Monday, October 16, 2017

The 55th NY Film Festival: a look back


Was the New York Film Festival this year all it could have been?  It seems that the two weeks came and went, and the amazing films that leave a lasting impression and carry that sought-after Oscar buzz never showed up.  On paper the main slate of the festival promised an impressive and varied list of films, with a sizable number of entries from Europe and Asia.  It seemed a throwback to the days of Richard Peña, the former festival chef who one year answered a New York Times article by  assuring audiences that the festival was indeed elitist.  He might as well have announced that the Film Society of Lincoln Center was a humorless place where only the most esoteric and cryptic (read boring) films need apply.  But then again, most New Yorkers who grew up attending the festival from the 1980s on already knew that.

Maybe I missed the films that really mattered this year. I wasn’t there opening night, missed the centerpiece, and could not attend closing night.  I did finally catch up with The Meyerowitz family and their stories, but I had to log on to my Netflix account to catch Noah Baumbach's wonderful film.  I was glad I did.  It was one of the most enjoyable films that was shown at the festival.  The kind of film that exemplifies the new New York Film Festival under Kent Jones.  I wish there could have been more where that came from.

There was a stern quality to the festival that seemed out of place.  Zama, an Argentinian film from Lucrecia Martel was a long, monolithic story of barbarism and civilization that took itself way too serious. Ditto for BPM, a French film about the AIDS crisis and the militant work of ACT UP Paris.  Even Richard Serra’s official poster for the festival had an ultra-no nonsense look as it tried to be referential to a camera lens. Interesting, but oh, so serious.

The Opera House, which was shown at the Metropolitan Opera was a documentary of the company’s move to Lincoln Center in the 1960s, but in the end, it served to be no more than a two-hour infomercial highlighting Peter Gelb’s current Met Opera.  Showing it at the MET itself was the best aspect of the screening.

Call Me by Your Name was, more than likely, the most popular film in the festival, and rightly so.  The story of the coming of age of a teenager in 1980’s Northern Europe was bubbly, moving, and it featured amazing performances by a talented ensemble cast featuring newcomer Timothée Chalamet as a teenage boy falling in love with a thirty-year old man.

Perhaps my favorite films this year at the festival were the revivals, especially the restorations of The Old Dark House and Pandora's Box; the latter was shown with live musical accompaniment.  Watching these restorations was like watching new works being screened for the first time.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Helen Mirren to be the next Chaplin Award winner

This year's New York Film Festival might be history, but the Film Society of Lincoln Center continues to be in the news.  Yesterday, it was announced that Helen Mirren will be the recipient of the Chaplin Award, a prize bestowed yearly by the film society to a figure in the motion pictures arts for their lifetime achievement.  Here is an excerpt from their announcement:

"Academy Award–winning actor Helen Mirren will be honored at the 45th Chaplin Award Gala on Monday, April 30, 2018 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. A beloved figure of stage, screen, and television, Mirren has bestowed upon the world a series of iconic performances in a career spanning more than fifty years. The annual event will be attended by a host of notable guests and presenters and will include movie and interview clips, culminating in the presentation of the Chaplin Award."

NY FILM FESTIVAL: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The Meyerowitzes of the title in director/screenwriter Noah Baumbach's new comedy The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) are self-loathing Jews, void of much religious connection, until you see their faces if Annie Hall were to suddenly pop up in this new film and order pastrami on white bread with mayo.  In other words they are Jews raised on Alvy Singer: "Left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the father with the Ben Shahn drawings..."  Indeed, the spirit of Woody Allen hovers very close above this wonderful Netflix release which has already graced the Cannes Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival before its theatrical and streaming release on October 13 of this year.

The story of half-siblings, Danny (Adam Sandler), Matthew (Ben Stiller), and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and how their lives have been affected by their father (Dustin Hoffman) is a delight from beginning to end; with Mr. Hoffman creating a memorable character to add to his impressive cinematic catalogue.  His Harold Meyerowitz is a strong-willed, former Bard College art teacher and modern sculptor, who in the autumn of his life feels himself neglected by the New York art critics. How his children from numerous marriages have been affected by him is the crux of this enjoyable slice of New York life.

The film features strong performances from the cast already mentioned as well as from Emma Thompson (with an incredible right-on-target New York accent) as Maureen, Harold's current alcoholic wife and atrocious cook, Candice Bergen as Harold's third wife and Matthew's mother, and newcomer Grace Van Patten as Eliza, Danny's daughter, who wants to be a filmmaker, and whose first film "Pagina Man" verges on the pornographic. Judd Hirsch, Adam Driver, and Sigourney Weaver (playing herself) in minor and cameo roles round out the incredible cast.  It's really great to see so much talent in one film, and all of them hitting the mark in their various roles.

Adam Sandler's Danny is a wonderfully crafted creation: a complex mensch with so much brewing anger inside of him that at times it boils over whether it be just trying to find a parking space in Manhattan or confronting his brother Matthew with a painful family memory.  The role allows Mr. Sandler to remind us just how talented he can be when he doesn't have shtick to fall back on.  And Mr. Hoffman?  Well, he is just simply a joy to watch from beginning to end, and I would not be surprised if this role adds another shelf of awards for this great actor.

With a wonderful script by the director, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is a strong contender for Oscar gold this year.  Don't miss it!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

X-Squadron Podcast does Blade Runner 2049

I was the special guest star on Episode 38 of the X-Squadron podcast.  The main topic of the podcast was the new film Blade Runner 2049.  I had a ball doing this, and I hope you enjoy listening to it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

NY FILM FESTIVAL: Pandora's Box

We will never know what G.W. Pabst’s great film Pandora’s Box must have looked like when it was first shown in the late years of the silent era.  This restoration, however, allows us a glimpse of the visual wonder it must have been. As we look at the detailed restored images, we are dazzled by the care it must have taken to get the film to this state, and at the same time we realize that we are watching a mere ghost of what the original nitrate negative must have yielded for those original Berlin audiences who were lucky enough to have seen the film upon its release. They would have experienced amazingly sharp contrasts and silvery images that a restoration working with many prints from all over the world, and lacking an original negative can only hint at. Tonight, at the screening of this film at the New York Film Festival we saw a ghostly glow of years past.

The ravages of time may have taken away much of the luster of this film, but the power of the narrative and the shock of the story still remain as fresh as ever.  This is enough for me to call this restoration a triumph. It may only be a mere shell of what Pabst intended, but it’s the closest we are ever going to get to the director’s original visual intention.

