Saturday, February 23, 2019

Verdi's FALSTAFF at the MET

The creative work of an older artist is usually a very personal statement; the creative work of an older genius carries us to a place we have not been before, and that includes transporting the artist himself. And so it is with Giuseppe Verdi, who after a life in the theater, and a self-imposed retirement, came back to the limelight to re-examine the work of another genius: William Shakespeare, a playwright whose work preoccupied the composer from the early Macbeth (Verdi did not read the play until he composed the opera, basing his music on the libretto of Francesco Maria Piave) to Otello and the final Falstaff, both of them blessed with libretti by Arrigo Boito.

Last night the MET revived the Robert Carsen production of Verdi's last opera. The production updates the work to the post World War II era, or as the program indicates "during the reign of Elizabeth II," a decision that works most of the time. Utilizing a unit set, the Garter Inn morphs into the kind of stuffy 1950s gentleman's club where no women are allowed, so needless to say the appearance of Mistress Quickly (Marie-Nicole Lemieux) sends the club members running out the door. When Ford (Juan Jesús Rodríguez) disguises himself as Mr. "Fontana" he comes in looking like a Texas oil baron, and Alice's kitchen, where a mini-riot hurls Falstaff out the window and into the Thames River, looks like a technicolor colorization of I Love Lucy. On the other hand, Herne's Oak was minimalist with only a starry sky to denote the outdoors.

But what would this production be without Ambrogio Maestri? The man owns the role of Falstaff hands down, and he has sung it around the world, along with so many other roles, including Baron Scarpia in Tosca at Las Palmas, Michele in Il Tabarro at the Bavarian State Opera, and Germont in La Traviata in Tokyo. Earlier this season at the MET he was heartbreaking as Michonnet in Adriana Lecouvreur. He is one of our most gifted character singers, and his resonant, ample baritone fills the house.  It's very exciting to watch a singer so invested in a role.

The MET has surrounded him with a variety of talented singing actors for this revival, stand-outs include Golda Schultz, a sweet Nannetta, and the aforementioned Mr. Rodríguez who was excellent as Ford. Ms. Lemieux's deep contralto made an excellent Quickly, but I her acting was a bit schticky and over the top, "more matter with less art," as the Bard himself would say.  The orchestra under the baton of debuting conductor Richard Farnes was its usual excellent ensemble.  All in all, it's a revival not to be missed, and if this opera is a new venture for you, this ensemble will surely make it memorable.

Friday, February 22, 2019

It's OSCAR Time!

It's that time of the year! After a loopy, confusing pre-Oscar season complete with the postponement of an Oscar category which made little sense, and an announcement that certain categories would not be televised (another mistake that was rapidly rectified), we are limping towards the big day this Sunday, still with no host. In recent memory this is the first time that the ceremony will not be hosted by one person.

Still, Oscar night is Oscar night, no matter who hosts, and the awarding of this fabled statuette still matters in Tinsel Town. So, here are my predictions in the main categories.

BEST PICTURE: Whatever you might think of this art film, hands down, Roma will take the big prize, and it just might be a Mexican fiesta, with Alfonso Cuarón's film taking multiple prizes.

BEST ACTOR: After winning just about every award prior to Oscar night, including the Golden Globes and the SAG, 37 year old Rami Malek will become one of the youngest Oscar recipients for his impersonation of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.

BEST ACTRESS: This is a tough one. Will Oscar award Olivia Colman for her beautiful performance in The Favourite, or will they give it to Glenn Close for a lifetime of great achievement? Oscar has a track record of doing this again and again? I think this just might be Ms. Close's year!

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Another tough category! Mahershala Ali already won this category for Moonlight, but his performance in Green Book was praised by critics and audiences alike.  It's also a feel good movie, and the character he plays is very likeable; so I predict Mr. Ali will follow Denzel Washington to become the second African American actor to win two Oscars.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: The ladies from The Favourite (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) despite their fine performances, will cancel each other out. Marina de Tavira's role in Roma was small. This category is between Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) and Amy Adams (Vice). Being a huge Adams fan, I'm going with her this year.

BEST DIRECTOR: Here's what we have: Yorgos Lanthimos, an arthouse Greek filmmaker whose third English language film The Favourite is probably his most accessible work. Paweł Pawlikowski, who already won an Oscar for his masterful Ida, and whose Cold War is an artistic followup to that film, is a strong contender. Adam McKay, whose Vice was popular and well distributed is a long shot; and Spike Lee and his hip socio-political "joint" BlacKkKlansman has brought the Brooklyn filmmaker back to the forefront. Oh, Oscar, you make it difficult!  Oh yeah! I forgot! The winner will be Alfonso Cuarón!

And here are the rest of my predictions:

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: I'm hoping that the Oscar goes to the most beautifully shot film this year: the black-and-white, Academy Ratio Cold War.  However, Roma, another black-and-white beauty, might just take this prize as well.

ANIMATED FEATURE: No contest!  It's going to be Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: In this political climate RBG is sure to win.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Could it be that Roma will get both Best Film as well as this award?  It's possible, but I will be happy if either Japan's Shoplifters or Poland's Cold War take the prize.

BEST SCREENPLAY: What a category this year! All great scripts, although Roma will defeat them all. However, it could happen that either The Favourite or Green Book can spoil the Roma juggernaut.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Here is where one of our great auteurs, Spike Lee finally gets his well-deserved Oscar for a lifetime of making movies his way.

