MEMF, Day Two, Newberry Ensemble
The second evening of the Festival had something rather unique for Early Music: a movie showing. David Douglass, co-director of The Newberry Consort, has assembled a “score” of Elizabethan music to be presented with a silent film, Les Amours de la reine Elisabeth
, a 1912 feature film starring the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt.
The showing was preceded by a talk by co-director Ellen Hargis, who spoke about the historical Elizabeth and Essex. Then, before the showing proper, Mr. Douglass gave a very entertaining introduction to the film, including its making, the cast, and its significant effect on the American film industry.
Before the film proper, Ms. Hargis was accompanied by the Consort in presenting vocal versions of the songs “What if a Day,” “If My Complaints Could Passions Move,” and “Can She Excuse My Wrongs,” which figured in the film score.
I can’t say that watching the film was easy: it has been digitized, but not restored or remastered: tops of heads are cut off in some scenes, and some are very washed out. For that, it was still interesting as showing examples of the demonstrative style of acting in use at the time, as presented by one of the premier acting troupes of the day. Of course, modern audiences find this humorous, but I found it very instructive to see.
The movie plot is very similar to the opera Roberto Devereaux, recently reviewed elsewhere in this journal, but with some changes that actually make the plot a bit more sensible. Elizabeth’s motivation for giving Essex the “get-out-of-jail-free” ring is shown as being due to a fortune-teller who utters the dire prophecies that Elizabeth (Ms. Bernhardt) shall die unhappy, and Devereaux (Lou Tellegen) die on the scaffold (i.e., be executed as a criminal). Besotted, the Queen gives him the ring which he is to send to her if ever he is in trouble.
Later, we see Essex romancing the Countess of Nottingham (Mlle. Romain), when they are discovered by her husband, the Earl (Max Maxudian). Rather than interrupting them, he decides to seek revenge by denouncing Essex as a traitor, with the help of Lord Bacon (Jean Chameroy).
Elizabeth at first refuses to credit the accusation until she, also, stumbles across the unlucky lovers. Believing that if Essex is false to her as a lover, he could be false to her as a liege man, she orders his arrest and execution.
Her anger cooling, she sends the Countess to the Tower to bring her the ring and justify her sparing Essex. However, the Earl of Nottingham intercepts her, seizes the ring, and throws it into the Thames. Grieving, Elizabeth allows the execution to proceed, accepting that Essex was too proud to appeal to her. But, when she later views Essex’ corpse, she sees that the ring is not on his hand. Having made the Countess tell her what really happened, Elizabeth takes to her bed, and soon dies. (Even I have to admit that Ms. Bernhardt’s “faceplant” into her featherbed as the dying Queen was funny--.)
Mr. Douglass did a marvelous job matching Shakespearean period music to the film action. Most of the pieces were new to me, and some I had heard of, but never heard played. One such was “Heartsease,” which is referred to in “Merry Wives of Windsor.” In the movie, the Queen and her court view a performance of “Merry Wives,” after which Essex presents Shakespeare to the Queen.
The Consort played the twenty-six pieces without discernible flaw, and in excellent synchrony with the music. Ms. Hargis sang again on Edward Johnson’s “Eliza is the Fairest Queen,” which was the “end title music.”
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