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SummerScape 2012 at Bard College 

When the Saint-Saëns Comes Marching In

click to enlarge Compagnie Fetes galantes performs July 6-8
  • Compagnie Fetes galantes performs July 6-8

For many, summer in the Valley prompts torpor, the only sensible response to the monotony of cloudless days, Cro-Magnon barbecues, and lightweight beach novels. But as a restless aesthete, you believe that warmer months don’t signal a vacation from education.

Happily, the annual SummerScape festival (July 6 through August 19) returns, offering cerebral stimulation for the caliber of übernerd who hungers for extra-credit assignments between school years. For the 23rd season, Bard College unveils its seven-week schedule of theater, film, opera, dance, classical music, discussions, and cabaret—the latter in the glittering temple of vaudeville sin, Spiegeltent—calculated to whisk away mental stagnation.

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 in a deluge of entertainments that offer both resonance and dissonance vis-à-vis Saint-Saëns. (Legends previously receiving SummerScape canonization have included Shostakovich, Liszt, and Sibelius.)

This year’s front-and-center protean genius is French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), who had the luck of seeing his symphonies and chamber music celebrated during his lifetime, even as the polymath detoured into philosophy and astronomy. But he was similarly cursed, forced in later years to watch his fame sputter out as he refused to alter his composing style to accommodate evolving tastes. (On the plus side, Saint-Saëns was commissioned to compose for the fledgling medium of moving pictures, although contemporaries probably considered this an act of artistic heresy.)

The Imaginary Invalid
Before Cher and Madonna, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin went by the single nom de célébrité Molière. The playwright, who thrived in the 17th century, predated Saint-Saëns by 162 years and gained fame for a series of theatrical farces whose proto-slapstick plots tickled so ardently that some may have overlooked the lacerating satire beneath the surface.

Returning director Erica Schmidt (who dazzled with 2008’s Uncle Vanya) acknowledges Molière’s rapier wit. But when asked to identify the relevance of this year’s "The Imaginary Invalid" (Le malade imaginaire) (performances July 13-22) for contemporary audiences, her answer is disarmingly simple.

“I think it’s really funny,” she said.

Pressed, Schmidt cites the 339-year-old work’s prescient commentary on the chaotic state of modern medicine.
“Although we no longer bleed people, it’s still a relevant question for a lot of people: whether or not doctors are good for us or bad for us.”

The play concerns the hapless Argan, who has spent most of his life clamoring about putative aches and pains that have restricted him to bed. But the hypochondriac is a wise fool; he schemes to marry his daughter to an accomplished doctor, not in tribute to love but because he divines that a physician as son-in-law will guarantee free bedside care.

Schmidt will stage the work with an all-male cast. But her point is not a ponderous commentary of gender. (In fact, she said, she’s not above simple laughs evoked by cross-dressing.) Her casting choice has a historic precedent: In Molière’s own acting troupe, the distaff members were particularly vain and resisted roles of dowagers and other aging females.

click to enlarge Peter Dinklage stars in “The Imaginary Invalid” July 13-22
  • Peter Dinklage stars in “The Imaginary Invalid” July 13-22

“They wanted to get to play the ingénues,” Schmidt said.

Faced with the collective mutiny—even his wife was among the rebellious players—Moliere conscripted an older male actor to assay the senior female roles.

Like Molière, Schmidt has also cast her spouse. In this case, it is Peter Dinklage, recent Emmy winner for HBO’s ensanguined “Game of Thrones.” (He was the title character in his wife’s "Uncle Vanya.") In "The Imaginary Invalid," he will play Toinette, the put-upon female maidservant to Argan.

Schmidt plans to direct "The Imaginary Invalid" as “A comedy ballet,” playing up what she identifies as “four different moments of choreographed chaos.” One example features 50 shepherdesses crowding the scene, dancing a ballet and singing, suggesting a 17th-century version of the Marx Brothers’ stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera.

Ultimately, she said, her mission is to emphasize the absurdity contained in the text. “I read that [Moliere’s] goal, his desire, was to entertain—just have a wild, hilarious spectacle.”

Spiegeltent
While skewed particularly for the egghead patron of the arts, SummerScape also offers refuge for unbridled hedonists. They have a home at Spiegeltent, a mirrored pavilion showcasing cabaret, jazz, comedy...and uncategorizable forms of entertainment that lean toward the bawdy.

In fact, the original boozy European profile of Spiegeltent, in which drinking lustily and then staggering home was a matter of pride, had to be dialed down for its Bard incarnation. “We had a responsibility not to have drunken patrons leaving the tent,” said Susana Meyer, associate director at the Fisher Center, who brought the festival to campus five years ago.

