The World of Composer Richard Wagner and his operas. www.wagneroperas.com with frequent forays into the world of art, culture, and film.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Vincent Vargas is a foreign language teacher at a private school in New York City. He runs websites dedicated to Casablanca (www.vincasa.com) and Richard Wagner (www.wagneroperas.com).

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Medea at the National Theatre

 Medea by Euripides, written nearly two and a half millennia ago, is the archetypal revenge tragedy, and the ultimate portrait of the inner life of a murderer.  Whether presented traditionally (a rare occurrence these days) or in this modern-dress staging, in a new translation by Ben Power, and directed by Carrie Cracknell in the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre of Great Britain, the play possesses an inherent power to move audiences, and inflict a wave of catharsis that left many in tears at the performance I attended last night.

To review the basic plot, Medea and her children have been abandoned by her husband Jason after the family moved to Corinth.  Jason has found a new love, the young daughter of King Kreon, and is about to marry her. Meanwhile Kreon has banished Medea since he genuinely fears her.  Medea begs that she be allowed to stay for one more day. This is all the time she needs to fashion a chilling revenge that includes the killing of Kreon and his daughter as well as the slaughter of her own children: a ghastly decision that she knows will forever torment Jason for as long as he lives.

In the title role, Helen McCrory presents us with a modern portrait of a scorned, jealous woman. Dressed in a tank top and cargo pants, nervously rolling up and only half-smoking a cigarette, she could be one of the thousands of abandoned single mothers who are having trouble making ends meet. However, when she changes into a white outfit, a costume that recalls a traditionally staged performance, and fashions her horrific revenge, the real Medea, as conceived by the author, pushes through. Ms. McCrory possesses a dark voice, and is able to command a powerful fury which often erupts with a volcanic intensity. She commands the stage when she is preparing a lethal gift for Jason's new bride, and especially at the conclusion of the play when she carries the bodies of her dead children into a windswept, smoky, dark wilderness.

 Danny Sapani gives a memorable performance as Jason, a man who loves his two sons, and is only marrying in order to advance his social status. The rest of the cast is generally good, especially  Dominic Rowan, in his brief scene as Aegeus, the King of Athens, who brings the only light of hope for Medea by offering her sanctuary in his kingdom. The chorus is a nimble group of thirteen women who dance, gyrate, and generally look spooky as they slink all over the stage to the music of Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, their primitive-sounding, moody score is a memorable addition to this production.

Medea will be broadcast live from the Olivier Theatre to cinemas around the world on September 4 at 7pm. I urge you not to miss it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

I Miss Last Year's Wagner Celebrations

You don't get too many celebrations when you are 201 years old.  But last year's Richard Wagner's bicentennial celebrations around the world were quite a show. Some more successful than others, of course.  Frank Castorf's Ring at Bayreuth was a huge failure last year.  It will be presented again this summer, and hopefully he has gone back to re-examined his concept in order to deliver a better show.

By far, one of the most interesting events to mark the 200 anniversary of Wagner's birth took placed in Munich. Spencer Tunick's art installation "The Ring" consisted of over 1000 nude volunteers, some painted red and others silver, who "recreated" various scenes from the Ring Cycle in the center of the city.

 According to the artist "I'm very interested in the history of the city, the close links with Richard Wagner's work, but also the dark chapters of the city's history and the building structures from the Nazi era."
“I'm very interested in the history of the city, the close links with Richard Wagner's work, but also the dark chapters of the city's history and the building structures from the Nazi era,” - See more at: http://www.the-wagnerian.com/2012/06/spot-naked-wagnerian.html#sthash.0axsE8vJ.dpuf
“I'm very interested in the history of the city, the close links with Richard Wagner's work, but also the dark chapters of the city's history and the building structures from the Nazi era,” - See more at: http://www.the-wagnerian.com/2012/06/spot-naked-wagnerian.html#sthash.0axsE8vJ.dpuf

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes constantly poses the question whether Man and Ape can co-exist in a ravaged world where a virus has wiped out most of the human population. "Can't we all get along?" The answer to this proverbial question is "no" if the aim of this latest reboot of the Apes saga is to get us to the beginning, i.e. the classic 1968 sci-fi film Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston and his time traveler companions land in a dystopian Earth that has de-evolved into a backwards Darwinian state where apes rule and Mankind has descended into a primitive primate.

