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).

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Verdi's Don Carlo at the MET

Arguably Giuseppe Verdi's greatest work, Don Carlo is a massive five act affair that started its life at the Paris Opéra in 1867 as Don Carlos, with a French libretto that was later translated into the Italian version that is often performed these days. An intense, brooding, dark work set in stern, despotic Spain during the reign of Philip II, the opera examines the conflicts between the personal and the political, and the often clashing relationship between religion and the monarchy during the time when the Inquisition tried to maintain Spain loyal to the Vatican and Holy Mother Church.

The current Nicholas Hytner production (a co-production of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden) is pretty tame when it comes to the direction and costumes by Bob Crowley.  However, the sets, also by Mr. Crowley, tend towards the minimalist in a geometric sort of way in some scenes, while in others, shafts of light, coming through windows, lend an air of expressionism. It is a production that does not offend the sensibilities of the conservative New York opera crowd, but neither does it propel the drama into an epic level.

This opera lives or dies by its principal singers, and the MET has assembled a cast of impressive soloists headed by the amazing Ferruccio Furlanetto, who these days owns the role of Philip II. His deep bass has matured into the kind of instrument that is able to express the anguish of a character who has married a woman who has never loved him, and raised a son who threatens his power. His failure as a husband is now compounded with the thought that in order to save his kingdom he might have to sacrifice his son. Mr. Furlanetto beautifully conveys the character's agony as he realizes the church might not be able to absolve him of the murder of his first born. His is one of the great opera characterizations of our times.

Rounding out the cast is a splendid Yonghoon Lee in the title role. The young Korean tenor was in amazing voice on Monday night, and delivered a memorable performance. Dmitri Hvorostovsky was also in good voice as the faithful Rodrigo, although I have always found his intake of air before launching into a phrase to be, at times, as loud as his singing. On Monday night it was louder than I can remember in a while. Ekaterina Gubanova was a sonorous, memorable Eboli, while Barbara Frittoli took longer than I wanted for her to settle into the role of Elisabeth. Finally, it's great to see James Morris still singing these days. In the autumn of his years the bass-baritone has settled into the comprimario world effortlessly. But I don't think that the Grand Inquisitor is the role for him. His voice always had a light timbre and this character requires a threatening cavernous voice. When the Philip is darker than the Inquisitor then there's something wrong.

But that might be a little too much to protest about. The orchestra, under the direction of the great Yannick Nézet-Séguin, played beautifully, offering a sonorous cushion for the cast. It is great to have him as the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which means that he is only two hours away from New York City. In the unlikely event that he were to become the new music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2017, after Alan Gilbert leaves, he would only be steps away.  But that just might be way too much to ask.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Gigi is back on Broadway

The MGM motion picture Gigi is perhaps the studio's last great musical before the genre became a dinosaur. This original musical for the screen, directed by Vincente Minelli and produced by Arthur Freed, proved to be a box office bonanza, and, as in the team's previous hit an American in Paris, Gigi won the Oscar for Best Film of 1958, as well as eight others.  As a matter of fact, it won an Academy Award for every category in which it was nominated, a record at that time. With its irresistible French cast headed by Maurice Chevalier, and co-starring Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron, the movie was pure champagne, and the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe score was a delightful recreation of fin de siècle Paris.  For the composer and the lyricist/screenwriter it was a fitting followup to their Broadway smash hit My Fair Lady two years earlier.

In 1973, Gigi opened on Broadway with additional songs written by Lerner & Loewe. It boasted an all-star cast headed by legends Alfred Drake and Agnes Moorehead, and featuring Maria Karnilova and Daniel Massey. A newcomer, Karin Wolfe, played the title role. It was the second Broadway show I ever saw as a kid, and I loved it, but it proved to be a disappointing flop. The frequent absences of many of its stars and the fact that Ms. Moorehead was diagnosed with cancer during its run did not help matters. It played for only 103 performances at the Uris Theatre (now called the Gershwin.) Thankfully, RCA Victor recorded an Original Broadway cast album which is still available on CDs.

