Monday, October 15, 2018

NYFF: At Eternity's Gate

The director of At Eternity's Gate, Julian Schnabel became a sensation during the 1980s with his "plate paintings:" large scale canvases set on broken ceramic plates. He emerged as the most famous of the bad-boys of that artistic generation that also included David Salle, Keith Haring author Jay McInerney and Jean-Michel Basquiat: artists that made downtown Manhattan the epicenter of the artistic world. As a matter of fact, when Schnabel traded in his canvases for a movie camera, his first project was a biopic of the late Basquiat. Now Schnabel turns his cinematic attention to another bad-boy artist: the infinitely tragic Vincent van Gogh and his last tortured days in Arles, in the south of France: frantic days in which the artist descended into madness while at the same time capturing the light of Arles in one brilliant canvas after another. Van Gogh stayed at Arles for eighty days, and managed to paint seventy-five canvases. The large majority of them the well known masterpieces he is best known for.

Essentially the film follows the relationship between Vincent (an incredible Willem Dafoe) and his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), as well as the friendship between van Gogh and artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). But like Schnabel's early broken canvases, the film is a disjointed look at the artist's downward spiral into madness, mutilation and suicide. Certainly it is not Lust for Life, Vincente Minelli's 1956 biopic starring Kirk Douglas as the tortured Dutch artist.

Willem Dafoe's understated van Gogh is the highlight of this work, and the glue that keeps this film together. Mr. Dafoe has been the darling of the Independent film sect lately, morphing from one character to another with the greatest of ease. He can be Pier Paolo Pasolini in Abel Ferrara's 2014 biopic of the murdered Italian filmmaker, or he can become Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle hotel in last year's great The Florida Project. His van Gogh might just be his greatest role since he played the Son of God in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.

If your idea of a biopic is not a definitive reconstruction of the past, and if your taste in film favors a narrative of moments, impressions and fragments, then you will certainly enjoy this arresting, luminous film.

Monday, October 08, 2018

A Star is Born: this time with Cooper and Gaga

There’s s great line in Bradley Cooper’s new film A Star is Born referring to music being just twelve notes, “and the story repeats again.” It’s a referential line to the history of this well-known show-biz story which began in 1937 with Dorothy Parker and Ben Hecht’s original script for David O. Selznick, and the talents of Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. For many this early Technicolor film is the quintessential version of this story, but the story was told again in 1954, changed to a musical to accommodate the prodigious talents of Judy Garland. This version, helmed by George Cukor remains incomplete with sections missing, but what remains intact is gold. Music also remained when the story was told a third time, this time with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976, in perhaps what many consider the weakest of the three versions, although the film has its champions.

One of them is Bradley Cooper. The current version of the story draws much from this version. The story is well-known. Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a hard drinking famous rocker who meets Ally (Lady Gaga) a talented, but unknown singer. Jackson gives a boost to her career, and the two fall in love and marry. But as Ally’s fame takes off, Jackson’s demons catch up to him. He horribly embarrasses Ally and himself the night she wins the Grammy award, and things go headlong downhill for Jackson to the inevitable tragic conclusion already familiar from the previous versions.

Thanks to Bradley Cooper’s intelligent handling of this material as co-screenwriter and in his directorial debut, A Star is Born has become the film to beat at the Oscars this year. The film features great emotional acting from Cooper, and shows a triple threat Lady Gaga who might just have carved out a niche for herself come Oscar night. Also giving memorable performances are Andrew Dice Clay playing Ally's father, Anthony Ramos as Ally's friend from her time when she was singing at a drag bar, Sam Elliott as Jackson's older brother, and Rafi Gavron as Rez, a music producer and Ally's manager who precipitates the tragic conclusion of the story with his unfeeling approach towards Jackson's alcoholism.

They don't write them like they used to, and Hollywood knows this. They keep resurrecting this property time and again because filmmakers know that audiences love a great tragic love story. This version of A Star is Born speaks to current audiences in a way the previous versions satisfied their particular public. And when it comes to the movies we love to see a performer who has already distinguished herself in another facet of showbiz making a kill on the big screen, and this is exactly what we get when we witness Lady Gaga's great performance.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

NYFF: Roma

We will never know the meaning of everything that's in the new film Roma, Alfonso Cuarón's loving black-and-white recreation of his childhood in the Roma section of Mexico City. As with any autobiographical movie, the writer-director shares scenes filtered through the lens of memory, and artificially recreated through the performance of actors and the objectivity of the camera, manned by the subjective intellectual directorial decisions that make a complete cinematic product. After exploring the adventure of a Mexican road trip (Y tu mamá también), a dystopian future (Children of Men), outer space (Gravity) and a world of wizards and humans (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), he's exploring the memory and magic of his childhood. Roma, in addition brings on board a wealth of cinematic references, some personal, and others culled from a lifetime of movie watching.

When you watch Roma you are also watching Cuarón's homage to the directors he loves and those that have influenced his career. Visually, it's impossible to watch Roma and not bring to mind the work of Federico Fellini and the other architects of the Neorealism movement. This is particularly evident in the choice of casting non-professional actors in key roles, such as Yalitza Aparicio, a woman from a village in Oaxaca, who had never acted before, and who plays Cleo, an indigenous servant/nanny to an upper middle class family.

But make no mistake about it: this is a 100% Mexican film, one which could not have been made elsewhere. Though touching upon Mexican themes of racial inequality and university students unrest, the core of the film remains the breakup of a family, and the way their nanny manages to keep them together, while confronting her own dire problems. This gives the film a universal appeal while at the same time remaining very close to Cuarón's memories of his beloved Libo, and indigenous woman whom he considered his second mother.

There are many epic moments in this film that stand out: a trip to the movies (to watch 1971's Marooned) where the disintegration of the family begins (the scene might remind you of a key scene in François Truffaut's The 400 Blows), a New Year's celebration featuring a shooting party which culminates in a forest fire, a student demonstration that ends tragically, and a visit to a seaside resort where a dangerous undertow and raging waves threatens the very lives of the main characters. Despite these superbly crafted showstoppers, it is the intimate moments of family life that catapult this film into the realm of greatness.

Roma is a Netflix film that you will be able to stream towards the end of the year, but this is the kind of movie that you need to watch on the big screen with an audience. Roma is Mexico's official entry into the 2018 Oscar race.  If I were you I'd race to a theater to watch it.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

NYFF: THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, is a rare, strange beast. An anthology film consisting of separate stories that go from the ridiculous to the sublime. The first one, featuring a singing cowboy Roy Rogers style was written twenty-five years ago. The film is a homage to the western, perhaps the most neglected genre in contemporary Hollywood. Of course, the Coens grew up in the heyday of the television western craze. So, visually, the stories borrow from Gunsmoke, Bat Masterson, Bonanza, and a myriad of others. There are also homages to the great cinematic westerns of the 40's and 50's as well as the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns that became a staple in theaters in the decade of the 60's.

