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, January 31, 2016

South Pole - At the Bavarian State Opera

Tonight was the premiere of South Pole at the Bayerische Staatsoper. This new opera is by composer Miroslav Srnka with a libretto by playwright Tim Holloway. The work recounts British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian adventurer Roald Amundsen’s parallel quests to become the first to reach the South Pole. Rolando Villazón stars as the ill-fated Scott opposite Thomas Hampson as Amundsen. Hans Neuenfels, who directed the controversial Lohengrin (rats!) at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus  directs this production, which is conducted by Kirill Petrenko and also stars Tara Erraught and Mojca Erdmann. The premiere was broadcast live on the ARTE network. The production runs at the Bavarian State Opera through February 11. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Welcome Jaap van Zweden

 Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden has been named the new music director of the New York Philharmonic. He will start his full-time tenure in New York City during the 2018-2019 season.

Check out this video of Jaap van Zweden in action as he leads Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

The Hateful Eight: 70mm Roadshow Edition

According to the program of the roadshow edition of Quentin Tarantino's latest film, The Hateful Eight, the last time a film was shot in Ultra Panavision 70mm was in 1966 ... Wait a minute... Program? Panavision? What the hell is a Roadshow? That's right! Tarantino has ensnared us in a "Back to the Future" situation using his considerable Hollywood clout to present his latest film in the same format that he loved as a kid when he was discovering the great epics of the 1960s. Over 90 cinemas in the US, able to project 70mm, will treat audiences to a nostalgic throwback. There will even be a free program that goes along with the presentation (and modern sticker shock at the $22 ticket price to remind us that in 2016 we have to pay extra to run actual film in a movie house). Still, It might be years before a major release in the US will be projected in any kind of film format again.

This is Tarantino's second attempt at a western.  His previous film, Django Unchained riffed on one of the lesser-known works of the "spaghetti western" canon, but he derailed his own tribute by fusing the western story to a racial (and some will argue racist) homage to an even lesser-known film: 1975's Mandingo -- a blaxploitation movie that should have remained forgotten, except for its brilliant tagline which I remember from my own youth: "He's more than man, he is mandingo."

With The Hateful Eight, Tarantino returns to a West devoid of the legacy of John Ford, Howard Hawks or Anthony Mann. He's back inside the spaghetti western, but this time he goes straight to the main source, the director that best exemplifies all things spaghetti: Sergio Leone. His The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West revealed an elliptical, operatic Old West that forever changed the look, feel, and sounds of the genre. Tarantino has even used Leone's favorite composer, Ennio Morricone to score this film. And of course, he's used the widescreen and the length of the film (the roadshow version clocks in at 187 minutes) to resurrect the spirit of the Italian westerns of the maestro. But at the same time, Tarantino has admitted that the true inspiration for the film lies in the many westerns that played on TV during the 1960s.

Ironically, even though 70mm lends itself so well to outdoor vistas, 80% of the film is confined to Minnie's Haberdashery, a rugged, frontier stagecoach lodge that is a stopover before reaching the town of Red Rock. Cinematographer Robert Richardson does wonderful work whenever he has the opportunity to use antique Panavision lenses in order to capture fleeting but beautiful panoramic shots in wonderful snowstorms. But the heart of the film takes place indoors in a claustrophobic setting that thanks to the 2.76:1 aspect ratio never manages to feel claustrophobic.

It's the performances, driven by Tarantino's customary strong script, that drive this violent tale, and there are so many excellent stand-outs in this film. Samuel L. Jackson offers his customary Tarantino performance, which is to say that he nearly steals the show. Kurt Russell (it's nice to see him back on the screen) is no slouch either, at times reading his lines with a John Wayne cadence to his voice. And Jennifer Jason Leigh is a trooper, starting the movie with a black eye, and ending it with a face full with so much blood and gore that she reminded me of Linda Blair in the last reels of The Exorcist.  Other great performers in the cast include Demián Bichir as a laconic Mexican, Tim Roth as a derby-wearing Englishman, and Bruce Dern as a grizzled confederate general. Quentin Tarantino wisely stays put behind the camera, but offers his talents as a cynical narrator.

It's a western, it's a homage to a forgotten genre, it's an attempt to revive careers, it's even an Agatha Christie mystery. But truth be told, it is a Quentin Tarantino film, and that's all you need to know. Attending the roadshow version will allow you to see more of the film, and to enjoy it (if that's the right word) in a format that, like the western itself, is destined to become a dinosaur.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Bryan Cranston in TRUMBO

When I was in grammar school, I remember one of my classmates got chewed out by one of my teachers because he was reading the novel Johnny Got his Gun, the 1938 anti-war novel by Dalton Trumbo, better known as one of Hollywood's greatest screenwriters and one of the infamous blacklisted "Hollywood Ten." It was the early 1970s, the Vietnam War had stretched out to Cambodia and Laos, and Trumbo, a communist who had been to prison for not cooperating with the House UN-American Activities Committee (HUAC), was still persona non grata to many conservative people in this country.