In fact, while edgy adult entertainment holds sway—from the Wau Wau Sisters, acrobats who always find an excuse to shuck their clothes, to the überneurotic plaints of comedienne Jackie Hoffman—Spiegletent also offers a series of acts suitable for children. For instance, Bindlestiff Family Cirkus tempers its satiric burlesque material for the tykes.

To complement the salute to Saint-Saëns, Spiegeltent has booked several Gallic and French-inspired cabaret acts, including swing practitioners Les Chauds Lapins, Jean Brassard paying homage to the unflappable crooner Yves Montand, the Gypsy jazz of Ameranouche, and the lowdown jazz of Le Chat Lunatique.
While Meyer admits that she finds it “challenging to get the right mix” each year, Spiegeltent is a go-for-broke testament to the axiom that nothing succeeds like excess.

The King In Spite of Himself
Billed as a comic opera, Emmanuel Chabrier’s now-overlooked late-19th-century masterwork "The King in Spite of Himself" (Le roi malgré lui) plays equally as well as trenchant political satire. (Performances July 27 through August 5.) A Gallic nobleman is about to be installed in 16th-century Poland. However, Henri de Valois, the puppet ruler in question, is ambivalent about the appointment, his reluctance fueled by an aversion to Poland’s food, fashion, and weather. (The storyline was historically factual and first adapted by novelist Alexandre Dumas.)

click to enlarge The Spiegeltent hosts cabaret, music, family-friendly acts, and dance parties July 12-August 19.
  • The Spiegeltent hosts cabaret, music, family-friendly acts, and dance parties July 12-August 19.

Hailed by Maurice Ravel for a rich score that, he declared, changed French musical history, the 1887 show had a rocky birth; in its fourth performance at Paris’s Opéra-Comique, a fire broke out and the run was truncated. Bard offers the first complete revival in 125 years.

Yet wunderkind director Thaddeus Strassberger, a theater veteran at 36, prefers to ignore “the baggage that comes along with each piece” and will tackle "The King in Spite of Himself" as a new piece instead of “approaching [the opera] like it’s an autopsy.”

Strassberger, who last directed the robust and gloriously assaultive opera "The Distant Sound" (Der Ferne Klang) at Bard in 2010, observed that Chabrier’s work is rife with political commentary.

“This is a story that speaks of today—not just a story of Renaissance politics, but the idea of a new Europe opening up and being controlled.

“It’s not just a sitcom,” he added, “a power struggle being played out among bumbling, inept characters along the way. That rings true with the way we see a lot of politicians on the world stage today, handling international affairs.”

The prevailing message of this scabrous look at the machinations of political domination, Strassberger said, is marvelously succinct: “The rich and the powerful are anything but.”

Bard Music Festival

The celebrated music of Camille Saint-Saëns is a positive example of a cultural export. But, in a delightfully perverse twist on that concept, SummerScape’s film festival examines the results when culture—through political rule—is foisted upon people.

France and the Colonial Imagination (July 12-August 12) will screen 10 different films, from 1930 to 2008, that examine France’s far-reaching effect after planting its flag in foreign soil during centuries of empire-making zeal.

Curator John Pruitt has selected films that both romanticize sociocultural invasion—the evergreen Casablanca (1942)—and denounce it, such as 1966’s visceral The Battle of Algiers, which recounts the still-potent tale of the bloody 1960 rebellion against French rule.

“It’s not propaganda,” Pruitt said of the latter-day neorealism classic, which embroiders as much as it enlightens, “but maybe it ends up a little bit sensationalistic.”

More of a judicious combination of romanticism and realism regarding Algerian rule by the French, Pruitt said, is 1937’s Pépé le Moko. Jean Gabin—a Gallic combination of Cooper and Bogart, Pruitt opined—is a gangster hiding out in the fabled Casbah.

The perspectives on colonialism vary widely across the series, from Xala (1975), a war-between-the-sexes satire in post-French Senegal, to Beau Travail (1999), a hothouse homoerotic meditation on life in the French Foreign Legion. The Sea Wall (2008), which has never before been screened in the States, examines corrupt French ruler in 1930s Indonesia.

These works, the curator cautioned, do not provide an aggregate history lesson in French foreign rule. “[The films] are much more imaginative, romantic, allegorical, and so on—not so much about history as a meditation on the colonial problem.”

Bard SummerScape 2012, July 6 through August 19. Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson For tickets to events: (845) 758-7900; Fishercenter.bard.edu.

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