The film was shown with a live orchestra featuring a newly composed score composed and conducted by Jonathan Ragonese.  The composer opted for expressionistic sounds and dissonant outbursts that hinted at Alban Berg's twelve-tone opera Lulu, a 20th century masterpiece based on the same source material as this film.  I enjoyed the experience of watching it with live musicians, and the score was a successful match for the film.  My only complaint with Mr. Ragonese's composition came at the end of the film.  The final scene, taking place in an expressionistic-looking London, features the Salvation Army playing a Christmas carol, and the denizens of a pub rising to sing along.  It struck me as odd that the composer chose to appropriate the German carol "O du fröliche" for this scene instead of a British carol.  I'm sure he chose this tune because of its beautiful melody and for its ironic title (there is nothing "fröliche" (joyful) about the conclusion of Pandora's Box), but I can assure you that a German carol has never been sung at any pub where Jack the Ripper would have hung out.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Blade Runner 2049


Thirty-five years since Blade Runner opened to mixed reviews and disappointing box office receipts, a sequel to the sci-fi, dystopian neo-noir is now playing in the theaters, executive produced by Ridley Scott, the director of the original film.  Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve is the kind of film that tries to cash in on the gravitas of the original while paving new ground and building its own "universe."  In many ways, it's a losing battle.  The scenic design of the new film is firmly rooted in the look of the original film, with some key improvements.  The Los Angeles landscape, dominated by electric Asian-themed billboards are back, but this time upgraded to three-dimensional holograms.  It's a good visual development. Times Square has already caught up to Ridley Scott's vision of the future.  The smoky, rainy landscape is also present, perhaps even more beautifully recreated through the use of computer generated effects, something the original film did not have in the analogue Hollywood of the 80s.

Based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner has had a confusing history of different versions since its original 1982 opening.  There was the cut that featured narration that tried to mimic the golden age of Film Noir, and failed to catch its poetry and cadence.  Harrison Ford's otherwise impressive voice was all wrong in its quest to mimic the gumshoe pulp parlance. Unfortunately, this is how most people first met this film.  The so-called happy ending that version had also did not make too much sense given the downbeat look and feel of the rest of the film.  A 1992 director's cut that eliminated the narration and the happy ending started to make new disciples of some critics that had orginally panned the film.  A 2007 theatrical showing of what Mr. Scott calls "The Final Cut" finally brought this film into the realm of masterpiece. It only took two decades!
Now the sequel moves the timeline over forty years to the future where L.A. is even more noir than ever, and where the blade runners, such as our hero K, who at one point calls himself "Joe" (Ryan Gosling as a futuristic Kafkaesque Joseph K.) is himself an android, haunting down replicants and untangling a mystery I will not reveal here.

The most impressive aspect of Ryan Gosling's character is the way he is able to make us believe that androids harbor feelings.  This android knows that he is merely a copy of us.  But in the recesses of the computer programs that make him tick, I'm sure that he suspects that humans might just be copies of them.  This is one of the central themes of Mr. Dick's novel, although the film does not enter fully or convincingly into this conundrum.  I'm sure that K understands his existential melancholia: his devoted girlfriend named Joi (played by Ana de Armas) is nothing more than a computer program.

Even more impressive is Roger Deakins brilliant cinematography which lights an equally brilliant set design by Dennis Gassner was for me the most memorable aspect of the film.  Mr. Deakins has been nominated thirteen times for the Academy Award and has lost each time.  Perhaps this is the one that brings him the gold.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

ORIGIN by Dan Brown

I'm looking forward to reading the new Robert Langdon adventure book by Dan Brown.  According to advance reviews, it promises to be as controversial as his best-selling The Da Vinci Code. Origin, his new novel, is a story that pits creationism against science as a futurist billionaire comes up with a theory so shocking that it might just change the course of the world.  As the story opens, Langdon is attending a lecture at the Guggenheim-Bilbao Museum by Edmond Kirsch, who just happens to be one of Robert Langdon's first students at Harvard a decade earlier.  The lecture throws into jeopardy the entire world's belief system, and this triggers an adventure that sends Langdon (and of course a pretty and ultra-intelligent female companion) all over the world.

Yes, it is formula!  But since The Da Vinci Code locked heads with the Vatican, Mr. Brown has used this formula to make millions.  His books become instant best-sellers; they are translated into hundreds of languages, and eventually are adapted into motion pictures, not always very successful, but it does give Tom Hanks a steady job these days.

The fact that a large part of the book takes place in Spain, and that Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia (one of my favorite churches) plays a large part in the narrative because of its relationship between religion and the nature (architect Antoni Gaudí based himself on natural forms in the concept of his temple) is enough reason for me to attempt to devour the book.  Which is actually the best way to approach Brown's literature.  Don't think about it, just get through it.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

NY FILM FESTIVAL: Call Me by Your Name

In Richard Wagner’s great work Tristan und Isolde, the lovers in the throes of the most heated passion exchange names. Isolde says she is Tristan, and he appropriates her name as they consummate their love and become one. In the film Call Me by Your Name the two lovers, 17 year old Elio and thirty-something Oliver imitate Wagner’s doomed lovers, passionately borrowing each other’s names in a night of love that climaxes their summertime romance.

The film, based on André Aciman's popular novel, tells the story of the sexual awakening of a teenage boy against the background of a languid summer in Northern Italy in 1983. Elio’s father is an American professor who has invited Oliver, a graduate student academician, to his summer home for a few weeks. Elio and his family are cultural Jews, but Oliver seems to be more in tune with his religion; he wears a gold Star of David on a gold chain around his neck. As Elio and Oliver's relationship grows, Elio finds his childhood Star of David he had discarded long ago, and begins wearing it. A sign that he and Oliver are becoming closer. And closer they do become, as their relationship grows from a summertime fling to a passionate love affair, with their love remaining secret to Elio’s parents, or so he thinks. In an extraordinary scene, Elio’s father, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, tells his son to be proud of the time he had with Oliver, and to not be ashamed of it.  He also confesses that he came close to having a similar kind of experience, but life’s social mores held him back.

This has been the most popular film at this year's New York Film Festival thus far.  The end of the film was greeted with a standing ovation by a sold-out audience, a rare event at this venue.  It is a well-made film with many outstanding performances. Armie Hammer as Oliver and Timothée Chalamet as Elio possess the right amount of chemistry to enable this story to feel believable. Young Mr. Chalamet is particularly effective at conveying a complex highly intelligent teenager who reads books, transcribes music, and plays the piano like a prodigy; all while being a horny sexually active teenager who juggles his affair with Oliver alongside a fling with a French girlfriend.  Director Luca Guadagnino handles James Ivory's screenplay with finesse.  A particularly fine moment in the film is when the lovers consummate their relationship, the camera pans away from them, coming to rest on a fertile tree outside the window of their bedroom.

