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, May 24, 2015

Tomorrowland is Pure and Preachy Disney

The basic premise of Tomorrowland, the new Disney film from director Brad Bird, is that half the world tries to build up Mother Earth in the morning, while the other half tears it down overnight.  Mankind has an incredible inventive gift that has led humanity to wonderful achievements, however we are a race that is also inherently bent on destruction, and this dark aspect seems to be taking over our current civilization.

The story begins in 1965 with the young Frank Walker (who will grow up to be George Clooney) who attends the New York World's Fair and brings with him a half-baked jetpack gizmo that he has invented. While being rejected by Hugh Laurie (who turns out to be the villain in the piece, a fact that you know right from his first appearance) he meets the mysterious child Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who introduces him, via a magical pin, to the world of tomorrow: a remarkable skyscraper city, half Fritz Lang's Metropolis, half modern-day Dubai, which ultimately is reminiscent of a 1950's conception of the future.  In other words, it reminds one of the sleek "Tomorrowland," one of the theme lands of Disneyland/Disney World.

The future, according to the gospel of Disney, is a clean-cut place with the kind of architecture that brings to mind the futuristic designs of the theme parks as well as the memorable structures of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. His amazing City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, for instance, seems to be the blueprint for Scott Chambliss's production designs.

But the land of tomorrow is rotten from within: it is crumbling and heading into dystopic destruction. To set things right, Athena summons Casey Newton (Britt Robinson), a teenager who has been sabotaging the dismantling of a NASA launch pad near Cape Canaveral where she lives. Obviously this is a teen who cares about space travel, and in the logic of this film one of the good guys. Her meeting with Athena, who gives her one of the magical pins, is the call to adventure that sets her on a journey where she meets the older Frank Walker, now a grizzled, discontented George Clooney living in the sticks, in a run-down house filled with interesting futuristic gadgets. The meeting of Casey and Frank, the catalyst that will bring the narrative to a climax, unfortunately takes way too long to happen. At 130 minutes the entire movie feels too overproduced and definitely too long.

Watching Tomorrowland is very much like attending the future section of EPCOT.  The sense of optimism overwhelms you. Nothing wrong with that. Frank Capra built a career based on it, and so did Walt Disney! What I find a bit troubling are the constant self-references. The entire film is a Disney infomercial. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was based on a park ride, but the films, especially the first of the series, was so successful artistically that you forgot the shameless plug and you concentrated on the new myth the film was developing. No such luck with Tomorrowland, which looks to the future, but deep down is just interested in first week earnings.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mad Men ends by Big Sur

In his own words, Mad Men creator Matt Wiener could not believe that 150 people kept the ending to the show a secret. Well, make that 151. It was hard, but somehow I did it. It amazes me that this ending was in place in Matt's head right from the start of the series, and it managed to remain intact all the way to the end. It shows total knowledge of the character and the situations surrounding him in the drama. And by the way, keeping such a big secret, knowing me, takes amazing determination and will power! Never mind that I had to keep it for about five years.

But seriously, it was the best ending, the only ending possible to the series. It dashed away any gory hopes that Don Draper would end up a suicide, falling out of a building, his body descending in slow-motion, like the Vertigo inspired logo to the show.  Don has been falling now for many seasons, there was no need to belabor the point. The series ended with us inside Don's mind, as he dreams up what is arguably the greatest ad campaign for a product ever to come out of Madison Avenue. Bravo!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Interview

All Hail Helen Mirren!  She is not only the Toast of Broadway, she is its reigning current queen as long as she plays Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan's fantasy play The Interview.

The author (who also wrote Frost/Nixon and the screenplay for The Queen, an Oscar winning performance for Dame Helen) imagines what occurs during the weekly private meetings that the monarch has had with a queue of Prime Ministers, starting with a crotchety, self-serving Sir Winston Churchill, through the controversial Sir Anthony Eden, the down-to-earth Labour PM Harold Wilson, with whom Queen Elizabeth had a very close rapport, and the mighty Margaret Thatcher, whom the Queen saw as a fellow traveler as well as a very real rival for power. The play also includes a couple of scenes with John Major, whom we learn was not wholly prepared to lead a nation when it was his turn at the dispatch box, the very angry, and very Scottish Gordon Brown, and David Cameron, the UK's current Prime Minister. There is also a very small cameo by Tony Blair, but surprisingly the author does not imagine a one-to-one interview with the well-known leader of "New Labour."