Most people my age, myself included, did not know anything about him. I was fascinated by the name I saw in my friend's book (which had a picture of a soldier running against a hand doing a victory sign -- which to us in the 1970s was a peace sign). I did not know anybody called Dalton or Trumbo, for that matter. I'm sure my classmate, a tall, lanky boy with buck teeth named John O'Toole, was reading the book because it had been reissued in paperback as a result of a film having been released in 1971 (with a screenplay by Trumbo himself). And I'm sure he was curious about its lurid content. In the early 70s, the story of an American soldier, horribly deformed as a result of a mortar shell explosion in World War I was a thinly veiled anti-war comment on our involvement in Southeast Asia.

The film Trumbo feels as if its creators also had little knowledge of the man and the period. The film doesn't really feel like it was written, but more like it was cut and pasted from Wikipedia articles. Somehow, this biopic should have been told as a theater piece, and not as a movie. Film is too inquisitive and too exacting. Actors can bring to life such luminaries from the silver screen as John Wayne and Edward G. Robinson onstage, aided by the magic of theater.  However, film puts up a roadblock whenever well-known icons have to be represented.  As a result the attempt to recreate Hollywood in the late 1940s and 50s fails to persuade us. It feels like a sendup of Hollywood and not a loving recreation. Bryan Cranston's performance as Trumbo has its moments, but often he opts for an over-the-top approach. And unfortunately, it is also very clear that there are scenes that have been included only to make sure that he has a chance to garner a Best Actor nomination.

Only John Goodman as scumbag producer Frank King, and Helen Mirren as Hollywood's power broker Hedda Hopper survive the superficial approach this film takes. Christian Berkel as Otto Preminger and David James Elliott as John Wayne create minor caricatures, while Diane Lane, playing Cleo, Trumbo's wife, is just another person that we want to get to know better, but the film does not allow us to do so.

I learned a few facts about Mr. Trumbo but the film does not get under the man's skin, which is what any successful biopic must do. In many ways I was reminded of myself back in grammar school, a boy who did not know who this Dalton Trumbo was even though I had just been with the man for over two hours.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera

Alban Berg's last, unfinished opera Lulu (completed by composer Friedrich Cerha in 1970) came back to the Metropolitan Opera last week in a new production by William Kentridge. Arguably the greatest and most famous work to emerge from the so-called serialist, twelve-tone compositional system devised by Arnold Schoenberg, the work is based on two plays by Frank Wedekind that relates the rise and fall of a black-widow siren who seems to violently terminate the life of any man that comes into her orbit. It served silent film star Louise Brooks with her greatest vehicle in G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box.

The complete Lulu was first presented at the MET in 1980 with Teresa Stratas taking on the challenging title role and James Levine conducting the angular, expressionistic, taxing score: a musical revelation for those of us that were lucky enough to be present at those performances. In this go-around, Mr. Levine was supposed to take up the challenge of conducting once more, but unfortunately it seems that his failing health has not allowed him to do so. I'm not sure if given his current health issues he would be able to take up the challenge of conducting this complex work. Last month I noticed that his Tannhäuser was lackluster. Some might argue that Mr. Levine is mellowing with age; that might be true, but what I heard coming from the pit was a lack of energy, not a deepening of musical ideas. His choice to step down for this production was a wise one, since German conductor Lothar Koenigs, who is a specialist in 20th century music, led a vibrant reading of Berg's score. His conducting was sinuous and sultry at times, and he trusted the forces of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra enough to let go of their reins and allow them to make some earth-shaking sounds during the dramatic moments of the score.

Taking on the title role in this production is German soprano Marlis Petersen, who has made a career playing this role (and who will put the role to rest after this production). She has no problem bringing this heroine to life: her strong soprano is able to sail the high tessitura that the role demands, and her sexy body conveys the erotic side of the character (is there another side?) beautifully. On a personal level, I am glad that she is putting this role to sleep. Too much twelve-tone singing and pretty soon you will find yourself without any legato! She will play Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus at Munich's Bavarian State Opera. I'm sure that will be a much more "pleasant to the ear" and it will sit in her voice beautifully.

Johan Reuter playing the dual role of Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper was strong of voice and proved to be a gifted actor. Susan Graham made deep impressions as Countess Geschwitz (perhaps the only decent character in this story) and Paul Groves as the painter and the African Prince was vocally memorable.

