Monday, February 19, 2018

PARSIFAL at the MET

François Girard's Apocalyptic production of Parsifal is back at the MET this month, with a stellar cast, and under the direction of the soon-to-be MET's Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.  This is the first revival of this production which made its debut a few years ago.

Mr. Girard places the opera in a barren landscape with tempestuous, ominous skies. On one side of the stage a group of men sit in a circle, all wearing black pants and white shirts, swaying, as if they were a cult in deep prayer. Meanwhile, the women are dressed in black, silent, and separated from the men by a giant crevice through which a river of blood flows.  Certainly not what Richard Wagner had in mind, but given the liberality of modern Wagnerian stagings these days, this production at least adheres to the concept of a physical grail, and a leader of the cult with a wound that refuses to close. The second act features a pool of blood, perhaps the most interesting part of this production, to represent Klingsor's lair.  The third act takes us back to the barren landscape, where eventually the women and the men will integrate after Parsifal returns the spear, thus uniting spear and grail: the ying meets its yang, and in this production, things get really Freudian when Parsifal dips the spear's point into the grail; the spear's phallic symbol penetrates the holy vessel. This heterosexual ending would have satisfied Wagner to no end, as it does the majority of the patrons of the Metropolitan Opera.

The MET has made certain that it gathered the best singers of today to present this revival. René Pape gave us his familiar reading of Gurnemanz, although I thought he lacked some heft Saturday afternoon.  Is all that nicotine catching up to him? As Parsifal Klaus Florian Vogt, who sang the role at Bayreuth two summers ago, gave us a sweet, lyrical reading of the title character. His voice is perfect for the foolish boy of Act I, but his light timbre is at times unconvincing as the mature Parsifal who comes back to save the knights of the Grail. "Why is Tamino singing Parsifal?" is a comment I have seen more than once in social media. Evelyn Herlitzius, another Bayreuth alumna was a strong Kundry, despite the fact that there were some unsteady moments throughout the performance. Peter Mattei as Amfortas, gave us, by far, the most satisfying vocal and acting performance: a man in deepest physical and mental anguish waiting to die so as to free himself of the duty he no longer wants to perform.

I can't wait until maestro Nézet-Séguin officially takes the reins of the Metropolitan Opera. Tempi always being one of the most argued aspects of this score, on Saturday he gave us a reading trending towards the slow side, especially in the prelude, and overall a masterful dissemination of this complex work.  I found his approach to the tender, quiet moments of Act III, as exciting as the bells and kettle drums of the Transformation Scene in Act I. (Are they using electronic instruments to represent the bells of Montsalvat these days?)

I get to go again on Tuesday, so I'm hoping for a performance as brilliant as the matinee I attended last Saturday.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Catching up with the Awards Season: Phantom Thread

Very few directors can build a sense of dread and maintain it through a three act structure like Paul Thomas Anderson. In his latest film Phantom Thread we sense a supernatural threat from its elegant title, but in this film ghosts might haunt the living, but they are quiet, serene, unsettling apparitions. The real dread comes from the living, especially those that enter the orbit of Reynolds Woodcock, a dress designer of haute couture played with calculated restraint by Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he has promised to be his last screen performance. If this turns out to be true, he has left us the most enigmatic creation in his catalogue of amazing performances.

The House of Woodcock’s artistic denizen as played by Mr. Day-Lewis is a mixture of many famous designers, from Christian Dior to Cristobal Balenciaga (director Anderson became very interested in Balenciaga as he was writing the screenplay), and even the late Gianni Versace and his sister Donatella.  In fact, in this film the backbone of the Woodcock enterprise is Cyril Woodcock, Reynolds's sister, played by the incredible Leslie Manville, a frequent collaborator of director Mike Leigh, an actress who can speak volumes with a raised eyebrow. If Mr. Lewis’s performance is restrained, Ms. Manville’s performance resides in her Zen mask where the audience can project their longings and questions about this story.  Not surprisingly, she offers few answers, keeping her character mysterious and distant.  But when it comes to her relationship with the other characters, especially her brother, she is undoubtedly the commanding one.

On a weekend trip to the country, driving his car as if he was either pursued by the Furies, or wishing to crash, Woodcock meets a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who immediately becomes his latest muse, and moves in with him to his fashionable house/atelier.  They are a mismatched couple from the start.  The exacting Woodcock is bothered by any little noise she makes at the breakfast table, and all he seems to want to do is work, rest, and brood about the proximity of death.  And it is this death wish that propels the character forward, imagining his dead mother dressed in her bridal gown in his room, while maintaining a dominant attitude towards Alma.  But Alma knows that the way to a man's heart might just be through his stomach, and devises a plan where she can switch the established roles in their relationship -- a harrowing decision that adds a dark sense of dominance and submission to their life.