There is early Oscar buzz about this film, especially when it comes to newcomer Chalamet, whose expressive face graces the screen during the long last shot of the film.  A memorable shot in a memorable film.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

NY FILM FESTIVAL: Zama

In Zama, director Lucrecia Martel crafts an impossible film out of Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 existential soliloquy of a novel.  Hers is a rumination of late 1700s Spanish “Corregidor” Don Diego de Zama, (played by Daniel Giménez Cacho) a colonial officer longing for the King of Spain to transfer him to the city of Lerma, an El Dorado he has never seen.   In many ways the first shot of the film (pictured above) tells the entire movie: Zama looking out at the horizon, waiting for a transfer that will not come.

We are in Spanish territory, a remote river town, in what is now Argentina or perhaps Paraguay, a wilderness tamed by the white man who has subjugated the native indigenous population.  Although the Spaniards continue to dress in the European fashion, “barbarism” has slowly crept in. Zama’s powdered wig has not been powdered in years, and the tropical weather has added to the wear and tear — perhaps the first sign of the crumbling empire which will lose its colonies in the next century.

But despite the carefully recreated period, this is a film in search of an interior monologue. We are inside Zama’s mind, a later Don Lope de Aguirre, who unlike Werner Herzog’s character, is less the wrath of god and more a psychologically wounded anti-hero in search of redemption.  Ultimately, his seemingly tragic end at the hands of a Portuguese bandit, is the event that sets him free.

When Zama joins a group of bounty hunters looking for a bandit, the color palette of the film comes to life.  The shot of the group moving across palm trees and green plains is just marvelous.  Portuguese cinematographer Rui Poças shoots the jungle with the flair of a painter.  At one point the group is captured by a group of Indians, whose bodies are painted red.  The nude bodies photographed against the very green of the jungle is one of the most memorable series of shots in the film.

At the start of tonight's showing, at the New York Film Festival, it was announced that the film had acquired distribution.  This is great news, because every film in the festival should be seen not just by those who are able to attend the festival.  Also at the Q&A after the film, director Martel announced that Argentina has chosen this film as an Oscar contender for Best Foreign film.  With such people as Danny Glover, Pedro Almodóvar and Gael García Bernal, among other notables, as producers, they have a very good chance of being selected.  I hope they get it.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

NY FILM FESTIVAL: The Opera House


Susan Froemke’s documentary The Opera House is a loving tribute to the Metropolitan Opera, recounting the history of the institution from its beginnings on Broadway and 39th street, and focusing on the move to the Upper West Side and the creation of Lincoln Center. In a stroke of genius the Film Society premiered the film this evening at the MET. So, when the early renderings of those iconic Austrian chandeliers appear on the screen, all one has to do is look up and see the finished product.

The kernel of this film began as the MET celebrated fifty years of its move uptown. Half a century is a long time, and regrettably many of the figures associated with the move are no longer with us.  Thankfully, soprano Leontyne Price, now 90 years old sat for an extensive interview, and her lucid, funny and revealing stories are the glue that binds Ms. Froemke’s film together. Baritone Justino Díaz also provided commentary. Ms. Price and Mr. Díaz were the stars of Antony and Cleopatra, Samuel Barber’s commisioned opera which opened the new house in 1966. Their contribution is key to bringing those days to life once more.
The others who play key parts in the documentary are brought to life thanks to archival film and photographs. Robert Moses, who was responsible for clearing the so-called “slums” of the Upper West Side, is a major player without whom this story would have turned out differently.  The participation of two residents of those buildings condemned and razed by Moses offer bittersweet memories of the old Irish and Puerto Rican neighborhood.

The other figure who looms largest in this story is Rudolf Bing, who was general manager of the MET and spearheaded the move to the new house in the 1960s.  Bing was a tough-as-nails administrator.  With his derby hat and rolled up umbrella he was the very model of a British upper class gent, although he was born in Vienna.  Many remembered that Sir Rudolf always spoke his mind, and the newsreel footage proves this many times.

With Peter Gelb as producer, this film at times seems to be less a history of the MET and more a tribute to the present Metropolitan.  A high class infomercial, if you will.  There's even footage of Nina Stemme singing the Liebestod from last year's opening night of Tristan und Isolde. There's no mention of how the MET opened in the late 1883.  No mention of the fact that the nouveau riche of New York's Gilded Age, unable to obtain a box at the Academy of Music on 14th street, decided to open their own opera company on 39th street and Broadway, a harbinger of the uptown expansion of New York City. Also curiously missing are recordings and Ken Burns-effect photographs of Enrico Caruso, Rosa Ponselle, Feodor Chaliapin, and other luminaries of the early years of the MET.

The Opera House is an informative journey detailing the construction of one of the most important artistic institution in this country. I learned that as far back as 1908, the MET had begun to look for another location. I also learned that the MET could have been located on what is now Rockefeller Center, in a Fascist architecture style monstrosity.  Albert Speer would have been proud.  Thankfully the Depression halted that project.

Don't miss this film if and when it comes to a theater near you.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

NY FILM FESTIVAL: The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House might just be James Whale's masterpiece.  Eighty-five years after its original release the film continues to delight with its unique brand of chills mixed with a dry sense of loopy humor.  Only James Whale was able to combine the macabre with the humorously absurd.  Based on a work by J.B. Priestley, the story of travelers stranded in a remote mansion belonging to a deranged family has been imitated over and over again. But rarely have the results been as satisfyingly successful as in this pre-code film.  And to think that the movie was lost after Universal lost its rights to it.  We owe its existence to director Curtis Harrington who dug up the film in the 1960s.

Now, the Cohen Group has achieved a magnificent 4K restoration, and a screening of their work was shown this afternoon at the New York Film Festival. The results are magnificent.  It's as if the film had been liberated from the cocoon where it lay dormant for years, and was allowed to breathe and show all of its details.  And what a treasure of details it has!  The tie clip on Horace Femm's tie (Ernest Thesiger) and the cameo worn by Eva Moore, who portrays the batty Rebecca Femm, are just two of the visuals now easily seen.  The make-up on Boris Karloff, created by the great Jack Pierce, is now more frightening than ever.  It's not just an out of focus blur as in the past: it's now sharp, and with beautiful contrast and low grain.  I don't think one can ask for more.

Take a look at the new 4K trailer below, and it will give you an idea of the work that was put into this film.  The blu-ray disc will be available October 24.  You can pre-order it by clicking HERE.

NY FILM FESTIVAL: The Old Dark House -- a preview

The New York Film Festival opened on Thursday (likely as a result of Yom Kippur) instead of the usual Friday night with Richard Linklater's film Last Flag Flying, a road film about three aging Vietnam veterans reuniting to bury the only child of one of them who died in the early days of the Iraq invasion.

