WagnerBlog

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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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, September 28, 2014

NY Film Festival: MAPS TO THE STARS

Screenwriter Bruce Wagner introduced today's showing of the film Maps to the Stars at the New York Film Festival by warning us that the path to Hell is filled with laughter. He should have also reminded us that laughter is the nervous sibling of horror, a specialty of director David Cronenberg, whose new film brings us back to his horror beginnings. This time, the boogeymen are set free in the beautiful but rancid world of the Hollywood elite, whose million dollar post-modern homes and shopping sprees to Rodeo Drive hide a nether world of drug addiction rehab, mental anguish and faded hopes. And among the manicured lawns, glass houses, and backyard pools the ghost of the dead often visit the living, as in a Shakespearean tragedy. They refuse to sleep in peace, and, at times, seem eager to drag the living into their circle of death.

Mia Wasikowska plays the burn-scarred Agatha, who comes back to Hollywood after having set fire to her home years ago. Her dysfunctional family includes her father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a self-help quack guru, his guilt-ridden wife Cristina (Olivia Williams), and her brother Benjie (Evan Bird), a child star who makes Justin Bieber seem a model of mental and social togetherness. Agatha ends up becoming the assistant to has-been, fading actress Havana Segrand (the brilliant Julianne Moore, who won the Best Actress Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for this role) who will give anything to play the role of her dead mother, a Hollywood legend who died tragically in a fire, and whose ghost now haunts her deranged daughter.

There have been great satires of Tinsel Town: Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard and Robert Altman's The Player come to mind, as well as Nathaneal West's 1939 novel The Day of the Locust (adapted into film in 1975 by the great John Schlesinger.) But none are as toxic as this film. Screenwriter Wagner doesn't just hold the mirror up to nature, he seems eager to smash it in our faces after showing us the bacteria that is growing behind the façade of the beautiful and the damned.

Cronenberg is, once again, at the top of his game, leading Julianne Moore into what surely will be an Academy Award nomination. A great performance, whether she is screaming in self-loathing, while in the lotus position, for having lost a part, or dancing for joy at the consequences brought on by the death of a child. Her rabid performance is counteracted by Ms. Wasikowska's eerie, underplayed approach to her part.  Together, the two offer a contrasting lesson in fine acting in a great story that, like Greek drama, often has the power to frighten while moving us to tears.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

MET Opening Night: Controversy & Figaro

If a work of art is deemed controversial, the passage of time will surely erase whatever ills people accuse it of. It happened with W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte's 1786 masterpiece Le Nozze di Figaro, which opened the 2014-2015 season at the Metropolitan Opera last night, and it will eventually happen with John Adams and Alice Goodman's The Death of Klinghoffer, a 1991 work that the MET is presenting later this season, and which brought hundreds of protesters to Lincoln Center. The opera depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of a disabled Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. Many feel that the work is sympathetic to the Palestinian hijackers, and have thus condemned the opera as anti-Semitic.

Away from the turmoil on the plaza, where arriving opera patrons in evening dress were taunted by demonstrators, the MET presented a new production of Mozart's work, directed by Sir Richard Eyre and conducted by James Levine.  If out on Broadway the scene was chaotic, inside the opera house there was bliss. Levine led the well-known score with a firm hand that also allowed for some genuinely beautiful, transparent playing from the MET orchestra. At this stage in his career, Levine continues to grow as a musician, delving deeper than ever into the score, and finding surprises in the inner harmonies of this precise score. He's found the sparkle and charm in the perfection of form and utter spontaneity of Mozart's work, and his approach infects the cast, all of whom get their moment to shine in their respective roles.
Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro, who triumphed last year as Prince Igor, has a dark voice, but it is an inherently small instrument. He warmed considerably as the evening progressed, adding some volume to his portrayal without giving the feeling that he was forcing himself. Marlis Petersen was a sweetly-voiced  Susanna, while Amanda Majeski, making her MET debut as the Countess, allowed her wide vibrato to interfere with beauty of sound. In contrast, the Cherubino of Isabel Leonard was a joy to listen to. Her acting as a hormonal teenager was top-notch from beginning to end. The evening belonged to handsome Peter Mattei, who as Count Almaviva proved that he is one of the great Mozarteans of our time. He is simply marvelous, stealing the show with his velvet voice and commanding stage presence. He just doesn't sing the role, he caresses it, and lovingly delivers it back to us.

