McCloy, Sardou & Paladilhe


Cue for MurderIn Helen McCloy’s Cue for Murder (1942), a young man is murdered during a revival of Sardou’s Fédora (1882) – a play written for the great Sarah Bernhardt, and which is remembered today, if at all, for Giordano’s opera (1898).

The tone is cool and sophisticated; characters are sharply and sympathetically observed; and one gets a good insight into theatre in 1940s New York.  The solution may not be earth-shattering – there are only a handful of suspects – but the clueing is excellent.

In its quiet way, a triumph.

Sardou, a disciple of Eugène Scribe (the master of the well-made play and the go-to man for opera libretti, including all four of Meyerbeer’s grand opéras and La Juive for Halévy), wrote historical plays (the Revolution, the court of Louis XIV, Byzantium, mediaeval Greece, 16th century Spain) – several of which were turned into operas.

affiche.pngAlthough the most famous is unquestionably Tosca, the one I am desperate to hear is Patrie!, about the Dutch rebellion against the Spanish in the sixteenth century.

Paladilhe’s 1886 opera was a major hit, but, like so much of the French repertoire, has vanished.  (For more information, see Carnets sur Sol’s excellent article.)

Arthur Pougin raved about the work in his supplement to Félix Clément’s Dictionnaire des  opéras.

“The poem of this work is the musical adaptation of M. Sardou’s moving and superb drama performed at the Porte-Saint-Martin on 18 March 1869.”

“Moving and superb”!  Bernard Shaw dismissed the playwright as mere Sardoodle-dom – but Shaw liked Ibsen and Wagner.

“This skilful adaptation inspired the composer in the happiest way. … From a superb libretto, he wrote music full of grandeur, passion, emotion, and poetry…

“What strikes me as particularly remarkable in the score of Patrie, considering it as a whole, is the monumental solidity of its construction; the sureness and firmness of the attaches, which show neither weakness nor lack of care; the beautiful sonority of the orchestra, an orchestra truly dramatic and never symphonic (which is not the same thing); the elegant cut and beautiful order of the musical phrase, whose ripples sometimes take a powerful richness; it’s a collection of qualities that are at once very musical and very dramatic and which denote a true man of the theatre, apt to seize all the situations and translate them into music with the greatest fidelity and the greatest effect possible.”

I have heard three pieces from the work, which are all sublime.



And yet the entire work has never been recorded.

Detective story fans think they have it tough!  All they need is a publisher and copyright.  Opera needs singers – who can sing; an orchestra; staging; and that rarest of things, directors who don’t destroy the work.






Buon compleanno, Maestro!

This should have gone up on Monday.

Since the birthday boy only has his birthday every four years, I’m not fussed!

Gioachino Rossini turned fifty-six on Monday. Not bad for a man born in 1792.

People born on a leap year are lucky; they age four times as slowly as the rest of us! And Rossini’s music has never aged. There was a time in his thirties when his music seemed to have vanished – but since his fortieth birthday, his music has taken on a new life.

A wise man once said that life’s infallible pick-me-ups were champagne, the works of P.G. Wodehouse, and the operas of Rossini. He was right.

Rossini’s music is wonderful. It’s exhilarating. It’s full of joy and life. It’s music which makes you want to stand up and cheer, and hug everyone around you. It’s also incredibly beautiful.

Rossini’s most famous works are a string of brilliant comic operas – Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), L’italiana in Algeri, and La Cenerentola, plus the rousing overture to Guillaume Tell. But that list ignores the innovative, powerful serious operas he wrote, particularly those at Naples: Ermione, Maometto II, Semiramide, Mosè, La donna del lago, and Otello.

And if anyone doubts opera has anything to do with adventure, crime or mystery, I refer

them to what Anthony Boucher said in 1941. Besides, excitement is guaranteed in the pieces below!

In honour of l’illustrissimo signore, without further ado…

La gazza ladra (Milan, 1817)


Il viaggio a Reims (Paris, 1825)


L’italiana in Algeri (Venice, 1813)


Ricciardo e Zoraide (Naples, 1818)

La Cenerentola (Rome, 1817)


Matilde di Shabran (Rome, 1821)

Maometto II (Naples, 1820)


Tancredi (Venice, 1813)


Otello (Naples, 1816)


Armida (Naples, 1817)


Mosè (Naples, 1818)


Ermione (Naples, 1819)


La donna del lago (Naples, 1819)


Bianca e Falliero (Milan, 1819)


Zelmira (Naples, 1822)


Semiramide (Venice, 1823)


Guillaume Tell (Paris, 1829)

Fully Sick, Dude

Readers may find parts of this article distressing.


I walked out of The Hateful Eight.

Hateful-Eight-Poster-2016-1Women are punched in the face; the “n–” word is thrown about like it’s going out of fashion (hint: it has); and there’s a graphic rape / murder scene.  Death, death, death…  Lots more death, a bit of pain, some mayhem, slaughter, and havoc, served with a garnish of carnage.