This afternoon I will be attending a screening of The Old Dark House, the 1932 gothic comic Universal film, directed by James Whale and starring Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton, and Boris Karloff in his first credited role.  His name was left out of the credits in the earlier Frankenstein.)

At the Lyon Lumière Film Festival it was announced by Cohen Media Group Vice President Tim Lanza that along with Universal they were working on a restoration of this film.  This is what will be shown this afternoon at Lincoln Center. The blue-ray will be released on October 24th right on time for Halloween.

Back in October, 2016 Variety reported that The Old Dark House was considered lost until director Curtis Harrington discovered material in the late 60s.  The Cohen Media Group will be using material stored in the Library of Congress.  It will be a 4K restoration.  I will be publishing a review of the screening tomorrow.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Playwright Albert Innaurato, dead at 70

Ask anyone who grew up in the late 1970s about the play Gemini, or its author Albert Innaurato, and they might not remember anything about them, but mention the TV commercial of the Broadway run of the play and the line "I'll just pick!" and instant smiles of recognition will certainly follow.  Of course, for Broadway lovers who came of age during the 1970's (I graduated from high school in 1977) Gemini was an important production.  Lured by the commercial, me and a few friends ventured into the city from Queens, and not only saw the play, with its original cast, but waited around afterwards to meet the cast and get their autograph.  I still have the original Playbill from this show, its cover signed by everyone in the cast.

Albert Innaurato died in New York City at the age of 70.  He was never able to repeat the incredible success of Gemini, a show that ran for four years.  A great opera lover, in his later years he turned to the Internet providing opera reviews for the website Parterre Box as well as magazine reviews and articles for Opera News, the official publication of the Metropolitan Opera.

Gemini was a landmark play from the pre-AIDS era.  It celebrates the sexual awakening of an opera-loving, Maria Callas-worshiping Italian young man in blue-collar Philadelphia.  Essentially, an autobiographical slice of life of Innaurato's own life.

The original Broadway cast featured Danny Aiello, Jessica James, and Jonathan Hadary.  Understudying the role of Francis Geminiani, played by Robert Picardo, was Jeff Daniels.

The lights will dim on Broadway's theaters to honor the passing of a singularly talented voice in the American Theater.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Bellini's NORMA opens MET Season

Norma, Vincenzo Bellini’s great bel canto opera has opened the Metropolitan Opera season only three times. I was there at the 1981 opening night, a battlefield of an evening featuring soprano Renata Scotto fighting a claque hell-bent on ruining the night for the popular soprano, supposedly because she made random comments comparing herself to Maria Callas, one of the great interpreters of this role.  The Callas army would not take Scotto's so-called insult sitting down. When the soprano made her entrance the boos and catcalls poured down, protesters were ejected from the auditorium, and the gorgeous aria "Casta Diva," and pretty much the rest of the evening was ruined.

This time, to interpret the role of the Druid priestess, the MET chose Sondra Radvanovsky, a singer who specializes in the bel canto repertory, (in 2016 she sang the three Donizetti queens Triathlon at the MET), and who has the kind of voice that at times reminds you of Callas.  The voice is not pretty, but it is agile, flexible, and can ably handle the coloratura that makes this role according to Wagnerian specialist Lilli Lehmann, who first sang Norma at the MET in 1890 (in German!), even more difficult than the three Brünnhilde roles in Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung,

The role of Adalgisa, Norma's confidant and rival, went to Joyce DiDonato, another bel canto specialist whose warm, clean tones contrasted beautifully with Radvanovsky's somewhat blurry sounds.

Ms. Radvanovsky started poorly.  Her "Casta Diva" was filled with audible gear changes, and some flat notes that did not impress.  However, she grew more and more assured in her interpretation, eventually rising to the level we all expected of her.  Conductor Carlo Rizzi led a beautiful reading of the score with intelligent tempi and clean sound, oftentimes coming to the rescue of the singers: exactly what a good conductor should do. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra has rarely sounded this good in this type of repertory.  At times, Mr. Rizzi had to bring up the dynamics of the orchestra to compete with the MET chorus which sounded way too robust too many times.

Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja sounded nervous in his opening aria, going flat on his top notes.  By the time Act II hit, his voice had turned nasal.  Bass Matthew Rose's dark tone was ample and assured.

The new production by Sir David McVicar was a conservative gift to New York opera lovers who prefer their new productions meat-and-potatoes.  The huge MET set elevator was used to portray the two scenes where the opera takes place.  A clearing in the forest, featuring a scary looking tree reminiscent of the one in Guillermo Del Toro's great film Pan's Labyrinth, and Norma's hut, which looked as huge as the Pantheon in Rome, and shared with that Roman landmark a hole in its roof.

This production will run for about three months, with a change of cast in December.  By all means, if you like this opera do not miss it.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Judith Cabaud at Barnes & Noble

Author Judith Cabaud will be at Barnes & Noble (33 East 17th Street, New York City) to sign her new book Mathilde Wesendonck, Isolde's Dream.  Here is a blurb about the book from the B&N website:

"Truly great compositions spring, like Athena from Zeus' skull, at the juncture of genius and passion. In Mathilde Wesendonck: Isolde's Dream, author Judith Cabaud calls on a host of heretofore undiscovered resources to tell the story of Mathilde Wesendonck, muse and paramour to Richard Wagner and, later, Johannes Brahms. Alma Mahler, eat your heart out. In or about August 1857, Richard Wagner's character changed. He abandoned Der Ring des Nibelungen, the Gesamtkunstwerk he'd begun work on nearly a decade earlier, tore through a short set of songs now known as the "Wesendonck Lieder," and dove headlong into Tristan und Isolde, "eine Handlung" whose seminal influence would ricochet down the ensuing century of Western romantic music. Why the dramatic shift? Wagner had been struck by lightning twice. The first bolt was sighted across Europe; his name was Arthur Schopenhauer. The second was restricted to a insular social world centered at the estate of Otto Wesendonck, one of Wagner's patrons. Her name was Mathilde Wesendonck, and this is her story."

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Wieland Wagner

Whether or not you read German, the book to get this year if you are a fan of the works of Richard Wagner is Wieland Wagner, Revolutionär und Visionär des Musiktheaters by Till Haberfeld and Oswald Georg Bauer, a beautiful coffee-table volume published by Deutscher Kunstverlag on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner's grandson.

