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).

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

All singers know that they sound very different to themselves than to the people listening to them. This audio phenomenon is at the heart of Florence Foster Jenkins, the new biopic of the infamous New York patron of the arts. She would have been a forgotten name in the annals of New York society had she not made a number of recordings that forever captured her lack of operatic singing talent. Led on by her British husband and cheered on by her sycophantic circle of friends, Ms. Jenkins rented Carnegie Hall for one evening and filled it friends, servicemen returning from World War II, and celebrities. It turned out to be one of the strangest recitals ever given on any stage.

Cinematically, this is a character that is very close to Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard: women who were lied to about their artistic abilities or popularity, and who ultimately paid the price for this deception.

Brilliant in the cast is Simon Helberg, best known from the TV show "The Big Bang Theory," as her timid but talented accompanist, who at first finds the whole idea of playing for this matronly lady hilarious. His laughter soon turns into fear that this job will hurt his fledgling career. Ultimately he succumbs to the big con that is largely orchestrated by her husband.

St Clair, her husband, is the closest this film gets to having a villain. Casting Hugh Grant in the role, however, softens the character's edges admirably. For Mr. Grant this is a comeback film of sorts, and he is great in the part. The years have lined his face. Gone is the boyish, bumbling character who won our hearts in Four Weddings and a Funeral. St Clair is a two-timing liar, but his winning smile, even as he reaches into his pocket to bribe a newspaper critic wins us over.

But ultimately director Stephen Frears makes sure that the film is all about Meryl Streep. She embodies the character of Florence in the same manner that she has tackled the great roles of her career, and undoubtedly this is another milestone: a memorable characterization that will win her many accolades come award season. She knows how to play it big without chewing scenery, and that's one of the wonders of this performance. Needless to say, audiences love that. In addition, she has shown that she can belt out a tune when she wants to. In Mamma Mia! she literally stopped the show with her rendition of "The Winner Takes it All." Here she is deliberately singing flat and off key, which is so difficult to do for a talented, trained singer like her.

In many ways the film is a paean to relativism. Here's a lady who has no business singing, but by golly she got up there and did it, and therefore she is a winner for trying, even though the results were awful. She rips through Mozart's Queen of the Night aria from Die Zauberflöte murdering every note and never reaching the high F. "Right you are if you think you are" as Luigi Pirandello would have concluded. Ms. Streep makes it all seem OK somehow, and that's why the film succeeds. Lady Florence herself said it best: "Some may say that I couldn't sing, but no one can say that I didn't sing."

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Rio 2016: Smoke and Mirrors?

The 2016 Olympic Games are underway in the beautiful city of Rio De Janeiro. The first time that the Olympics have been held in South America. A great feather in the cap of a country rich in beauty, history and culture but drowning in political mismanagement, social injustice, and random crime. Currently, the country is without a president after Dilma Rousseff was impeached. It's been up to Michel Temer, the current interim president, to hold down the fort while the rest of the world arrives to the shores of Copacabana and Ipanema. And while the world is rediscovering the Bossa Nova classics of AntĂ´nio Carlos Jobim, which portrays a Brazil which no longer exists, or may never have existed, the proverbial Girl from Ipanema has to be careful that while walking on the beach she is not robbed, or worse kidnapped.

If your idea of Brazil is based on Marcel Camus's 1959 Oscar winning film Black Orpheus, which portrays favela life as an idyllic hub of samba culture, then you are in for a rude awakening. Forty percent of the crime in Rio happens in these hillside slums. Drug use is highly concentrated in these areas run by local gangs. Regular shoot-outs between drug lords, police and other criminals, as well as assorted illegal activities, lead to excessive murder rates which descend down the hill to the city of Rio. Higher rates occur in the favelas although, oftentimes, much crime goes unreported for fear of reprisals. Still, the favela is the place where much of Brazil's culture comes from, even though those who maintain its culture alive, favela dwellers, are marginalized. However, favela culture is alive and well, and to the percussive rhythms of the samba one can now add the hybrid musical forms such as funk carioca and hip hop. The favela might seem to be an isolated outpost, but  it is no stranger to influences from abroad, even though the majority of tourists avoid these hillside shanty towns which they can see in the near distance from their expensive hotels.

It is so interesting that the person chosen to mount the Rio games was Fernando Meirelles, Brazil's most famous contemporary movie director. His 2002 film City of God presented with gritty realism the current reality of favela life: the antithesis of Camus's film. By contrast, his concept for the opening ceremony was an abstract realization of Brazil's motto which adorns its green and yellow flag: "Ordem e Progresso" (order and progress). He presented a Brazil knowledgeable of its troubled past, but facing the future with a bright, rhythmic optimism. Smoke and mirrors? Perhaps, but what host country does not put its best foot forward when the eyes of the world are focused on it?

