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).

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tom Cruise in a reboot of The Mummy

At the beginning of The Mummy a supposed Egyptian proverb appears on the screen asserting that we never die, but assume new forms and keep on living. I'm not sure if I agree with this bit of mumbo-jumbo, but if it were true I would have suggested that Universal track down the current living incarnations of Boris Karloff, Karl Freund, and Jack Pierce (the star, director and make-up artist of the 1932 Universal classic), and perhaps this movie might have had a chance to succeed. Helmed by Alex Kurtzman, written by at least five credited writers, and starring a miscast Tom Cruise, this current reboot is a mess.

Since apparently you can't keep a good mummy buried, in this go-around Karloff's original Imhotep has transgendered into pharaoh's daughter Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a dangerous girl with mysterious tattoos and a notion that Tom Cruise is her long-lost lover.  In her quest to recapture her rapture, she engineers a number of nasty events including a spectacular airplane crash, perhaps the highlight of the film.  It's all downhill from here as Ahmanet's kiss of death turns a number of mortals into her evil zombie minions. Most of them look sore that they landed in this turkey and not featured in the next season of The Walking Dead.

What really stinks about this reboot is that this film is merely an introduction to a new universe. Does every popular film coming out of Hollywood these days have to be pigeon-holed into an imaginary universe?  Apparently, the answer is yes.  Universal's answer to Marvel and DC is to resurrect their monster intellectual properties from the 1930s and re-vamp them into a milieu called Dark Universe. Hence the unnecessary appearance in this film of Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll and his doppelgänger Mr. Hyde, a monster who, curiously enough, was never a part of the Universal family, and whose greatest appearance was for Paramount Pictures in Fredric March's Oscar winning pre-Code classic.

I will end this review with A.O. Scott's insightful comment about this movie in the New York Times.  "It will be argued that this one was made not for the critics but for the fans. Which is no doubt true. Every con game is played with suckers in mind."

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Der Rosenkavalier - New Production at the MET

The Metropolitan Opera is not a European Festival, and yet Peter Gelb continues to treat the New York institution like one. He has convinced himself that audiences, especially young audiences, will flock to Lincoln Center if presented with Regietheatre stagings of some of opera's warhorses. The best example of this thinking is Luc Bondy's 2009 maligned staging of Tosca which replaced the much beloved Franco Zeffirelli production. Next season, this production will be scrapped (after only five years) and a new David McVicar staging will replace it. This new production promises to take the action back to recreations of the original Roman locales, as specified in the libretto, and which the MET is touting in their 2017-2018 subscription brochure as "ravishing," and "rivaling the splendor of Franco Zeffirelli's set and costumes of the Napoleonic era."

Now, as the current season comes to an end, the MET has once again taken a chance with another old, ravishing production from the days when voices ruled the stage and directors actually followed the stage directions. The 1969 Robert O'Hearn production of Der Rosenkavalier has been replaced with a new production by director Robert Carsen. The old production was faithful to Hugo von Hoffmansthal's setting of the opera during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa. This new Carsen production updates the action to 1911, the year in which the opera received its successful Dresden debut, on the eve of the Great War.
Robert Carsen must have been coached by Peter Gelb about New York's tastes, because this staging's Regietheatre sneaks up on you. The first act, with its sumptuous red rich fabrics bring up the years of the Vienna Secession faithfully. Act I was so satisfying, that it left me wondering why the production team was booed a few days ago at the premiere. The rest of the production answered my question. 
 As the rich red curtain goes up in Faninal's home we are in what looks like an armory with a pair of smoking howitzers and ammunition center stage. Across the wall, a Greek wartime frieze reminds us that Faninal is an arms manufacturer, and would love to get his daughter married to a Baron so he can achieve further aristocratic status. The cannons offers a satisfying phallic symbol for Baron Ochs, but I found this cheap imagery. However, by setting the opera in 1911 Faninal has the potential to become filthy rich when World War I begins. In addition, at the conclusion of the evening, Mr. Carsen continues this militaristic theme by showing us the reality of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire coming to a crashing end. Act III moves the scene from a private room at a country inn to an urban high-class brothel, complete with female nudity and a proprietor in drag.  I don't have a problem with Act III, except that the appearance of the Marschallin at a brothel is really a preposterous notion. It makes the "deus-ex-machina" aspect of her role more obvious than ever. Let's just state that the setting of Act II sparks my curiosity, but really makes no sense, and let's leave it at that.

It is an opera about the passage of time, and there was Renée Fleming in her farewell performance to this role, which she has sung with great acclaim all over the world. I found her voice still beautiful after all these years, although she moved cautiously through the first Act saving herself for the ravishing trio towards the conclusion of Act III. She could not have had a more wonderful Count Octavian than Elīna Garanča's great impersonation of a 17 year old boy in the throes of lust for an older woman. She sang with amazing precision and wealth of voice. I heard that Günther Groissböck's Baron Ochs was also booed opening night. I can see some conservative audience members objecting to his aggressive take on the role. This Baron Ochs is not just a oafish country bumpkin, in the hands of Mr. Groissböck he becomes a sexual predator to be feared and avoided. The rest of the cast sang very well, especially Matthew Polenzani, here made up to be an Enrico Caruso temperamental, womanizing Neopolitan caricature, handing the Marshallin an RCA Victor 78 rpm recording before embarking on his rapturous solo. Great performances were also given by Erin Morley's Sophie and Markus Brück's Faninal.

