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, 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.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

NYFF: The Walk

Robert Zemeckis loves to take us back to the future; his films recreate the past with his brilliant use of cutting-edge technology. He is a master at dressing up the events that he portrays with incredible accuracy and adding a showman's flair that sanitizes the events for the audience. In Forrest Gump, he took us through a cavalcade of American history through the eyes of a singular, memorable Everyman; and in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? he celebrated the heyday of American animation while pushing the technological envelope when it came to human-toon interaction.

In his latest film, The Walk, he takes us to the gritty, graffiti-filled New York 1970s, when the buildings of the World Trade Center were just the tallest structures in the world, far from the symbols of nostalgia and grief that they would become. The plot of the movie tells how an obsessed French aerialist came to be absorbed by the structures. Philippe Pettit could not help himself when it came to setting a high tension wire between the two buildings so he could walk across them, and although the film might glorify his soft-shoe 1974 routine high above the skyline of New York City, the film is really a paean to the lost Twin Towers, which Mr. Zemeckis recreates with a loving touch.

When a movie focuses on such a mythic, colossal structure, it's hard to squeeze in memorable performances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt manages to bring Mr. Pettit to life, but just barely, by donning an outrageous accent along with an equal histrionic manner. Subtle acting, it is not. In many ways, his performance mirrors Mr. Zemeckis's approach to the whole story. At the outset, for example, the director portrays Paris in a busy half black-and-white which tries to remind us of the French New Wave. Here Mr. Pettit runs into street musician Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), and it's love at first sight. But their boy-meets-girl fairy-tale story has no middle or depth as it leads to its nostalgic, predestined separation conclusion. Ben Kingsley, as Papa Rudy, a mentor figure, is a memorable Yoda character, but his wild eastern European accent (it's suppose to be Czech) is reminiscent of some of the foreign accents heard from Laurence Olivier towards the end of his career.  I guess when the movie is all about recreating a building something's gotta give.

Still, the movie is worth seeing from the technical point of view. Not Since Martin Scorsese's Hugo have we seen a better use of 3D. Mr. Zemeckis is a born showman, and he is not afraid to pull all the stops when it comes to using this technology. He knows that the audience likes to have objects come flying at them when they go to see a 3D movie, and of course he's not shy in giving it to us. But beyond the stereotypical effects, it is in the creation of a marvelous sense of depth and dizzying sense of vertigo that The Walk excels. And although a homage to bygone days is primarily at the heart of this film, it is the brilliant use of technology that at the end leaves us with the most satisfying cinematic moments.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Pope Francis is finally in the Americas

 Pope Francis is finally in the Americas. He just landed in Havana, Cuba, where he has once again urged in his opening speech that relations between the island and the United States return to normal. Pope Francis is the architect of this new dawn in political relations between the two countries.

Monday, August 24, 2015

New Documentary About Jackson Heights

The Film Society of Lincoln Center has announced that as part of the 53rd New York Film Festival a new documentary by Frederick Wiseman's will focus on my neighborhood: Jackson Heights.  Here is the information as I received it today in a press release.

"In Jackson Heights"
Frederick Wiseman, USA, 2015, DCP, 190m
Fred Wiseman’s 40th feature documentary is about Jackson Heights, Queens, one of New York City’s liveliest and most culturally diverse neighborhoods, a thriving and endlessly changing crossroad of styles, cuisines, and languages, and now—like vast portions of our city—caught in the gears of economic “development.” Wiseman’s mastery is as total as it is transparent: his film moves without apparent effort from an LGBT support meeting to a musical street performance to a gathering of Holocaust survivors to a hilarious training class for aspiring taxi drivers to an ace eyebrow-removal specialist at work to the annual Gay Pride parade to a meeting of local businessmen in a beauty parlor to discuss the oncoming economic threat to open-air merchants selling their wares to a meeting of undocumented individuals facing deportation. Wiseman catches the textures of New York life in 2015, the music of our speech, and a vast, emotionally complex, dynamic tapestry is woven before our eyes. A Zipporah Films release.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Sneak Peek at the MET's New OTELLO

According to the Metropolitan Opera, rehearsals are well underway at the house for opening night, which will premiere the company's new production of Giuseppe Verdi's Otello. This new staging directed by Bartlett Sher will feature sets by Es Devlin, costumes by Catherine Zuber, and lighting and projections by Donald Holder and Luke Halls. The principals: tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello), soprano Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona), and baritone Željko Lučić (Iago) are scheduled to sing on opening night. The principal conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin will conduct this new production.