Wieland Wagner, a trained artist, the son of Siegfried Wagner, the composer's only son, was the person on whose shoulders fell the responsibility for the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951 after Germany's defeat in World War II.  His mother Winifred, who ran the festival from 1930, became a staunch supporter of Adolf Hitler, and she was forbidden to run the festival after the war.  It was up to her children, Wieland and his brother Wolfgang, to get the festival up and running again. Wolfgang would attend to the business side of the corporation, while Wieland became its artistic director.  His dark, stark productions brought about a new style to the works of his grandfather.  "Neue Bayreuth," the critics called it.  "Light is for me the new magician," Wieland would say to describe his stagings, and this new light served to rid Wagner's works of the Nazi associations that had accumulated during the years of German National Socialism.

The cover of this book tells it all.  That wonderful photograph of Wolfgang Windgassen and Martha Mödl in the third act of Siegfried from Wieland's rapturous 1956 staging of the Ring of the Nibelung is a portent of what you will find inside the covers of this new publication.  Here are beautiful color and black-and-white photographs of all the productions that Wieland designed at Bayreuth and elsewhere.  It is a treasure trove for all of us who were too young to be part of the Wieland Wagner years, and who only know his work from inferior photographs on the Internet.

To commemorate the anniversary of Wieland's birth, I made a video podcast which you can see by going here.

You can buy this book by going to this link.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Listening to Bellini's NORMA

On Monday night the Metropolitan Opera opens with a new production of Norma, by Vincenzo Bellini.  The new production will be staged by Sir David McVicar, and it will star Sondra Radvanovsky as the Druid high priestess, Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa, and Joseph Calleja as Norma's unfaithful lover Pollione.  The opera will be conducted by Carlo Rizzi.  It promises to be a great opening night for the MET, and the house will no doubt fill with applause and bravos as long as the new sets and costumes by Robert Jones and Moritz Junge appeal to the New York crowd, which we all know is largely a conservative bunch who like their opera stagings meat-and-potatoes. Over the years the New York public have rejected the experimentation that Peter Gelb has brought to New York since he took over as General Director.  Who can forget the booing that occurred during opening night at the unveiling of Luc Bondi's staging of Tosca.

In preparation for Monday evening (I will be there, of course) I have been listening to a few recordings of the opera, and I have taken out my trusty orchestra score, and followed along.  Of course, I already went through the 1953 Maria Callas recording which is a magnificent rendition of the opera.  Callas in her prime, accompanied by tenor Mario Filippeschi, the great Ebe Stignani as a memorable Adalgisa, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, one of the most important Italian basses of the post war years.  The great Tullio Serafin, who basically steered Callas into the bel canto repertory, conducts the orchestra.  The sound is basic 1950's, and though it probably sounds better today than when it was originally issued, the recording quality cannot compare to the great Decca/London vinyls.  Those old London ffrr (full frequency range recording) pressings, many of us collected as LP's, have been beautifully remastered into CDs.  It is incredibly satisfying to hear the Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballé and Samuel Ramey Norma recording from 1987.  The orchestra of the Welsh National Opera was conducted by Richard Bonynge.

Sutherland first sang Norma in Vancouver in 1963, and she recorded the role in 1965 for RCA (now issued by Decca).  Twenty years later she went back to the studio and made this recording.  Obviously, the sound is superior, as it always was for the Sutherland/Bonynge projects.  I love listening to these albums from this era with their deep, ample soundscape. These are the opera recordings I grew up listening to, and back in the 1970's they were the best sounding on the market.  Back then it was RCA versus London, and the latter always won out when it came to audio quality.  For this recording, the drawing card was the participation of Montserrat Caballé, herself a great Norma, and Samuel Ramey who had just graduated from the New York City Opera to the MET.

Richard Wagner loved this opera.  He was a great admirer of Vincenzo Bellini's amazing talent for melodic writing.  He wrote "of all Bellini's creations Norma is that which unites the richest flow of melody with the deepest glow of truth." Wagner even went on to write an insertion aria for a bass of his time during his stay in Paris in September, 1939.  The aria is called "Norma, il predisse, O Druidi."  You can experience it in this video below:

A New Look

And with the new name comes a new look for the old blog.  I hope you like it.  Do let me know.  I don't think I'm going back to the old look, however.  This one has a more modern feel, and it comes complete with several bells and whistles not available in the old traditional themes.  I hope it makes for better reading.

The Vargas Blog

In a total fit of narcissism, I have changed the name of my blog from the "Wagner Blog" to "The Vargas Blog." Why?  Originally, I started this blog as an appendage to WagnerOperas.com, and I soon realized that I was blogging just as much about movies as I was about classical music and the works of Richard Wagner.  I was leaving behind my original website Vincent's CASABLANCA HomePage, a homage to that great Warner Brothers film Casablanca which I thought also deserved a blog of its own.

Rather than start a whole new blog for the Casablanca page, I thought it best to join my one blog to the two websites since my typical blogging topics are usually of interest to those people who would be navigating to these two websites.

The blog that you have read for years will not change much.  I will post to it when I can, and it will continue to adhere to the worlds of cinema and opera with some forays into art and culture.

The URL will continue to be http://wagneroperas.blogspot.com/ so you will not have to change anything if you are already subscribe to it.   And if you are not, please subscribe.  I'm sure you will enjoy the articles that I post here, and if you are already here, I know that you will enjoy the postings that will pop up here in the future.

Happy reading, and thanks for your support.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Mother! by Darren Aronofsky

Mother! (With an exclamation point, no less!) What can one say about a movie called Mother! that starts off with the word “baby” and goes on a roundabout cyclical arc to eat it’s tail ending with the same word?  The answer is a lot. This will be, without a doubt, the most discussed film of the early fall season. A cryptic allegory where Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him, her husband played by Javier Bardem, live in a huge fixer-upper of a house in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sunlight and trees, and where the word Paradise is used to describe their Adam and Eve existence.

So, God rested on the seventh day, and that’s where Darren Aronofsky took over. As a dress rehearsal for the plagues that he will send down later on in the film, the director, who also wrote the script, sends them their first test in the shape of a dying, chain smoking Ed Harris and his she-devil of a wife Michelle Pfeiffer.  The two of them invade Mother and Him’s domestic dwelling in the same way that unseen creatures begin taking a couple’s house in author Julio Cortázar’s masterful short-story “Casa tomada.” In the Argentinian writer’s fable, the house is overtaken by some kind of grotesque animal (the short story, after all, is part of a collection called Bestiary), a veiled reference to the Fascist government of Juan and Eva Perón. In Aronofsky’s film the domestic assaults take place in order to fulfill the Old Testament narrative the director is adapting. Soon after, Harris and Pfeiffer’s kids arrive already in Cain and Abel mode, and they play their parts as you would expect them to: just like you learned about them in Sunday Bible school.