So, the movie is a mish-mash of styles: there's a segment with a singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) who is fast on the draw, who keeps on singing even after he loses a "high noon style" shootout. In another sequence James Franco comes to rob a bank looking like one of those laconic cowboys in the credit sequence of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, complete with a long riding coat. In another segment Tom Waits plays a gold prospector who strikes it rich to the tune of "Mother Machree," and in the longest sequence of the film a wagon train heading west is attacked by the kind of savage Indians that John Ford specialized in, and which I thought Hollywood had done away with in its revisionist phase. Perhaps the most poignant episode features Liam Neeson as a kind of traveling P.T. Barnum who displays one "freak:" an English actor (Harry Melling) with no arms or legs, a talking torso who recites everything from poetry to the Declaration of Independence. The episode builds to a climax of pure heartlessness, making it for me, the most satisfying of all the segments.

At the Q&A after the film, Kent Jones, the head of the selection committee at the New York Film Festival suggested that the unifying theme of the six stories is mortality. I'm sorry to say that this statement caught the brothers by surprise. Or were they just kidding, and playing to the crowd? With the Coens you never know. However, one thing's for sure: the movie is a very entertaining trifle which will surely please their fans.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Aïda at the MET

This is my second visit to the Metropolitan Opera in one week. My first visit was the MET’s opening night, and now I'm back here on Saturday night. Twice I have seen performances where the tenor delivers an abysmal performance. I’ve already described Roberto Alagna’s awful Samson, disgracing opening night, and now we can add Aleksandrs Antonenko’s appearance in Aïda. His terrible Radames has no place on the MET's stage.

Mr. Antonenko suffers from a variety of musical and acting ills. But his silent cinema acting could be forgiven if there were a voice behind the silly theatrics. Instead he offers an unfocused attempt at a vocal line where pitch problems abound as he scoops up to most notes. Incredibly enough his top is ringing and secure, which is the reason, I'm convinced, that he still gets hired here and in Europe. But the vocal journey to an above-the-staff destination is one of the most ugly and arduous I have heard in a long time. His curtain call received a cool reception, and a smattering of boos. 

The evening clearly belonged to the ladies. Anna Netrebko offering her first house Aïda was nothing less than a triumph. Those that were fortunate enough to see her first trip down the Nile in Salzburg two summers ago knew that she would not disappoint. Her Ethiopian princess featured sturdy vocalism, beauty of sound, and those precious high notes that make your ears ring. She is truly our current reigning queen of the operatic stage, and I hope that she continues to steer her career in the right vocal direction. Anita Rachvelishvili sang Amneris with vigor and a strong mezzo, and was a credible rival to Ms. Netrebko.
As Aïda's father, Quinn Kelsey delivered an impassioned reading of Amonasro; his steely baritone able to handle the vocal complexities of the role. Dmitry Belosselskiy was a sturdy Ramfis, as long as the role does not go below the staff where his voice disappears. Ryan Speedo Green made a lasting impression in the small role of the King. Conductor Nicola Luisotti led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a work which I'm sure they can do with their eyes closed.

A word about the MET's production of this opera.  On the one hand, it is great to see the enormous stage of the MET being used by this larger than life conservative staging. On the other hand, in these days of experimentation, this production is starting to look a bit aged, a bit kitschy. Perhaps, it is time to take a long hard look at this perennial favorite and grace it with the production it deserves, not just use it to bring in the crowds who want to see what opera staging was like thirty years ago.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

SAMSON ET DALILA: Opening night of the MET

The years have not been kind to Roberto Alagna's voice. As a matter of fact, I worry about his career, I think he is all washed up. The former star of Faust now gone to Hell. This summer he cancelled his debut at Bayreuth where he was to sing Lohengrin. This was a good move. He should have cancelled opening night of the MET. Bayreuth was spared this summer, but the Metropolitan Opera has suffered a black eye thanks to his catastrophic singing in the title role of Samson et Dalila, Camille Saint-Saëns's popular Biblical opera.

The new staging was directed by Darko Tresnjak, a Broadway director of some reknown (A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, and Anastasia) making his MET debut.  It has been the goal of General Manager Peter Gelb to bring new blood into the opera house by engaging Broadway directors to breathe new life into the warhorses. So far his record is a spotty one, and last night might have been another failing experiment. The production, with sets by Alexander Dodge and costumes by Linda Cho brings us nothing more than a kitschy staging, exactly what Peter Gelb is trying to move away from.  Some of the sets looked like the circles on the proscenium of Radio City Music Hall. The set of the final act in the temple of Dagon is a technicolor monstrosity that even Cecil B. DeMille would have rejected. As a matter of fact, DeMille's 1949 film of this story features a memorable epic set which Victor Mature topples down. Ms. Cho's costumes seem to also come right out of old-time Hollywood; maybe the Babylonian section from D.W. Griffith's 1916 film Intolerance. I'm sure that in 1916 these costumes would have been right at home at 39th Street and Broadway, at the old MET.
 Dalila was sung by Elina Garanca, who made such a splash last season as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. Last night the Latvian mezzo-soprano was in good voice, but she never really got inside the skin of the character. Perhaps Mark Elder's conducting, with its slower-than-usual tempi, did not help her characterization. This score, with its many formal chorus pieces (there's even a fugue for the Israelites) and unusual music, whict at times hints at Peter Glass-style minimalism is a tricky one to pull off. Unfortunately last night, it all seemed flat, except for the chorus which sounded amazing, as always.
It was sad to hear Roberto Alagna in such horrendous vocal shape. His singing sounded thin and frail, and devoid of any top notes. Vocally, the opera ends with a B flat for Samson as he brings down the temple of Dagon, but at that point all that came out of Alagna's voice was a sad croak. The best that one can say about Alagna was written by New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini: "To his credit, against all odds with this staging, he tried mightily all night."

Saturday, September 08, 2018

The Man of the Hour: CARLOS RAMOS

Carlos Ramos, the Portuguese tennis umpire, became the man of the hour when he was on the chair for the Serena Williams/Naomi Osaka finals match. Why this honor in my book? Because he stuck to his guns, and he made sure that the match would follow strictly the rules of tennis, without pandering to Serena Williams and her custom of resorting to a meltdown when things don't go her way.

What happened during the match? Mr. Ramos realized that Serena's coach Patrick Mouratoglou was coaching Serena from his box seat at Ashe stadium. This is not allowed, so he gave Serena a warning. Serena protested that she does not cheat, and that she was not being coached. (Later on, Mouratoglou admitted that he was coaching her!) Minutes later, when Serena was down in the match, she smashed her racket. This being her second infraction, he deducted a point from her score. Serena went crazy! She had a massive "Mac-Attack" and insulted Ramos by calling him a "thief." Ramos fired back by deducting a whole game from Serena. Serena blew her top again, and called for the tournament directors, who followed the rules, and did nothing more than support the umpire.