20th Century Fox knows that it will take a few sequels to get us there, and this latest installment advances to a world where apes have begun to reason and talk, all led by Caesar, the smart chimpanzee that James Franco raised in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the previous film of this series.

Once again Caesar is played by Andy Serkis together with the wonders of technology. His performance (as well as that of some of the other ape characters) is created by the latest wonders that the Weta Digital motion capture company can achieve and cgi can render. The results are truly mesmerizing.

Ten years have passed since the last film, and Caesar has developed into an ape leader, a kind of grassroots, simian revolutionary. He has gathered his clan, and made a community in the forests outside of San Francisco. Here in this primitive, secluded Utopia the apes have built a home where most are loyal to Caesar, who is the most advanced of his species as a result of his ability to speak. But all is not well in Ape Land. Caesar's leadership is constantly being challenged by the one-eyed, sinister Koba (Toby Kebbell), an ape character from the previous film who as a result of being caged and tortured has a big ax to grind against Man. Koba has evolved as much as Caesar, and is also able to speak, which makes him a prime candidate for ape leader, but a major threat to any possibility of peace between Ape and Man. Over on the other side, a handful of humans, led by Gary Oldman, are living in the ruins of San Francisco. When a small party of humans venture into the land of the apes searching for a hydroelectric station, that's when the conflicts begin.

The humans, led by Jason Clarke and Keri Russell, are a likeable, brave couple, and eventually Caesar is wise enough to understand their good intentions. Likewise teen actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Ms. Russell's son, establishes a great friendship bond with Maurice, the huge orangutan played with great tenderness and nobility by Karin Konoval. The inter species relationships in this film are well handled, and provide much of the memorable material in the film, whether it be a tender scene between a teenager and an ape reading a book together, or a woman coming to the aid of Caesar's ill postpartum female.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the kind of entertainment Hollywood once knew how to produce and release by the dozen during the summer months. It's puzzling how the industry has gotten lost amid super hero franchises, and questionable reboots that don't deliver. Finally there's a film to ignite this drab, uninteresting season. I have no doubt that it will prove a smash hit at the box office (it grossed a gorilla-sized 73 million on its first weekend) provided that there is enough word of mouth from the audience to keep it alive.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Two Chords that Shook the World

In August of 1857 Richard Wagner stepped away from the massive half-completed Ring of the Nibelung (he had already fully orchestrated Das Rheingold and Die Walküre) and began work on what would become one of his most important achievements. The opera Tristan und Isolde, the well-known story of forbidden love, was based on the medieval romance by Gottfried von Strassburg, and inspired by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and Wagner's illicit love affair with the wife of his patron, Mathilde Wesendonck. With a libretto written by the composer, the music was completed in August of 1859. Within the first few seconds of the astonishing score, Wagner established the disintegration of tonality and pointed the way for the future widespread use of atonal musical composition in the 20th century via the arrangement of four simple notes: the musically unexpected combination of F, B, D# and G# which has come down to be known as the famous "Tristan Chord."
It was fifty years ago, on July 6, 1964 (and nearly a hundred years after the June, 1865 premiere of Tristan) that Richard Lester's black-and-white film A Hard Day's Night forever changed rock and roll, and became one of the most influential musical films of all time, capturing forever in celluloid John, Paul, George, and Ringo at the height of the Beatlemania craze. Both the madcap comedy film and the album of the same name begin with a musical chord that has been described, discussed, and debated as much as its famous antecedent of the 19th century.

To know how Wagner did it, all we have to do is read the sheet music (although during the early rehearsals for the first performance, both the musicians and the conductor complained that the score was unplayable). They were unaccustomed to playing what must have been for their ears the music of the future. Ever since, orchestras around the globe have followed the composer's careful notation and have played the "Tristan Chord" exactly as Wagner wrote it. It hasn't changed in more than a century. 

