Geoffrey O’Brien is Editor in Chief of the Library of America. His seventh collection of poetry, In a Mist, was published last year.
 (March 2016)

Secrets of an Underground Man

Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland begins and ends with a book, a book its protagonist Jed Goodfinch tells us from the start was “the wrong book”: Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, whose vision of gay life in Weimar Berlin has imparted to this young black man “the daydream of being the rootless stranger in Berlin who seduced tough German boys.”

Bizet Wins at the Met

If a B-opera is something like a B-movie, then The Pearl Fishers has some of the same characteristics—brevity, spareness (four solo voices and a chorus carry the whole show), and rapid exposition—and is built around a libretto whose central elements might call to mind a Hollywood second feature along the lines of /i>Bird of Paradise or Pearl of the South Pacific: an exotic isle (Ceylon), a prohibited desire, two friends torn apart by their love for the same woman, a devastating storm interpreted by superstitious islanders as a manifestation of divine wrath.

His Way

Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy at the Sands Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, February 1960
The Frank Sinatra centenary has brought forth an inevitably immense array of monuments and keepsakes. These have included Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, a four-hour documentary by filmmaker Alex Gibney; a comprehensive multi-CD survey of his broadcast performances, Frank Sinatra: A Voice on Air, 1935–1955 (Columbia/Legacy), including many previously …

A Very New ‘Lulu’

Marlis Petersen as Lulu and Johan Reuter as Dr. Schön in William Kentridge’s production of Lulu, 2015
And all the rest of her a shifting change, A broken bundle of mirrors…! —Ezra Pound, “Near Perigord” A sketch of a standing woman, half-naked, bending to the side as if posing on demand, the eyes downcast and the lips frowning, brushed in black ink by William Kentridge, …

Her Private Papers

Patti Smith, New York City, early 1970s; photograph by Judy Linn
I remember hearing of Patti Smith first as a neighborhood rumor and then, by the time she was performing widely, a local legend who managed to combine the roles of poet, visual artist, and rock and roller, a skeletally thin black-clad androgynous merging of Rimbaud and Pirate Jenny, or of Irma Vep and one of William Burroughs’s Wild Boys. When it came out in 1975, Smith’s first album, Horses, caught the ear with the rough edges of a homegrown vatic protopunk utterance right from the opening track with its declaration that “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” and its reworking of Van Morrison’s “Gloria”—“Oh I put my spell on her here she comes/Walking down the street here she comes/Coming through my door here she comes/Crawling up my stair here she comes”—to assert that rock and roll really did belong to anybody with the nerve to transform it into whatever sort of poetry she desired.

Staggering Local Wonderlands

César Aira, Santiago, Chile, 2011
He had to keep fleeing forward, but to where? What would become of him? Was he destined to be an eternal fugitive, eternally forbidden to look back? —Shantytown, 2001 The Argentinian writer César Aira’s stories tend to begin with a flat assertion. At its flattest this can be a statement …

Shakespeare’s Unfilmable Dream

Kathryn Hunter as Puck in Julie Taymor's film of A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2014

Julie Taymor declared recently that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is “unfilmable.” The remark was intended not to disparage her own just-released movie version of the play, but to define what it is: a record of a stage production. Cinematic art direction and special effects, however cunning, cannot adequately substitute for the very different kind of magic that actors can create out of the tension of being live on stage.

Dark Victory at the Met

Nadja Michael as Judith and Mikhail Petrenko as Bluebeard in Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle at the Metropolitan Opera, 2015
It was a bold idea to stage Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle in a single evening. The length of the performance is not daunting—little more than three hours—but the juxtaposition of the two works leads to a bracing sort of dissonance. However closely they might be brought together through …

A Flophouse Symphony

Nathan Lane as Hickey, center, in Robert Falls’s production of Eugene O’Neill's The Iceman Cometh, 2015

Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh needs its pauses and its slowdowns and even its moments when the whole play feels like an enormously heavy contraption that has slipped off its base and is about to come crashing down. It needs the nearly five hours of stage time that it takes up in Robert Falls’s exemplary production, now playing at BAM’s Harvey Theater.

