Monday, January 26, 2015

A Romantic Ballet

Photo via here

Did you see this photo on the front page of the New York Times last week? It took my breath away. First of all, it was something on the front page to smile about. Second, it was such a  beautiful image. And third, it reminded me of the romance of ballet. 

With Valentine's Day coming up, you might consider going to a ballet. It is one of the most romantic of the arts. Are you a fan? I love it and try to go whenever I have the opportunity. Recently I was thinking about a ballet I saw two years ago in New York. It was a stunning production of Onegin performed by the American Ballet Theatre. I had never seen it before and thought it was one of the most dramatic and romantic of all the ballets. It is a tale of love, anguish, and revenge. I'll never forget the curtain call at the end. For some reason, curtain calls make me teary-eyed and this one was no exception. Let me tell you what happened.

The 2013 production of Onegin by The American Ballet Company

Onegin is based on the verse-novel Eugene Onegin written by the Russian writer Pushkin. As I watched this wonderful production, I was swept away by all the romantic elements it had to offer. It took me away from the everyday to a fantasy world where grand emotion and heroism played out. It was as if I was watching a great Russian novel come to life. In addition to the dramatic story, I was swept away by the the music, the costumes, the sets, and the skill and beauty of the dance.  

The story is about a young man name Onegin. He is an arrogant and bored aristocrat who comes to the countryside to visit his friend Lensky. Lensky is betrothed to a young woman named Olga. Onegin meets Olga's sister Tatiana at a ball and frivolously flirts with her. She is flattered by his attention and begins to fall in love with him. She rushes home to write him a love letter and by the time she delivers it, he has lost interest in her. He rips up the letter in front of her. She is devastated and returns home to nurse a broken heart. In the meantime, Onegin flirts with Lensky's fiance Olga at a ball and Olga playfully flirts back. Lensky is furious and challenges Onegin to a duel. During the duel Lensky is killed.  

Many years go by and Tatiana has married a Prince and become a confident and happy woman. In St. Petersburg Tatiana and her husband attend a ball where they meet Onegin. He regrets his arrogance and stupidity in rejecting Tatiana all those years ago and tries to win her back. He writes her a love letter. In the last scene he comes to her room and tries to seduce her. Although she is tempted, she ultimately rejects him and, in a crushing blow, rips up the letter he had written her. The curtain falls.  

The sets were gorgeous -- this is the opening of the first act

The bedroom where the young Tatiana writes her love letter to Onegin

 The ballroom where Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel

Another ballroom where Onegin meets Tatiana as a happily married woman 

The costumes were beautiful 

The dancing was dazzling

And the last scene steals the show as Onegin begs Tatiana to take him back 

The applause was immense as the the curtain came down and the dancers took their bows. When the two dancers who played Onegin and Tatiana came out the audience cheered loudly. They had given incredible performances. Tatiana was handed a bouquet of yellow roses. She quickly plucked out a stem and gave it to Onegin, who held it to his heart. This beautiful gesture made the audience erupt into thunderous applause. And there was more. At their final curtain call the two dancers exchanged a romantic kiss. Everyone in the audience was thrilled that the dancers were prolonging the fantasy of the ballet. Leading us to wonder, did Tatiana still love Onegin after all? It was a romantic gesture that kept alive the magic and beauty of our time in the theatre. A little gift for us to take home. It's one curtain call I will never forget.

If you are a ballet fan and get a chance to see Onegin, don't miss it. You will love it!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

New Costume Drama

I was reading Harper's Bazaar the other day and an interesting item caught my eye. It was about the beautiful costumes in a new period film Testament of Youth, just released in the U.K. It stars Alicia Vikander in the central role. The film is based on the book Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain's powerful and moving memoir of World War I. The book was published in England in 1933 and was an instant hit, selling out on its first day of publication. It hit a nerve with the public, capturing the anguish and life-changing drama of the first world war. It was told from the perspective of a young woman who was 22 in 1916. It was the year her fiance was killed on the western front. Her beloved brother and two closest male friends would also be dead by the time the armistice was signed in November 1918.