But Rock is a different animal, especially the output of The Beatles who during their meteoric career resorted more and more to remain in the carefully controlled safety of the recording studio and eschew live performances. Inside EMI Studios was the "Fifth Beatle," George Martin, who as arranger and musical guru literally made the confines of the place a research lab where he filled the gaps between the band's raw talent and the actual recorded sound they wanted to achieve. The creation of the famous chord that opens the film was a creative ensemble that included the Fab Four as well as Martin.
The above shows more or less how the chord was achieved, although this is still highly debated. The basic ingredient to much of the sound is George's 12-string guitar Fadd9 chord (an F and a G chord played together). But to this we also have to add Ringo, who added a riff on his snare drum, and the ever-present George Martin, who struck five notes on a Steinway grand piano while holding down the sustaining pedal and caused the harmonics to blend.

Perhaps we will never know how this famous chord was completely achieved. Likewise, a lot of ink has been spilled detailing how the "Tristan Chord" affected music for the rest of the 19th century, and its impact on composers ever since. In a similar way, the opening chord from A Hard Day's Night will continue to mesmerize listeners, who care about great music, for many years to come.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

McKellen & Stewart in Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett's post-war absurdist play: bleak? Impenetrable? The abyss?  Not on your life!  This production, directed by Sean Mathias, resurrects the inherent comedy that was always present in the work (after all, the characters were inspired by the great clowns of the silent cinema), and it provides a felicitous vehicle for the genial comic talents of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Their Estragon and Vladimir could very well be two former vaudevillians, or more aptly two forgotten stars of British Music Hall, at the end of their rope, waiting for their next big break which will never come.

I would welcome a production of Godot staged under a dilapidated circus tent or the crumbling marquee of an abandoned theater, and Stephen Brimson Lewis's brilliant stage design for this production, featuring the bare back wall of the Cort Theater, and faux empty boxes at either side of the stage, certainly alludes to this. The audiences seem to have abandoned poor Didi and Gogo (where these their stage names?), and their unseen agent Godot is definitely not returning their phone calls.

Sir Ian and Sir Patrick are having a ball embodying these roles. Their chemistry onstage is infectious, and audiences are eating it up. As the more sprite and optimistic Vladimir, Mr. Stewart is a natural at comedy (which he so seldom has been asked to do, especially in his current film career) whether it be curiously inspecting the inside of his itchy hat (lice?), or picking up his heels and doing a little song and dance that welcomes audiences to the second half of the show. Mr. McKellen as the more downtrodden Estragon is heartbreaking at portraying the pathos of a poor soul who claims he gets beaten every night, and who often needs a hug, or to be lulled to sleep by his woeful partner. In the secondary roles, Shuler Hensley plays the blowhard, dominant Pozzo with a Southern accent, turning the role into a tyrannical Kentucky colonel of the old order. His slave, Lucky, portrayed by Billy Crudup, complete with white face, is quite good, his long meandering monologue, a masterpiece of absurdity which is played with a great deal of physical comedy.  Perhaps that's the best way to approach this moment in the play for modern audiences, because after many viewings and readings of the play, I still have no idea what he is talking about.

In recent interviews, Ian McKellen has hinted that this might be his swan song on the Great White Way. Therefore, you'd be crazy to miss his performance in this play, or his equally fine Spooner in  Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, currently playing with the same cast in repertory.  If this is the last time that Broadway will see this masterful actor, all I have to say is what a way to go!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

From Director David O. Russell: American Hustle

In David O. Russell's American Hustle, a recreation of the Abscam scandal: an F.B.I. sting operation that led to the arrest of several members of Congress, the American Dream has transformed into the more complex Great American Con Game, and everybody seems to be in on the act. Set in the 1970s, a decade of wild excess, marked by big hair, superfluous jewelry, and the apotheosis of Rock, we are in the world of the grift where a Mexican-American from Tucson can successfully impersonate a Sheik from Abu Dhabi, and an American stripper can pass off as a British aristocrat.