A new production of this property is set to open at the Neil Simon Theatre, and I caught one of its previews last week. The original concept, adapted by Heidi Thomas, consists of taking scissors and shuffling songs around. The original musical opener, for instance,  "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," originally sung by Honoré Lachaille, has now been transformed as a duet for Mamita and Aunt Alicia, and moved to the middle of the first act. It works, but it settles the show into a somewhat safe zone, as if Ms. Thomas thought that a middle aged man singing about little girls could only spell pedophilia for today's audiences. Howard McGillin, who plays Honoré, gets very little to do as a result.  He is still the narrator of the story, but in name only. Since he is not given the chance to profess to the audience his credo, his character quickly develops a hollow center. His second big number "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore" is also turned into a duet, this time with the great Victoria Clark who plays Mamita. One begins to ask oneself if Honoré's presence is even required. Mr. McGillin tries to bring him to life, but when you remove the character's guts there's very little that any actor can do to animate him once again. Mr. McGillin may not have the genuine Gallic charm of Chevalier, it is true, but at least give the guy a chance to do something important with his role. Interestingly, when the songs are left to the original characters, the thing works. "I Remember it Well," sung by Honoré and Mamita, this time sung in a street of Paris, and not by the beach of Trouville, maintains the raison d'être of the original film and its gentle charms stops the show. Likewise, Corey Cott as Gaston sings a winning version of the title song.

The show's director, Eric Schaeffer, and his choreographer Joshua Bergasse believe that bigger is better. They have taken the film's grand moment, for instance, when Gigi, Mamita and Gaston celebrate in their house with a bit of the bubbly, and they have turned it into a giant production number. "The Night they Invented Champagne" is now a wild, drunken romp through nighttime Paris, free of absinthe drinkers, of course: after all, it is a family show. The same technique is applied to "She is Not Thinking of Me" and "The Contract," a jewel of a number that was written for the 1973 show.  In each case Mr. Bergasse's choreography seems forced and overblown to giant proportions. It gives one the feeling that the cast is really trying hard, but it ends up being too much artifice for my taste.

With the name above the title, Vanessa Hudgens, a pop star graduate of the Disney High School Musical franchise, plays the title role with believable results. Her best moments are when she's being sassy, trying to cheat Gaston at cards. Her voice is adequate for the role, more pop than Broadway, but she gets away with it. In any event, her youthful zeal carries her performance, and I'm sure that she will settle into the part nicely, provided that the show runs for a while.  I'm afraid that the New York critics will be merciless towards it, however, and as in 1973 you're going to have to act fast if you want to catch it.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Holy Week Starts in Seville, Spain

 It's that time of the year once again, when masked men and women, wearing the garb of medieval penitents, carrying candles, walk alongside ancient statues transported in baroque platforms around the old, windy streets of Seville. It's Holy Week. And if you happen to be in this fabled city, you experience it in a very special way. For seven days the faithful remember with solemn resignation the passion and death of Jesus Christ with elaborate processions, some even having a curious, almost out-of-place, festive atmosphere, while others are gloomy and silent as the grave. This should all lead to a kind of rejoicing since Christ rises from the dead on the seventh day.
 It might seem odd to most of the world to see thousands of masked figures walking alongside their treasured images of Christ and Mary, his mother. To outsiders, these life-sized representations of the Virgin all look the same, and for Americans, in particular, the sight of hooded men in white robes can only bring to mind bigoted times south of the Mason-Dixon line. You're going to have to forget all of that if you want to get to the bone marrow of what goes on in the streets of Seville, and "live" Holy Week, as the locals say. These are age-old customs that can trace their lineage back to the times of the Inquisition when Spain was fighting to remain staunchly Catholic while the rest of Europe was trying on for size the Protestant experiment.

During the time of the Franco dictatorship, these processions seemed a natural outcropping of the conservative, reactionary times of the dictatorship. However, forty years after the demise of Fascist Spain, Seville and its Holy Week processions are more popular than ever, and the role of women is stronger these days than it was ever thought possible in the long history of this event.

Those knowledgeable of Scripture understand that the mystical trajectory of the week from darkness to light is a very special time for believers.  For the majority of people crowding the streets of Seville, it is a week of cultural tradition rather than religious fervor, and it is marked by seven days of little sleep. At its conclusion most "Sevillanos" just get sad that the greatest week in their calendar has come to an end.  Luckily, their sadness does not last for long. The beginning of the April Fair, another fabled cultural event, tends to dispel the gloom rather quickly.

If you would like to experience Holy Week in Seville, it is being broadcast live.  Just follow this link: http://elcorreoweb.es/elcorreotv/

Friday, March 20, 2015

Peter Gelb and the MET from The New Yorker

In this week's issue of The New Yorker there is an interesting, in-depth article about Peter Gelb and the financial crisis that the Metropolitan Opera is facing.  Unfortunately, unless a few factors change in the near future, things are starting to look bleak for one of America's most important institutions.

The photograph by Richard Burbridge on the left, which accompanies The New Yorker article, has prompted many in social media to exclaim "would you buy a used opera from this man?"

