Saturday, February 15, 2020

The 2020-2021 Metropolitan Opera Season announced

The 2020-2021 Metropolitan Opera season sounds very exciting. It will open with a new production of Aida. This is a risky move by General Manager Peter Gelb and the company since the current production of this work is one of the grandest, and as a result one of the most popular productions in the house repertory. Lately, however, the production has been mostly populated with singers who are either up-and-coming, or who have been up and down the Nile one too many times. The MET will rectify that with a stellar September 21 Opening Night cast that features Anna Netrebko in the title role, Piotr Beczała as Radames (he will try out this role in the Festival Castell Peralada, Catalonia Spain in August of this year a month before the MET opening), and Anita Rachcelishvili as Amneris. Opening night will also serve as the official debut of conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin who will become the MET's new music director.

Another debut which promises to be interesting and, no doubt, controversial is the much anticipated house debut of director Ivo van Hove helming two productions: Mozart's Don Giovanni, a staging that the MET shares with the Paris Opéra, and Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, based on the novel by Sister Helen Prejean, both conducted by Mr. Nézet-Séguin.

Perhaps the most challenging debut next season is that of Barrie Kosky. Mr. Kosky, who hails from Australia and calls himself a "Jewish gay kangaroo" is no stranger to European theaters where his productions have entertained and have added to the polemic of Regietheater. At Bayreuth, his entertaining and controversial production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, which focuses on the antisemitic aspects of the work, drew boos from a segment of the audience at its opening night. I have seen this production twice, once in its debut year and again the following year. Boos were heard during my second visit to this interesting vision of the work. At the MET, Mr. Kosky will direct a rare Sergei Prokofiev work called The Fiery Angel. The staging, which comes from the Bavarian State Opera, features the chorus dressed as Jesus, complete with bloody crowns of thorns as well as a devil with a dildo. As critic Michael Cooper wrote in the NY Times "Zeffirelli's Boheme this isn't." Here is a preview of this staging.

The rest of the season features great revivals including Tristan und Isolde, Lulu and Rusalka. Especially great is the return of Richard Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten in its 2001 Herbert Wernicke production and The great John Dexter production of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd, still going strong since 1978.  Exciting artists taking on new roles in existing productions include Ms. Netrebko's first Abigaile in Giuseppe Verdi's Nabucco, Angela Meade in Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, as well as tenor Javier Camarena in Bellini's other great work, Il Pirata.

An interesting change to the calendar is that the MET will close its doors during the month of February, traditionally a period when audiences tend to stay home, and the company ends up losing money. The season will be extended up to June 5 cutting into the traditional American Ballet Theater season.

It promises to be a very exciting season, and perhaps this might be the right time when New York's conservative audiences finally accept Mr. Gelb's tireless crusade to bring the MET to the 21st century. The MET has been notoriously lagging behind in comparison to the great European houses when it comes to presenting works by visionary, avant-garde directors. Older audiences, as well as the MET's own Board of Directors and patrons, have been reticent to spend money on productions that may not be popular because of the new approach they take to beloved works, and those other works that have become very popular older productions. Luminaries of Regietheater not likely to be seen at the MET in the near future include iconoclastic Catalan director Calixto Bieito. His proposed La Forza del Destino was cancelled. Stefan Herheim's clever Die Meistersinger, which was first staged at the Vienna State Opera, was also cancelled.

Will the MET ever get rid of their popular cash cow Franco Zeffirelli Boheme? Not in the cards thus far, but you never know. I never thought their Aida would go. Now we look forward to a new staging. Let us see how the New York crowd reacts to this major leap forward.

Monday, February 10, 2020

PARASITE wins big -- really big!

Last night, at the 92nd Oscar ceremony, the film Parasite did something no other film had done in the history of the awards. Bong Joon-ho's magnificent thriller was the first to win the International Film category, as well as taking home the Best Film Oscar. Last year Alfonso Cuarón's film Roma, a Netflix production, was also nominated for both, but it failed to win both awards, ending up only with the International Film statuette. Mr. Bong also won in the Best Director category. In his thank-you speech, which he spoke in his native Korean, he thanked Martin Scorsese, who has been an inspiration to the young filmmaker. It was a wonderful example of a relatively new filmmaker thanking the established, older director. This is the first Oscar win for South Korea.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