Carlos Ramos's decisions were all according to the book. However, the audience at the stadium, many of them, Serena's fans, began to boo Ramos. And to add salt to the wound, after Serena lost the match, during the presentation of awards, Mr. Ramos was not recognized for his courageous work during the match. I have already called the USTA stupid for not closing the roof and putting on the air conditioner when the temperature reached the three digit mark during the first week of the tournament, but now I have to add that they are also gutless for not supporting one of their own, and letting themselves be persuaded by the crowd, and by the shenanigans of Serena, who continues to be a deplorable prima-donna.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The US Open is in Action, but why isn't the Roof?

This has been a summer where the heat has plagued events that are close and dear to my heart. My trip to the Bayreuth Festival this year from August 1-9 coincided with a heat wave that attacked Germany like it never had before.  It was uncomfortable at the Festspielhaus, a theater with no air conditioning, and it was unbearable at the Bayerische Hof Hotel, also with no AC.  This was my third trip to Wagner's city, and I had never experience such temperatures before.

The 2018 50th anniversary edition of the US Open has coincided with one of those New York heat waves that drives you indoors to a place where the air conditioning is going full blast. The players have been struggling through triple digit heat together with very high humidity. The USTA will not close the roof and pump the AC at Ashe Stadium because they claim that the Open is an "outdoor event." Of course, as soon as there is a threat of rain the roof will close -- so much for an outdoor event!

Fox News and the Associated Press reported that the powers-that-be at the Open are thinking of closing the roof if the heat continues. While they think about it, players are retiring, suffering through cramps, and fans have to seek shelter and hydrate before they faint. I guess keeping the roof open is good for water sales!  Here is the Fox News article:

Extreme temperatures at the U.S. Open on Tuesday and a scorching weather forecast for Wednesday have officials debating whether to close the roofs at two of the tournament's venues.

The temperatures during Day 2 of the season’s final major topped 95 degrees and the humidity nearly reached 50 percent, making it feel like more than 105 degrees on the courts of the Bille Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y. Six players were forced to quit their matches Tuesday, with five citing cramps or heat exhaustion.

The heat had U.S. Tennis Association executives considering whether to close the roofs at Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums, the Los Angeles Times reported. However, the newly renovated new Louis Armstrong Stadium is a naturally ventilated arena and it was unclear how much relief its new retractable roof could provide, especially with temperatures set to reach the upper 90s once again.

“We may close the roof in both buildings in an attempt to bring down the ambient temperature,” U.S. Tennis Association spokesman Chris Widmaier told the L.A. Times.
The brutal weather even forced tennis officials to do something that had never been done fore at the U.S. Open: offer men the chance to take a 10-minute break before the fourth set if a match went that far. A similar rule is already in place for women, allowing 10 minutes of rest before a third set when there’s excessive heat.

At the end of the day, the ATP or a lot of the supervisors, they’re kind of sitting in their offices, where (there’s) an A.C. system on, where it’s cool. And we have to be out there. They tell us it’s fine; they’re not the ones playing,” Alexander Zverev, the No. 4 seed in the tournament, said. “For sure, the rule should be more strict. There should be a certain temperature, certain conditions where we shouldn’t be playing.”

Novak Djokovic, one of the favorites to win the men's title, felt the humidity as well.
“Everything is boiling — in your body, the brain, everything,” he said.

On the women’s side, Alize Cornet changed her shirt mid-match and received a warning. Male tennis players are allowed to change shirts on the court. Petra Kvitova told reporters after her match she was glad it lasted only a little over an hour.

“I really tried hard not to play the third one in this kind of heat,” she said. “I knew it's going to be very hot, but I couldn't imagine how horrible the heat was in, so it was pretty difficult conditions. … When you are playing, you are not just really thinking about it. But when you stop for a while, then you feel the heat like from the ground, as well. Yeah, it was the humidity, as well, was there. We didn't really play, like, long rallies. I think that was kind of helpful.”

Arthur Ashe Stadium opened in 1997 as an open-air stadium. But after several years of rain at the tournament, its roof was installed for around $150 million. Louis Armstrong Stadium opened in 1978 and has undergone several renovations. Its roof, newly installed, cost $200 million and the stadium is not air-conditioned. U.S. Open rules state that the tournament is to remain an outdoor event and the roofs will close only due to threat of rain, according to tournament director David Brewer.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

BlacKkKlansman is the latest from Spike Lee

An incredible, almost unbelievable real cop story about the infiltration of a backwaters Ku Klux Klan chapter by a rookie black undercover police officer, using his white, Jewish partner as his double, serves as Spike Lee’s resounding career second act, his latest agitprop piece that rightfully puts him back on the charts for a new audience.

Spike Lee never really went away, but his recent output did not feel like the Fort Greene, 40 Acres and a Mule Spike of old. Sure, artists change and develop, but Spike seems to have emerged out of NYU already formed, already sure of himself, as he brought to the screen Afrocentric fare wrapped in socio-political discourse. BlacKkKlansman, his latest joint, is the real thing: Spike on top of his game, even with the excesses of old. Not a copy of his former art, but a textbook chapter on how to apply lessons from the past to a new public in order to empower them for a new fight. Make no mistake about it: this might be a story from the 1970’s, but this movie is all about Trump’s America, and the director makes no bones about it. Risking the very fact that the film could be dated years from now, this is the strongest indictment of the Trump administration to come out of Hollywood to date. The director has not lost his edge, in fact, his satiric vein might just be stronger than ever, and his anger over the current state of events boils over.

Heading a cast, ripe with Academy Award potential is John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, Colorado Spring's first African American cop, entering into a force replete with racial antagonism. Washington, with his "fro" looks like a figure straight out of the 1970's blaxploitation films that the movie quotes, as he builds a righteous persona for his character. Adam Driver, his doppelgänger in the sting operation, is Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish American detective who learns much about how he is perceived by others. The rest of the cast shines. Laura Harrier plays Patrice Dumas, an Angela Davis-type activist who Stallworth falls in love with. Topher Grace plays David Duke, the Klan's Grand Wizard, in a three-piece suit, as if he were running a business empire, and not the "invisible empire." Jasper Pääkkönen, as Felix, a dangerous member of the Klan chapter, is one of the scariest movie villains in quite a while. His performance is memorable and chilling. His wife, played by Ashlie Atkinson, is a monster who relishes the day when blacks will be eliminated by deadly force.
Spike Lee is a student of film, and a professor at NYU, his Alma Mater. BlacKkKlansman is filled with movie references both old and new, and on the shot seen above, he even copies himself. It's the "Spike Lee shot." No joint is complete without it. At a pivotal moment in the film, characters seem to glide forward towards an unknown destination. (The best use of this technique was in Malcolm X, as Denzel Washington -- John David's dad -- advances towards his tragic destiny at the Audubon Ballroom as we hear on the soundtrack Sam Cooke singing "A Change is Gonna Come."
It's a moment where young Washington must have felt connected to his dad, and a brilliant way for Spike Lee to bridge the generations as the struggle continues.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Castellucci brings Salome to Salzburg