According to the article, the film adaptation features beautiful period costumes that reflect Vera Brittain's love of fashion. It seems that the young suffragette did not want to dress like a frump and enjoyed spending her wages from her work as a nurse on beautiful pieces of clothing. And although she tells a gut-wrenching story of war and death, there are passages in the book that show Vera as a normal young girl who loved pretty things. The writer quotes a passage in which Brittain buys "a neatly cut navy coat and skirt, a pastel-blue blouse in soft crepe-de-Chine, an unusually becoming fawn felt hat trimmed with crimson berries and a black taffeta dinner-dress with scarlet and mauve velvet flowers tucked into the waist."

When she went to Oxford dressed in pastel silk to take her entrance examinations, she was mocked by the examiner for dressing like a debutante. She soon learned that feminine frocks had no place among the more utilitarian outfits worn by her classmates. However, her career at Oxford was cut short by the war and her life was turned upside down; she left school early to become a nurse and care for wounded soldiers. She never accepted society's expectations for young women and always did her own thing. She held strong political convictions and wanted an education and an independent career. Perhaps the only thing conventional about Vera Brittain was her love of beautiful clothing. This passion is captured in the new film.

I decided to do a little research into Vera Brittain's life since I don't know much about her. There was a television adaptation of Testament of Youth on Masterpiece Theatre many years ago that starred Cheryl Campbell. I remember loving this production, but don't remember many details. This is what I learned.

At the end of the war, after losing her fiance, brother and two closest friends, Brittain vowed to write a book that would immortalise them all. Surprisingly, it took 17 years for her to complete it. Part of the problem was that she tried to write the story as a novel. When that didn't work she decided to write the book as herself and in her own voice. This was a good decision, since at that point the book simply flowed out of her in an honest and heart-wrenching fashion. She told the story of her generation's wartime experiences, focusing on the four young men most important to her who died in the trenches. When the book was published in 1933, it was hailed as a great wartime memoir, the only one told by a woman. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary of staying up all night to finish it.

After many years as a bestseller, the book fell out of fashion with the outbreak of World War II because of its pacifist philosophy. In the 1970's the publisher Virago reprinted it and the television adaptation was made. Once again the book became hugely popular. But sadly Vera Brittain did not live to see the resurgence of the book's popularity. She died in 1970 thinking that her literary reputation was over. She never knew about the second chapter of her career. Hopefully this film adaptation will enlighten a new generation of readers about her book. Its release feels very timely, considering that last year was the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of World War I.

 I don't know about you, but I am swooning over these images from the piece in Harper's Bazaar. They are a visual feast for anyone who loves vintage fashion. 

The filmmakers have depicted Vera Brittain as a serious young Edwardian woman with an eye for beauty. Go here to read more. 

 Have you read Testament of Youth?
I can't wait to see the film!

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Long Weekend...

 Photo via here

If you are looking for a great place to spend a long weekend this month or in February, look no further than the Farmhouse Inn located in the beautiful Russian River Valley. Last year my husband and I spent a wonderful three days at the Inn and got a chance to explore this beautiful part of Sonoma County in Northern California. We drove on country roads, visited wineries, shopped in the lovely town of Healdsburg, ate delicious meals, and spent many happy hours relaxing at the rustic Farmhouse Inn. This place is a treasure and much of its charm comes from its understated luxury and laid back vibe. Staying at the Farmhouse Inn while you explore this enchanting part of the world has everything you need for the perfect weekend getaway.

Come with me on a mini-tour and see what this area and hotel has to offer. My photos are from last year's trip as well an earlier one I took with my daughters. 