West Side Story at the Broadway Theatre

In Ivo Van Hove's recreation of West Side Story it's not always easy, at first, to tell the Jets from the Sharks. Each gang is now racially mixed, all are heavily tattooed, and show off some kind of distinctive bling around their necks. As they stand at the apron of the stage at the start of the performance, and sway to the right and to the left, these gang members share the look with MS-13, the Bloods and the Crips rather than with the original teen hoodlums Arthur Laurents had in mind when he adapted Romeo and Juliet and placed it in New York's dangerous San Juan Hill neighborhood, the very place where today Lincoln Center stands, and where Robert Wise shot the 1961 film adaptation of this 1957 Broadway musical. Gone also is the Jerome Robbins choreography, in favor of an even more acrobatic style, thankfully still rooted on ballet, by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. You won't find any finger snapping here to signify they are hip cool cats. Far from it. These are dangerous individuals you do not want to meet on a dark New York street.

The Ivo Van Howe treatment is well-known by now: minimalism married to dazzling technology, often using HD video. On Broadway he has re-thought Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge and The Crucible, as well as last year's dazzling rethinking of Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay  Network starring Bryan Cranston. This time, with a cast made up of mostly young unknowns, he has re-thought this classic musical in ways that often delight us, as well as confound us. The music is still Leonard Bernstein at his finest, minus the song "I Feel Pretty," cut, I presume because it slows down the action. (So does the aria "Un Bel Di" in Puccini's Madama Butterfly). I get the feeling that it's out because of its inherent kitschy feeling. The production also plays in one single act nearing two hours. This is a no-nonsense, tight production, as serious and as stark as a Greek tragedy. No laughing aloud. I'm surprised "Gee, Officer Krupke" remained intact, although it has lost some of its comedic values given the seriousness of Mr. Van Hove's approach. Luckily "America" still works as a marvelous example of great music and witty lyrics by the then young Stephen Sondheim, the only surviving member of the original creative team.

During the 1980's many of the classic shows of the 1950's and 1960's were revived, often with the same orchestrations as well as the same scenic conceptions. In fact, many of the original stars of those shows came back to reprise their past triumphs. Carol Channing in Hello Dolly, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof and Richard Burton in Camelot. Yul Brynner made a cottage industry out of The King and I, reviving it over and over again, even as he was dying of cancer. And, of course Jerome Robbins returned to Broadway to direct West Side Story in 1980, using the same scenic, lighting and costume designs employed in the original production. While the world of musical comedy remained stagnant, opera was being rethought in Europe. The 1976 version of Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung at Bayreuth by Patrice Chereau led the way for experimentation in the lyric theater. The practice is very much the current trend. Depending where you stand it's either "Regietheater" (theater of the director) or "Eurotrash."

What is dazzling in this production is the use of HD cameras. The live feed is projected upstage, behind the playing area, on a huge screen that captures the characters up close. It is like watching a movie and a theater piece all at the same time. The camera is vital to the production. The two main sets, Doc's candy store and Anita's sweatshop,  dressed in hyper-realism by Jan Versweyveld (Mr. Van Hove's partner), are upstage with nooks and crannies out of the audience's view. However, the camera follows the action inside these hidden corners and broadcasts it to us revealing the amazing detail. Why these theatrical settings are pushed out of the way, and only allowed to be seen through the camera lens is one of the questions we must ask the creative team.

Ultimately, the real important question we must ask ourselves is if a musical like West Side Story is able to successfully navigate the world of "Regietheater" and still emerge unscathed. Save for a major incongruity: 1950's lingo sputtered by a crowd that looks and behaves more at ease in the hip-hop hood, the answer is a resounding yes. My feeling is that Broadway audiences will accept this modernization of a treasured warhorse as long as the performances are of such amazing caliber, especially Dharon Jones as Riff, and Isaac Powell (who is back after he injured himself during previews) as Tony. Over on the Shark's turf, the dancing mastery of New York City Ballet's Amar Ramasar (with whom I shared the stage years ago when we performed another piece by Bernstein, Chichester Psalms), as well as the talented Yesenia Ayala as Anita and Shereen Pimentel as Maria bring fresh approaches to these characters.

The production should have opened last Thursday, but due to Mr. Powell's injury the official opening is now February 20th. Now Mr. Powell is back and sounding wonderful, especially in his two main songs "Something's Coming" and the ever popular "Maria."