Romeo Castellucci is a director of deep, abstract ideas.  His stage productions are abstractions that constantly ask the audience to think. This was his approach to Richard Strauss's Salome, that amazing one-act work that after so many years still amazes the listener, and given the right staging, it is still capable to shock an opera audience out of its complacency.  This is the aim of this production, which premiered at the Salzburg Festival on July 28, and which continues playing until August 27th. Conducted with utmost precision by Franz Welser-Möst, and played by the amazing Vienna Philharmonic, the scores bristles with dark, thunderous excitement that reminds us that in 1905, the year of this work's premiere, Strauss was a young enfant-terrible looking to shock. Enter Castellucci with a production that visually attempts to top Strauss, and at times almost succeeds.
The opera has been staged in the auditorium of the Felsenreitschule, and the first thing we notice is that its famous arches have been covered. This evening will be all about hard cold stone: gray walls, gray men in 1930's fedoras and long coats, faces inexplicably half-painted red, and a John the Baptist, his face painted black, wearing a black fur coat that makes him look like a Biblical King Kong. Salome, meanwhile, dressed all in white, is his worshiping Ann Darrow. And constantly, naked bodies are being dragged across the endless stage giving us an atmosphere of horror, perfect for this work.
Forget about watching Asmik Gregorian do the "Dance of the Seven Veils." The Lithuanian soprano, who scores a triumph with this production, is crushed under a block of stone during that amazing music. And forget about seeing a facsimile of bass-baritone Gábor Bretz's head brought on a silver platter. When the time comes, the prophet's headless body instead is brought out for the Jewish princess to drool over. The only severed head we get is that of a horse. I'm sure Castellucci will argue that it is not a homage to The Godfather, and it is not. A girl's first infatuation in her life oftentimes is for a horse. This Freudian fetish beautifully mirrors Salome's fixation on Jochanaan.

Overall, an interesting and provocative production that will keep you on the edge of your seat musically, while intellectually entertaining your senses with images you will not be able to shake out of your system for a while.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

My third PARSIFAL at Bayreuth

The current production of Parsifal, now in its third year, replaced the Stefan Herheim staging I was lucky to see in 2012. That production moved the action to Bayreuth itself, and enacted the history of Germany from the antebellum turn of the century, its entrance into World War I and on through the debacle of the Second World War and beyond. It was a spectacular achievement, my first Parsifal at Bayreuth, and so inspired that it was truly a hard act to follow.  The current production, which I first saw last year, moves the action to the present-day Middle East, transforming the knights into a sect of monks, who harbor a Christ-like Amfortas who is literally bled for his sins and ours.  It is an interesting vision which strives towards a universality to Wagner's work, but ultimately just ends up being a series of good ideas and pretty stage pictures lacking a cohesive factor to unify the staging.

There have been some changes in the cast since this production premiered three years ago, most notably, the departure of Klaus Florian Vogt last year, who dedicated his summer at the Green Hill to Walter, as he did this year, and Georg Zeppenfeld who this year moved on to sing King Henry the Fowler in the new Lohengrin. This was the second year that Parsifal was sung by Andreas Schager, a tenor with a true robust, heldentenor voice, which, however, he uses only in its forte and fortissimo capacities, giving the impression that he is shouting the role. The Festspielhaus is small enough to allow subtlety. Günther Groissböck took on the role of Gurnemanz this year, and I thought the results were mixed. The quality of his voice is certainly suited for the part, but I think the problem here is that we have grown accustomed to listening to more lyrical voices sing this part (i.e. René Pape, who seems to own the role around the world). But to be fair to Mr. Groissböck, the bass sang with determination, and depth of tone. It was just not a pretty sound. Baritone Thomas Meyer sounded like he was under the weather. His Amfortas in the third act felt like he was singing from under the sea, fathoms deep. His aria to his father was a mess, and he resorted to the "Bayreuth Bark" when he knew the notes were far beyond his reach. Elena Pankratova has remained with the production since its first year, and her Kundry is a master class in singing and acting.

Arguably, this production has suffered from a lack of musical leadership right from the start. The original conductor of this production was to have been Andris Nelsons, but he left the production at the last minute with an axe to grind against Christian Thielemann, so say Bayreuth insiders. Harmut Haenchen stepped in at the last minute, and conducted this staging for the first two years. This season Semyon Bichkov has taken over the orchestra, and although his tempi are on the fast side, his conducting of this intricate score was solid, at all times making sure that his singers were not drowned out. Interestingly enough, as a result of his cautious handling of the pit, I felt the chorus at times drowned out his orchestra: a first for me at Bayreuth.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

The New LOHENGRIN at Bayreuth

The new production of Lohengrin, with sets and costumes by husband-and-wife team of Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy promised the first swan knight from Roberto Alagna, an unprecedented career turn for the French-Italian singer. Of course, it was too good to be true, or perhaps too true to be good, in any case, Alagna bowed out a few weeks before the July 25 opening night claiming that he had not learned the part.  Polish tenor Piotr Beczala came to the rescue, and why not: he had not only performed the role earlier, but his conductor was Christian Thielemann who was also conducting this production.  Opening Night was telecast to theaters in Germany as well as over BR Klassik, and it was the first time in a long while that a new production was not savagely booed.  The audience loved the blue colors of the new staging, and Rauch, Loy and director Yuval Sharon, the first American to direct at Bayreuth, received a rousing ovation

Watching the production live at the Festspielhaus is like witnessing a Neo Rauch painting come to life. The devil is in the details, However, and that's where Ms. Loy's costumes make a difference. She takes her husbands flat canvas backdrops and 2-dimensional cut-outs of trees and populates them with principals and a chorus dressed brilliantly, recreating the social realism look of the New Leipzig  School that over the years we have come to expect.

 Piotr Beczala is a trouper: a life-saver for the Bayreuth Festival.  When they were stuck for a new tenor he cancelled his other engagements and agreed to do all the Lohengrins this summer at the Green Hill.  But, beware this role! The great tenor Nicolai Gedda only dared perform it once. It is a voice killer for a light tenor. Beczala had performed it before under the baton of Thielemann -- that's how he got to this year's festival, and although last night's performance was a triumph, I heard him pushing his voice to the brink, and I would exercise caution in attempting this role once more.  Anja Harteros started very weakly, but by the time the third act came about that silky voice that has been compared to a fine tuned Stradovarius shone through.  If you have not hears her, picture a young soprano with the golden voice of Renata Tebaldi, and then you'll know why this German/Greek artist is so sought after around the world.

Although she is a crowd favorite for being active on the stage for so long and for a multitude of brilliant performances around the world, Waltraud Meier sang flat throughout the evening. The role might be getting to her after performing it four times already at the Festpielhaus. It's a challenging role for an elder singer.  Nonetheless she brought years of experience to the part, which translated into fireworks for the audience, and they loved it. The Telramund of Tomasz Konieczny was quite remarkable, as was the conducting of the orchestra by Thielemann who by now knows every nook and cranny of this pit and house, and is able to bring out the sound like none other. 

