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).

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Oscars Are Almost Here!

What an interesting year in movies 2014 was! Once again, the small, indie film is being given a chance to take center stage in this year's Academy Awards ceremony.  Here are my picks.  The ones in red are the ones that I feel should win. The ones with an asterisk (*) are the ones that I anticipate the members of the Academy will choose.

Best Picture
“American Sniper”
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“The Imitation Game”
“The Theory of Everything”  *

Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher”
Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper”
Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game”
Michael Keaton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything” *
Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall in “The Judge”
Ethan Hawke in “Boyhood” *
Edward Norton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Mark Ruffalo in “Foxcatcher”
J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash”

Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night”
Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything”
Julianne Moore in “Still Alice” *
Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl”
Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”

Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood”
Laura Dern in “Wild”
Keira Knightley in “The Imitation Game” *
Emma Stone in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Meryl Streep in “Into the Woods”

Animated Feature
“Big Hero 6” Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli *
“The Boxtrolls” Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
“Song of the Sea” Tomm Moore and Paul Young
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura
Adapted Screenplay
“American Sniper” Written by Jason Hall *
“The Imitation Game” Written by Graham Moore
“Inherent Vice” Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Theory of Everything” Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
“Whiplash” Written by Damien Chazelle

Original Screenplay
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
“Boyhood” Written by Richard Linklater *
“Foxcatcher” Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
“Nightcrawler” Written by Dan Gilroy

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Emmanuel Lubezki
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Robert Yeoman
“Ida” Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
“Mr. Turner” Dick Pope *
“Unbroken” Roger Deakins

Costume Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Milena Canonero *
“Inherent Vice” Mark Bridges
“Into the Woods” Colleen Atwood
“Maleficent” Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive
“Mr. Turner” Jacqueline Durran
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Alejandro G. Iñárritu *
“Boyhood” Richard Linklater
“Foxcatcher” Bennett Miller
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Wes Anderson
“The Imitation Game” Morten Tyldum

Documentary Feature
“CitizenFour” Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky
“Finding Vivian Maier” John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
“Last Days in Vietnam” Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester *
“The Salt of the Earth” Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and David Rosier
“Virunga” Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara

Documentary Short Subject
“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry
“Joanna” Aneta Kopacz
“Our Curse” Tomasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki
“The Reaper (La Parka)” Gabriel Serra Arguello *
“White Earth” J. Christian Jensen

Film Editing
“American Sniper” Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
“Boyhood” Sandra Adair
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Barney Pilling
“The Imitation Game” William Goldenberg
“Whiplash” Tom Cross *

Foreign Language Film
“Ida” Poland
“Leviathan” Russia *
“Tangerines” Estonia
“Timbuktu” Mauritania
“Wild Tales” Argentina

Makeup and Hairstyling
“Foxcatcher” Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier *
“Guardians of the Galaxy” Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White

Original Score
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Alexandre Desplat *
“The Imitation Game” Alexandre Desplat
“Interstellar” Hans Zimmer
“Mr. Turner” Gary Yershon
“The Theory of Everything” Jóhann Jóhannsson

Original Song
“Everything Is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie”
“Glory” from “Selma” *
“Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights”
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from “Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me”
“Lost Stars” from “Begin Again”

Production Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” *
“The Imitation Game”
“Into the Woods”
“Mr. Turner”

Animated Short Film
“The Bigger Picture” Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees
“The Dam Keeper” Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi
“Feast” Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed
“Me and My Moulton” Torill Kove *
“A Single Life” Joris Oprins

Live Action Short Film
“Aya” Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis
“Boogaloo and Graham” Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney
“Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)” Hu Wei and Julien Féret
“Parvaneh” Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger *
“The Phone Call” Mat Kirkby and James Lucas

Sound Editing
“American Sniper” Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Martín Hernández and Aaron Glascock
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” Brent Burge and Jason Canovas *
“Interstellar” Richard King
“Unbroken” Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro

Sound Mixing
“American Sniper” John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin *
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Thomas Varga
“Interstellar” Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten
“Unbroken” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and David Lee
“Whiplash” Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley

Visual Effects
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
“Guardians of the Galaxy”
“Interstellar” *
“X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Smash on VOD: The Interview

The Interview, out on limited theatrical release and VOD as a result of the Sony Pictures hacking scandal and alleged threats from the government of North Korea, might just be the silliest, most sophomoric film to have gotten world-wide news coverage. Though way too much has been written about this movie already, Sony has announced that it has made $15 million, which makes it a groundbreaking VOD success, and definitely something to spill more ink about.  Let me get my poisoned pen.