Whatever you think of this approach towards classic musicals, this is a major revival by some of the most talented creative minds working today. Their aim is to bring a breath of fresh air to a wondrous piece of our creative past. By doing so, they revitalize the theater and bring a masterpiece to a new generation of audiences that will be as thrilled as those lucky enough to have been at the Winter Garden Theatre back in 1957. What is now running at the Broadway Theatre is a West Side Story for 2020 and beyond.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Dracula meets Sherlock meets Who

Bram Stoker's novel has been given the BBC Mark Gatiss / Steven Moffat treatment. Their adaptation of Dracula owes less to the author's original epistolary classic and more to their inimitable jigsaw puzzle writing style that the pair have nurtured in their on-going update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, also for the BBC.

The story is told in flashback by a dying Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) who has escaped Dracula's castle, and has landed in a nunnery. He tells his story to a pair of nuns, one of whom seems to know quite a lot about the occult and who tends to treat Catholicism with more skepticism than her deep knowledge of vampires.

At first it all starts out fairly recognizable. Jonathan Harker awaits the count's carriage in the middle of a stunningly beautiful snowy forest. The faint glimpses of the coachman who picks him up, however, promises that things will not end well for this Victorian traveler. Castle Dracula certainly looks creepy enough, and is a clear homage to the scenic design of the Bela Lugosi 1931 Universal film. It all begins to slowly descend downhill with the first appearance of the count. The vampyre is played by Danish actor Claes Bang, and the first time we see him he is a wizened old man, but soon enough with a little bit of sustenance provided by Harker he turns into a young man faster than when Faust signed his contract with Mephistopheles -- but, that's another story.

The problem is that Claes Bang is all wrong for the part. His face is too fleshy, neither possessing the dread that Lugosi emoted, nor the skeletal fright of Max Schreck in Nosferatu. Gatiss and Moffat were going after a post-Christopher Lee look: a Louis Jourdan, Frank Langella type. Instead the writers throw out the possibility of peppering Mr. Bang's dark looks with a dash of old-fashioned creepiness, and instead make him into a bitchy queen. One scene in particular contains the worst, most out-of-place line in the history of any horror movie. After morphing from wolf to man, Dracula  feels the animal's black hair and turns to a group of nuns with the following quip: "I don't know about you girls, but I sure do love fur."

Meanwhile, imprisoned in a castle, a labyrinth right out of the short stories of Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, Harker soon begins to deteriorate as Dracula makes his nightly visits. Soon enough Harker realizes that he must escape if he is ever going to see his beloved Mina back in London again. No sooner does he find out the secret of the castle's construction that he realizes that the place is also inhabited by several of Dracula's creations: caged prisoners, slowly being turned into vampires, and all of them (including a vampire baby) ready willing and able to bite a chunk out of Harker's jugular.

The best part of this adaptation involves a part of the story which is usually either omitted, or dashed away quickly in previous versions: the voyage of the ship Demeter to London. The entire second part of this series involves this sea voyage. The only problem with this decision is that the writers turn it into an Agatha Christie murder mystery -- a mixture of  Murder on the Orient Express meets And Then There Were None. And what's wrong about this approach? It's not a whodunit anymore, we know who's doing it! Still, despite the clumsy writing decision, this episode has the proper atmosphere, dread, and seriousness that the story deserves.

Good, right?  WRONG!

This episodes also features the most outrageous cliffhanger ever -- something right straight out of a Dr. Who episode.

At this point, I'll say no more. If you've read this far you're either not going to go anywhere near this show, or I have elevated your curiosity so much that you're running to your Netflix. Either way, it's an entertaining bit of fluff, but not the kind of adaptation that this classic deserves. Unfortunately, both Mr. Gatiss and Mr. Moffat, as fanboys, are way too close to the material to actually make a decent adaptation.

I can't wait to see what they do with Moby Dick if they decide to adapt it.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Lise Davidsen makes her debut at the MET

The debut of an important up and coming artist at an opera house is always a reason for celebration. At the Metropolitan Opera, the fabled evenings when Enrico Caruso, Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price made their debuts have gone down in the annals of the opera house as important signposts for the company, as well as golden moments in the history of the art form in the 20th century.