I was able to see Phantom Thread projected in 70mm film this afternoon, a rare treat from years past, perfect for this kind of story that takes place at a time when watching a film was the most common thing in the world.  Paul Thomas Anderson served as his own cinematographer in this film, although he gave his long-time cameraman Michael Bauman the title of "lighting cameraman," shades of what Stanley Kubrick did with John Alcott in Barry Lyndon.  Bottom line is that the film did not get a nomination for its cinematography, which is a shame because it is a sumptuous looking work.

I recommend this film, but only if you enjoy a kind of cinema that does not answer all the questions, and leaves you thinking about possible answers.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Catching up with the Awards Season: THE POST

The Post is Steven Spielberg's film about the publishing by the Washington Post of the Pentagon Papers, classified information detailing how the US government lied about the thirty year involvement in the Vietnam War.  It is also the director's chance to delve into cinematic territory occupied by such great films as All the President's Men, Alan J. Pakula's Oscar winning 1976 film about the Washington Post's investigation of the Watergate burglary, and the more recent Oscar recipient Spotlight, a film by Tom McCarthy detailing the investigation by the Boston Globe of allegations of sexual molestation in the Catholic Church.  Both films are hard-hitting investigating dramas played out in America's newsrooms, noisy, overcrowded work places filled with the clatter of typewriters and the scent of cigarette smoke.  They are also mostly male-driven environments, although both Spotlight and The Post make sure that there are females visible.  Can it be otherwise in these politically charged days?

Spielberg, of course has America's most beloved female actor, Meryll Streep. heading the cast.  As Katharine Graham, owner and publisher of the newspaper, she must decide if publishing such a detrimental story to the Nixon presidency, material that has already gotten The New York Times in trouble, is beneficial to a company which is preparing for its IPO.  Mrs. Graham travels in powerful circles, a blue-blood Brahmin used to giving parties where defense secretary Robert McNamara, the person most responsible for the escalation of the war, is a welcome guest.  But the newspaper business is in her blood.  She inherited it from her father, and she took it over from her husband when he committed suicide.  She is a powerful woman, the kind we ought to like these days, although she is filled with questions and doubts, as any other human being would be. Ms. Streep ably portrays the dichotomy of the character in her usual brilliant way.

In the lion's den that is the newsroom of the Washington Post, the lead gladiator is Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the newspaper, challenging the federal government at every turn in his quest to publish the top secret documents. (Of course, it was his son, Ben Bradlee, Jr. who led the Boston Globe's expose that is featured in the film Spotlight -- thus somehow linking the two films together). Like Ms. Streep, Mr. Hanks offers us a carefully crafted performance. Ms. Streep is unashamed to expose her Yale trained technique as she approaches her character, but Mr. Hanks is all Hollywood method acting, in a performance that at times tends to be quite subtle.  The juxtaposition of acting styles works, and their scenes together makes the film come alive, even when the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer seems to fail them.

Mr. Spielberg's direction keeps the action going throughout, but I find that he lingers way too long during the third act. Lately, the man is into providing us with epilogues. (The same problem I found with the conclusion of Bridge of Spies.) Is it really necessary to have Justice Black's opinion read out loud in the newsroom in order to stir our patriotic feelings?  And worst of all, is it really necessary to end the film with the Watergate break-in?  Is Mr. Spielberg hinting at a possible sequel (or perhaps a 1970s trilogy ending with the disgrace of Richard Nixon)?  I would remind Mr. Spielberg's of screenwriter/director Billy Wilder's last screenwriting tip:

"The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that's it. Don’t hang around."

Monday, January 15, 2018

Frances McDormand and her Three Billboards

Catching up with the possible Oscar nominated films of 2017, I finally got around to see the very fine Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film by that very talented Irish/British playwright and screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh.  The story of a teenage girl, raped and burned, while the town's police seemingly do nothing about capturing the criminals forces the mother (Frances McDormand) to take the law into her own hands and rent three billboards advertising the inefficiency of the police department, and especially the town's police chief (Woody Harrelson), who is dying of pancreatic cancer. A great story, expertly told, with a great cast giving stellar performances.  I loved the movie, and surely it will receive many Oscars.  My vote would certainly go to its fine screenplay, which surprises a viewer at almost every turn.

Having watched the Golden Globes last weekend, I was overwhelmed by the support given to the issue of sexual harassment. Most of the women wore black, and most winners included some kind of sociopolitical statement that mentioned the recent events that have exploded in Hollywood.

