Saturday, September 08, 2018

The Man of the Hour: CARLOS RAMOS

Carlos Ramos, the Portuguese tennis umpire, became the man of the hour when he was on the chair for the Serena Williams/Naomi Osaka finals match. Why this honor in my book? Because he stuck to his guns, and he made sure that the match would follow strictly the rules of tennis, without pandering to Serena Williams and her custom of resorting to a meltdown when things don't go her way.

What happened during the match? Mr. Ramos realized that Serena's coach Patrick Mouratoglou was coaching Serena from his box seat at Ashe stadium. This is not allowed, so he gave Serena a warning. Serena protested that she does not cheat, and that she was not being coached. (Later on, Mouratoglou admitted that he was coaching her!) Minutes later, when Serena was down in the match, she smashed her racket. This being her second infraction, he deducted a point from her score. Serena went crazy! She had a massive "Mac-Attack" and insulted Ramos by calling him a "thief." Ramos fired back by deducting a whole game from Serena. Serena blew her top again, and called for the tournament directors, who followed the rules, and did nothing more than support the umpire.

Carlos Ramos's decisions were all according to the book. However, the audience at the stadium, many of them, Serena's fans, began to boo Ramos. And to add salt to the wound, after Serena lost the match, during the presentation of awards, Mr. Ramos was not recognized for his courageous work during the match. I have already called the USTA stupid for not closing the roof and putting on the air conditioner when the temperature reached the three digit mark during the first week of the tournament, but now I have to add that they are also gutless for not supporting one of their own, and letting themselves be persuaded by the crowd, and by the shenanigans of Serena, who continues to be a deplorable prima-donna.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The US Open is in Action, but why isn't the Roof?

This has been a summer where the heat has plagued events that are close and dear to my heart. My trip to the Bayreuth Festival this year from August 1-9 coincided with a heat wave that attacked Germany like it never had before.  It was uncomfortable at the Festspielhaus, a theater with no air conditioning, and it was unbearable at the Bayerische Hof Hotel, also with no AC.  This was my third trip to Wagner's city, and I had never experience such temperatures before.

The 2018 50th anniversary edition of the US Open has coincided with one of those New York heat waves that drives you indoors to a place where the air conditioning is going full blast. The players have been struggling through triple digit heat together with very high humidity. The USTA will not close the roof and pump the AC at Ashe Stadium because they claim that the Open is an "outdoor event." Of course, as soon as there is a threat of rain the roof will close -- so much for an outdoor event!

Fox News and the Associated Press reported that the powers-that-be at the Open are thinking of closing the roof if the heat continues. While they think about it, players are retiring, suffering through cramps, and fans have to seek shelter and hydrate before they faint. I guess keeping the roof open is good for water sales!  Here is the Fox News article:

Extreme temperatures at the U.S. Open on Tuesday and a scorching weather forecast for Wednesday have officials debating whether to close the roofs at two of the tournament's venues.

The temperatures during Day 2 of the season’s final major topped 95 degrees and the humidity nearly reached 50 percent, making it feel like more than 105 degrees on the courts of the Bille Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y. Six players were forced to quit their matches Tuesday, with five citing cramps or heat exhaustion.

The heat had U.S. Tennis Association executives considering whether to close the roofs at Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums, the Los Angeles Times reported. However, the newly renovated new Louis Armstrong Stadium is a naturally ventilated arena and it was unclear how much relief its new retractable roof could provide, especially with temperatures set to reach the upper 90s once again.

“We may close the roof in both buildings in an attempt to bring down the ambient temperature,” U.S. Tennis Association spokesman Chris Widmaier told the L.A. Times.
The brutal weather even forced tennis officials to do something that had never been done fore at the U.S. Open: offer men the chance to take a 10-minute break before the fourth set if a match went that far. A similar rule is already in place for women, allowing 10 minutes of rest before a third set when there’s excessive heat.

At the end of the day, the ATP or a lot of the supervisors, they’re kind of sitting in their offices, where (there’s) an A.C. system on, where it’s cool. And we have to be out there. They tell us it’s fine; they’re not the ones playing,” Alexander Zverev, the No. 4 seed in the tournament, said. “For sure, the rule should be more strict. There should be a certain temperature, certain conditions where we shouldn’t be playing.”

Novak Djokovic, one of the favorites to win the men's title, felt the humidity as well.
“Everything is boiling — in your body, the brain, everything,” he said.