Sebastian Weigle is becoming the MET's new maestro of the German repertory after giving us a memorable Fidelio and now adding to it a magnificent reading of this work. I would have liked the prelude a little slower, but if this music captures the night of love between Octavian and the Marschallin then that hot, frenetic encounter must have been worthy of a XXX rating.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

WAR PAINT -- Sans Patti

 This is happening a lot lately. One of the names above the title is missing, and creating a lot of disappointed audience members.  Yesterday, at the matinee, it was Patti LuPone's turn to be absent from the show. It was her first cancellation since the show started, so I was told by a member of the staff of the Nederlander Theater.  Of course, I had tickets for the matinee.  Her understudy went on, a competent performer by the name of Donna Migliaccio, and the show went on sans Patti. An Italian playing the very Jewish Helena Rubenstein?  Does it work?  Of course it did, but it was missing something. The show went on as usual from this side of the footlights, although I'm sure there were a few tense moments backstage. What the performance lacked was the chemistry. One star, the great Christine Ebersole cannot do it alone. This is the kind of show which is divided evenly between the two stars, sometimes way too evenly, and when one is missing, the whole thing feels like an invalid on crutches. Never underestimate the star power of a veteran, some might even say, one of the immortal stars of Broadway. 

Will I go back to see the show again, with both stars present?  The folks at the Nederlander are encouraging this. They gave out vouchers to exchange our tickets for a later performance, while at the same time asking us to stay and see the show. The bottom line is that no theater likes empty seats, although there were many since some ticket holders opted to exchange tickets or get a refund. For the majority of theater goers it makes no sense to see this kind of show without the joint shine of the two bright stars.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Met cancels performances

An audience member at the Metropolitan Opera threw a white powdery substance into the orchestra pit on Saturday during an intermission of the afternoon performance of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, officials said, prompting the company to cancel the rest of the show and that night’s performance of L’Italiana in Algeri while the police investigated.

No one was injured during the episode, the Met said, which occurred during the second intermission of the opera. “As a safety precaution, the Met canceled the remainder of the performance to err on the side of appropriate caution,” Sam Neuman, a Met spokesman, said.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Tenor Johan Botha is dead

It is sad to report that tenor Johan Botha, the South African superstar that thrilled audiences around the world with his performances of Richard Wagner's toughest roles, died today at the age of 51. Mr. Botha was a mainstay of the great opera houses around the world. I was fortunate to see him perform the major Wagner roles as well as the title role in Giuseppe Verdi's Otello: one of the hardest roles in the Italian repertory.

Mr. Botha started his career in the chorus of the Bayreuth Festival. Twenty years later he would be acclaimed in the role of Siegmund in Die Walküre at that same theater.

Here he is in the role of Walther von Stolzing singing "Morgenlich leuchtend" from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

I last saw him at the Metropolitan Opera singing the title role in Tannhäuser, a performance that the New York Times described as that of a man who "bristled with the desperate intensity of a man who’d been to hell and back — and lived to tell the tale."

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Welcome to the Thunderdome!

When the US Open moved from the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills to Flushing meadows it shed whatever vestige it had of manicured lawns and country clubbers. Aided by players like Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King tennis became the people's sport. Not only was the tournament not ever like Wimbledon, it didn't even try. After the move to Flushing, the permanent adoption of hard courts, the change to yellow tennis balls, and a loose code when it came to player's dress, the US Open became the most dynamic sports event in New York City, and also its most profitable.

When it opened in 1997, the behemoth Arthur Ashe Stadium (the biggest tennis stadium in the world) made strangers of us all. Alienation came to tennis. The players didn't even know we were up there, and we could hardly see them in the distance (never mind being able to judge line calls with any degree of certainty), so there was no reason to maintain the accustomed silence during points. The upper promenade of the stadium featured a constant flow of humanity in search of their seats (and more often occupying other people's seats to try to get a closer view), and constant conversation that seemed to just float up to the nearby clouds and escape to the heavens.

But in the last three years the USTA decided that a roof had to be built so that play could continue during the unstable New York weather that often plagues the fortnight. The acoustics of the place have changed forever. Now that the roof is in place, the thousands of random conversations that take place among the fans (especially during the night sessions) has no place to escape. They bounce around the stadium starting like a background buzz and ending up like a foreground clatter. The other night, in the middle of an ESPN match telecast, John McEnroe complained about the noise, mentioning that it felt like he was in Yankee Stadium.

But the USTA has no one else to blame but themselves. They have built the US Open as the hippest of events where loud and brash is in, After all, it is New York City! To this end, there are videos played on giant jumbotrons during changeovers, together with loud rock music while the players take their break. Often a roving camera travels the stadium giving us a free of charge fifteen seconds of fame.

Allow me a classical music anecdote (after all, it is primarily a music blog):

When Sir Georg Solti brought the Paris Opera to the MET for a series of performances of Mozart's La Nozze di Figaro, he knew he would have to fill the cavernous Metropolitan Opera, an auditorium much bigger than any European house. What he did was the opposite: he asked the orchestra to play quietly, and he begged the singers not to shout. The little, precious sound that they created managed to fill the house. Those that were fortunate to be present during those fabled performances were all on the edge of their seats, bending an ear, trying to absorb it all. These were probably the most engaged audiences in the history of Lincoln Center.

Back to tennis:

Now that the stadium roof is here to stay, perhaps the powers-that-be should re-think how it packages the US Open. They don't have to create excitement. The real excitement occurs inside that rectangular blue and green court ruled by white lines.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Gene Wilder is dead at 83

Gene Wilder died today at the age of 83. How sad when a comedian dies: a person who brings happiness and joy to so many. Young Frankenstein? Blazing Saddles? What was your favorite Gene Wilder role. What about The Producers? During the 1970s Mel Brooks found his muse, star, and co-author in Gene. However, if you never saw him in his breakout role in Bonnie and Clyde, a decade earlier, then you are missing a comedy moment that solidified his career at an early moment.

For many he is and will always be the one and only Willy Wonka, and nobody else should attempt to usurp the chocolate factory. He was perfection in that role. Sheer genius and pure imagination.