It's definitely the kind of film that we can't just watch.  It forces us to delve into it because clearly the film hides more meaning that it outwardly explains.  The conversations viewers can have about it are best reserved for comparisons between it and the Good Book. The film is an obvious retelling of selected portions of the Bible, the more dramatic the passages the better.  Beyond this obvious aspect, one can argue that it is also a cautionary tale about celebrity culture. Bardem's character is a poet with some incredibly over-the-top mass appeal.  Hordes of his fans invade their very private home and trash the house.  The fact that a poet in 2017 can have such mass appeal is a tough one to swallow, but this is the conceit that Mr. Aronofsky needs us to accept.

In 2014, Mr. Aronofsky brought us Noah.  Next time he might as well just film the Bible's Apocalypse and be done with it.  No sense hiding it in thinly veiled layers of domesticity gone amuck.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

René Pape at Bayreuth

René Pape, who is singing the role of King Marke at Bayreuth this summer, stayed at my hotel.  He arrived a few hours before the performance, and stayed overnight.  A private man, he kept to himself, finding a corner where he could have breakfast and interact with his mobile phone.  But not private enough for me to snap a picture of him.  The day of the performance I ran into him and told him that I was looking forward to hearing him as King Marke.  He responded with a cordial nod of the head, and off he went to his car towards the Festspielhaus.

Parsifal at the Festspielhaus

Parsifal, Wagner's last major work for the lyric theater, which premiered at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, was the opera presented for our last night at Bayreuth.  A new production last year by Uwe Eric Laufenberg, this staging replaced the great Stefan Herheim production which I saw here five years ago. It's a tough act to follow.  Whereas the Herheim production has already passed into legend, and is now beginning to be copied (as in this year's Meistersinger), this current production succeeds in its simplicity.

Set in modern times, somewhere in the Middle East, the Grail Knights give the appearance of being a rogue Christian group who bleed Amfortas every day, and drink his blood in a ritualistic manner reminiscent of the faithful taking the blood of Christ.  Amfortas himself, with his crown of thorns and loincloth is the most Christ-like I have ever seen in any production.

Whereas the rest of the characters, Gurnemanz, Kundry, and Parsifal himself are treated in a familiar manner, the character of Klingsor is somewhat intriguing and provocative.  His story is well-known to those who know the plot of this work.  In an effort to join the Knights of the Grail, Klingsor castrates himself, and after this dastardly act is rejected by the Grail Knights.  This causes him to turn to the dark side, and it is he who steals the spear and wounds Amfortas. He becomes a necromancer who rules over Kundry and an enchanted garden.  In this production he wears a skirt (perhaps alluding to his asexuality) but lives in a lair filled with crosses.  As a matter of fact when Parsifal is able to win the spear from him, he breaks it in two, shapes the pieces into a cross.  The destruction of Klingsor's lair is shown by the falling of all the crosses.  I found this turn of events in the production a bit confusing.

Likewise, I found the transformation scene in Act I a bit over-the-top.  A scrim comes down and we go on a space journey, starting a with a Google-Earth aerial look at the terrain where the action takes place and heading far into the farthest reaches of the universe.  Does the universality of this work really have to be shown so literally?  The Good Friday Spell became a torrent of water projected unto a scrim with appearances by the faces of the cast and even Wagner's death mask from Wahnfried awash in the cascading waters of Spring.

After four nights of a lackluster Ring led by Marek Janowsky, it was a pleasure to hear Harmut Haenchen leading the Bayreuth orchestra with such authority.  Like Christian Thielemann, he knows how to get the sound from the pit to every nook and cranny of the auditorium.  Under Janowsky, the chorus overwhelmed the orchestra in Götterdämmerung, but the Parsifal chorus and the orchestra under Haenchen playing fortissimo made one's ears tingle. 

The star of the evening was Georg Zeppenfeld who last year premiered this production with his star turn as Gurnemanz.  Also returning to this production was Ryan McKinny, who was a moderately voiced Amfortas, and Elena Pankratova, whose Kundry was truly heartbreaking. The newcomer to the cast was Andreas Schager who sang a memorable, powerful Parsifal. 

In many ways this was the best way to leave Bayreuth for the 2017 season.  With a strong production of an austere work that is respectful to Wagner's legacy and the traditions established at the Festspielhaus.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Götterdämmerung at the Festspielhaus

During the immolation scene that ends Wagner's great epic The Ring of the Nibelung, the dead body of Siegfried lies burning on a pyre, his wife Brünnhilde rides her horse Grane into the fire as the banks of the Rhine overflow, and the gold that was stolen in Das Rheingold goes back to the Rhinemaidens.  It's the end of the world, but a hopeful elemental end written to some of the most ravishing music in the lyric theater.  Of course, what I just described are the stage directions that Wagner wrote on his score.  No director has followed them for years as more and more theaters experiment with this work.

Frank Castorf's Ring at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is by far the most experimental of any Ring that I have seen.  At times, it goes beyond just changing the locale of the original setting, it often creates its own running story which pales in comparison to the epic tale that the composer imagined. Often, Castorf's ideas do not work, or are, rather, so strange and alien to the words and music that he seems to be in another world and wants to take his cast with him.

There is no thematic unity to this Ring.  We start in a motel in Texas, and we end up on Wall Street, with some side trips to Baku and an Alexanderplatz filled with hungry alligators.  What does it all mean?  Why is there a comic character (we called him Squiggy!) who continually stops the action with "shtick" that makes no sense?  This is the first immolation scene that features no fire whatsoever, although Brünnhilde does spread some kerosene on the stage.  Nothing ignites.  Perhaps this is the best way to describe Castorf's staging: Nothing ignites.

This is the final time that this Ring will be presented at Bayreuth.  May it rest uneasily forever.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Tristan und Isolde at the Festspielhaus

The new production of Tristan und Isolde by Katharina Wagner premiered last year to great acclaim.  It is a production that has been out in DVD/Blu-Ray for a while, and it has been familiar to many who follow the going-ons at the Green Hill.  This year Bayreuth is offering a rare treat with René Pape singing the role of King Marke.

The look of the production with its use of darkness and light harks back to 1951 and the reopening of the Festspielhaus with the now classic, austere, and controversial productions of Wieland Wagner. It is apt that this year, in particular, the role that Wieland played in Bayreuth is remembered.  This is the 100th anniversary of his birth, and here in Bayreuth he is being remembered through a special exhibit on the grounds of Wahnfried, and through a newly published picture book by Till Haberfeld and Oswald G. Bauer.