On the women’s side, Alize Cornet changed her shirt mid-match and received a warning. Male tennis players are allowed to change shirts on the court. Petra Kvitova told reporters after her match she was glad it lasted only a little over an hour.

“I really tried hard not to play the third one in this kind of heat,” she said. “I knew it's going to be very hot, but I couldn't imagine how horrible the heat was in, so it was pretty difficult conditions. … When you are playing, you are not just really thinking about it. But when you stop for a while, then you feel the heat like from the ground, as well. Yeah, it was the humidity, as well, was there. We didn't really play, like, long rallies. I think that was kind of helpful.”

Arthur Ashe Stadium opened in 1997 as an open-air stadium. But after several years of rain at the tournament, its roof was installed for around $150 million. Louis Armstrong Stadium opened in 1978 and has undergone several renovations. Its roof, newly installed, cost $200 million and the stadium is not air-conditioned. U.S. Open rules state that the tournament is to remain an outdoor event and the roofs will close only due to threat of rain, according to tournament director David Brewer.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

BlacKkKlansman is the latest from Spike Lee

An incredible, almost unbelievable real cop story about the infiltration of a backwaters Ku Klux Klan chapter by a rookie black undercover police officer, using his white, Jewish partner as his double, serves as Spike Lee’s resounding career second act, his latest agitprop piece that rightfully puts him back on the charts for a new audience.

Spike Lee never really went away, but his recent output did not feel like the Fort Greene, 40 Acres and a Mule Spike of old. Sure, artists change and develop, but Spike seems to have emerged out of NYU already formed, already sure of himself, as he brought to the screen Afrocentric fare wrapped in socio-political discourse. BlacKkKlansman, his latest joint, is the real thing: Spike on top of his game, even with the excesses of old. Not a copy of his former art, but a textbook chapter on how to apply lessons from the past to a new public in order to empower them for a new fight. Make no mistake about it: this might be a story from the 1970’s, but this movie is all about Trump’s America, and the director makes no bones about it. Risking the very fact that the film could be dated years from now, this is the strongest indictment of the Trump administration to come out of Hollywood to date. The director has not lost his edge, in fact, his satiric vein might just be stronger than ever, and his anger over the current state of events boils over.

Heading a cast, ripe with Academy Award potential is John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, Colorado Spring's first African American cop, entering into a force replete with racial antagonism. Washington, with his "fro" looks like a figure straight out of the 1970's blaxploitation films that the movie quotes, as he builds a righteous persona for his character. Adam Driver, his doppelgänger in the sting operation, is Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish American detective who learns much about how he is perceived by others. The rest of the cast shines. Laura Harrier plays Patrice Dumas, an Angela Davis-type activist who Stallworth falls in love with. Topher Grace plays David Duke, the Klan's Grand Wizard, in a three-piece suit, as if he were running a business empire, and not the "invisible empire." Jasper Pääkkönen, as Felix, a dangerous member of the Klan chapter, is one of the scariest movie villains in quite a while. His performance is memorable and chilling. His wife, played by Ashlie Atkinson, is a monster who relishes the day when blacks will be eliminated by deadly force.
Spike Lee is a student of film, and a professor at NYU, his Alma Mater. BlacKkKlansman is filled with movie references both old and new, and on the shot seen above, he even copies himself. It's the "Spike Lee shot." No joint is complete without it. At a pivotal moment in the film, characters seem to glide forward towards an unknown destination. (The best use of this technique was in Malcolm X, as Denzel Washington -- John David's dad -- advances towards his tragic destiny at the Audubon Ballroom as we hear on the soundtrack Sam Cooke singing "A Change is Gonna Come."
It's a moment where young Washington must have felt connected to his dad, and a brilliant way for Spike Lee to bridge the generations as the struggle continues.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Castellucci brings Salome to Salzburg