Overall, the new Lohengrin is a non-controversial staging of this lovely work, which seems to be enjoying the audience's adulation this summer.  After so many years of controversial productions, and experimental designs, is this the way Bayreuth is heading?

Monday, August 06, 2018

Meistersinger 2.0 at Bayreuth


One of the highlights of last year’s trip to Bayreuth was attending Barrie Kosky’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  The Australian gay director, who also happens to be Jewish, chose to highlight the anti-Semitism found in Richard Wagner’s work as it is found in the character of Sixtus Beckmesser, superbly sung and acted by Johannes Martin Kränzle, who is back this summer reprising this role.  As a matter of fact, most of the principals from last year are back, which makes this Meistersinger 2.0 a pleasure to witness, since Mr. Kosky has not just sat on last year’s laurels, but he has gone back to the drawing board and improved upon last year’s wonderful staging.

What is different this year? Act II lost the grassy surface that at the end of the act was rolled up anyway. Objects and furniture from the first act, which takes place in Wahnfried, Wagner's home in Bayreuth, were suddenly thrown together on stage left. The end of the act still features the controversial Jewish head ballon that shocked many viewers last year.  The only difference being that I do not remember booing during the opening night telecast, or the performance I attended.  This year, the conclusion of Act II featured vociferous booing from segments of the audience, although applause and cheers far outweighed those that were booing this production. Why the boos? Something tells me that there were some in the audience that like their Wagner cut and dry, conservative and without  any directorial intervension.  Or perhaps it might have been that segments of the audience that are still troubled by  Anti-Semitic references, and the role Wagner's music played in the development of National Socialism: the last time that Germany officially tried to destroy its Jewish population.

You couldn't ask for a better cast: the aforementioned Kränzle has settled into his role, and gives a masterful performance that last year could have been described as "shtick" but this year has matured into a character of Shakespearean dimension.  Michael Volle is right now the finest singling and acting Hans Sachs, and the same can be said about Klaus Florian Vogt's Walter. Together with newcomer to the cast Emily Magee as Eva, the principals are surrounded by a great cast of meistersingers, each of whom has a distinctive personality.

Philippe Jordan conducted with a sure hand, and achieved the kind of unique sound that manages to escape from the sunken pit and envelop the audience. Not every conductor manages to do it, but Maestro Jordan was quite successful in making us closer to Wagner's great music.

As long as this cast stays together, this will be a production for the ages.  Now, it is time to film it, and share it with the rest of the world.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Flying Dutchman as Light Operetta

Certainly one of the wonders of Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer is how close it was to the music of Weber and Meyerbeer.  Although Wagner is already a fully formed composer at this time, he still holds on to the trappings of Romantic Opera, where set pieces were the norm of the day.  Thus, this work is filled with arias and ensembles that later on Wagner would drop in favor of a more unified musical creation.  The current production at the Bayreuth Festival, directed by Jan Philipp Gloger is an uncontroversial, and, at times, a light, and apathetic look at the age-old story of the mariner who blasphemed and thus has been cursed to wonder the seven seas in search of a pure maiden who can redeem him.

In this production, the director accentuates Daland's greed upon seeing the Dutchman's wealth, and turns the spinning wheels into a factory where portable fans are being packed and shipped by factory girls in sky blue uniforms. Of course, Senta is the only one not packing fans: she is too busy with her fetishistic sex doll of the Dutchman (a real ugly, misshapen object. Why would anyone fancy this?). No wonder when Daland brings the Dutchman to the factory and Senta finally meets the man of her dreams she is struck by his beauty and sex appeal.  It is a riveting moment in this staging.  I wish there had been more.

In an evening where the singing was first rate, the work of the chorus must be singled out. Eberhard Friedrich's ensemble is a well-oiled machine which can sing brightly and powerful, as in the chorus of men who move from the back of the deep stage to the apron pulling forward the set for the spinning wheel AKA fan scene. The chorus of women at the factory also did exemplary work, and boy, can they act.

The principals all sang their roles with gusto and good cheer, and the audience applauded them with even more gusto. Despite a very high temperature inside the Festspielhouse, there were many curtain calls, unlimited, as is the custom at the Green Hill. Among the principal players Tomislav Muzek showed off his powerful tenor voice as the forlorn Erik, and the steersman of Rainer Trost delighted the audience with this acting. John Lundgren's Dutchman is a dark, malevolent figure and Ricarda Merbeth's Senta is a powerful, wild driven woman. The two were made for each other! Axel Kober's conducting was firm, and he led a vigorous reading of this early score.

After six years, it is time for this production to be retired, and in its place we need a darker version of this story. After all, it's what Wagner's music calls for.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

"Basket of Deplorables" at work


This was the scene in Tampa, Florida as Jim Acosta from CNN was doing his reporting at one of Donald Trump's rallies.  The crowd, incited by many months of hearing about fake news from POTUS, turned on the journalist yelling at him, raising their middle fingers and screaming "CNN sucks!"

As I prepare to leave the United States to go to Bayreuth, Germany for the Bayreuth Festival I hang my head in shame that this is the state of my country at this moment.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Bayreuth Opens with a new LOHENGRIN

Remember that line Jeff Goldblum said in the film The Fly, as he was leaving his humanity behind and turning into a hideous monster? "Have you ever heard of insect politics?...insects don't have politics. They're very brutal, no compassion, no compromise."  For some reason, I thought of this moment from the film as I was watching the telecast from opening night of the Bayreuth Festival. The new production of Lohengrin, directed by Yuval Sharon, the first American to direct at the Green Hill, with sets and costumes by noted artists Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy, features principals sporting insect wings, and living in a Brabant that looks like a blue Munchkin Land.

The look of the production closely mirrors Neo Rauch's works, where figures dressed like Baroque figures from a Flemish painting (the costumes are by Ms. Loy) occupy a landscape filled with figurative and abstract objects. A power plant, with visible electrical wires comes to life as Lohengrin (Piotr Beczala) appears, dressed as an electrician, his weapon is a lightning rod sword. Elsa (Anja Harteros) already seems to feel the "sparks" brought on by her knight since her bluish hair seems to stand up on its own.The villains of the piece, Telramund and Ostrud (Tomasz Konieczny and Waltraud Meier) are deliciously evil in a silent movie kind of way, although we really feel sorry for Telramund when Lohengrin tears off one of his wings during their combat scene, and then pins it on a tree.

It's all about the colors in this production, and why not, since the sets are by a famed artist. Although much of the evening is clad in the kind of blue that reminds one of the backdrops of many a Balanchine ballet, the love scene in Act III is a very bright orange. When Gottfried finally makes his appearance at the end of the opera he is a man covered with bright green fur. These surprise colors are quite remarkable.

Is it a great production?  I'm not sure yet.  I'm looking forward to watching it live at Bayreuth in a couple of weeks. It looked great for the cameras, and I hope it looks just as beautiful at the Festspielhaus.