Pynchon’s Blue Shadow

Owen Wilson and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice

To say that Paul Thomas Anderson has faithfully and successfully adapted Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice to the screen is another way of saying that he has changed it into something entirely different. The words in Anderson’s film are mostly Pynchon’s; the plot elements too, however freely they have been culled and transposed; the free-associative multiplicity and ricocheting mood changes are carried over with a miraculous lightness of touch.

Two Eerie Experiences in New York

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina in the Metropolitan Opera production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Two especially exciting productions of works rarely performed here—Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Christopher Marlowe’s two-part drama Tamburlaine the Great—converged recently in New York. Jubilantly expansive as each was in its expressive means, each in its way posed questions about how the horrors of history are somehow transmuted …

Tamburlaine’s Seductive Terror

A scene from Michael Boyd's production of Tamburlaine at Theatre for a New Audience, 2014

The career of Christopher Marlowe’s world-conquering Tamburlaine, performed by John Douglas Thompson at Theatre for a New Audience, progresses like a river in flood, rising steadily and irresistibly and spilling over into actions of spectacular destruction, sparing nothing that stands in opposition. Thompson has created a unified person of the most extreme contradictions.

The Opera Stalin Hated

A scene from the Metropolitan Opera production of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, 2014

The Met’s notes describe it as “towering tragedy,” but Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is equally a grotesque vaudeville, and Graham Vick’s intensely inventive production (which premiered in 1994 and is now revived for the first time in fourteen years) pays due attention to the grotesque component.

Tree! Fire! Water! Godard!

Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language

Goodbye to Language is not different in kind from other works of Godard’s late period, but is different in the intensity of its impact. Filming in 3-D, Godard forces a reconsideration not only of his own films but of all films.

A Restless, Brilliant ‘Figaro’ in New York

Isabel Leonard as Cherubino and Marlis Petersen as Susanna in Richard Eyre’s production of The Marriage of Figaro
The Met’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro, directed by Sir Richard Eyre, begins with a view of some impressive architectural machinery designed (along with the costumes) by Rob Howell: we see the model, on a revolving stage, of Count Almaviva’s mansion near Seville, designed to reveal successive interrelated …

The Outsider Art of Tennessee

Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando, 1948
He had come, it might seem, to show America what went on when half the population was contentedly sleeping. He descended into barrooms and hotel bedrooms and homes whose shutters had been drawn for years, lonely interiors of one kind or another no matter how many characters occupied them, and there sketched scenes of humiliation and desperate grabs at emotional survival. He transcribed fragile sodden arias and casually annihilating put-downs, and registered as well the jokes and jive and salty comebacks that could come into their own to make a comic chorus after midnight.

Ways of Being Alien

Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin

At any given moment in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, we might be watching a fantastic tale dressed up in documentary trappings or a mass of documentary footage held together by the wisp of a fantasy. The fantastic element resides essentially in the person of Scarlett Johansson, who while often naked is at the same time entirely concealed.

A Great ‘Prince Igor’

Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor, surrounded by Polovtsian dancers, in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production of Prince Igor at the Metropolitan Opera
It is only one of the peculiarities of Borodin’s Prince Igor that it begins where many another opera might end, with a triumphal chorus proclaiming “Slava! Slava!” to the glory of the titular prince. Resonantly conjuring the sound of cathedral bells, it is music that sounds like a fulfillment. Here …

The Music of the Swindle

Amy Adams and Christian Bale in American Hustle

David O. Russell’s American Hustle declares what it is about with disarming bluntness. The two con artists around whom it revolves confide to us in voice-over right at the start: Sydney (Amy Adams), aka Lady Edith Greensley, wanted “to become anyone else other than who I was.” Irving (Christian Bale) acknowledges that “we even con ourselves.”

Balzac on the Brink

Honoré de Balzac, surrounded by characters from his novels; drawing by Grandville
The Human Comedy, a selection by Peter Brooks of nine short works by Honoré de Balzac, might well serve as a point of entry into a body of work that, however central to literary studies, seems increasingly neglected by English-language readers. Brooks’s selection is artfully chosen to give a sense …

Alone in a Room Full of Ghosts

Paul Appleby as Brian in Nico Muhly's Two Boys

Taking in Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys can feel like an exercise in compartmentalized perception. You may find yourself simultaneously following the storyline of a bluntly told police procedural; running your eyes down a series of displayed computer screens; tracking, amid the momentary tableaux of a constantly reconfigured set with dozens of video projections, the coming and goings of characters whose degree of actual as opposed to virtual existence is always in doubt, and above (or more properly beneath) all, listening intently to layers of music that overlap, in isolated parallel tracks, without ever quite joining up.