 As these pictures reveal, this new staging will feature stunning projections, and while the costumes seem to be somewhat in period, (from the sketches the MET has published) the settings offer no specific time frame. Undoubtedly, it is a production that fits the current modernistic trends of the opera house under the leadership of Peter Gelb.   

Lately, director Bartlett Sher has had an impressive number of successes: from the original Lincoln Center production of The Light in the Piazza in 2005, to his stunning revival in 2008 of South Pacific, and this year's megahit production of The King and I. His opera productions at the MET, ranging from The Barber of Seville to The Tales of Hoffmann have rapidly become audience favorites.  I am sure that Verdi's supreme Shakespearean tragedy is in good hands, and I am looking forward to being there on opening night. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mary Jo Heath: The New Voice of the MET Broadcasts

It has been announced that Mary Jo Heath will become the new Metropolitan Opera radio host. She replaces Margaret Juntwait, who died earlier this year. In the history of the MET broadcasts (at one time sponsored by Texaco, and currently by Toll Brothers) there have only been four hosts. Milton Cross was the voice of the MET for four decades, and he was followed by Peter Allen, who had a twenty plus year run. Heath has been a producer for the broadcasts, and she replaced Ms. Juntwait when she fell ill. Heath will officially assume her new role with the first Sirius broadcast of the season, the opening night performance of Verdi’s Otello on Monday, September 21.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Written on Skin at the Mostly Mozart Festival

When George Benjamin, the composer of the opera Written on Skin, was a teenager he traveled to Paris to study with Olivier Messiaen. The great composer/organist was very much impressed with his young pupil, even comparing him to Mozart. It is totally apt, therefore, that the American premiere of Benjamin's tour-de-force opera occurred last night in New York during the yearly summer homage to the boy genius from Salzburg.

The libretto of Written on Skin, by playwright Martin Crimp, takes us back to medieval days to recount an episode in the life of the legendary Catalan troubadour Guillem de Cabestaing. As the story goes, he falls in love with his patron's wife, and when the husband finds out about their infidelity, he kills the troubadour, rips out his heart and cooks it. That evening at dinner the husband forces his wife to eat her lover's remains. After she realizes what she has done (and wanting to preserve the taste of her beloved on her lips forever) she commits suicide by throwing herself from a balcony. In the opera the troubadour is turned into an itinerant artist whose specialty is illuminated manuscripts. Weaving in and out of the medieval story, characters in modern dress called angels reenact the story, entering into the medieval part of the set from their fluorescence lit contemporary space which resembles a laboratory, a place where perhaps illuminated manuscript might be in the process of being restored.

Both the libretto and the music travel back and forth in time and space. Mr. Benjamin's score freely mixes twentieth century thunderous dissonance with elements of contemporary tonality. His use of instruments such as a glass harmonica (a Benjamin Franklin invention favored by both Mozart and Gaetano Donizetti) as well as claves, pebbles, sleigh bells, and sandpaper offer a history of what is accepted as musical. The sounds coming out of that pit last night were exciting and mysterious. The audience is kept guessing as to the nature of those cryptic sounds. At the same time, the music is dictated by the dramatic events onstage. It never feels like the musical inventions are overwhelming the drama. Meanwhile, the libretto offers lines like “Strip the cities of brick . . . strip out the wires and cover the land with grass” which transcends the notion of time and space.

Most of the principal singers, as well as the musicians (The Mahler Chamber Orchestra) performed this work at its world premiere at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012. The new kids on the block were countertenor Tim Mead, and conductor Alan Gilbert. Reprising the roles they created were baritone Christopher Purves and soprano Barbara Hannigan. All of them deserve much praise for their incredible work.

Written on Skin is a landmark work. I have no doubt that its score will be on the reading, and future performing lists of many conservatories. I am also sure that audience raconteurs will delight (or bore) later generations with tall tales about how they were present at the premiere. Consider yourself lucky if you were able to snatch up a ticket to the three performances being presented in this year's Mostly Mozart Festival.