Romeo Castellucci is a director of deep, abstract ideas.  His stage productions are abstractions that constantly ask the audience to think. This was his approach to Richard Strauss's Salome, that amazing one-act work that after so many years still amazes the listener, and given the right staging, it is still capable to shock an opera audience out of its complacency.  This is the aim of this production, which premiered at the Salzburg Festival on July 28, and which continues playing until August 27th. Conducted with utmost precision by Franz Welser-Möst, and played by the amazing Vienna Philharmonic, the scores bristles with dark, thunderous excitement that reminds us that in 1905, the year of this work's premiere, Strauss was a young enfant-terrible looking to shock. Enter Castellucci with a production that visually attempts to top Strauss, and at times almost succeeds.
The opera has been staged in the auditorium of the Felsenreitschule, and the first thing we notice is that its famous arches have been covered. This evening will be all about hard cold stone: gray walls, gray men in 1930's fedoras and long coats, faces inexplicably half-painted red, and a John the Baptist, his face painted black, wearing a black fur coat that makes him look like a Biblical King Kong. Salome, meanwhile, dressed all in white, is his worshiping Ann Darrow. And constantly, naked bodies are being dragged across the endless stage giving us an atmosphere of horror, perfect for this work.
Forget about watching Asmik Gregorian do the "Dance of the Seven Veils." The Lithuanian soprano, who scores a triumph with this production, is crushed under a block of stone during that amazing music. And forget about seeing a facsimile of bass-baritone Gábor Bretz's head brought on a silver platter. When the time comes, the prophet's headless body instead is brought out for the Jewish princess to drool over. The only severed head we get is that of a horse. I'm sure Castellucci will argue that it is not a homage to The Godfather, and it is not. A girl's first infatuation in her life oftentimes is for a horse. This Freudian fetish beautifully mirrors Salome's fixation on Jochanaan.

Overall, an interesting and provocative production that will keep you on the edge of your seat musically, while intellectually entertaining your senses with images you will not be able to shake out of your system for a while.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

My third PARSIFAL at Bayreuth

The current production of Parsifal, now in its third year, replaced the Stefan Herheim staging I was lucky to see in 2012. That production moved the action to Bayreuth itself, and enacted the history of Germany from the antebellum turn of the century, its entrance into World War I and on through the debacle of the Second World War and beyond. It was a spectacular achievement, my first Parsifal at Bayreuth, and so inspired that it was truly a hard act to follow.  The current production, which I first saw last year, moves the action to the present-day Middle East, transforming the knights into a sect of monks, who harbor a Christ-like Amfortas who is literally bled for his sins and ours.  It is an interesting vision which strives towards a universality to Wagner's work, but ultimately just ends up being a series of good ideas and pretty stage pictures lacking a cohesive factor to unify the staging.

There have been some changes in the cast since this production premiered three years ago, most notably, the departure of Klaus Florian Vogt last year, who dedicated his summer at the Green Hill to Walter, as he did this year, and Georg Zeppenfeld who this year moved on to sing King Henry the Fowler in the new Lohengrin. This was the second year that Parsifal was sung by Andreas Schager, a tenor with a true robust, heldentenor voice, which, however, he uses only in its forte and fortissimo capacities, giving the impression that he is shouting the role. The Festspielhaus is small enough to allow subtlety. Günther Groissböck took on the role of Gurnemanz this year, and I thought the results were mixed. The quality of his voice is certainly suited for the part, but I think the problem here is that we have grown accustomed to listening to more lyrical voices sing this part (i.e. René Pape, who seems to own the role around the world). But to be fair to Mr. Groissböck, the bass sang with determination, and depth of tone. It was just not a pretty sound. Baritone Thomas Meyer sounded like he was under the weather. His Amfortas in the third act felt like he was singing from under the sea, fathoms deep. His aria to his father was a mess, and he resorted to the "Bayreuth Bark" when he knew the notes were far beyond his reach. Elena Pankratova has remained with the production since its first year, and her Kundry is a master class in singing and acting.

Arguably, this production has suffered from a lack of musical leadership right from the start. The original conductor of this production was to have been Andris Nelsons, but he left the production at the last minute with an axe to grind against Christian Thielemann, so say Bayreuth insiders. Harmut Haenchen stepped in at the last minute, and conducted this staging for the first two years. This season Semyon Bichkov has taken over the orchestra, and although his tempi are on the fast side, his conducting of this intricate score was solid, at all times making sure that his singers were not drowned out. Interestingly enough, as a result of his cautious handling of the pit, I felt the chorus at times drowned out his orchestra: a first for me at Bayreuth.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

The New LOHENGRIN at Bayreuth

The new production of Lohengrin, with sets and costumes by husband-and-wife team of Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy promised the first swan knight from Roberto Alagna, an unprecedented career turn for the French-Italian singer. Of course, it was too good to be true, or perhaps too true to be good, in any case, Alagna bowed out a few weeks before the July 25 opening night claiming that he had not learned the part.  Polish tenor Piotr Beczala came to the rescue, and why not: he had not only performed the role earlier, but his conductor was Christian Thielemann who was also conducting this production.  Opening Night was telecast to theaters in Germany as well as over BR Klassik, and it was the first time in a long while that a new production was not savagely booed.  The audience loved the blue colors of the new staging, and Rauch, Loy and director Yuval Sharon, the first American to direct at Bayreuth, received a rousing ovation

