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, 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.

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.