The Olympic flame, the traditional focus of the games, in many ways says it all, and it might be Meirelles's ironic comment on the whole Olympic experience. A relatively small cauldron of fire suspended in mid air (in contrast to the epic flame towers of past Olympics), and surrounded by dozens of revolving mirrors creating a kaleidoscopic blinding effect. Smoke and mirrors? Literally, yes! Long may it burn for the sixteen days that the world visits the shores of this country.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Hillary Clinton at the DNC Last Night

She came out dressed in white: a knight in shining armor ready for the fight ahead. America's own female Lohengrin. A Wagnerian sight if ever there was one!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Parsifal on BR Klassik

 I'm not sure how long it's going to be up there, but you can stream Monday's Parsifal performance from the stage of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus by going to BR Klassik. This performance marks the beginning of the annual Bayreuth Festival which will run until the end of August. The new production by Uwe Eric Laufenberg is a mixture of classical staging and Eurotrash, with Islamic elements thrown in for good measure. It's a hodgepodge that although does not live up to the beauty and intelligence of the Stefan Herheim production it replaced, manages to leave a lasting impression. The picture above should speak a thousand words where this concept is at, although do go ahead and watch the performance.  There is some fine singing from Georg Zeppenfeld (Gurnemanz), Klaus Florian Vogt (Parsifal), and Houston Grand Opera Studio alumnus Ryan McKinny, who makes a fine Bayreuth debut as Amfortas. The orchestra is under the direction of Harmut Haenchen who at the last minute took over from Andris Nelsons who left the production citing artistic differences.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Following Terror Attacks Security Tightens at Bayreuth

 Mere days before the start of the Bayreuth Festival, Germany is on edge after five people were injured in an axe attack in a Bavarian train in Wuerzburg, an event claimed by the Islamic State, and the Munich rampage where nine people were gunned down by an 18 year old German Iranian who then took his own life.

The festival begins on Monday with a new production of Parsifal, and new security measures have been implemented at the Green Hill this year thus robbing the event of the summer carefree idyll setting that it has had for 140 years.

Katharina Wagner sent the following letter to all Bayreuth ticket holders:

Dear Sir/Madam, Dear Festival-goers,

Due to the overall increased threat level, the 2016 Bayreuth Festival is increasing its security.  We would like to inform you of several important aspects as follows:

As advanced security measures by the police cannot be ruled out, please plan to arrive at the Festspielhaus a little earlier than usual.  We recommend arriving about 45 minutes before the performance.
  • Please carry a valid government-issued ID, so you can be identified
  • For safety reasons, it is prohibited to take the following into the Festspielhaus:
    • Bulky items, in particular bags and backpacks of any kind, except for evening handbags
    • sharp or pointed objects as well as any other objects that are hazardous or can be used as a weapon
    • cushions
    • drink bottles and other liquid containers
Please note that there are no storage facilities for them inside the Festspielhaus
  • There is a different route for directions by car to the Festspielhaus.  Exiting is as usual.
  • Please note that direct access from the parking lots to the Festspielhaus is only possible via one route.
We hope that you will understand these rules.  All visitors cooperating as best as possible can significantly help to avoid problems and inconvenience to a large extent.

If you are unable to use your tickets yourself, we respectfully request you provide the users of the tickets with this information.

Thank you for your understanding and we wish you a pleasant and fulfilling visit.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Madam Butterfly at the ENO

It is such a delight to rediscover Anthony Minghella's poignant, unforgettable production of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the place where it originated: The English National Opera, in its home base at the London Coliseum. Though it might be the biggest theatre in London's West End, it is an intimate house compared to the Metropolitan Opera, where I first saw this remarkable production. The ENO is the place where the late director envisioned this production, and it is wondrous to experience it in its original home. As is the custom of the house, the opera was performed in English in a translation by David Parry.

So much of the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica is part of my operatic muscle memory, that hearing it for the first time in another language is disconcerting. Many times I had to resort to the supertitles at the ENO which are not ideally placed if you are sitting in the seventh row of the stalls (orchestra seats in the US). However, it is the tradition of the house: to perform all the operas in English, and eventually one gets accustomed to it. Actually, the only time I did not hear English at the ENO was many years ago when I went to their production of Philip Glass's Satyagraha, which was performed in Sanskrit.

One of the remarkable aspects of this production is the use of Bunraku style puppets, used throughout the production, but especially for Butterfly's little son. These life-like creations, operated by visible, but black-clad puppeteers gives a truly authentic Japanese air to the production, and needless to say no child actor can ever emote such longing as this amazing wooden creation in his cute, white sailor suit. This unique feature sets apart this staging of the opera from any other. So remarkable is the idea that many of the world's opera houses have borrowed this production.

The orchestra, under the baton of Sir Richard Armstrong never achieves a quiet moment, which is so important in this tender work. As a result the voices are either covered, or, as was the case tonight, forced to throw away the composer's dynamic markings. I have never heard a "Flower Duet" sung fortissimo before, but here it was. Rena Harms, in the title role certainly has the voice and stamina for the role, and the same can be said for David Butt Philip, her BF Pinkerton. I just wished that the conductor had given them a break and allowed some subtlety to enter into the evening.

Despite the company's faults, which are not many, at least the city of London has an alternate choice to The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. At the ENO families can still go to hear grand opera at popular prices. Boy, do I miss the New York City Opera. But hope springs eternal, though, and perhaps one day the phoenix will rise once more.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Disney and Netflix deal

Back in 2012 Netflix struck a deal with Disney to have exclusive rights to stream new films from Marvel, Pixar, LucasFilms, and Walt Disney Animation Studios. The deal will go into effect this September.

What does this mean for the company, and for us consumers? Basically it will mean that all new films in 2016 from this point forward will only be released on Netflix. If you want to find anything from Captain America: Civil War to The Jungle Book to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will only be found on Netflix. According to the contract it cannot be found on any other streaming platform. Further, new content will not be found on cable channels, and it won't be available on premium pay channels and networks.