When Dame Helen is on stage she rules. Our eyes are glued to her. This is part stagecraft, part stage presence. When Churchill appears center stage for his interview, puffing on a cigar, as portrayed by the physically imposing Dakin Matthews, he is a great dinosaur of a politician. The scene has been staged by director Stephen Daldry so perfectly that our eyes cannot help but shift momentarily to him. This gives Dame Helen (and her dressers) enough time to perform one of her many lightning fast costume changes right on stage. Suddenly she is transformed into the young, uncrowned queen welcoming her first Prime Minister who carries an agenda as big as his girth. It is early magic in a production that is filled with such delightful moments.

Among the visitors to Buckingham Palace two Prime Ministers stand out: John Major (Dylan Baker), and Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe). Each of these scenes plays beautifully in contrast to the other. Mr. Baker portrays a weak, but very human John Major, a politician unable to escape from the shadow of his "Iron Lady" predecessor. Likewise, Mr. McCabe plays the droll Mr. Wilson who knows that politically he has to push his socialist agenda to a woman who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Despite their social class differences, the play portrays their relationship in the warmest of ways. It is the most satisfying interview of the evening, and Mr. Morgan even dramatizes a trip by Mr. Wilson to Balmoral Castle for a rainy weekend in Scotland with the Royal Family.

This is an evening of sheer artistry on Broadway.  A unique play where even the interval (or intermission, as we say in the States) has a very British atmosphere.  It is a not to be missed production, and  one of the big contenders for this year's Tony Awards.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Balanchine and Stravinsky at the NYC Ballet

 Last Saturday afternoon I attended the New York City Ballet. They performed four of the great Igor Stravinsky, George Balanchine collaborations: Apollo, Agon, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements. These classic works, that collectively have come to be known as the "black and white" ballets, due to the fact that the dancers are costumed in primarily these two colors, are staples of this company, and are brought back year after year to the delight of seasoned ballet aficionados and young audiences coming to these works for the first time.

Apollo is the oldest of these ballets.  Stravinsky composed the music in 1927, and the twenty-four-year-old Balanchine choreographed it a year later.  A host of great dancers have passed through this iconic role throughout the decades. It is the only Balanchine creation that puts the male dancer on the forefront. The short video below features Chase Finlay, a NYC Ballet principal dancer, explaining his approach to dancing this role.

Duo Concertant is a unique creation that features two dancers as well as a pianist and a violinist, all on stage. The short work examines the equal relationship that exist (or ought to exist) between music and dance. The piece takes the musicians out of the pit and places them side by side with the dancers. Saturday's results also included an interesting juxtaposition between the seasoned age of the musicians versus the youthful quality of the dancers. I'm not sure if this was an original intention of Mr. Balanchine.

The performance concluded with the amazing Symphony in Three Movements, a hyper-kinetic Stravinsky composition from 1945 that on the one hand looks back to his atonal beginnings back with Sergei Diaghilev and The Ballets Russes and dares to look forward toward the future of music. Listen closely with your eyes closed, and you will hear the nervous minimalism of a John Adams.  However most ballet goers will not close their eyes especially when a dancer of the caliber of Amar Ramasar is dancing in it. Mr. Ramasar has been a soloist since 2006, and he was a principal dancer in Chichester Psalms, the Leonard Bernstein, Peter Martins ballet that I performed with the NYC Ballet when I was a member of the Juilliard Choral Union.

If you missed the black and white Stravinsky, Balanchine ballets this season, I would not worry.  I am certain that they will be performed again next year to the delight of young and old.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Calixto Bieito comes to the MET

The New York Times reported today that Calixto Bieito, the iconoclastic, Catalan opera director will be making his Metropolitan Opera debut during the 2017-2018 season.  He will be staging Giuseppe Verdi's great work La Forza del Destino, in a co-production with the English National Opera. The production will be seen in London (sung in English) the year before it comes to New York where it will be sung in the original Italian.

His productions have been called offensive by some, and brilliant by others. His Parsifal, which has been featured on this website, takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, where the old knight Gurnemanz is a defrocked priest turned drug pusher, and, at the conclusion of the production, the character of Parsifal undresses and is carted away to be cannibalized by the rest of the opera's survivors. Another of his productions, Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, staged for the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, featured a scene in a public bathroom.

Peter Gelb said that he expected that the new production of Forza "would stimulate audiences, not shock them."  He also added that the production would be set during the period of the Spanish Civil War.

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.