Last night's production ended up being a compromised evening. Petra Lang was ill and unable to sing the role of Isolde.  However, she stepped into the stage and "lip-synched" the words to Ricarda Merbeth who sang the role standing on the apron, stage left, in front of a music stand, and following the score.  Frankly, I was shocked to see that the Festival did not have somebody prepared to take on the role in case the principal is ill.  I'm aware that it is difficult to readily get Wagner singers, but Bayreuth is a theater, and no theater should be in business unless there is an understudy ready to take on the role.  The show must go on, Bayreuth!

The rest of the cast was solid. Stephen Gould was a stentorian Tristan who was able to sing the part successfully having a silent partner next to him, and hearing Isolde's vocal line yards away, and outside the main stage area.  Not easy!  Iain Paterson, who sang Wotan in Das Rheingold was an able Kurwenal, and Christa Mayer was a big-voiced Brangäne.  René Pape once again proved that these days he owns the role of King Marke. As always, he was heartbreaking in this role.

Despite all the problems, the performance ended up being truly memorable due to the amazing conducting of Christian Thielemann.  After so many years spending his summers here, he knows that orchestra, and knows how to get the best sound out of that fabled pit.  Not everybody has learned how to do it.    Marek Janowski's reading of the Ring, thus far, for instance, lacks power. Thielemann knows that the pit can swallow sound, and he knows how to rescue it and get it out to the house.  As a result what we had last night was an evening awash with wondrous sonority, but finely tuned, and always tasteful.  This was not just big sound for the sake of making an unforgettable expression.  It was, rather, the kind of sound that can only be achieved when a conductor knows the score intimately and the orchestra is able to respond to his choices.  Thus far, Mr. Thielemann has been the star of this festival, something that he has proven, over and over again, throughout his years at The Green Hill.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Siegfried at the Festspielhaus

Of the four operas in Frank Castorf's The Ring of the Nibelung, it's Siegfried that has drawn the anger of the audience the most.  It might be the elaborate Communist Mount Rushmore pictured above which is part of the elaborate unit set for this show that gets the audience going.  Although, what has really brought upon the boos is Castorf's decision to have Siegfried kill Fafner with a machine gun, and not with the traditional sword Nothung. Originally the prop weapon was so loud that the original conductor of this production, Kirill Petrenko, asked Castorf to get another weapon that made less noise..  Eventually, Castorf agreed after many complains.

Since its premiere, the first performance of this opera has brought the wrath of the audience after the end of the second act. But it is the last act that tonight really got me upset.  This is the first production where Brünnhilde is put to sleep in one place and gets awaken by Siegfried in another: why?  Further, why does the set revolve from a Communist Mount Rushmore to a recreation of the Alexanderplatz?  And the biggest, and most stupid aspect of the evening: why is the Alexanderplatz overrun by a bunch of alligators that end up swallowing the Forest Bird?  It was an evening of "whys" and Frank Castorf offered no answers to his directorial choices.  There are no thematic ideas here that unify this production, but rather strange decisions that alienate the audience.

If all he wanted was to provoke, then he has succeeded.  Alex Ross in The New Yorker wrote brilliantly about directors who aim to provoke when he wrote his great review of Christoph Schlingensief's Bayreuth Parsifal.  You can read that review here.  Many of the conclusions that he reached can be applied to this production.

Bayreuth is not a toy for opera directors.  It is a place of tradition, and the keeper of the flame of Wagner and Wagnerism.  Thus, there should be some kind of respect when it comes to presenting the composer's operas.  Wagner was a great, tasteful artist.  I hope that this production goes away soon, and I hope Katharina Wagner hires someone who wants to expand the horizons of Wagner staging without mocking the works of the Master.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Johannes Martin Kränzle and me

While walking around Bayreuth I ran into opera singer Johannes Martin Kränzle who plays Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger: the first opera I saw on Monday.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Die Walküre at the Festspielhaus

After subjecting us to his low-down, white trash film noir with music by Richard Wagner which Frank Castorf calls his Das Rheingold, the director takes us to day one of the trilogy with a Die Walküre in Baku, Azerbaijan.  By setting the prologue in Texas, and following it up with a scene in the oil fields of the largest city in the Caspian Sea, Castorf is on to his main idea of turning the Wagnerian epic from 19th century gold to 20th century and beyond oil.  A clever idea, but one which in the past years of this production has not been followed through to the last two works.  Let us see if Castorf has done any revisions this year as the Ring continues this week.

Tonight's performance was very strong for many different reasons.  First the transparent handling of the great Bayreuth orchestra by Marek Janowski really stood out.  He never overpowered the singers, but also knew well when to whip the players into rapturous sound.  The extended orchestra sections in Wotan's farewell being a perfect example of Janowski's vigorous and expert handling of the orchestra and singers.

This season the Ring will have three different Wotans.  John Lundgren played him tonight with much power and nobility, and although at times the tessitura of the role made him strain and shout, he got through the performance with flying colors.  Likewise, tenor Christopher Ventris and bass Georg Zeppenfeld as Sigmund, and Hunding, respectively offered strong characterizations and solid singing.

It was a night for the ladies, though, starting with the beautiful sound of Camila Nylund as Sieglinde, and Catherine Foster as a powerhouse  Brünnhilde.  Both paced themselves well throughout the night, and the results were beautiful singing from start to finish.

The production continues to be puzzling, although tonight was miles ahead of Das Rheingold.  Once again, Castorf chose a unit revolving set, and although used less, he continued his obtrusive, unnecessary use of video cameras capturing selected moments from the drama, and projected on white sheets There was also  a fake Soviet silent film a la Eisenstein or Dovshenko which only proved to be cryptic and distracting.  ithout the vido element this production would be much stronger.

Of course, pretty soon this whole production will be eliminated, and probably remembered as one of the weakest Rings in recent years.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Das Rheingold at the Festspielhaus

After three years of listening to the boos overpower the cheers, together with a list of controversial reviews and awful word of mouth, I got a chance this afternoon to begin the Frank Castorf experience with a performance of Das Rheingold.  This production was to have been directed by cinema's  Wim Wenders, but he pulled out, and Frank Castorf came to the so-called rescue.  Castorf, an East German director, is best known for his unusual stagings of classic works.  This Ring is a  production that premiered in 2013 to celebrate the bicentennial of the composer's birth.  No longer a story of dwarfs, gods and heroes, Castorf sets the mythic story in the heartland of America, Baku, and even Wall Street's Stock Exchange and Berlin's Alexanderplatz in order to tell a tale of today's gold: oil.

The first installment takes place in a run down motel on Route 66.  The gods have been turned into figures from American films, and to underscore this, the production is totally filmed and shown on a giant videotron.  Some scenes actually have to be seen on the screen since they happen in rooms in the motel that we cannot see from the audience.  It's all pretty silly, and totally non-essential.   Whenever Castorf runs out of ideas he goes back to Wagner.  For instance when Donner swings his hammer to blow away the clouds and reveal the rainbow bridge that will take the gods into Valhalla, all he manages to do in this production is short circuit the electrical power in the hotel.