Though the film tries to be a satire of a contemporary dictator, it lacks the talent to take its mission to the end, preferring to veer away from political mockery and head downhill to the lowest of the lowest burlesque. As expected, the result is no Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be or The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin's brilliant sendup of Hitler's Fascist Germany. Both of these classics were released in the middle of World War II, and each offered insightful satirical parody while commenting on the nature of evil. The Interview, instead, knocks loudly at the door of Pyongyang and then runs away. More or less that's the nature of the humor throughout the film. That, and a penchant for anal penetration jokes.

James Franco overplays Dave Skylark, the kind of obnoxious TV talk host that drools all over Eminem (in a surprisingly understated performance) after the rapper admits on the air that he is gay. Inside the booth, Seth Rogen is Skylark's producer, who after meeting a college buddy who is now a senior producer on 60 Minutes, begins to understand that the product he's putting out is garbage. He conceives the brilliant idea to travel to North Korea, and land an interview with Kim Jong-un. However, when the CIA finds out about this unlikely, unexpected road trip (which Skylark continually compares to the journey in The Lord of the Rings), agent Lacey (Lizzie Caplan), like a siren, bewitches the two cable news dodos into assassinating the North Korean leader.

As far as good taste is concerned, it all goes downhill as soon as the pair arrive in North Korea. The Supreme Leader (Randall Park) is a psychological mess whose father has trained him from childhood that it is gay to drink margaritas. No doubt, this has led Kim Jong-un to make sure that his people believe that he has no need to urinate or defecate. Needless to say, his butthole does not fail to make an audio appearance during the course of the film. And there you have it, folks: there's the big difference between this film and, say, The Great Dictator. When Chaplin played with a globe of the world, bouncing it up and down, it becomes a comic/chilling moment. Here, the most graceful thing this dictator can do is to rip one out for laughs.

Too bad, because the film starts out a bit more promising. Following an old-fashioned Columbia Pictures logo, the angelic face of a Korean girl, singing about her hatred of the United States of America, appears in closeup. "May your women all be raped by beasts of the jungle while your children are forced to watch!" she sings. And as the camera pulls back, a nuclear warhead launches into the sky. If only the movie would have continued at this level.

My biggest fear about this entire mess is that I can already see Dave Skylark making a comeback (like a low-grade James Bond) in a future adventure.  Let's hope that everyone involved thinks thrice before this happens.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Die Meistersinger is back at the MET

The Otto Schenk, Günther Schneider-Siemssen production of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is back at the Metropolitan Opera, playing for seven performances, including an HD telecast of the Saturday matinee on December 13.  I will be in the house for that performance.

These are turning out to be very important performances.  To begin with, it is the only Wagner opera that the MET will be presenting this year, and all the performances are slated to be conducted by James Levine, who is experiencing a tremendous year, celebrating his full-time comeback to the MET after a prolonged illness.
This is also the last time that this famed production will be seen at the MET.  The conservative staging will be retired, and in its place the Metropolitan Opera will present in the future the new Stefan Herheim production (pictured above) that premiered at the Salzburg Festival last summer. Mr. Herheim is a world famous proponent of "Regietheatre" and his production of Parsifal, which I saw at the Bayreuth Festival in 2012, takes extensive liberties with the plot of the opera. Michael Volle, who sang the role of Hans Sachs in that Salzburg production will be singing some of the performances this year, although house bass-baritone James Morris (who sang Hans Sachs last time this production was mounted) will be singing the majority of the performances.

Peter Gelb has made sure that Mr. Volle will be singing the HD telecast, and he is already in conversation with the singer about singing the role of Wotan next time the MET mounts their controversial staging of the "Ring."

Friday, December 05, 2014


 Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a major achievement from Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the director of Amores Perros and Babel. Playing Riggan Thompson, a once popular actor famous for his superhero films, Michael Keaton gives a phenomenal, one in a lifetime performance. His character yearns to make it back into the limelight, this time as the writer director of a labor of love Broadway play based on the Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About when We Talk About Love."

Riggan might be a decent stage actor and might have even nailed it as a playwright, but his inner voice, the thunderous growl of his alter-ego Birdman overwhelms his entire on-the-edge present existence.  Even when he is in the lotus position, meditating in his underwear, and levitating off the ground in his dressing room of the St James Theater, his former incarnation is constantly taking over, overcrowding his mind.

The film is an expressionistic backstage journey through Riggan's mind as it slowly begins to drift south throughout the play's previews. Magnificently photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar last year for the cinematography of Gravity, the film gives the appearance that it was shot in one long, continuous take: no doubt, the director's homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, which pulled the same balancing act trick back in 1948.

