentola, with Joyce DiDonato (Angelina) and Juan Diego Flórez (Ramiro), recorded live at Gran Teatre del Liceu in 2008 (on Decca). Fast-forward to "Non più mesta," and you'll find an immaculately controlled collaboration between singer and conductor. Summers provides pristine accompaniment for DiDonato — despite copious onstage distractions such as Alice in Wonderland-style costumes and extras clad as rats — not once rushing or impeding her embellishments. It's sprezzatura onstage and in the pit. spacer F. Paul Driscoll interviews Patrick Summers, "Direct Connection." 

Essential Production of Dialogues des Carmélites: Robert Carsen's 2002 staging. John Dexter's spare 1977 Met production of Dialogues des Carmélites is still the template for most directorial takes on the opera. Robert Carsen's staging, originally for Netherlands Opera and filmed in Milan in 2004 (on Arthaus Musik), tips its hat to the Dexter version but in some ways surpasses it. From the first scene, in which a peasant mob lurks menacingly in the background of the dialogue between the Marquis and the Chevalier, we are powerfully pulled into the nuns' struggle to remain true to their Order in an atmosphere of nihilism. The excellent cast, magnificently led by Riccardo Muti, includes Dagmar Schellenberger (an unusually sensuous Blanche), Gwynne Geyer (an almost annoyingly confident Madame Lidoine) and Laura Aikin (a refreshingly full-voiced Constance). High points of Carsen's work include the painful entrance of Madame de Croissy (the great Anja Silja) and the contrasting reactions of the nuns to Madame Lidoine's first aria, "Mes chères filles." But the stunner is the final "Salve regina": as we hear the falling of the unseen guillotine, each of the nuns, dressed in white, drops slowly to the stage in an exquisite dance of death. Never has Blanche's moment of grace as she steps into the next world been more beautiful or more poignant. spacer For broadcast coverage of this season's Met revival of Carmélites, see p. 48. 

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Keitel in Fingers
© Brut Productions/Photofest 2013

Essential James Toback Film:  Fingers. The theme of duality is powerfully explored in this 1978 indie, which deserves to be better known. It's the story of Jimmy Fingers (Harvey Keitel), torn between his father's career choice for him — a debt collector — and his dream of becoming a great concert pianist. He may lose himself at the keyboard playing Bach, but when he walks into a pizzeria with a boom box blasting "Angel of the Morning," he's like a knife waiting to be pulled. Keitel beautifully brings out both the lunacy and the gentleness within Jimmy. It's hard to forget the look on his face when his father, impatient that he hasn't shaken down a big debtor, tells him, "I shoulda strangled you in your crib." And there's a harrowing sequence in which Jimmy flubs Bach's E-minor Toccata; when he's alone, he plays perfectly, but his hands just won't work in front of someone else. Fingers was shot in around twenty days, which Toback attributes to his "impatience with anything that isn't essential."  spacer Read more about Toback's lifelong obsession with classical music and opera in "A Lifetime Seduction."


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