Tuesday, December 12, 2017

La Bohème: Paris, We Have a Problem

The new production of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème at the Opéra National de Paris takes place one hundred years from now, in a spaceship, and on the surface of the moon.  Claus Guth's take on this beloved classic stems from the work's libretto itself.  Colline, the bohemian philosopher mentions the Apocalypse, and I'm sure this set the German director's mind into imagining the opera as being set during a doomed space voyage, where the majority of the action is a remembrance of things past.

If you are going to set La Bohème in space, then this is the only way to proceed given the fact that Puccini's story does not really lend itself for abstraction easily.  So, four astronauts are running out of air on a doomed spaceship, how do you explain the landlord Benoit's visit asking for their rent?  That's easy, Benoit is a member of the crew who has already died.  One of the bohemians, er...astronauts play with his limp body like a marionette, as if he were alive, and they sing his lines.  What about Mimì?  Where does she come from?  She is in the mind of Rodolfo.  She appears in a beautiful red dress, revealing that Rodolfo must be in dire need of feminine companionship after being cooped up in space.   All this, plus a few stolen ideas from Stanley Kubrick (2001, A Space Odyssey), Andrei Tarkovski (Solaris), and even a mime who looks as if he just stepped out of Federico Fellini's fills out the evening.

What a mess!  At Bayreuth, at least they wait until the end of the act to boo, but at the Opéra a storm of loud ferocious catcalls greeted Act III, where instead of the familiar Parisian Gate of Hell, we found ourselves in the middle of the lunar surface.  

I'll say this in defense of Herr Guth's vision: it looks really beautiful!  The spaceship set has all the melancholy of 2001's Jupiter Mission sequence, but unfortunately there's no HAL to make things more interesting.  

Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel led a beautiful reading of the score, never overwhelming his talented singers.  Led by the Rodolfo of Atalla Ayan, and the Mimì of Nicole Car, the cast seemed surprisingly comfortable with the staging.

Maybe some operas should never be updated.  And if they are, there's has to be a better idea than this half-baked disaster. 

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Maestro James Levine accused of sexual molestation

James Levine, Conductor Emeritus of the Metropolitan Opera is heading for trouble.  The opera company announced that it would look into claims that Levine molested a boy in the 1980s, starting when the child was 15.

Many Metropolitan Opera insiders have said that Levine's alleged behavior was an open secret for years, some dating as far back as 40 years ago.  In the book "Molto Agitato," author Johanna Fiedler detailed some of the salacious rumors surrounding the maestro.  In her book she writes: “One rumor, however, was particularly persistent. Levine, it was said, had had a relationship with a boy whose parents had gone to the Met board, threatening to expose the situation. Supposedly the board then authorized a major payoff to the family,”

The MET's General Manager Peter Gelb said that “we are deeply disturbed by the news articles that are being published online today about James Levine. We are working on an investigation with outside resources to determine whether charges of sexual misconduct in the 1980s are true, so that we can take appropriate action.”

Friday, December 01, 2017

Et, tu Leporello



These days we are not in the habit of editing operas. Go to any performance of Richard  Wagner's works and more than likely you will hear every note he wrote in that score. Not like in the 1940’s when the Metropolitan Opera presented edited versions of not just the Master of Bayreuth's works, but also many others. The few Bel Canto operas that were active in the repertory back then went on the stage heavily edited, with missing cabalettas and shorten scene endings (a practice still happening these days, I'm afraid).  When was the last time you heard all of the music of the end of a Vincenzo Bellini "scena" with all the notes intact, as written by the composer?  These so-called standard cuts are everywhere, but thankfully we are pretty much past the point when an entire aria would be replaced by another, serving the wishes of the singer, as when Wagner wrote an aria for a French bass, replacing the one Bellini wrote in Norma.
 

An accomplished opera company these days pretty much follows the dictum made famous by autocratic conductor Arturo Toscanini: “as written!” He would demand of his orchestra and singers. And his penchant for adhering to the letter of the score, especially when it came to such composers as Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini (both of whom he knew personally, and conducted premieres of their work) led the way to today’s practice to faithfulness to a composer’s work.
 

Now that the media has transformed sexual harassment into the number one flavor-of-the-month crime, will the lyric stage re-start its old practice of purging librettos, especially those that involve ideas celebrating male potency and female subservience? The opera world is filled with moments like these, some possessing the world’s best known music.