Set designer Rob Howell presented us with a unit set that updated the action to the beginning of the 20th century. Dark revolving towers with bronze walls turn the Count's house into a labyrinthine maze. The idea might have been that the mechanics of the set comments on the machinations of the plot, but this conceit is far from a requirement.

In general, this opening night was a triumph for the MET.  After months of bitterness and instability that took the institution to the brink of a labor strike, it is good to have this New York institution opened again doing what it does best.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

MET/AGMA Memorandum of Agreement

A strike at the Metropolitan Opera has been averted as the house management and various unions have agreed to new contract terms. For those of you with legal minds, and anyone curious enough to see what these documents are like, click HERE in order to view the Memorandum of Agreement between the MET and AGMA (The American Guild of Musical Artists).

Friday, August 22, 2014

Frank Martin and JS Bach Conclude Mostly Mozart

Louis Langrée put together an interesting concert to end the Mostly Mozart festival at Lincoln Center this weekend. He chose the 1973 piece Polyptyque: Six Images of the Passion of the Christ by Swiss composer Frank Martin, a relatively rare piece for orchestra and solo violin that was originally commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin to commemorate the 25th anniversary of UNESCO's International Music Council. The movements of this piece were played alternating with the chorales from J.S. Bach's St. John Passion, BWV 245. The dialogue that this musical juxtaposition created between these two compositions, separated by 200 years, was quite profound.  

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the Moldovan-Austrian violinist had much to do with the success of this musical experiment. Her virtuoso playing ran the gamut from elegant to inspired, and it was filled with passion at every turn. The third polyptype, known as "Image de Judas" was particularly memorable for its shrieking, tormented strings that presented a Freudian portrait of Judas's troubled mind. The contrast with Bach's reverential "Wer hat dich so geschlagen" offered the most satisfying dialogue of the evening.   The Concert Chorale of New York sang each of the chorales beautifully, and they returned in the second part of the program as the backbone of W.A. Mozart's Requiem, K. 626.

An audience favorite, Langrée led a smooth reading of this well-known score, opting for swift tempi and transparent sounds. He was aided by a quartet of capable soloists: Morris Robinson, a sepulchral sounding bass, and tenor Dimitri Pittas being the two stand-outs of the evening.

There will be one more performance of this program tomorrow, August 23, at 8:00 at Avery Fisher Hall.

Monday, August 18, 2014

We are Not Ourselves to be Published Tomorrow

We Are Not Ourselves the powerful first novel by my friend Matthew Thomas is due to hit bookstores all over America tomorrow.  I was lucky to read his work while still in manuscript form, and I can assure you that you are in for an amazing journey into the lives of some unforgettable characters. A journey that will take you through Post-World War II America, as it focuses on the lives of an Irish-American family, and its indomitable matriarch, Eileen, one of the most memorable characters ever created in recent American Literature.

Here is a review of the novel from author Neal Thompson: "Ten years in the making, Matthew Thomas’s heartfelt debut launches with the gritty poetry of a Pete Hamill novel: brash Irishmen on barstools, Irish women both wise and strong, and the streets of New York splayed out like a song. What’s special about this book is how Thomas takes us, slowly and somewhat unexpectedly, deep inside a family battling the gray-toned middling place of their middle-class existence. At the core is Eileen Tumulty Leary, urging her complacent husband and their impressionable son forward. Along the way, lives come and go. (“Fair enough,” her mother said, and in a little while she was dead.) There are some gorgeous scenes, some taut lines (I liked the air-conditioning unit’s “indefatigable wind”), and some heart breakers (a mother tells her son, at the funeral home, “That’s probably enough”). It’s thrilling to see an emerging writer test and flex his voice. Eileen and her husband are “co-conspirators in a mission of normalcy”; in truth, there’s occasionally too much normalcy in these 600 pages. Then again, it’s oddly addictive to watch this family unfold, age, and devolve. Intimate, honest, and true, it’s the story of a doomed father and a flawed son and the indefatigable and loving woman who keeps them all together, even as they’re falling apart."

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Il Trovatore at the Salzburg Festival

Ever wonder what happens when a museum closes its doors to visitors after a long day of tours and tourists? According to Alvis Hermanis the director and scenic designer of the new production of Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore at the Salzburg Festival the guards put on a show.