Watching the production live at the Festspielhaus is like witnessing a Neo Rauch painting come to life. The devil is in the details, However, and that's where Ms. Loy's costumes make a difference. She takes her husbands flat canvas backdrops and 2-dimensional cut-outs of trees and populates them with principals and a chorus dressed brilliantly, recreating the social realism look of the New Leipzig  School that over the years we have come to expect.

 Piotr Beczala is a trouper: a life-saver for the Bayreuth Festival.  When they were stuck for a new tenor he cancelled his other engagements and agreed to do all the Lohengrins this summer at the Green Hill.  But, beware this role! The great tenor Nicolai Gedda only dared perform it once. It is a voice killer for a light tenor. Beczala had performed it before under the baton of Thielemann -- that's how he got to this year's festival, and although last night's performance was a triumph, I heard him pushing his voice to the brink, and I would exercise caution in attempting this role once more.  Anja Harteros started very weakly, but by the time the third act came about that silky voice that has been compared to a fine tuned Stradovarius shone through.  If you have not hears her, picture a young soprano with the golden voice of Renata Tebaldi, and then you'll know why this German/Greek artist is so sought after around the world.

Although she is a crowd favorite for being active on the stage for so long and for a multitude of brilliant performances around the world, Waltraud Meier sang flat throughout the evening. The role might be getting to her after performing it four times already at the Festpielhaus. It's a challenging role for an elder singer.  Nonetheless she brought years of experience to the part, which translated into fireworks for the audience, and they loved it. The Telramund of Tomasz Konieczny was quite remarkable, as was the conducting of the orchestra by Thielemann who by now knows every nook and cranny of this pit and house, and is able to bring out the sound like none other. 

Overall, the new Lohengrin is a non-controversial staging of this lovely work, which seems to be enjoying the audience's adulation this summer.  After so many years of controversial productions, and experimental designs, is this the way Bayreuth is heading?

Monday, August 06, 2018

Meistersinger 2.0 at Bayreuth


One of the highlights of last year’s trip to Bayreuth was attending Barrie Kosky’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  The Australian gay director, who also happens to be Jewish, chose to highlight the anti-Semitism found in Richard Wagner’s work as it is found in the character of Sixtus Beckmesser, superbly sung and acted by Johannes Martin Kränzle, who is back this summer reprising this role.  As a matter of fact, most of the principals from last year are back, which makes this Meistersinger 2.0 a pleasure to witness, since Mr. Kosky has not just sat on last year’s laurels, but he has gone back to the drawing board and improved upon last year’s wonderful staging.

What is different this year? Act II lost the grassy surface that at the end of the act was rolled up anyway. Objects and furniture from the first act, which takes place in Wahnfried, Wagner's home in Bayreuth, were suddenly thrown together on stage left. The end of the act still features the controversial Jewish head ballon that shocked many viewers last year.  The only difference being that I do not remember booing during the opening night telecast, or the performance I attended.  This year, the conclusion of Act II featured vociferous booing from segments of the audience, although applause and cheers far outweighed those that were booing this production. Why the boos? Something tells me that there were some in the audience that like their Wagner cut and dry, conservative and without  any directorial intervension.  Or perhaps it might have been that segments of the audience that are still troubled by  Anti-Semitic references, and the role Wagner's music played in the development of National Socialism: the last time that Germany officially tried to destroy its Jewish population.

You couldn't ask for a better cast: the aforementioned Kränzle has settled into his role, and gives a masterful performance that last year could have been described as "shtick" but this year has matured into a character of Shakespearean dimension.  Michael Volle is right now the finest singling and acting Hans Sachs, and the same can be said about Klaus Florian Vogt's Walter. Together with newcomer to the cast Emily Magee as Eva, the principals are surrounded by a great cast of meistersingers, each of whom has a distinctive personality.

Philippe Jordan conducted with a sure hand, and achieved the kind of unique sound that manages to escape from the sunken pit and envelop the audience. Not every conductor manages to do it, but Maestro Jordan was quite successful in making us closer to Wagner's great music.

As long as this cast stays together, this will be a production for the ages.  Now, it is time to film it, and share it with the rest of the world.