Monday, July 09, 2018

PARSIFAL at the Bavarian State Opera

There is a new production of Parsifal at the Bavarian State Opera. It features a stellar cast of Wagnerians: Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, Nina Stemme as Kundry and René Pape as Gurnemanz. Kirill Petrenko leads the orchestra of the Staatsoper.  The production, directed by Pierre Audi, features sets and costumes by famed German artist Georg Baselitz. Today you can watch a re-broadcast of yesterday's performance for free.  Go HERE for more details.  Enjoy!

Friday, July 06, 2018

Piotr Beczała will sing LOHENGRIN at Bayreuth

Piotr Beczała has accepted the challenge of taking over the title role in the new Bayreuth production of Lohengrin, after Roberto Alagna walked away from the Green Hill claiming that he was not ready to sing the role.  The following was posted on Mr. Beczała's website:

The last few days were full of excitement and doubts, but the decision has been made. Piotr agreed to take over the role of Lohengrin at the famous Wagner’s festival. Now he has 3 weeks of rehearsals left before his big debut at the Bayreuth Festival, where he will also be the first Polish singer in a title role.

Piotr sang Lohengrin at the Dresden Semperoper in 2016 alongside Anna Netrebko, and under the current conductor Christian Thielemann. This acclaimed production was later released on DVD.

This performance has been posted on YouTube:


Piotr accepted the assignment on a short notice and was forced to cancel some of his scheduled performances. In a statement on his social media profiles, the artist wrote:

Dear Friends!
As you may have just read, I am taking over the title role in Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at this year’s Bayreuth Festival. I am of course extremely excited to make my Bayreuth debut this year, and to collaborate again with Christian Thielemann and so many wonderful colleagues.

But with all the excitement, I also want to tell you that this has been a very difficult decision for me. I know I am disappointing many of you who were planning to see me in other cities around the world. Please know that I hate nothing more than disappointing you, dear friends. I can only hope for your understanding that this is such a very special situation and promise to make it up to you in the future! I want to thank all the wonderful cultural institutions who understood this and helped me to get to Bayreuth. And I want to thank you, dear friends, for your love and support, always. See you very soon! Piotr

The fans of the artist were very supportive and Piotr received hundreds of comments and private messages of congratulations and encouragement for which he was very grateful.

The new production of Lohengrin is created by director Yuval Sharon and conductor Christian Thielemann, the stage design comes from the well-known artist couple Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy. The premiere will take place on July 25th.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Alagna is out of Bayreuth's new LOHENGRIN

 Roberto Alagna has withdrawn from Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival. The festival announced that the tenor, who was set to make his festival debut and sing his first Wagner role, withdrew from the festival due to "work overload." The statement also noted that Alagna was unable to spend enough time with the role.

In other words, the July 25 opening night of this opera is almost here, and he has not learned the role.

The festival has yet to announce a replacement, but the remaining cast members remain the same. Alagna will next perform at the Metropolitan Opera where he will open the season singing the title role in Samson et Dalila. The tenor will also perform Andrea Chénier at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Otello  at the Opéra National de Paris, Luisa Miller in Opera de Monte Carlo, and La Traviata in Paris.

Meanwhile, the Bayreuth Festival opens on July 25 with Christian Thielemann conducting this new production of Lohengrin, which currently has no tenor. Director Yuval Sharon will become the first American to direct at Bayreuth. Scheduled singers Anja Harteros and Waltraud Meier are still scheduled to perform.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom

Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom is the perfect title to describe the current state of the franchise that started with Michel Crichton's novel and Steven Spielberg's classic 1993 film. This fifth film in the series finds Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing  (Bryce Dallas Howard) going back to Isla Nublar to save the last remaining dinosaurs before the mother-of-all volcanoes sinks the island. Claire has formed a Dinosaur Protection Group, and after visiting Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), the partner of Dr. Hammond, who created the original Jurassic Park, and his secretary Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), she seeks out former dinosaur wrangler Owen because she knows he can help her to save the last living Velociraptor, and because she still has a major crush on him. Dr. Lockwood tells her that the dinosaurs will be placed on another island where they can live peacefully without mankind. Meanwhile, Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is in Washington in front of a Senate committee, and in his best Cassandra mode, makes some gloomy pronouncements about how the dinosaurs need to perish in order to correct Dr. Hammond's mistake, and if not, how we will have to learn to co-exist with them. Mr. Goldblum, a stalwart in this series, and a performer one can always depend on when the script falls apart, ends up giving a performance so removed, that it feels like he phone it in.

Once in Isla Nublar we meet big White hunter Ken Wheatly (Ted Levine), and from the first shot of the man we know that he's going to be trouble (so much for character development!) It seems that both Claire and Owen have been duped. The animals are being rounded up so that they can be put up for auction to rogue states so that they can serve as military weapons. I wonder if a Velociraptor or a T-Rex can tell one army from the other? But who cares! The film becomes a creature feature inside Lockwood's old dark house when we find out that the stately state has a lab in the basement cloning new creatures, including an outrageous creation that even outdoes Indominus rex from the previous movie.

Despite the participation of a serious cast, including B.D. Wong reprising his role of genius geneticist Doctor Wu, and Geraldine Chaplin (her fourth film with Spanish director J.A. Bayona) as a nanny, the film ends up being nothing more than a bridge towards the next part of the franchise, which if you wait around after the movie's end credits, will tell you that the next chapter will be a glitzy update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World as dinosaurs run amok free all over the world.  I guess the new movie ought to be called "The New Kingdom." Or perhaps, it's time to end the series right now, since the premise has left the original park way behind.

Monday, June 25, 2018

PARSIFAL at the Bavarian State Opera


On June 28, the Bavarian State Opera unveils their new production of Richard Wagner's Parsifal. The production will be directed by Pierre Audi with sets and costumes by renown German artist George Baselitz. The stellar cast will feature Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, Nina Stemme as Kundry and René Pape as Gurnemantz. Kirill Petrenko will conduct the Bavarian State Orchestra.

The performance will be broadcast live in Germany by BR Klassik.  Watch the video above for a short preview of the production.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Romeo and Juliet at ABT

I never get tired of watching Kenneth MacMillan's brilliant choreography of Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. The more I attend performances, the more I discover. This time I noticed that in the second act, the beggar who crosses the stage on crutches later on throws them away, and starts dancing freely much to the chagrin of the characters who just gave him alms. Also, the two little boys who stand on sentry at the entrance of the Capulet household come back in the second act, and sway to the music and wave to the dancers, but are ushered away when death comes to Verona's main square. It's little touches like these that makes this work so fascinating and utterly enjoyable.

Likewise, the more I listen to Prokofiev's brilliant, exciting score the more surprises come through.  I concentrated this time on the vast array of dissonances, and thought about just how dangerous it was to be a 20th century composer in Stalin's Soviet Russia. How, for example, Dmitri Shostakovitch, that other giant of Russian music, suffered for putting on paper what he heard in his mind's ear. How much did Prokofiev have to adjust his own modernist leanings in order to have his music approved by a repressive state? This work just might be my "desert-island ballet," although the jury is still out on that one, and I think it might just be out for a long time.