Take, for example, Leporello’s catalogue aria in Act I of W.A. Mozart’s amazing Don Giovanni. A masterpiece-of-a-song where the Don’s servant recounts to a young female victim the many amorous conquests brought about by his master’s lust. Numbering over 2000 and counting, the aria tells of an insatiable sexual appetite by a callous aristocrat. The young listener, Donna Elvira, is shocked by the sheer number of women who, like herself, have fallen, tricked by a sexual predator. The aria reveals that she is just another number in the Don’s catalogue.  The sheer joy of Mozart’s music, however, masks a darker, more sinister message. Leporello clearly longs to be like his master, to go through women in a shameless display of male potency, and to catalogue his escapades in a book, just like he is forced to record his master’s debaucheries.  

How does an opera director, or for that matter, how does a singer approach such an aria in these times when powerful men are going down for the same crimes about which this character is joyously singing?  Is the answer to cut out one of the great arias because it exults reprehensible actions?  Certainly not.  Mozart’s work is essentially a comedy, albeit a dark one, a "dramma giocoso" as librettist Lorenzo da Ponte called it.  Should serious events be dealt with in a comic manner?  Of course!  Mozart did it all the time, and mostly with a great deal of success.  In modern times, film director Stanley Kubrick pondered the possibility of nuclear holocaust, the greatest threat ever to face mankind, with the farcical, hilarious comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

In Don Giovanni, the Don is clearly portrayed as a villain. He has always been a villain from his first appearance in Spanish literature in Tirso de Molina's play "El burlador de Sevilla."  His actions are punished at the end of Mozart's opera when he is dragged down to Hell by the statue of Donna Anna's father, one of his conquests. The epilogue that follows the Don's doom assures us all sinners like him will get their comeuppance. We can look back and say that his servant is just mixed up about things, clearly praising wrong choices when he lauds his master’s conquests. 

Obviously, let’s not throw out one of Mozart’s musical jewels.  Come on, would anybody in his right mind throw out one of opera's greatest songs?  One might as well not perform the opera at all!  Instead, let’s be more attentive than ever to the awful, and not funny, story that it tells. Despite its jaunty, happy music, let’s think of it as a homage to hundreds in Germany, Italy, Turkey, and, of course 1,003 victims in Spain.  Perhaps we will hear the aria in a new light from now on.  Perhaps the way that Mozart’s and da Ponte actually wanted us to hear it.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Et tu, Matt

Matt Lauer has been axed from NBC News after a secret meeting between the NBC brass and an alleged victim who accused the longtime broadcaster of inappropriate sexual behavior.

Live on the air, Savannah Guthrie, Lauer's co-host on Today, was visibly shaken by the news.  She announced that "All we can say is that we are heartbroken. I'm heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear friend and my partner and he is beloved by many, many people here. And I'm heartbroken for the brave colleague who came forward to tell her story and any other women who have their own stories to tell." 

Following Lauer's firing, FOX News published an article on its website which featured Katie Couric admitting in a 2012 interview that Matt Lauer pinched her on the ass a lot.

Who's next?

Monday, November 27, 2017

COCO is a hit!

Over the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend, audiences in the United States flocked to theaters to learn what Mexican moviegoers had proven more than a month ago: that Disney/Pixar’s Coco is an authentic hit.  The animated film soared to a $71.2 million domestic debut to win the five-day holiday frame, topping such superhero behemoths as Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok, according to studio estimates. Coco grossed $49 million for the three-day domestic weekend, and has now pulled in a total of $153.4 million worldwide.
The film was years in pre-production, and this care really shows in its authenticity and respect towards Mexican culture, especially the Day of the Dead, the religious holiday that is at the heart of the film.  The drawings above are two of many that were done in order to achieve the look of the film.  Basically, the Disney/Pixar artists conjured up a city of the Dead where its citizens are happy to be on the other side. I recommend this film, especially during this holiday season.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is dead at 55

The great Dmitri Hvorostovski, one of opera's great baritones, and a specialist in the operas of Giuseppe Verdi died in London at the age of 55 after a long battle with brain cancer.  He was one of the shining lights of the operatic stage, a dashing, sexy figure with his mane of silver hair which he wore long, which he almost never hid from the public, and which he always successfully incorporated into his operatic characters.  Only once did I see him hide his silver-maned hair: his last Rigoletto at the MET, where, unbeknownst to his adoring fans, he must already have known that he had developed a deadly tumor in his brain.