Christian Bale, fifty pounds overweight and with a horrible comb-over, plays con-man Irving Rosenfeld who befriends ex-stripper, Cosmopolitan magazine employee Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Soon they become romantically entangled despite the fact that Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and the couple has a son. Into this unsettling triangle comes undercover F.B.I. agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who catches Irving and Sydney in a scam, and since he is attracted to Sydney, promises to set them both free if the couple helps him take down four other scam artists. Soon the plan develops into a complex, dangerous scheme involving the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), plans to bring gambling to Atlantic City, and the participation of Miami mafiosi headed by Meyer Lanski's under-boss Victor Tellegio (an uncredited Robert De Niro).

With its underworld characters and noirish ambiance, right from the initial scene, as we watch Christian Bale's Irving attempt to hide his baldness with a miserable-looking rug, the film successfully descends into a world of fabrication and counterfeit, setting the tone for the double and triple-crosses that are to follow. The performances by the principle actors are quite excellent, although Mr. Bale has revealed that most of his lines were improvised. The entire film, with its complex script by the director and Eric Warren Singer aims high when it comes to Oscar potential, although in interviews, director Russell also confessed to rewriting Mr. Singer's script extensively, and admitted that he was more interested in the performances and characterizations than in the plot.

American Hustle is a very entertaining film, with brilliant performances, some of which promise to be big winners in the upcoming award ceremonies.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street

In "Show Biz Bugs," a 1957 Warner Brothers cartoon directed by Friz Freleng, Daffy Duck is furious that Bugs Bunny has gotten top billing at their vaudeville theater, and he is determined to prove, once and for all, that he is the biggest star. Failing to impress the audience time after time, Daffy performs the ultimate act: he drinks combustible liquids and then swallows a lighted match. He achieves utter success with the audience by exploding himself: a stunt that unfortunately he can only do once.

This is how I feel about Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in Martin Scorsese's hyper-kinetic new film The Wolf of Wall Street. The actor has been led to the very heights of Oscar begging, with director Scorsese carefully crafting a ton of scenes, both poignant and comic, to show the actor's range, and to impress audiences, especially those members of the Academy. Actually, the entire three hour movie (written with a frantic sweep by Terence Winter) is geared towards the gold for DiCaprio. The thing is, that he is really good in it! The best, the most believable, and the most impressive he has been since he became Mr. Scorsese's muse. He had to resort to pulling a Daffy Duck, but he's still alive.  He's exploded and he's hit the heights with this one. It's Oscar time, or else!

The structure of the film is the rags to riches story of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker in Wall Street who loses his job on Black Friday, but inspired by the life and business lessons of his mentor, senior stockbroker Mark Hanna (a memorable cameo by Matthew McConaughey), he re-invents himself, rapidly becoming the head-honcho of a small company on Long Island selling penny stocks to unsuspecting investors and receiving 50 percent commission. It doesn't take long for Jordan to break out on his own, along with neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and form a new enterprise that rapidly becomes a billion-dollar company: a giant on Wall Street called Stratton Oakmont, complete with a hungry lion for a logo. Soon, the excesses of big money rear their ugly heads, and Jordan and his associates descend into a maelstrom of drug-fueled lavish parties and orgies, while their questionable business practices raise a red flag with the ever-watchful FBI.

More or less, this is the rags to riches story found in Mr. Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990), and The Wolf of Wall Street arrives complete with many of the same stylistic touches found in the earlier film, including voice-over narration by the leading character, and the creation of a milieu of a life of crime where the participants are scum, but lovable, or at least interesting. In many ways, it is the same film, this time bigger, louder, longer, slicker, but morally empty, lacking the Catholic guilt harbored in the ethnic memories of the old neighborhood.

Aside from Mr. Hill and Mr. McConaughey, both of whom are sure to be nominated for the big awards for their fine performances, there is a very likable Jean Dujardin as a slick but sleazy Swiss banker, and newcomer Australian actress Margot Robbie as Naomi, the bombshell Jordan meets at his house in the Hamptons, and soon weds.

The Wolf of Wall Street may not be the most original Scorsese movie, but it does add the most interesting chapter in the on-going collaboration between director and leading man.