Yesterday afternoon American Ballet Theatre presented the ballet with two of the most charismatic and popular dancers in its roster: Daniil Simkin and Misty Copeland. Mr. Simkin is an exciting, highly technical dancer who offers a graceful interpretation of the title character, going from youthful lad to lover. Ms. Copeland, riding a wave of recent acclaim once becoming a principal dancer, presents us with a very likeable Juliet, but watching her early entrance, one never experiences the innocent, shy girl that the role demands. Instead her characterization emphasizes the passionate, take-charge woman that she ultimately becomes towards the end of the drama right from the start. Not exactly what is called for in a Juliet, however her charm and technical proficiency carry her through.

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most satisfying works in ABT's roster, not to be missed by anyone who values great theater and beautiful ballet. The perfect marriage of amazing music and inspired movement.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Robert De Niro's F-bomb at the Tony Awards

Robert De Niro hurled the F-bomb last night at the Tony Awards towards Donald Trump.  CBS, which broadcasted the show live, scrambled to censor the speech.  Above is the uncensored clip from England's The Guardian.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Band's Visit on Broadway

The Band's Visit is the musical on everybody's lips as the Tony Awards approaches. At the ceremony tonight, this little gem of a show is sure to take away many of the 10 Tonys for which it is nominated.  It is a musical that takes us back to a time before jukebox creations, and shows with numbers that try to top each other. But more importantly, it is a show about real people caught in real-life situations that many musical comedies do not attempt. Yes, the show is undoubtedly a comedy, much in the way that Anton Chekhov's stage works can be labeled comedies. It is about the ebb and flow of life, at times uproarious, at times sad and brooding, but always looking for the bright side, the light at the end of the tunnel, if you will.

Adapted from a film by the same name, the book by Itamar Moses and the music and lyrics by David Yazbek tell the story of how an Egyptian military musical band makes a wrong turn on their way to a concert, and end up in a backwater Israeli town in 1996. Strangers in a strange land, especially in their dapper blue uniforms which makes them look like the forgotten section of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.  With songs that barely rise above a whisper, but which enter and stay in our collective mind, the meeting of Arabs and Jews, seemingly mortal enemies, their political and language differences melt away thanks to the music that the band brings: a mixture of Egyptian classical tunes and the jazz legacy of Chet Baker. Mr. Yazbek has written songs for grownups: Of course, when it comes to today's Broadway, Mr. Yazbek is truly a stranger in a strange land, and for this singular accomplishment he will be honored with the Tony at tonight's ceremony. I can assure you of that.

Katrina Lenk, in a star-making performance, steals the show.  As Dina, a young woman who has seen too much of life, and has settled in "Nowheresville," commands the stage with her presence and her beautiful, powerful voice. Likewise, Dariush Kashani, as Tewfiq, (a part originated by Tony Shalhoub, and a role for which he is nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical) the leader of the band, creates a three-dimensional character, a serious man full of dignity, and pride in his musicians, but also carrying a deep-seated pain at the death of his wife and only son. The rest of the cast is wonderful, especially John Cariani, who I have enjoyed in the recent Something Rotten, and the latest revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

The Band's Visit is a not-to-be-missed show. The kind of musical that Broadway talent should be aiming to create all the time. Believe me, audiences want to be moved by shows that touch the mind as well as the heart.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018) He had a knack for entering the kitchens of far-away countries, and making us feel as if we knew that distant place inside out.

His trips to Spain were some of his best shows. His journey to Granada to visit an ex cameraman who had become an ex-pat in Andalucía was a culinary journey into the heart of Southern Spain. His farewell trip to Ferran Adrià's El Bulli, where he actually was allowed to become a temporary cook, brought Tony back to the kitchen: his roots.

His sudden, tragic death, following the suicide of Kate Spade the same week, is disconcerting, hinting perhaps at a national malaise during these politically nebulous times.

Monday, June 04, 2018

La Bayadère at ABT

La Bayadère, with the glorious music of Ludwig Minkus and the choreography of Marius Petipa is perhaps the greatest exponent of pure Orientalism in ballet that sprung in Imperial Russia in the late nineteenth century. The artistic movement, which also includes Rimsky-Korsakov's 1888 Sheherazade, eventually led to the 20th century and Igor Stravinsky's 1913 Le Sacre du Printemps. Petipa's classical choreography morphed into Vaslav Nijinsky's examination of angular body movements to illustrate the primeval qualities of Stravinsky's music. Orientalism became Primitivism: the perfect prelude for the savagery of the Russian Revolution and the disposal of the Imperial dynasty that supported the work of classical ballet and the Great War.  But back in 1877, when La Bayadère was first performed by the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg no one suspected that Orientalism was a hidden metaphor for a society that would soon be gone with the wind.

American Ballet Theatre's version of this classic follows Petipa's choreography closely.  On Saturday night, the cast featured Isabella Boylston as the dancer Nikiya, and Jeffrey Cirio was the warrior Solor. They offered technically excellent performances. Ms. Boylston is a careful dancer, and at times this gets in the way of her performance. If she would only let herself go she would achieve the kind of heights that would propel her to another level. Mr. Cirio is a more "go for the gold" performer, and he proved it Saturday night with a gutsy approach that excited many in the audience. Likewise Misty Copeland, in the smaller role of Gamzatti, proved that she is the real deal, if at times her dancing lacks a certain elegance that some in the audience demand. Joseph Gorak, as the Bronze Idol, stole the show with his bravura solo dance and showy body makeup. Hard to dislike an idol that comes to life, and whose blingy bouncy body catches the glow of the spotlight.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR... Why?

Once upon a time, Marvel was a modest comic book company offering superhero entertainment to children of all ages.  The majority of us fell prey to the lure of the cheaply printed magazines whose pages turned yellow as we hit puberty; unless you were a real geek, and had your issues neatly encased in those plastic sleeves. Marvel was fun, and ultimately, it was inconsequential: something to grow out of as high school, college, responsibility, and life entered the picture. Marvel is now Marvel Studios, and in 2018 it is what going to the movies has become for millions of people. An escape to a fantasy world that reminds 40-somethings currently running the studios of their childhood, and bewitches teenagers with images reminiscent of video games, and easily recognizable landscapes where immediately they can tell the good guys from the bad guys. No character development nonsense need apply these days. From the first frame any non-thinking, popcorn-eating adolescent knows who to root for between visits to his phone whenever the movie squeezes in a scene where nobody dies, nothing explodes, and characters attempt to have a conversation.