As usual, the cast was very strong, starting with Iain Paterson as Wotan, and Nadine Weissmann as a memorable Erda.  Two singers from last night's Meistersinger were also in this cast: Daniel Behle as Froh, and the indestructible Günther Groisböck as the giant Fasolt.


Getting back to Donner, played as a cowboy dressed in black by Markus Eiche, obviously after his hammer blow no rainbow bridge showed up.  There was a rainbow flag, but it looked out of place in a very "straight" production.  However, as we came out of the Festspielhaus after the performance we learned that it had rained on the Green Hill, and overhead there was a lovely rainbow: the rainbow we never got in this God-awful staging.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Meistersinger at the Festspielhaus

There was no denying that Barrie Kosky's new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was envisioned in part for the TV screen.  BR-Klassik broadcasted the opening night event to Germany, and the results were magnificent: a handsome, detail-filled production filled with excellent singing actors that know how to act for a theater the size of Bayreuth, but are also experienced enough to know that the camera captures every move and amplifies it.  Less is more, and Michael Volle, to a large extent proved exactly that throughout the broadcast.  His Hans Sachs was a study in subtlety, with very few instances of stand-and-bark delivery of old opera staging.

However, the production at its fullest is really meant to be enjoyed within the precincts of the Festspielhaus bacause, after all, no radio or TV broadcast can ever truly capture the amazing acoustics of Wagner's theatre.  Meistersinger was my first performance in this second trip to Wagner's City, and my first Meistersinger at the Festspielhaus.

The performance was stellar, very much an exact copy of opening night.  Unfortunately Michael Volle was not in good voice, and before the beginning of Act III there was an announcement from the stage asking the audience for their indulgence since Volle wanted to continue singing. He actually did better than I expected.  He is an intelligent singer, and he knows how to pace himself and sing over whatever ailment he was suffering from.

I thought that Klaus Florian Vogt was having vocal problems as well, and this showed up in the Act III Prize song.  He got through it, but his high notes suffered as his throat seemed to be tightening above the staff.  This is a problem that I have observed with this fine singer lately.  It's unfortunate because, as I mentioned in my last blog entry, his voice has an eternally youthful quality.

Anne Schawenwilms improved on her Eva from opening night, and Günther Groissböck as Veit Pogner, and Johannes Martin Kränzle as Sixtus Beckmesser offered some of the strongest singing of the evening.

On to The Ring of the Nibelung tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A new Meistersinger at Bayreuth

The new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg that kicked off the 2017 Bayreuth Festival is the brainchild of Australian director Barrie Kosky, who describes himself as a "Jewish gay kangaroo."  This Meistersinger is not very Australian or very gay, but it is certainly very Jewish.   Actually, a "Jewish Meistersinger" is not much of a stretch.  The opera contains one character, Beckmesser, that has often been played as a Jewish stereotype since it is based on Eduard Hanslick, a Jewish critic of Wagner's time who was present at an 1862 reading of Meistersinger, and stormed out of the room in protest.  The character of Beckmesser was called Hanslich in early drafts of the libretto.

Mr. Kosky's production begins in the library of Wahnfried, Richard and Cosima's mansion in Bayreuth.  Gathered there are the principals of the comedy: Hans Sachs and Walter von Stolzing; and they are dressed like Richard Wagner himself.  Even the children running around there (Wagner's children?) look like miniature versions of their father (with under-the-chin beards!).  Also present is Eva, but she is not a Wagner clone, instead she is made up like Cosima.  Pogner is a long haired Franz Liszt, and Beckmesser appears as the conductor Hermann Levi, a Jew, whom Wagner pressured to get baptized before conducting the premiere of Parsifal.  Levi did conduct those first performances of Wagner's last work at Bayreuth, but he refused to convert to Christianity.

It is a very playful first scene of the opera.  Here you have Walter wooing Eva as the opera calls for, but what we see is Wagner wooing Cosima, while the "real" Wagner looks on.  During this first scene Hans Sachs as Wagner acts as a kind of overlord guarding the sacred flame of "Holy German Art" that he will once again mention at the end of the opera.  At the same time director Kosky is playing with these "sacred" German myths without shattering them.  


Those familiar with Stefan Herheim's great 2008 production of Parsifal at the Green Hill (which I got to see live in 2012) will remember that the opening scenes of that setting also took place on the grounds of Wahnfried.  Is this Kosky production then, Herheim-lite?  Not at all.  Whereas Herheim was exploring the history of Bayreuth as it intertwined with Germany's own 20th century history, Kosky is interested in surfacing Germany's not so hidden history of antisemitism and the role Bayreuth played during Wagner's own time, and specially during the Third Reich, when the Festspielhaus willingly played host to Adolf Hitler and his cohorts.

In every second act of Meistersinger Beckmesser gets beaten up, but in this production the citizens of Nuremberg go beyond a good thrashing.  They ridicule and mock him by placing a giant puppet head on him, and making him dance.  The head is a caricature of the stereotypical Jew as seen in the propaganda films that UFA studios produced under Josef GoebbelsDer Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) from 1940, is perhaps the best known of these films. There is also a tour-de-force moment at the end of the act that is over the top, but I will not spoil it for you in case you are traveling to see this production live.


Setting the last scene in a courtroom reminiscent of the one where the Nuremberg trials were conducted was a stroke of genius, but I felt that Krosky could have done more with such a poignant setting.  Perhaps in subsequent years, as he rethinks his production, he might want to add some elements that will make this setting stand out even more.  At the moment, he might as well have set the last scene of the act outside the walls of old Nuremberg as Wagner indicates in his libretto.

What an amazing collection of singers have been brought together for this production! Something that Bayreuth doesn't always achieves these days.  Michael Volle, perhaps the greatest Hans Sachs of our times was in glorious voice, as was Klaus Florian Vogt as Walter von Stolzing.  Vogt has a Dorian Gray thing going with his voice.  The more he ages, the younger he sounds.  His singing was exemplary throughout, and his winning song aria was quite beautiful. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Anne Schawenwilms's Eva, who sounded weak and unsteady.  She was the only artist boo'd by the critical, but enthusiastic opening night crowd. Philippe Jordan led the incredible orchestra with competence, preferring stately rhythms and ultimately producing a pleasing, lush sound which at times tended to overpower the singers.

I saw this production live on BR-Klassik over the Internet this morning here in New York, but I will be going to Bayreuth this year, and will catch the August 7th performance of this opera.

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.