Last night another such moment happened again at the MET, one taylor-made for the new century. Soprano Lise Davidsen made her much anticipated debut as Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. Like the artists mentioned above Ms. Davidsen comes to the MET already a star, having made an enormous impact in the classical world with her triumphant debuts in Glyndebourne, the Vienna State Opera, the Royal Danish Opera, and London's Royal Opera, Covent Garden. As well as last summer's debut at the Bayreuth Festival where her performance as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser was hailed by the international press as a "voice once in a century." This summer she will return to the Green Hill as Sieglinde in Bayreuth's new production of the Ring. In addition to all these marvelous accolades, Ms. Davidsen has been awarded an exclusive recording contract by Decca Records, the first since that honor was given to soprano Birgit Nilsson.

Is sex appeal important in opera? You bet, and Ms. Davidsen has it in (I won't say in spades) greater than usual amounts. Her tremendous stage presence and radiant looks, more Mediterranean than Nordic, command the stage even before she sings a single note. And when she does, she produces a powerful even sound throughout her register that causes one's ears to tingle. The kind of sound that only a true lyric dramatic soprano possesses.
It was a triumphant evening in all accounts. Ms. Davidsen, in her curtain call as seen above, looked radiant and happy on a job well done. Her colleagues also did remarkably well. Tenor Yusif Eyvazov was a haunted creature as Hermann, whose obsession with discovering the secret of the three cards drives him and those in his orbit to destruction. Mr. Eyvazov's tenor is a pleasant instrument which he knows how to use well throughout the evening. Also worthy of accolades was another debut: Igor Golovatenko, whose powerful baritone graced the role of Prince Yeletsky. Conductor Vasily Petrenko, also making his house debut, led the forces of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus with remarkable beauty and efficiency.

The Queen of Spades is another jewel in the MET's remarkable crown this year, which also includes the triumphant new productions of Porgy and Bess and Philip Glass's Akhnaten, which are currently running. It would be unwise to miss this revival of Tchaikovsky's opera, especially when it is graced by such a remarkable singer as Lise Davidsen. Let's hope that she makes the MET a favorite home away from home.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Joaquin Phoenix in JOKER

That the film Joker, the new Tod Phillips origin story of Batman’s most deranged arch villain, would incite violence in the streets of the real Gotham City and beyond proved to be much ado about nothing. There were armed guards with machine guns outside Alice Tully Hall at the New York Film Festival screening, but after weeks of playing around the country there have not been any serious acts of violence perpetrated as a result of watching this film. That, in and of itself, speaks volumes about this movie.

In 1971, Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange was banned in many countries as a preventative measure, fearing hordes of disaffected teenagers would go on bloody rampages mimicking the ultra-violence depicted in the film. But just for the record, let me state right now that Joker is no Orange.  Kubrick’s film, based on Anthony Burgess’s novel, is a frightening analysis of an out of control youth under an ineffective government in a UK steeped in a dystopia nightmare.  Joker is simply about raising to a pedestal a psychopath, and wallowing in the random violence he commits.

Joaquin Phoenix has been receiving praise for his performance, a character that brought posthumous Oscar honor to Heath Ledger, and which served as a campy vehicle for Cesar Romero in the 1960s Batman TV series. As a result of an uneven script by the director and Scott Silver, Joaquin Phoenix is allowed to be all over the place. Sure, you can’t take your eyes off him, but that’s because you don’t know what he’s going to pull next. This unexpected, mercurial approach to a troubled character worked really well for the actor in the film The Master, but again that was a tight controlled film where Phoenix could shine. Here he attempts a similar approach, and oftentimes his talent gets him over the hump, despite the material he is forced to work with. It yields an inconsistent performance where he can be tender when speaking to his mom, frightening when he looks into a mirror and whips his mouth into a deranged smile, and inexplicably campy when he is dancing on steps in the South Bronx, or when he is invited to a late night talk show whose host, ably played by Robert De Niro, is a veiled caricature of Johnny Carson.

I suppose the film works best as a recreation of 1970’s New York, but even here, it ends up being merely a Hollywood version of what New York was like in that decade. In other words, in the film the graffiti and the garbage in the streets is more abundant than it ever was in reality. For a real look at the Big Apple during that decade, shot on the very same mean streets, look to The French Connection and Taxi Driver, for starters, two films that Joker shamelessly tries to mimic. In its depiction of rioting crowds loose on the streets the film attempts to offer an allegory for our time of political discontent, and that it does real well. However, I wonder how many members of the audience will be thinking allegorically when presented with this gritty, violent material.