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Bard College's SummerScape 2011: Cerebral Playground by Jay Blotcher

In a season when everyday intellects are lulled into lassitude by a series of barbecues, wine coolers and beachside scorchings, the annual SummerScape festival at Bard College (July 7 through August 21) promises a bracing workout for restless, yearning minds. For the 22nd season, this seven-week schedule of theatre, film, opera, dance, classical music, discussions and cabaret—the latter at the glittering temple of vaudeville sin, Spiegeltent—breaks through the torpor of the sweltering months.

Each year, Bard selects an avatar of the classical music world, honors him by reviving his works and then builds out the schedule from there, citing the works of his contemporaries, mentors and influences. (Legends previously canonized by SummerScape include Dmitri Shostakovich, Franz Liszt and Alban Berg.)

This year’s protean genius is 20th century Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), a musical traditionalist with a soft spot for grandiose Nordic myth. No, he did not provide the soundtrack to the recent upscale popcorn epic, Thor—but he may have welcomed the commission. While a populist artist, fawned over by the masses but spurned by critics of the day, Sibelius has been reappraised in the 54 years since his demise. (Two of his ardent admirers: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Samuel Barber.)

For those who might shy away from seasonal rock festival music, the sheer breadth of SummerScape offerings guarantees ample diversions. Programmers and curators have scheduled a deluge of entertainments that offer both resonance and dissonance vis-à-vis Sibelius. In other words, the sideshows are as beguiling as the center stage attractions.

The foppish, irreverent Briton, Noel Coward, may seem, at first blush, to have little in common with Sibelius. However, on purely chronological terms, the pair inhabited the same artistic substrate. First mounted in London and New York in 1929, Coward’s Bitter Sweet (performances August 4-14) is a wistful tale about a slavish devotion to the arts and the penalty of loving not wisely, but too well.

Director Michael Gieleta acknowledges that the musical form of operetta was already deemed a quaint medium by the time this show arrived on Broadway, but the merits of Bitter Sweet cannot be denied.

“It boils down to two things,” he said, in a telephone conversation from Italy. “Extraordinary music and the charm of the song that lingers on. And a strong narrative: the story of an older woman looking at her younger self. There is a touching emotive quality.”

While Coward was a commoner who later reinvented himself as a blueblood (and played the charade to the hilt), Bitter Sweet acknowledges the man’s modest beginnings. The narrative bleeds a candor that would later be obscured in his plays by signature archness. The production concerns a penurious Austrian voice teacher who grooms an opera singer for fame. He is far more focused on the beauty of music than in making a living wage, for which he suffers roundly.

In depicting the struggle between pursuing riches and honoring the purity of aesthetics, Gieleta said, “Coward is far more honest about what his life was like at that stage rather than later.”

For the director, the substance of the tale was revelatory. “Coward never struck me before as a writer of poetic honesty; I always saw the ambiguity.” However, even in this early outing, many of the themes of Coward’s later work are in their embryonic form.

“There is something always rebellious in his plays: on his social and sexual level, the family and economic background.”

In the original production, Bitter Sweet begins in the 1920s, when the opera singer is an older woman looking back at a pained arc of career and personal choices. In the Gieleta reimagining, we meet her during the 1960s and follow her thoughts back to her heyday in the bubblely, reckless 1920s.

“This is a memory play,” said Gieleta. “Every image becomes a recollection as if going through a photo album. The set becomes the open room of her memory.” Adrian Jones’s set designs capture the iconoclasm of Mod London in its Carnaby Street era, as well as an earlier era bearing strong parallels to America’s Jazz Age. “The characters are young and rebellious and in love.”

While operetta revels brazenly in its own artifice, inviting the audience to wink along with its improbabilities, Gieleta insists that Bitter Sweet breaks with such structural limitations, calling the show “quite subversive”.

The show lacks the typical pageant of “fairly shallow characters”familiar to the genre, and proffers no comforting moral homilies, never inciting us to sneer at monochromatically rendered personages of evil. The choices that power the tragic tale are made in good faith, whether from a sense of pragmatism or sheer romanticism. All characters seem to be true of heart, even if their good intentions are not unanimously rewarded by destiny. We are left to wonder: Can anyone be blamed for the way their lives unspooled?

“There is a question mark at the end,” Gieleta said of the story. “That’s how Coward empowers his audience: by showing that question.”

While Jean Sibelius lived far into the era of cinema, he never applied his prodigious talents to the genre. Nonetheless, Bard’s “Before and After Bergman: The Best of Nordic Film” (July 14-August 18) seeks to illuminate the directorial styles of contemporary artists who thrived alongside the composer, and who gained greater fame after a case of artist’s block swallowed up his last three decades of life.

Curator John Pruitt wisely illuminates the relentless, suffocating chamber dramas of Swede Ingmar Bergman, with six selections, including the classic Smiles of a Simmer Night (1955), Wild Strawberries (1957) and Persona (1966). But he also rescues from obscurity two of Bergman’s predecessors, Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström.