I was bothered by Ms. McDormand's attitude during the broadcast, in particular when she went up on stage to receive her award for her fine performance in this film.  Was it me, or did it seem like she was still acting?  Has she been unable to shed the role of Mildred?  Her actions and in particular her facial expressions seem to come right from the film, and not from an actress in a fancy dinner awards show.  It made her look like a weirdo, which she may very well be, but I thought that her actions were way too close to her character, and this deep association to one's work is off-putting and dangerous.

Let's hope that when Ms. McDormand goes up to receive her well-deserved Oscar (in this year of the woman, she is a shoo-in to win!) she finds it within herself to be more herself.  No need to show us what a great actress you are, this film proves it in spades.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Top Ten Best Films of 2017

I didn't see them all.  I even missed some of the best, but out of the ones I got a chance to see, these are the top ten best films of the year, in no particular order.

1, Get Out

2. The Florida Project

3. Lady Bird

4. Call Me by your Name

5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

6. The Shape of Water

7. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

8. mother!

9. Coco

10. Blade Runner 2049

Farinelli and the King on Broadway

All hail Mark Rylance!  Four years after his star turn in repertory performances of Olivia in Twelfth Night and the title character in Richard III, he is back at the Belasco theatre in Farinelli and the King, a new play written by his wife, Claire Van Kampen, which first played to critical and audience praises in London at the Globe theatre.

Mr. Rylance plays Philippe V, an 18th century Spanish monarch who has descended into madness. Farinelli is, of course, he famed singer who was castrated at the age of ten becoming the leading "primo uomo" of 18th century operatic London.  Once he became the king's favorite, however, he never returned to Covent Garden, or any other operatic stage, much to the chagrin of his manager and audiences of the time.  The play explores the relationship between the king and his castrato, delving into issues of favoritism and politics, as well as themes of madness, and the way that music can result to be the magic antidote that cures the ills of a politically damaged world.
Every time that Mr. Rylance has stepped on a Broadway stage he has received critical and audience acclaim which has led to multiple Tony award wins.  Here he is poised to repeat this feat.  His performance is deep, multifaceted, hilarious and heartbreaking at times.  You simply cannot take his eyes off him!  And even though there is a familiarity in his voice from performances past, his skill at shaping a character with a simplicity of movement and a turn of the phrase catapults him into one of the greats of our time.

Surrounding him are great actors giving memorable performances.  Melody Grove, as his wife Isabella, and Sam Crane as Farinelli are simply marvelous.  Edward Peel is also quite memorable as Don Sebastian de la Cuadra, the King's chief minister.

One of the chief pleasures of attending this play is the clever set design by Jonathan Fensom, who has transformed the Belasco into a courtly theater with onstage seating for the audience.  This together with Paul Russell's lighting design, which include real candles, makes a welcoming, warm setting.

Throughout the play, and even before the non-curtain goes up, live music by baroque instruments lead us into the world of the baroque.  When Farinelli is asked to sing, Mr. Crane steps aside, and a countertenor steps into the role to deliver some of the great Georg Frideric Handel arias.  During the matinee performance yesterday afternoon, countertenor James Hall filled the Belasco theater with his unique voice.

Once again, New York is lucky to be hosting one of the great actors of our time, in a very interesting, charming play.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

A new TOSCA at the MET: who's in, who's out?

In about 24 hours the Metropolitan Opera will unveil the new production of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, a new staging New York opera fans have been waiting for years.  There was a time in the MET's history when Tosca was a perennial work in its repertory.  That all changed when General Manager Peter Gelb decided to scrap the sumptuous 1985  Franco Zeffirelli production, much beloved by the New York public, and replace it with a new setting by Luc Bondy.  This new staging, which many found outrageous, was furiously booed at the 2009 opening night.  I was there, and I had never heard such a fierce reaction from a New York audience.  Clearly, New York wanted the old Zeffirelli production back!  Since that was not going to happen, Gelb announced, a few years later,  that a new production by David McVicar would replace the Bondy fiasco.  He also promised that the new production would bring back the glory of the Zeffirelli production.  In a recent interview Mr. Gelb added “I have learned my lesson from the Bondy production.  When it comes to a classic piece of repertoire, beauty counts — and that’s what the audience wants.”
 The 1985 Franco Zeffirelli production
The 2009 re-staging by Luc Bondy

And that's when the troubles began...

Originally, the cast for this new production included Jonas Kaufmann, arguably the most sought-after tenor in the opera world today.  Mr. Kaufmann, who is known for often cancelling, did so early on, citing that he did not want to be away from his family during the holidays.  Soprano Kristine Opolais bowed out in the summer, and so did her husband Andris Nelsons, who was to conduct the piece.  Metropolitan Opera Conductor Emeritus James Levine took over, but he was recently dropped by the MET when allegations of sexual abuse shook the company.  Superstar baritone Bryn Terfel, the last of the original slated singers, dropped out this month citing vocal problems.  In the history of the Metropolitan Opera there has never been a messier production.  