Are we having fun yet?

And it’s not alone.  Judge Dredd, Sin City, Hansel and Gretel, Fury, Machete…  All present an unremittingly bleak world, full of violence and cruelty.

Seen Snowpiercer?  People are axed, shot, stabbed, impaled…  Early on, a character’s arm is frozen and smashed with a hammer.  There’s a slow motion massacre halfway through the film.  All of humanity except an Asian woman and a black boy die by the end – and, it’s implied, they’re about to become a snack for a polar bear.

And the cinema audience finds this hilarious.

They howl with as much glee at the bloody spectacle as their ancestors did at Tyburn or Newgate or the Colosseum.

I came out of The Hateful Eight wanting a bath, a brain bleach, and an ounce of civet to sweeten my imagination.

The highbrow arts are no better. Regietheater productions of opera bear no resemblance to the original work; characters in trench coats wander around a lunatic asylum, choruses of giant rats wave placards and banners with political slogans or squirt syringes of blood all over the stage, Don Giovanni dies of a drug overdose, nuns are raped, the heads of Buddha and Muhammad are thrown onto the stage, and the thing ends with a 5 minute film of a decomposing rabbit being eaten by maggots.

Directors see classical theatre as a vehicle for political propaganda. Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia (London, 1999) and Iphigenia at Aulis (London, 2004) comment on the Balkans and the Iraq war; Annie Castledine’s Trojan Women (London, 1995) and Peter Sellars’s Persians (Salzburg, 1993) offer nothing more uplifting than the idea that war is bad and America evil. What this has to do with Aeschylus or Euripides is unclear.

Then there’s poor old Medea! Not only has she been abandoned by her husband, she now appears in avowedly anti-male productions such as Tony Harrison’s Medea: SexWar (London 1991) or Brendan Kennelly’s misandric translation (Dublin, 1998).

Charles Mee’s productions of Greek tragedy rejoice in the violence they claim to criticise, and “offer entertainment comparable to the killings enacted to amuse the populace in Rome”.


His Hippolytus (New York, 2001) contains “a meditation on a father molesting his daughter, an electric masturbation with car cables, and a lemon pie ground by an actor into an audience member’s crotch”. Robert Woodruff’s Orestes (1992) features “an anal violation of Pylades by Electra wearing a dildo”.

(See Simon Goldhill, How to Read Greek Tragedy Today, University of Chicago Press, 2007; and Marianne McDonald, The Living Art of Greek Tragedy, Indiana University Press, 2003.)

Performance artists are even worse. Karen Finley covers herself in chocolate and stuffs yams into her bodily orifices to show the degradation of women. Oleg Kulik stuck his head in a cow’s vagina in an attempt to be born anew; unsurprisingly, he wasn’t. “Inside the cow I realised that there is no reality, and that means that reality is still to be discovered.” Miss Crash sticks needles through herself and hangs herself from the roof by hooks in her knees. Killian Skarr makes torture devices and uses them on naked women.


These artists claim that the world is a horrible place, and patrons must suffer and recognise their guilt. “Generating shock remains the duty of anyone who aims to reflect the world back at itself”; they have to “rape the audience into independence”. “We are only reflecting the brutality of the world,” curator Peter Eeley says, “and your complicity in it”.

Okay. Deep breath.

Let’s assume for a second that this is a realistic reflection of life, and that the world is as nasty a place as these artists claim.

What, then, is the point of these works? The world is full of hatred and brutality. Basic human values — love, kindness, compassion, courage, honesty and empathy — are absent.   Why would anyone care about such a horrible place, let alone have the courage to make it better?

Instead of criticizing violence, as they claim, they contribute to it. The issues that they claim to be angry about are only an excuse to wallow in violence – certainly in the case of Tarantino, whose films use historical atrocities – the Holocaust, the slave societies of the American South – to justify carnage and wholesale massacre, show different races as enemies, and revel in the “n” word. Their only answer to a problem is violence. Watching people die is fun, and killing someone is acceptable. Is it any wonder that gun violence has increased?

But, of course, this reflection of life is not a true one. Life is not a vale of tears and suffering, from which death (preferably by hacksaw, with maximum splatter) is a merciful release. True, the world does have problems: climate change, militarism, religious fanaticism, the divide between the developed and developing worlds, oppressive regimes, threats to the environment and to other species, inequality, bigotry and homophobia. But we are aware of these problems, and are working on solving them.   The future could be better than we think. The vast majority of people are not sociopaths but well intentioned and fundamentally decent. Life isn’t always sunshine and music and wonderful roses, but they exist.

Such works are destructive. While they claim to represent reality, they distort it. They show life as much uglier and harsher than it is, while taking away our hope to do anything other than inflict pain and kill.

Well, you know

We all want to change the world

But when you talk about destruction

Don’t you know that you can count me out!

But if you want money for people with minds that hate

All I can tell you is brother you have to wait.

Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right?