Hvorostovski learned to play the Metropolitan Opera, a gigantic house that scares many European-trained singers, and where he sang 180 performances. When I first heard him live his voice, though compact, beautiful and secure, sounded small: a perfect voice for a European opera house.  His breathing between phrases was the loudest I had ever heard.  His approach to a score, however, sounded like no one else: always the tell-tale sign of a great artist.  As his voice matured his instrument became stronger, more secure, but the original beauty of his tone always remained.  His performances at the MET, before his illness, were outstanding, and his lieder recitals always revealed a consummate artist comfortable being accompanied just with a piano.  His performances of Russian folk songs and popular romantic songs were very important to him.  In an interview with The New Yorker magazine, he remembered a concert he gave at the age of 22 in a bread factory in central Siberia, near the town of Krasnoyarsk, his birthplace, in below-freezing weather. The audience, wearing fur hats and warm boots, was in tears.

No one looked like him (his hair turned completely white by the time he was 30), no one sounded like him.  Perhaps the complex role of Eugene Onegin, one of his specialties, suited him so well because he was as complex as the title role of that great Alexander Pushkin poem. Now that he has entered immortality, he will be missed.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Et tu, Charlie...

The sexual allegations snowball has rolled over Charlie Rose, the longtime 75 year-old journalist whose longtime PBS show has featured some of the most important figures in the world.  According to the Washington Post, eight women have come forward accusing Rose of unwanted sexual advances, lewd behavior, and nudity.  Five of the women spoke to the Washington Post on condition of anonymity.  The accidents mostly occurred while they were interns at Rose's PBS show. The women range from 21 to 37.

PBS and Bloomberg have suspended airings of his show.  Rose also co-hosts "CBS This Morning" and is a contributing journalist on the prestigious 60 minutes show.  CBS has suspended Rose pending an internal investigation of these allegations.

Who's next?

Monday, November 20, 2017

COCO from Disney/Pixar

Coco, the new animated film from the Disney/Pixar Studios aims to bring the dead back to life, in a delightful, colorful fantasy set in Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebration. The film centers around Miguel, a young boy who wants to be a singer in a household where music is forbidden as a result of events that occurred many generations ago in his family.  Now, his relatives are shoemakers, but Miguel longs to become a popular singer like his idol, the late Ernesto de la Cruz, a character based on Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante, two popular Mexican actor/singers of the Golden Age of Mexican film in the 1940s and 1950s.  During the celebration of Día de Muertos, Miguel steals his hero's guitar from his mausoleum in order to enter a song contest and this leads to an unexpected voyage to the Land of the Dead, which looks like a Disneyland version of the city of Guanajuato.
The film is full of eye-popping visuals that have been carefully researched and beautifully rendered by the production team headed by director/screenwriter Lee Unkrich.  It's a collection of lovingly recreated South-of-the-Border stereotypes, but it is all done in such an endearing way that we accept it.  This might be a Mexico where El Chapo never existed, but it doesn't matter.

Writer Umberto Eco, referring to the film Casablanca, once wrote that "two clichés make us laugh, a hundred clichés move us..." and that's what Coco boils down to.   If you think it is a gringo version of a Mexico that has never existed, an antidote to Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados, or Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros, then you are totally missing the point.  Go to see it, and when a tear rolls down your eyes, you'll realize that you are watching an extraordinary little film.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Sexual Allegations Snowball Keeps On Rollin'

The sexual allegation snowball rolled down Hollywood Boulevard with a brute force, trying to survive the L.A. heat, but never losing its hate-power.  It first knocked down Harvey Weinstein with the greatest of force.  Then it lingered there gaining further strength, whacking him countless times.  Then it took a turn towards the east running over Kevin Spacey, exposing the famed actor of things most show business and non-show business people already suspected.  Yesterday comedian Louis C.K. got hit badly as well, and at least he has admitted to these past major peccadillos.

Kevin Spacey, who says he does not remember abusing Anthony Rapp, Tony Montana, or Harry Dreyfuss (son of Richard), has been dropped not only of Netflix's House of Cards, but also from the upcoming, completed movie All the Money in the World, where he was to play billionaire J. Paul Getty.  He has been replaced by Christopher Plummer.  There goes that Oscar nomination!  And after this summer's Baby Driver, Spacey's career was going full-gear.  The J. Paul Getty movie would have been the one-two punch he needed for Oscar gold, perhaps.  I wonder if the Baby Driver DVD, Blu-ray sales are taking a beating.  The scandal came out just as the film was being made available on home video.

