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, 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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

New Ring Cycle for The WNO

The Washington National Opera announced their complete casting for its first full presentation of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. Three cycles will be presented from April 30 to May 22, 2016. Artistic Director Francesca Zambello will direct and Philippe Auguin will conduct the orchestra.

The Ring cycles will feature two outstanding Brünnhildes. Acclaimed British soprano Catherine Foster, who has sung the sole at the Bayreuth Festival, will make her U.S. debut in Cycles I and II. Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, whose performances as Brünnhilde were highly acclaimed in this production's San Francisco run in 2011, makes her Washington debut in Cycle III. American heldentenor Daniel Brenna will take on the role of Siegfried in the United States for the first time. American bass-baritone Alan Held will return to his celebrated portrayal of Wotan.

Newly announced includes the return of American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as Fricka and American baritone Gordon Hawkins as Alberich; the Washington debut of American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World winner, as Second Norn and Waltraute; veteran Wagnerians such as American bass Eric Halfvarson as Hagen and Christopher Ventris as Siegmund; rising American stars such as soprano Meagan Miller as Sieglinde, soprano Melody Moore as Freia and Ortlinde, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as Donner and Gunther, and contralto Lindsay Ammann as Erda, Schwertleite, and First Norn. There will also be the Wagnerian debuts of two Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, American soprano Jacqueline Echols as Woglinde and the Forest Bird and American bass Soloman Howard as Fafner.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

NY Film Festival: FOXCATCHER

In an acting tour-de-force, Steve Carell throughout the film Foxcatcher, keeps his head raised at an unnatural, arrogant angle, as if to make sure his was above everyone else's -- a preening peacock with bottomless pools for eyes. His voice a gentle whisper that is delivered, deliberately and aristocratically, from half-opened lips. A prosthetic Roman nose giving him the proper patrician look of a bored emperor. This is the actor's approach to playing John E. du Pont and the events surrounding the true story of the billionaire, heir to the DuPont chemical fortune, who in the 1980s, with an air of dangerous jingoism, decided to sponsor the American wrestling Olympic team at his Pennsylvania home, the country estate Foxcatcher, where in the old days the blue blood Brahmins of the Northeast gathered to participate in elaborate English fox hunts. Mr. Carell's approach to his complex character not only works, but has become the surprise stellar performance of the New York Film Festival, already gathering plenty of early Oscar buzz.

Directed with great intensity by Bennett Miller, the cast also includes Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, Olympic gold medal wrestlers who are brought to Foxcatcher to be the anchors of the team that du Pont aims to coach and lead to victory. Former teenage actor from John Hughes's Sixteen Candles, Anthony Michael Hall appears as duPont's assistant, while the great Vanessa Redgrave has a cameo as Jean du Pont, John's octogenarian, wheelchair bound mother, who sees her son's decision to sponsor Olympic wrestling as beneath the family's dignity.

Following the real events of this story, du Pont first seeks the brutish Mark Schultz and lures him to Foxcatcher. Mark's humdrum life of morning training and eating ramen by night at his shabby apartment is now replaced by an existence in the lap of luxury. Before long, Mr. du Pont is introducing him to alcohol, cocaine, and dinner events with Washington DC movers and shakers. And as Mark's life heads into a hedonistic twisted relation with the billionaire, their complex father-son relationship rapidly derails.  That's when du Pont brings in the more gregarious Dave and his family to Foxcatcher to coach the team. Mark, who has always been in the shadow of his older brother, is unhappy about this. The entire film begins to take on the rhythms of a ticking time bomb, which eventually explodes in a series of events that ultimately leads to a ghastly murder.

Under Miller's direction, Greig Fraser's cinematography produces warm bright colors and beautiful wintry images. Likewise, Rob Simonsen's ominous score is full of chilling, subtle moments. If you enjoyed Capote and Moneyball, Mr. Miller's previous films, I am sure you will find Foxcatcher a thrilling experience that explores the temptations of wealth and the abuses of power.