Having attained commercial and artistic heights in their native Sweden, the men were both wooed to Hollywood. “They were considered really amazing directors,” Pruitt said. However, their fortunes diverged greatly.

Sjöström was known for his sweeping cinematography and his knack for extracting brilliantly restrained performances at a time when silent stars overacted in mimetic frenzy. He made several films with Lillian Gish, including the celebrated silent epic, Wind. Sjöström returned home in the 1930s to work in the new genre of sound films.

Stiller arrived on the West Coast with a sullen, heavy-lidded beauty in tow by the name of Garbo. Despite the luminosity of his protégé, “Stiller had a much rougher time in Hollywood,” Pruitt said. He could not find a niche in the Hollywood system, clinging to “an uncompromising sense of the arts.” Like Von Stroheim, he confounded the bean counters by insisting on artistic vision over budget. Inevitably, project after project was rejected until Stiller returned to his homeland and died soon afterwards.

The Stiller films to be screened are Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919) and The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924). Sjöström works include The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) and The Phantom Carriage (1921), which was written, directed by and starred Sjöström. This meditation on the regrets of a wasted life inspired Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Acknowledging his muse, Bergman cast the aging Sjöström in his film.

A stand-out of the series, Pruitt noted, is the 1924 film, Michael, by Danish director Carl Dreyer. An accomplished painter plays artistic mentor to a young man who eventually becomes his lover. The understated tale, clearly devoid of any judgment toward male love, vexed American censors. “The homosexual theme is treated matter of factly,” said Pruitt. “That’s what’s so brilliant about it.”

When the film was finally released stateside, those who governed public morality sprang into action. The film was recut and transformed into “a clinical study of moral and psychological perversity; a clinical case that needed to be cured.”

The film series concludes with two films by a modern Finn, Aki Kaurismäki, who celebrates the put-upon working class with equal parts compassion and rueful humor. His works in the series are Shadows in Paradise (1986) and The Match Factory Girl (1990).

The gifted director, Caitriona McLaughlin, seems drawn to productions that traffic in lies. That is, pretty falsehoods that initially camouflage the guilty and then drive them to self-destruction.

Last year she pumped adrenaline into the 1937 drama, Judgment Day, by Austro-Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth, about a guilty secret that metastasizes. This year, McLaughlin strips away the tissue of lies that holds together a Norwegian family in the 1884 play, The Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen (performances July 13-24).

“It’s hard to actually believe that it was written so long ago, because it’s so sharp,” said McLaughlin via telephone from London. “And it just reminds me that the issues that we deal with and struggle with politically [or] socially are exactly the same.”

Similar to Ibsen’s masterpiece, A Doll’s House, The Wild Duck takes aim at the convoluted social structure that allows mediocrity to thrive, while squelching those out of step with the status quo. In the opening scene of this tragedy, we see a festive gathering of local officials, a gaggle of self-important court chamberlains. They all strut about with unbridled pomposity, various medals and honors pinned to their uniforms. From the start, McLaughlin said, Ibsen is offering pointed observations about “the way people talk, the way people act” —an unsparing depiction of small-town politics.

But while Nora of A Doll’s House struggles to free herself from these constraints, The Wild Duck suggests that this tightly constructed web of illusions may be benevolent in some way, offering protection from a reality far harsher and unforgiving. Gregers Werle has just returned home to his wealthy father's homestead. He learns that a former classmate, Hjalmar Ekdal, has married his own father’s servant girl. The situation smacks of improbability, so Werle undertakes a crusade to uncover the truth. But when the last fabrication is uprooted, Werle realizes the terrible price of his relentless campaign.

Ibsen wrote this piece at a time when the old world was beginning to unravel, McLaughlin said. Class structure was betraying deep fissures and governmental hierarchy “was starting to break down a little bit in Norway.” If people were loath to peering into a fearsome abyss of modernity, Ibsen, the humanistic provocateur, would have to do so for them.

Working with an American cast, McLaughlin decided not to saddle them with Norwegian customs and accents. Instead, she drew inspiration from the 1996 film, Fargo, by Joel and Ethan Coen. The black comedy takes place in rural North Dakota, whose wide expanses of frozen flat land suggest Ibsen’s homeland and, poetically, the restrained souls of its populace.

“So while I’m not actually bringing the play to America in 2011,” the director said, “there is an American style to its depiction.”

While The Wild Duck is not performed with the regularity of Ibsen’s other theatrical pieces, McLaughlin was eager to bring this tale to the Bard stage. It is her first attempt at the dense psychological observations put forth by this Norwegian master.

In A Doll’s House, Ibsen declared that institutional falsehoods must be swept away to purify society. In The Wild Duck, conversely, he suggests that we let sleeping dogs lie.

“Yes, he says that absolute truth is dangerous,” McLaughlin said. “We need that life-lie to get through the day.”

Bard SummerScape 2011. (July 7 through August 21) Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson. For tickets to all SummerScape events, call the Fisher Center box office at 845.758.7900 or visit

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