Even though Hollywood seems to be cleaning house, as far as I know, Woody Allen's new movie Wonder Wheel is still slated to come out on December 1.  The director continues to operate under the shadow of sexual abuse allegations.  Also, when director Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland for the alleged rape of an underage girl, Woody Allen, Alejandro González Inárritu, Martin Scorcese, Wong Kar-wai, Wim Wenders, and Pedro Almodóvar, among others, signed a petition for his release.

It's not that Mr. Allen and Mr. Polanski have achieved the kind of clout that makes them untouchables, it's just the proven fact that America loves to knock down its heroes just to see them rise again.  Celebrity second acts from Robert Downey, Jr., Mickey Rourke to sports announcer Marv Albert and Mel Gibson are legendary.  They all spent years in Purgatory, and crawled out more popular than ever.  Based on this, something tells me that the accused superstar of today will turn out to be the comeback kid one sunny day in the future.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

A Sunnier, Funnier THOR: RAGNAROK

As Thor: Ragnarok is poised to have a winning $121 million opening weekend, Marvel might have just hit upon the winning formula for the one superhero in the eponymous universe who has failed to ignite the excitement and the box-office success that the rest of the super-beings have garnered.

The latest film features a Thor (Chris Hemsworth) with a comic routine that's sillier and lighter than in the previous films. This is a winning directorial decision on the part of New Zealander Taika Waititi, the latest helmer in this series.  When you have a superhero based on a mythology that was co-opted by National Socialism in Germany in the 1930's as result of Adolf Hitler's love of Richard Wagner's monumental music dramas where Thor, Odin, Loki, and the rest of the gang are characters (albeit in their Germanic names of Donner, Wotan, and Loge) one cannot treat this myth with an Aryan supremacy point of view. The operas of Wagner were de-Nazified after World War II, and to this day play without any of the clutter that the composer demanded and which the Nazis loved.  However, Thor, the Marvel comic book, as created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby in 1962 went backwards, in their pictorial look. This is not to say that Marvel created a Nazi hero, but they did give birth to the epitome of the Aryan male: powerful, blond, not only a god, but physically god-like.  It is obvious that the comic book creators of Thor were not aware that, as they were creating a hero that Nazis would adore, the operas of Wagner, the one artistic place in culture where these Germanic/Scandinavian myths remained alive, were being radically changed by Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson, at Bayreuth, the German city where the operas were first performed.

Subconsciously, this has been the problem with the Thor franchise in film.  How do we side with an Aryan hero during these days when America is plagued by a troubling rise of white supremacists?  Can we even consider him a hero given its past history?  

Disney/Marvel Studio's answer is to make him funny.  And this they have done in this latest installment, and surprisingly to a large extent it works.  They even threw in Jeff Goldblum, a master of comic timing, as some kind of uber-garbage lord called the Grandmaster.  But as Mahnola Dargis wrote in her insightful New York Times review of this film:  "It’s amusing how “Ragnarok” humanizes Thor, yet in doing so it dilutes his Thorness, the essential qualities that make him more than a dude with a cool hammer. And the more familiar and less godlike he becomes, the more evident it is that this series has never figured out how to make his myth fit with the modern world."

Saturday, November 04, 2017

The Exterminating Angel : The Opera

The Exterminating Angel, Luis Buñuel's surrealistic dark comedy about a post-opera dinner party where the guests find themselves unable to leave, is one of the great masterpieces of world cinema. A savage indictment of upper-class bourgeois mores and traditional values, the film, made in Mexico by the iconoclastic Buñuel, was the opening night offering in the first year of the New York film Festival back in 1963.

Now, the movie has been turned into an opera, with a libretto by Tom Cairns based on the screenplay by Buñuel and the film's producer Luis Alcoriza.  The music is by British composer Thomas Adès, who in 2012 brought his The Tempest to the Metropolitan Opera.  After its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in the summer of 2016, his new opera is currently playing at the Met, with a production by the lyricist, and conducted by the composer himself.

The opera closely follows the film's plot, even using many of the same lines delivered by the actors. The composer and librettist have chosen English as the language of their adaptation, although Spanish is the film's original language.  It's an interesting change, but ultimately a logical one: Mr. Adès and Mr. Cairns are both British (Cairns was born in Northern Ireland) and these days most singing actors are better trained in singing English than Spanish, a language often absent in the majority of opera houses around the world.