Good-Bye

         The glow farther than the head                                The heart’s leap On the slope where the air rolls its voice              the spokes of the wheel              the sun in the rut              At the crossroads              near the hill                       a prayer A few words unheard              Closer to …

Implacable in Texas

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards bringing back his niece Debbie Edwards (played by Natalie Wood, and based on the figure of Cynthia Ann Parker) to her white family after her abduction by the Comanches, with her adopted brother Martin Pawley (played by Jeffrey Hunter), near the end of John Ford’s The Searchers, 1956
On a May morning in 1836, at a stockade called Parker’s Fort near the Navasota River in Texas, a nine-year-old girl was taken captive by a Comanche raiding party. At the beginning of March 1955, a famous director at a crisis point in his career began shooting a movie distantly derived from that earlier event. From these separate stories—the abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker and its long aftermath, and the making of John Ford’s The Searchers, and its own cultural aftermath as a belatedly acknowledged masterpiece—the veteran journalist Glenn Frankel has constructed a powerfully suggestive book.

A Music of Overpowering Affection

Ana Quintans as Jonathas and Pascal Charbonneau as David in Charpentier's David et Jonathas

With the heavy lifting of narration shifted elsewhere, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s opera David et Jonathas is free to devote itself to almost nothing but high points. Characters and situations are isolated and offered up for consideration, giving us more a series of disjunctive pictures than a linear enactment of the whole story. Everything is of maximum intensity. Within a few moments of the beginning of the Aix-en-Provence Festival production of David et Jonathas now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the music had taken over with overpowering thoroughness.

Hollywood’s ‘Naughtiest, Bawdiest Year’

Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers and Theresa Harris as Chico in Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face, 1933
New York’s Film Forum—one of the most enterprising movie theaters in the city—has been throwing a most elaborate eightieth birthday party, comprising sixty-six feature films, and a wealth of selected extras, from the year 1933—a year elsewhere commemorated by recollections of the ascension to power, in January, of Adolf Hitler …

In My Lady’s Crowded Chamber

Allison Cook in Powder Her Face

“Even horrible people are tragic.” With this widely quoted phrase Thomas Adès summed up the gist of his 1995 opera Powder Her Face. The horrible person in question is Ethel Margaret Whigham, the fashionable debutante who became the Duchess of Argyll by her second marriage in 1951, and was divorced twelve years later following a trial that evidently handed the London tabloids almost more material than they knew what do with—a variety of sometimes well-documented affairs with some eighty-eight lovers of high and low degree—and more than the opera in its two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time can do much beyond hint at.

From Olivier to an Italian Prison

Laurence Olivier as Richard III and Ralph Richardson as the Duke of Buckingham in Olivier’s Richard III, 1955
“Restoration” is a lovely word—at least when applied to a work of art rather than, say, an unlamented dynasty—with its promise that a lost or damaged object can be given back in its original state. With cinematic restorations the effect can be uncanny, as if along with the film the …

‘Lincoln’: A More Authentic Wonderment

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a work of sufficient richness to instantly invite repeat viewings. It is a history film that dares to pile on verbal and visual details thickly and rapidly enough that a second viewing may be necessary simply to register all that is going on. Dropped right into the heart of the Congress of 1865, you scarcely have time to be introduced to the representatives busily attempting to drown each other out, or to be given much backstory on the alliances and resentments in play in one private parley after another, as Lincoln and his operatives try every form of arm-twisting and patronage short of outright bribery to enlist political support.

Under an Avenger’s Spell at the Met

Acrobat Jaime Verazin as Ariel—whose role was sung by Audrey Luna—in Act 1 of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera
Just two evenings—although it now seems longer ago—before the storm that devastated New York and provoked fresh awareness of what it actually is like to live on an island, I was contemplating an imaginary island and a storm made of lighting effects, swirling fabric, and bars of music on the …