Birdman is also referential to a host of artistic icons, and particularly right at home when it channels the Magical-Realism of 1960s Latin American literature. Riggan is able to levitate and make objects smash to the ground with a wave of his hand like any one of the Buendía children in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. He is also able to soar up to the skies, in the middle of a colossal cgi fracas, and defeat a winged gigantic creature who threatens to destroy Manhattan from the rooftops, like a latter-day King Kong.

But it is the performances in this backstage drama that propel this film forward. Think of Birdman as a magical-realist All About Eve but with the ghost of an action hero and references to Roland Barthes and Jorge Luis Borges. Not only is Michael Keaton the perfect actor to play a former action hero movie star searching for a come back vehicle (its been almost thirty years since the release of Tim Burton's Batman), but Edward Norton manages to play a fictionalized version of himself, with all the complexities that those in the know say he brings to a set.  Emma Stone and Naomi Watts also shine, as well as Zach Galifianakis, playing against type, as Keaton's feet-on-the-ground manager.

Birdman is a smash hit in quite a lot of levels, and it will certainly bring Academy Award nominations for many categories. I predict an Oscar for Mr. Iñárritu's fascinating, multi-faceted screenplay, and without a doubt, another statuette in a row for Mr. Lubezki's amazing cinematography that I predict will be talked about and studied by future filmmakers for years to come.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer at the MET tonight

The Death of Klinghoffer, music by John Adams and the libretto by Alice Goodman is scheduled to premiere at the Metropolitan Opera tonight despite a massive protest outside on the Lincoln Center Plaza.  The HD and Saturday afternoon radio broadcast, as well as the Sirius transmissions, have been cancelled.  Is the opera Anti-Semitic? Is it pro-PLO? Make up your mind by listening to the work here.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Verdi's Macbeth at the MET

The trick with the early operas of Giuseppe Verdi, from the conductor's point of view, is to treat them with the same respect as his mature works. Riccardo Muti has been known to remind his musicians that with such a work as Falstaff they have lots of notes with which to create a world, and that even though the early works offer fewer notes, a world has to be created just the same.

Luckily, this is the approach that Fabio Luisi has taken at the Metropolitan Opera with this year's performances of Macbeth. He has conducted this early 1847 work (it was the composer's tenth opera) with utmost care; certainly going way beyond merely providing metronomic accompaniment to the oompah-pah nature of the score, and trying to find the  Shakespearean realm in a work which, although is highly influenced by the bel-canto works of Bellini and Donizetti, is definitely looking forward, trying to push the boundaries, and re-invent the Italian lyric theater.

Anna Netrebko and Željko Lučić, both in top form as the murderous couple, head a cast that also includes German superstar bass René Pape as Banquo and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Macduff. Netrebko's voice has darkened, achieving the perfect timbre for Lady Macbeth, while Lučić's baritone (a voice similar to the legendary Leonard Warren, who first sang this role at the MET) was a solid personification of the title role. This is an artist whose voice usually is described as dry, but on Wednesday of last week he was in top form. In fact, every member of the cast sang with distinction, and if perhaps Calleja's tone is exhibiting a heavy vibrato these days, his rendition of "Ah, la paterna mano" was sung with true Verdian style.

The updated production by Adrian Noble holds up well, although, at times the direction given to the chorus of witches seems to be a bit too busy.

All in all, it was one of the rare times at the opera when everything worked.  How many times does one get a chance to admit that? Without a doubt, this run of Macbeth performances has been the highlight of the first part of this season.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Roberto Alagna: "I'm going to sing Wagner with Netrebko"

The rumors are that French tenor Roberto Alagna is discussing a production of Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival, with Anna Netrebko, to be conducted by Christian Thielemann. "If he thinks I can do it," says Alagna, "it's going to happen."

Bayreuth is due for a new production of Lohengrin. The current Hans Neuensfels production, which was booed when it was first presented at the Festspielhaus in 2010, featured Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and a chorus of rats. Since its rocky start, the audience has received it warmly, and it has been issued on Blu-Ray/DVD with Klaus Florian Vogt playing the swan knight. I saw this production in 2012, and it was one of the most satisfying evenings that I spent at Bayreuth that year.

The Green Hill will see a new production of this opera in 2018. Latvian director Alvis Hermanis (who this summer gave us the Netrebko/Domingo "museum Trovatore" at the Salzburg Festival) is scheduled to direct the work, and indeed, Thielemann is slated to conduct.  However, Bayreuth has not published the cast as of this writing.