For a short while, the article is available for free at this link:  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/23/a-fight-at-the-opera

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

It's Meta Cinema All Over Again

It if happens once, it's a fluke. But if it happens three times, then we can actually say that a trend has been born in Tinsel Town. In the last four years, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has awarded the coveted Best Picture Oscar to a film that basically presents a story about its own production. In other words, the textbook definition of meta cinema. Like Federico Fellini's or Truffaut's Day for Night, the latest batch of award winners represent the latest effort by today's filmmakers to present films that are actually about the film itself.  

The Artist started this latest trend. The 2011 French romantic-drama made in the style of a black-and-white silent film, took home the Best Picture award, and stole the hearts of many movie-goers who never thought of asking themselves why anyone would make a silent film in our times. This was followed by the memorable Argo, a film that recounts the story of how the CIA managed to rescue a group of Americans diplomats who were being held hostage in Teheran by making the Iranians believe that they were making a Sci-Fi film.

This year, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) might have put the crowning touch on this trend -- or the kiss of Death. Alejandro González Iñárritu's brilliant rumination on superhero films, Raymond Carver and Magical-Realism surrounds the story of one washed-up, ego-maniacal actor yearning for a comeback by staging a vanity Broadway play destined to flop. Capturing it all, Emmanuel Lubezki's fluid camera, gives us the illusion that all has been done in one slick take, while ironically reminding us that we are watching a movie about a movie.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Tonight's OSCARS: My Updated Picks

The Oscars are finally here. I predict the following will be the big winners tonight:
BEST ACTOR: Eddie Redmayne
BEST ACTRESS: Julianne Moore
BEST DIRECTOR: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Iceman Cometh at BAM

Eugene O'Neill, America's greatest and most celebrated playwright, spent the last years of his productive life exorcising the demons of his past. In his last creation, the posthumous Long Day's Journey into Night he succeeded in putting to rest the ghosts of his parents and his dead brother in four agonizing acts filled with remorse and guilt, and soaked with a generous amount of whiskey.

In his previous play The Iceman Cometh, finished in 1939, but not given its Broadway premiere until 1946, O'Neill resurrected the down-and-out creatures of the night that inhabited his Greenwich Village hangout, a dump called "Jimmie-The-Priest's," where the young, alcoholic soon-to-be Nobel Laureate paid three dollars a month to stay, drink and solidify his morbidity among a group of the walking dead. In the play, the establishment became "Harry Hope's Saloon," described by Larry Slade, one of the principal dwellers of these lower depths as ''the No Chance Saloon... the End of the Line Cafe, the bottom of the Sea Rathskeller! . . . it's the last harbor. No one here has to worry about where they're going next, because there is no farther they can go."

It was in such a place that O'Neill first came into contact with the many "pipe dreams" that were harbored there. It was here that he tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide, then contracted tuberculosis (in those days, a disease tantamount to a death warrant), and miraculously recovered to have a rebirth as a writer. He was all of 24 years old.

Chicago's Goodman Theatre has brought its production of The Iceman Cometh to The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, meticulously staged by its artistic director Robert Falls, and starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, among a cast of veteran stage actors all of whom are excellent in their parts.

Stephen Quimette as Harry Hope, the proprietor of the joint, is truly unforgettable in a role that requires him to rage at his customers for never paying him, and later on to quake in his boots at the thought of leaving his establishment after 20 years of being a shut-in. John Douglas Thompson, as an African American one-time owner of a gambling house delivers his monologues about racial inequality in America with an elegant pride. John Hoogenakker as a Harvard Law School alumnus is heart-breaking as a young lost soul riddled with DTs, and Lee Wilkof as Hugo Kalmar, an aging one-time anarchist, dreams of halcyon future days when all will drink champagne underneath the willow trees.

Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy as Hickey, the traveling salesman with a newly-found Messianic streak, and Larry Slade, a staunch Irish son-of-a-gun who patiently waits for death, but fails to be persuaded by Hickey's phony spiels, are the bastions of any production of this play. Both offer titanic performances. Mr. Dennehy is perfectly cast as the ex-anarchist who has seen too much of life, and now simply waits for the endgame from inside a bottle of rotgut. Mr. Lane, might not be physically the classic Hickey (a la Jason Robards, Jr. or Lee Marvin of famed previous productions), but his buoyant stamina, and his ability to play a cynical con-man, while entertaining drunks with a bawdy joke about the sexual peccadilloes of the iceman prepare us for his shattering monologue in the last act: the longest soliloquy O'Neill ever wrote, and the true test for any Hickey. Mr. Lane passes with flying colors.

The Iceman Cometh is about the lies that we tell ourselves in order to keep on living. In this tragedy O'Neill holds up the mirror up to nature, and in it we see ourselves experiencing a true catharsis. This play, like most of O'Neill's great works, offers us a rare chance to look at ourselves, and this marvelous production gives us a chance to learn a little more about our human condition.