The doors shut, the lights dim, and those silent sentinels who spend their day seated in a corner of a gallery making sure visitors stay away from the art as well as the flashes on their cameras take on the roles of the portraits around them. Two of the guards just happen to be Anna Netrebko and Plácido Domingo.  Before you know it, they've become Leonora and the Count di Luna, and are soon joined by Francesco Meli as Manrico, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, a giddy tour guide who turns into the tormented gypsy Azucena, and Ricardo Zenellato, an Italian tour guide who, at the beginning of the opera, scares his group of tourists out of their wits with a tale that could only be told by Ferrando, the bass character that he later becomes.

The stage is set for Verdi's "capa y espada" opera to be performed in a museum against the backdrop of familiar Renaissance and Baroque paintings. It's a night at the museum like no other night. Is it the director's view that opera belongs in a museum, with Il Trovatore the biggest museum piece one can find in the repertory? Are the many paintings of Madonna, Christ and John The Baptist supposed to remind us of the two children of the old Count di Luna? Like many "Regietheater" productions this one poses more questions than it actually answers, and the museum conceit grows tiresome almost immediately, although the deep reds and crimson velvets of the stage design and costumes are sumptuous to look at.

Anna Netrebko sang with fiery conviction. Leonora is a role that falls easily in her range, and she was quite convincing in just about every one of her scenes. Sadly Francesco Meli was not the impressive figure that the role of Manrico calls for.  Short of stature and thin of voice, he oftentimes seemed to disappear into the background. Plácido Domingo sang the role of the Count Di Luna under the weather. A few years ago when he began to take on the baritone repertory it sounded like a strange decision. To hear him in this role, his voice somewhat frayed, his natural tenor superficially lowered and darkened, assures me that he is no baritone. Still, he has had decades of experience and possesses a rock solid technique. He was able to get through "Il balen del suo sorriso," possibly Verdi's most demanding baritone aria, with minimal strain. He may not be a baritone, but he is a helluva performer, and he can't hide that he loves to be onstage.

Daniele Gatti led the Vienna Philharmonic firmly, but with the kind of gusto I have not heard from him in a while. The results were long Italianate lines and wide transparent sounds.  The work in the pit was perhaps the most memorable part of this very strange night in the museum.

Licia Albanese: 1913-2014


The incomparable Licia Albanese, an Italian soprano, and a mainstay at the Metropolitan Opera for 26 seasons, died last night at her home. She was 101.  At the MET she performed 17 roles in 16 operas 417 times. She left the MET in 1966 after a dispute with then general manager Sir Rudolf Bing. After performing in four productions during the 1965-66 season, she was scheduled for only one performance the next season. She returned her contract unsigned.

In 1946, in her prime, conductor Arturo Toscanini chose her to be his Mimi in the live broadcast concert performance of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème, from NBC's Studio 8-H. This classic broadcast was later issued on LP and CD on RCA Victor.

She belonged to a golden age of opera singers the likes of whom we will perhaps never see again. She might not have been as popular as her contemporaries, Zinka Milanov, Maria Callas, Victoria de los Ángeles or Renata Tebaldi, but she was a consummate singer who night after night shared the stage with the great baritones and tenors of her day, which included Jan Peerce, Robert Merrill, Richard Tucker, and Leonard Warren.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tristan und Isolde at the Grosses Festspielhaus

A sold-out event is happening at the Salzburg Festival on August 21 at the Grosses Festspielhaus.  Conductor Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (an ensemble of young Israeli and Palestinian musicians) will perform segments from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.  The concert performance labeled "Projekt Tristan und Isolde" will include the Prelude, the entire second act, as well as the Liebestod. It will feature an all star cast that will include Peter Seiffert and Waltraud Meier in the title roles. Ekaterina Gubanova singing Brangäne, René Pape will be King Marke, Stephan Rügamer will be Melot, and in the role of Kurwenal, Plácido Domingo. The former tenor has been performing the baritone roles of Giuseppe Verdi, primarily, for some time now, with various degrees of success. Personally, when I hear Domingo sing Simon Boccanegra (the first baritone role that he sang at the MET) I hear a distinctive tenor fach which fails to convince me that he is a baritone. The effect is that of a tenor without any high notes. Perhaps Wagner's lush orchestrations will allow him a little more credibility. He certainly was a more than credible, if not successful Parsifal and Lohengrin during his tenor heyday.

And needless to say, the sights and sounds of Israelis and Palestinians making music together is something that right now we desperately need. I'm convinced that this kind of event is not going to solve any deep present-day conflicts, but it will remind us of the kind of world that we all aim to live in.