Our room at the Farmhouse Inn

With special touches

And more special touches

The dining room

Where freshly baked pastries and fruit are served before breakfast each morning  

On our first day we explored the small town of Healdsburg, stopping at shops and cafes along the way

We spent time browsing at Antique Harvest where we found many treasures

 Such as old books

And beautiful china

The Downtown Bakery is a convenient place to stop for a mid-morning latte and sticky bun

And it's the best sticky bun you'll ever have!

  Shed is an amazing food, housewares, and garden emporium. There is also a cafe that serves delicious food.

Everything is beautiful 

The assortment of kitchen wares is like eye candy

All the items are beautifully curated and displayed

Lunch was at Willi's Seafood Bar where they specialize in fried clams

But the best part of being in Sonoma is driving the country roads

The winter landscape has a rugged beauty with rustic dwellings aged by time

And majestic oak trees

The blue sky and puffy clouds made a beautiful backdrop for the bare trees and vines

We went to fabulous wineries with gorgeous views -- this vista is from the Thomas George Estates Winery

On our way back to the hotel, we drove past fields of beautiful wild flowers

And lush vineyards

The first time I visited the Russian River Valley I knew there would be lots of good food, wines, antiques, and adventures. Little did I know that I would be discovering one of the most beautiful areas in California. Distinguished by country roads, wineries, breathtaking natural scenery, and the charming town of Healdsburg, the Russian River Valley is a little slice of heaven. If you find yourself in northern California, check into the Farmhouse Inn and get to know this special region. You won't be disappointed! 

Monday, January 5, 2015

What Book is on Your Nightstand?

The new year has arrived and one of my goals for 2015 is to make more time for reading and writing. One of the best sources for book suggestions, as well as literary inspiration, is the The New York Times Book Review. Do you read it every Sunday? Well, if you do then you probably read the column By the Book. Each week a writer is interviewed and asked questions about literature and the literary life.

I love reading the answers to questions such as: What book is on your nightstand? What book made you want to write? If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What is your favorite literary genre? How do you organize your personal library? What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?  

I can't tell you how many times I've torn out this section of the Book Review to save for future use. It is filled with great book recommendations as well as illuminating insights into the writer's life. For example, I read Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield after Sylvia Nasar recommended it as one of her favorite comic novels. And she was right! I read Goerge Eliot's Middlemarch after Anna Quindlen called it her favorite book of all time. And I agreed with her that it is truly a great book. I loved J.K. Rowling's answer to the question: If you could be any character from literature, who would it be? She answered "Elizabeth Bennett, naturally." I felt as if I knew her a little bit better and we were kindred spirits. No matter what the topic, I am always inspired by the passion that these writers have for books.

 I was swept away by John Irving's answer to the question "What book changed your life?"

"Great Expectations. I was fifteen. It made me want to be able to write a novel like that. It was very visual -- I saw everything, exactly -- and the characters were more vivid than any I had heretofore met on the page. I had only met characters like that onstage, and not just in any play -- mainly in Shakespeare. Fully rendered characters, but also mysterious. I loved the secrets in Dickens -- the contrasting foreshadowing, but not of everything.You both saw what was coming and you didn't. Hardy had that effect on me, too, but when I was older. And Melville, but also when I was older."

His answer made sense and its infectious enthusiasm about great writing made me want to sit down immediately and try to write a novel! 

In a stroke of genius, the editor of this column decided to collect 65 of the best interviews and publish them together in a book that is aptly named By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review. I got it for Christmas and have spent the last week happily browsing its pages. It was fun to ask myself some of these questions. Here are three which were easy to answer:

1. What book is on your nightstand?

There are three right now: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Summer in February by Jonathan Smith, and The Ambassadors by Henry James

2. What is your favorite book of all time?

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

3. Are you a rereader? What books do you find yourself returning to?

Yes, I am a rereader. The three books I find myself returning to again and again are Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, Howards End by E.M. Forster, and The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. These books never fail to take me to that cozy place I sometimes crave and always make me feel good.

 I would love to know your answers to these questions.

If you are a passionate reader and an aspiring writer, get this book. You will love it!