Even though this is not really a film, but rather a series of random images connected together by a flimsy plot, we are inexplicably entertained by these images. Incredible cgi creations that any director of the past would be jealous to own is in part responsible for this. But, what are we being entertained by? Thanos (no relation to Thanos Papalexis -- the British businessman and convicted murderer), played by a cgi Josh Brolin, a villain whose chin would make Jay Leno hide in the trunk of one of his many automobiles, is in search of stones which will give him all the power in the world, er, I mean in the universe. To stop him the cavalcade of Marvel superheroes come out of the woodwork. From Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark AKA Iron Man (whose film started the Marvel enterprise ten years ago) to Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange, a superhero wizard based on Satanist/magician Alastair Crowley. Wouldn't it be great if instead of posturing with a Dracula cape as he does incessantly, Mr. Cumberbatch could act in a Mr. Crowley biopic? Not as long as the Marvel universe rules the cinematic universe. The only character who is allowed to show some semblance of humanity is Dr. Bruce Banner (wonderfully played by Mark Ruffalo) who is unable to conjure his alter ego The Hulk, at a time that he needs him the most, in a clear case of superhero constipation. 

I'm hearing that teenagers everywhere are going to see this film over and over again. A phenomenon that has not happened since Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet boarded a certain ship that sank in 1912. The reason for the return business of so many young people to Titanic in 1997 was based on mega star adulation that catapulted DiCaprio to the level of heartthrob, together with a collective fascination with the actual sinking of the ocean liner. Add to that Kate Winslet magnificent performance, and Celine Dion's mega-hit song "My Heart Will Go on" and you had the makings of a real hit. These days, teens react subconsciously to the fact that this film is shot like the TV series (the movie is composed mostly of close-ups) that they binge upon. At the incredible length of 143 minutes, far longer than it should have been, the film's length is not enough for them. They've spent hours and hours watching seasons of Stranger Things, therefore repeated viewings of a film like this one carries them into territory where they find a huge level of comfort.

After watching this movie, like many other critics out there, I felt like a mourner at the gravesite of cinema. But those awful Biblical epics of the 1950's led to wonderful creations in the next decade. I'm hopeful that these superheroes will go away. At the end of this film, when so many superheroes met their end and dispersed into dust I was not happy.  $1. 519 billion in box office earnings worldwide thus far tells me that they will all be back.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Anna Netrebko stars as TOSCA at the MET

It takes a ballsy opera singer to take on Giacomo Puccini's great opera Tosca. Even more, it takes a truly fearless Prima-Donna to take on this role for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera, arguably the center of the opera world, and the focus of much of the international press. But that is exactly what soprano sensation Anna Netrebko has done this spring at the MET. By jumping into the role of the tempestuous opera singer in love with a revolutionary artist in the dark, political days of 1800 Rome, she had proven once more that there may be a lot of opera singers out there, but currently she is the great diva of our times. On Thursday night, the MET was nearly sold out (something that should happen more often, but it does not, regrettably), and there must have been at least half a baker's dozen of Russian oligarchs in attendance as Ms. Netrebko sang an incredible performance of this work, putting herself on the map with the Tebaldis and Callases, among others, that made this work a staple of their repertory at the MET.

The focus of this production in the press this year was the falling out of the original cast that included Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel, along with the original soprano, Kristine Opolais, and her husband, the conductor Andris Nelsons. In other words, the major players of the cast. The MET had to scramble to replace everyone, but not before they had to replace James Levine, who after Mr. Nelsons left was selected to lead the orchestra, and then the sexual allegations hit, and Levine was out of the picture. Perhaps the only mention of his name in the precincts of the MET currently is on the CD's, DVD's and Blu-Rays in the MET opera shop of past productions he conducted. The MET is not getting rid of those potential sources of income! They won't have him around, but will make money out of his name and product. Interesting, isn't it?  No wonder the maestro is suing the Metropolitan Opera.  It's messy at the management level these days.

But thankfully, the art is not suffering, or at least, it does not appear to do so. Thursday's performance was quite strong, although uneven. At the helm was maestro Bertrand de Billy who lead a secure reading of Puccini's score. Netrebko's Cavaradossi was her husband Yusif Eyvasov, whose voice is not the most pleasant of instruments. Tight throughout his range, and lacking any real pianissimo, he manages to produce real high notes that are secure and quite stunning to hear. The journey there, however, can be a rocky one. Perhaps the best singing belonged to Michael Volle, whose dark Wagnerian baritone was perfect for Baron Scarpia's brand of treachery. I saw Mr. Volle last summer at the Bayreuth Festival as Hans Sachs (a role which he will repeat this year at the Green Hill), and I am glad to report that the Italian side of his repertory is as secure as his German one.

Sir David McVicar's new production, of course replaces Luc Bondy's awful staging which dethroned Franco Zeffirelli's much loved production. You remember?  It was the one where Scarpia gropes the Virgin Mary at the end of the Te Deum, and where he gets fellated by a couple of prostitutes on an expensive couch in Act Two!  No wonder there were boos on the 2009 opening night from the largely conservative New York audience. The present production is what I would call Zefirrelli light.  The three main sets certainly resemble their real Roman locations, and there is a mighty angel atop Castel Sant'Angelo. It's what New York opera lovers want to see, and Peter Gelb, the MET's general manager has admitted that this return to conservatism has taught him not to mess with the warhorses. Perhaps leave experimentation to new works (The Exterminating Angel, perhaps).

The opera season is rapidly coming to an end, but do not miss this production of Tosca with this cast. It was probably one of the best evenings at the MET this year.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Quiet Place

It's great that A Quiet Place has become the latest horror film sensation. Directed and starring John Krasinski and his wife Emily Blunt, the movie takes us to a near future where the majority of the people of Earth have been wiped out by blind alien creatures with hypersensitive hearing. They play a husband and wife trying to survive in a farm, along with their two children. One of their children was killed by one of the creatures as a result of a noisy, battery operated toy that attracted one of the monsters. The family has been able to survive for an additional year communicating with one another through sign language. But the future looks dismal for them. The wife is pregnant.  How is she going to give birth without making a sound? And, of course, how is the newborn baby going to come into what's left of the world, and not cry? The premise presents a nightmare that they may not be able to survive, and this makes for a fantastic horror film that keeps us on the edge of our seats, and makes us chew our popcorn as quietly as possible. It's like watching a well-crafted silent movie, and undoubtedly the quietest film ever produced by Michael Bay.

The film fits today's concept of smart horror. It has a unique monster, unique horror situations, characters that make intelligent decisions, and definite franchise potential. Although, I wish that they would leave it alone, and not turn it into a Blumhouse style series. Rarely has there been a film where you could hear a pin drop in the theater. So distant from DC and Marvel, and their ear-splitting Dolbyized worlds.

When conductor Sir Georg Solti visited the Metropolitan Opera with a Paris Opera production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, he held down the sound of the orchestra and the singers. With the sound low, the audience at the MET started leaning in to hear every word and listen to every note. As a director, Mr. Krasinski does the same thing with this film. The lower the sound level, the closer we move to the edge of our seats. The fact that he manages to maintain us in this position for a fast moving 95 minutes is the utter success of this fine film.