Mr. Adès's score is the expected atonal musical language of the twentieth century. The orchestration is big and diverse, even adding a theremin, that strange electronic Russian instrument that provides an unearthly sound without physical contact from its player.  It is a perfect loopy addition for a surreal comedy. As is his custom, Mr. Adès insist on writing incredibly high tessitura challenges for the female voices, especially for the sopranos. Aesthetically, it is questionable whether the female human voice, reaching for notes beyond F above high C, is a very pleasant sound, but that does not stop the composer from providing ample bars containing these stratospheric high notes. That aside, without a doubt, the highlight of Mr. Adès's score is an interlude where musically he describes a dream/memory one of the characters has of a horrible train wreck.  The driving orchestration that Mr Adès achieves, together with the unbelievably high volume that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is asked to reach once again places that musical ensembles as one of the most polished in the whole world.

Mr. Cairns's staging differs greatly from the film. Whereas Buñuel's mise-en-scène revels in baroque clutter, the present staging chooses a minimalist approach. Also missing in this adaptation are direct references to the Catholic Church, an important aspect of the director's work, and especially a key aspect of the film's conclusion. Buñuel was notoriously anti-clerical and fond of offending established institutions, especially religious ones. The choice to remove this aspect (as well as an anti-Semitic joke) smacks of political correctness, and tears at the very core of Buñuel's savagery.

The technology of the Metropolitan Opera House far surpasses the analog effects of the low-budget original film.  A good example of this is the sequence when a severed hand appears crawling around the room.  The film could only afford a rubber prop pulled by a string. But the hand in the opera is a clever computerized projection that seems to crawl all over the proscenium-like stage that serves as a key part of the scenery. The severed extremity is a close cousin of Thing T. Thing (often referred to by just his last/first name!) the lovable character in the Addams Family films.

After the performance, I was happy to see that the singers took no solo vows, but came out to receive the audience's applause as an ensemble.  This opera, as the film, is truly an ensemble piece.  The only one who took a solo vow last night was the composer/conductor, and I guess that's the correct move.

If you like the film, and want to know where opera is headed, or where it is these days, don't miss this production of this work.

Friday, October 27, 2017

JFK Documents Released

Thursday was going to be the day when all the documents concerning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy were going to be released to the public.  President Donald Trump decided not to release the full tranche of records.  This action by the White House totally acquiesced to last minute requests from national security agencies that some of those records remain secret.

The first time that I became aware of the release of these records was after watching Oliver Stone's film JFKKevin Costner, in the role of Jim Garrison makes an impassioned plea to make these records available to the public.

So, what was released on Thursday? A treasure trove to historians: 2,800 documents became public property as of yesterday.  You can read them by going to the web page of the National Archives.

As Kevin Costner says in the concluding moments of Stone's film: "All these documents are yours. The people's property, you pay for it."  Well, at least finally some of it is here.  However, the very fact that 300 documents have been withheld due to national security, will keep alive a host of conspiracy theories about the events that occurred in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Interestingly enough, in a memo from the White House, Trump directed agencies that requested redactions to re-review their reasons for keeping some records secret.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

CASABLANCA at 75 Part 2

As a follow up to my last post, I have added a page to my Casablanca website (vincasa.com) celebrating the diamond white anniversary of this film.  A preview of the page reminds us that...

"CASABLANCA is 75 years young, and many venues are playing the World War II romance to sold-out audiences, and standing ovations. After all these years, the movie has not lost its appeal. Audiences flock to see a love story from a time when, politically, everything made sense. The Germans were bad, and we were the good guys. Rick Blaine, Ilsa Lund, and Victor Laszlo were fighting the good fight against Hitler, Nazism, and Major Strasser was the clear villain of the story. And, oh, yes, then there was Louis Renault who is in it for himself, even if he has to side with the Germans."

Check out the rest by clicking HERE.

Monday, October 23, 2017

CASABLANCA at 75

As part of their BIG SCREEN CLASSICS series, TCM will be celebrating the 75th anniversary of CASABLANCA, by presenting the film for two days: November 12 and November 15. Fathom Events will be showing this film in selected theaters around the country.

The film will be shown with exclusive commentary from one of TCM's hosts. I'm sure Ben Mankiewicz will be the person chosen for this task. As with past events sponsored by TCM, this film will be shown digitally. Wouldn't it be great if there were newly struck 35mm prints for the event!  But alas, those days are over. DCP is the way to go these days.
For tickets and information about this special event, click HERE.

Tuesday, October 17, 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.