 Mr. Kentridge's production is a marvel, following the tradition of his earlier production of Dmitri Shostakovitch's The Nose.  Projections appear and disappear before our eyes, commenting, sometimes slyly on the going-ons on stage. It is a hyper-kinetic approach that helps the audience through the difficulties of the score. I'm sure that some members of the audience who find the complex score a sonic puzzle stayed through the end, just to see what the production would bring.  Key to this are the solo performers Joanna Dudley (who uses an onstage grand piano like some use a Bowflex Max Trainer) and Andrea Fabi who plays a butler in a twisted, expressionistic style worthy of the somnambulist Cesare in the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Although it might not be for everybody (I saw a lot of young kids with their parents last night -- I hope their parents tried to explain something about the music to them!) this production of Lulu is not to be missed. Just go in there with an open mind, and chances are that your perception of what music can be, and what it can be achieved will be challenged. After all, that's what good opera should be doing through every performance.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Spotlight: the Best Film of the Year

Spotlight, the story of how a group of Boston Globe reporters exposed the cover up of sexually abused children by pedophile priests. The film is a hard-hitting newsroom drama in the style of Network, The Insider, and All the President's Men. It is a gripping work with a superlative ensemble cast, and the words "Academy Awards" emblazoned all over this amazing film.

When Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), a Jewish newspaper editor arrives in Irish Catholic Boston from the Miami Herald he encourages a small group of reporters to dig into the labyrinthine world of the Boston archdiocese, which at that time was headed by Cardinal Bernard Law. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott noted in his fine review of this film, Cardinal Law's opinion that "the city flourishes when the great institutions work together," is the major reason why the sexual molestation of thousands of children was covered up by the powers that be. Mr. Scott added that "when institutions convinced of their own greatness work together, what usually happens is that the truth is buried and the innocent suffer." Truer words were never spoken.

The incredible cast is headed by Michael Keaton and John Slattery as Boston Globe editors, and it features Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d'Arcy James as Globe reporters. Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup give memorable performances as attorneys, and Len Cariou is chilling as Cardinal Law. To watch this amazing cast at work is to marvel at the power of great filmmaking. The script by Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy is a marvel of economy, deserving of all the praise that it will receive come award season.

Is it possible that Hollywood has awaken from its horrid summer slumber and is once again producing films for adults featuring three dimensional characters and issues of real importance? I hope that Spotlight serves as the game changer, and that it heralds a new generation of smart, thought-provoking cinema.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

NYFF: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle's new film, from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, is a series of extraordinary scenes, most of them acted out backstage before some of Apple Inc's fabled announcements of their new products. This is the second film that screenwriter Sorkin has written about technology. David Fincher's The Social Network, which brought to life the genesis of Facebook, earned Sorkin a well deserved Oscar. This time around his screenplay focuses on the relationships between the man and various people around his orbit. A large percentage of the script is composed of conversations between two people, making the film a very private, inside look at Steve Jobs. The only public scenes are those when Jobs steps on the stage of an auditorium, to rousing cheers, as an expectant public drools at the mouth in expectation of the latest miracle from Cupertino. It is not a typical biopic of the genius who revolutionized the way we interact with technology. Far from it. The film begins with the introduction of the first Macintosh, meanders through Jobs's failing venture away from Apple, with the NeXT Cube, and concludes with his return to Apple and the unveiling of the first iMac. Towards the conclusion of the film he promises his estranged daughter that one day she will be able to throw away her walkman, and carry a thousand songs in her pocket, but the iPod is barely a dream as the concluding titles of this film roll.

As usual, Michael Fassbender morphs effortlessly into the title character, giving a subdued performance where he balances the Zen-like public Jobs with a private man who is acquainted with personal demons. Kate Winslet is also brilliant in her role of an Apple executive who is part lion tamer to Steve Job's beast, and part unfulfilled love interest.  Jeff Daniels as Apple's CEO, Michael Stuhlbarg as a member of the original Macintosh team, and Seth Rogen as Apple co-creator Steve Wozniak give memorable performances.

At the heart of this film is Steve Job's rocky relation to Chrisann Brennan (played by Katherine Waterstone), Jobs's high school girlfriend, and his daughter Lisa, who throughout the film grows to a college-age student, and is memorably played by Brazilian newcomer Perla Haney-Jardine.

Behind the scenes, Alwin Küchler's cinematography runs the gamut from grainy filmstock for the 1980's scenes, and switches to digital as the story progresses, and Daniel Pemberton's score has a driving, subliminal beat. Danny Boyle's direction is surprisingly subdued, as is required by this very subtle script.