Currently, conductor Emmanuel Villaume, from the Dallas Opera Company, will lead a cast led by soprano Sonya Yoncheva, tenor Vittorio Grigolo, and baritone Željko Lučić when the production premieres tomorrow, at a New Year's Eve gala.  Amazingly, the MET has been able to put together a world-class cast, even though the current cast is a mere ghost of the original plans.  Perhaps the production will re-gain true star status in April when Anna Netrebko joins the cast.  Unless she cancels, and then the mess will continue all over again.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Stars Wars: The Last Jedi

It took me a few days to get to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest installment of a cinematic saga that despite its endmost title, is proving to be immortal.  My plan was for the testosterone-fueled fan-boys to have first dibs at it.  In other words, I wanted to attend a showing that was, at least, half crowded.  But nothing doing, today, on a wintry day when the thermometer struggled to reach 25 degrees F. people came out to see Rian Johnson's rewiring of the franchise's mythological elements.  My afternoon showing came close to selling out, thus my plan of watching the film in a solitary screening room did not turn out the way I planned it.  Then again, neither did Luke Skywalker's plan of ending his days alone on a rock in the middle of an ocean work out the way he envisioned it.  I felt I was in good company.

It's almost incredible to realize that Star Wars started back in the second half of the 1970's, a post-Vietnam decade filled with new hope, and fueled by the Bicentennial craze.  The past was very much alive in America in those days, so the prelude moniker of "a long time ago..." that so far has begun every installment of the franchise seemed more than apt in the summer of 1977.  The country was ready to dream again and believe in something, even if the subject of its reverie was a space opera, adapted from Japanese films and World War II combat serials, and filled with mumbo-jumbo dialogue, populated by a bevy of new up-and-coming performers sharing the screen with British character actors royalty.
Star Wars acquired a new lease in life after 2015's The Force Awakens, the first film in the franchise where George Lucas was not directly involved. The Walt Disney Company bought Lucasfilm in 2012, and it was up to producer director J.J. Abrams to revive the story, using some of the characters originally created by Mr. Lucas, while shaping an original story line with a new cast of young performers playing the next generation of heroes and villains.  Thus Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) found themselves surrounded by fighter pilot Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), reformed stormtrooper John Boyega (Finn), and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Daisy Ridley (Rey) who, as the new principal villain and hero, are shaped by their knowledge of the Force.

Mr. Driver's Kylo Ren started as a mask-wearing second generation Darth Vader, but soon enough director Abrams realize that keeping Mr. Driver's unusual angular features right out of a Modigliani painting, hidden was a mistake.  In this new film he destroys his mask exposing the scar on his face that marks him with a Biblical sign of patricide.  Thus far, Kylo Ren is the saga's most charismatic villain.
To compliment him Ms. Ridley's Rey is the driving force behind the new film.  She sets out to the desolate planet Ahch-To, a mountainous rock in the middle of an ocean, where Luke Skywalker has retired, living a solitary monastic existence, waiting for the endgame, thus assuring that the Jedi cult dies with him.  Her quest is to convince Luke to return to Leia, his twin sister, and join once again the good rebel fight.  Along the way, Rey learns that the Force is indeed strong with her, and she asks Luke to become her Jedi mentor.

What I just described is the bare bones of the new film's arc. At a running time of 152 minutes (the franchise's longest film to date) writer director Johnson weaves a number of subplots and characters, some of whom are only seen momentarily (such as an interplanetary codebreaker named DJ played memorably by Benicio del Toro with a sly wink), but who are key to the film's plot, and who might take on greater importance in the upcoming films.

On a deeper level, the film is about the often troubled relationships between master and pupil, associations that run very deep in this mythic story, and which serve as character connections, some going as far back to the original established master/pupil attachment  between Luke and legendary Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness).
Visually, The Last Jedi works best when it returns to the original Lucas sources of inspiration, especially the "Jidaigeki" period dramas of director Akira Kurosawa.  For instance, the stylized throne room lair of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) seems to come right out of the super saturated red set of Kurosawa's Kagemusha: the Shadow Warrior, a samurai epic that was partly financed by George Lucas.  Also, Kurosawa's re-telling of Shakespeare's King Lear, Ran, his last samurai film, looms large in the referential color palette that inspires this film.

The Last Jedi is not to be missed.  An excellent addition to cinema's most lucrative franchise.  Who knows where we'll go from here, but the important thing for the filmmakers to remember is to stay true to the original concept that George Lucas set down decades ago.  As long as future filmmakers do this, we will have plenty of Star Wars fun to last us for a very long time.