Thursday, 10 November 2011

Pacino, Salomé and Wilde

I’ve just caught up with a little programme broadcast earlier this week on BBC Radio 4. It had been trailed as featuring Al Pacino talking about his passion for Oscar Wilde and, in particular, Salomé, which has been given the same sort of treatment as Richard III got in Pacino’s 1996 documentary Looking for Richard. It sounded intriguing, and it was. And it discussed the result of Pacino's fascination: Wilde Salomé, which was unveiled at this year's Venice Film Festival, where Pacino was awarded the less-than-snappily-titled Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award. The film's official website is here.

The Wilde/Pacino link might initially be unexpected. Both men have popular images that seem incompatible: Pacino is the high-octane Hollywood star; Wilde the father of many a decorous bon mot (in the trailer for the film, below, we see Pacino come across a blue plaque that describes Wilde as ‘wit and dramatist’ -- the 'wit' epithet is usually, I suspect, calculated to defuse the work of the 'dramatist').

Watching the trailer and listening to the BBC programme (which is linked to and summarised here), Pacino seems brilliantly, almost maniacally, engaged with his subject. The portentousness that creeps into some of his readings can be forgiven: it clearly comes out of honest and passionate conviction. And it’s difficult, on a more basic level, to resist the gravelly music of Pacino’s own voice. The programme makes much of the fact that Salomé – originally written in French, of course – is still very rarely performed. One of the experts claims it’s performed more often in Russia than The Importance of Being Earnest is performed ‘here’ (it’s unclear if ‘here’ is England, the UK, or the British Isles, of if the distinction’s important). There are the inevitable readings of the work as mirroring aspects of Wilde’s life – Wilde as Herod, Lord Alfred Douglas (Wilde’s young lover ‘Bosie’) as Salome – and the interesting observation that it is only ever performed in English in Bosie’s translation, which, if I remember rightly, Wilde was far from impressed with. The extracts we hear from the peformances of the play filmed for the documentary, mainly from Jessica Chastain's Salomé, sound extraordinary: deliberately weighted and pointedly reined-in in terms of emotion, with additional unexpected colour from the unapologetically unmodulated American accents. 

I suppose I'm duty-bound to observe, however, given my own personal biases, that it's strange there’s no mention (in the trailer or BBC programme, at least) of Richard Strauss’s wildly popular opera, which set a trimmed version of the play’s German translation. For it seems perfectly possible, in the UK at least, that just as many people have heard Wilde’s play in German, amplified by Strauss’s glitteringly insidious score, as have seen it either in Bosie’s translation or the original French. It’s fascinating to hear these snippets of Wilde’s play spoken rather than sung, though, removed from the Dionysian excesses of Strauss’s music (a few bars of Salome’s final scene adorn the top of this blog – one of the ‘fatal conclusions’ Strauss saw as coming at the end of his two ‘scherzos’, Salome and its successor, Elektra). But while a standard criticism of the opera is that Wilde’s detail and delicacy was bulldozed by Strauss’s 100-piece orchestra, one might also suggest that much of it’s lost when the play is translated out of French.

Anyway, here’s an excuse to post a crazed Maria Ewing in Strauss’s final scene.

And, while we're at it, here's Alla Nazamova’s extraordinary version of the Dance of the Seven Veils from a 1923 silent film version.

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