The Oscar ceremony will be broadcast on ABC, Sunday February 24 at 8:00pm ET.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

NETWORK on Broadway with Bryan Cranston

Network, the new adaptation of the Paddy Chayefsky screenplay, now playing at the Belasco Theatre, is all about watching. The arriving audience is greeted with a peek at a thespian's workout before a show. Actors on yoga mats stretching, exercising, and doing all an actor does to get into character now on display onstage. Director Ivo van Hove satisfies our inherent curiosities about show business while instantly making us voyeurs even before the first line of the play is uttered. And when the play does start, a giant screen upstage begins to capture it all in an HD hyper-reality. The TV images making the live performances before us almost secondary.

It’s satisfying to watch Bryan Cranston give what might just be the performance of a lifetime as Howard Beale, the veteran news anchor at the end of his rope, thinking of ending it all live on the air. A performance that has been finely crafted after a sold out run at London's National Theatre, and honored with the Olivier award. For me, the real satisfaction in Mr. Cranston's performance involves watching his 1080p image on a giant screen. And why not: it's how many of us got to know this talented actor, especially in his monumental performance in AMC's Breaking Bad, where he played Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned drug dealer. Van Hove’s staging celebrates our pixelized actor/audience relationship with him through the use of his brilliant technology.

Despite the 21st century staging, Lee Hal's adaptation of the film is set in 1976, where the fictional UBS is a distant fourth network, years before CNN made viewers dependent on 24 hour broadcasts and constant announcements of breaking news. Howard Beale’s rants maintain an air of prophecy reminding us that television is a show-business marketplace. And even though the character's monologues closely describe the current state of the medium, Chayefsky's main goal at the time was not to play the soothsayer, but to skewer the medium, and remind us why we called it the Boob Tube.

The supporting roles are a little bit more problematic in this production. It's very hard to forget or even come close to William Holden's Max Schumacher, being one of the actor's great performances of his later years. Tony Goldwyn is not the right age for the part, and although he gives a creditable performance, it is hard to believe him as a contemporary of the much older Mr. Cranston, especially when the two characters talk about how they both started together as young men at CBS with Edward R. Murrow. Maybe a little more old age makeup might have helped, or maybe van Hove is asking us to suspend our disbelief big time. Tatiana Maslany is believable as Diana Christensen, but again this actress is up against the indelible, celluloid memory of Faye Dunaway's Oscar winning performance.

Not to worry: with Mr. Cranston you will not be missing Jon Finch's titanic Academy award winning performance as Howard Beale. That's why the winner of this year's Tony award for best actor in a play is onstage at the Belasco Theatre.  Don't miss him!

Sunday, February 03, 2019

SHOPLIFTERS: an Oscar Nominated Film from Japan

Shoplifters is Japan's entry at this year's Academy Awards. The film by Hirokasu Kore-eda, a "Lower Depths" look at a marginalized family in modern Japan, was the Palme D'Or winner at the last Cannes Film Festival, as well as one of the films in the Main Slate of the 2018 New York Film Festival. Director Kore-eda presents us with a most unusual group: a ragged collection of societal cast-offs, living together in cramped quarters like any other family.  But this "family" is unusual. They are bound together by their will to survive, and they exercise this primordial instinct by the oldest professions. The oldest male, acting in the role of the father, Osamu, (Lily Franky) and the youngest male, Shota, (Kairi Jyo) are a tremendous tag-team when it comes to ripping off supermarkets; and the teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works at a sex club, entertaining anonymous clients from behind a one-way glass. When Osamu and Shota bring home a five year old girl named Juri (Miyu Sasaki), who has been forgotten by her parents, the family grows even more in their cramped quarter, but the girl is welcomed. Right away we realize that she is also damaged goods, like the rest of them: Grandma (Kilin Kiki) also notices that the girl's body is filled with scars. When the media breaks the news that the little girl has been kidnapped, Osamu's partner, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) does not fret, instead she cuts Juri's hair, and the women go "shopping" for little dresses, which they all stuff into their bags.
 In telling their story, director Kore-eda avoids the darkest aspects of their lives. It might be a sordid story of poverty, but somehow the mood remains light throughout the film. As the director unwraps their story we come to know and love these characters, empathizing with their flaws, and even believing that they are more sinned against than sinning. As much as possible, the narrative line escapes from their cramped shanty, contrasting exteriors that show modern Japan's ultra-fast trains rolling by very close to their makeshift home. The family even has a day at the beach: one last moment of relative happiness before an event shifts the narrative into a darker hue that leads us to a denouement that's revelatory and surprising. 

Shoplifters is a very special film in a year filled with incredible titles from all over the world. As New York Times critic Manohla Dargis concluded in her insightful review of this film "In their grubby imperfections, Kore-eda finds a perfect story about being human." And this is what elevates this tale into a universal examination of the human heart. Don't miss it. It truly is one of the best films of the year.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Finally a good-fitting tenor at the MET

When I started going to the opera back when I was a teenager, I heard that Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur was a second rate work composed by a third-rate composer. It didn't matter that in those days the likes of Renata Scotto, Montserrat Caballé, José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and other luminaries of the time were singing the leading roles of the actress Adriana (the Comédie-Française actress Adrienne Lecouvreur) and her lover Maurizio (the Count of Saxony). I stayed away from this opera, and kept away from it, in part because the MET, my principal go-to theater for opera, hardly revived this work, perhaps as a result of the negative criticism that it received since its premiere at the Teatro Lirico in Milan in 1902.

Last night, under the threat of a big snowstorm (that ended up being no more than an annoying rainstorm) I rectified this gap in my operatic education and attended my first Adriana. I didn't vacillate in buying tickets months ahead of time for this new production by Sir David McVicar. With the likes of Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczała scheduled to sing the main roles it was a not-to-be-missed production. A lot of people must have had the same idea, since the house was sold-out, and the three rows of standing room behind the orchestra were also full.

I also went because this season I'm on a search for a night at the MET when the tenor actually gives a good performance. Ever since the Alagna opening night Samson et Dalila fiasco I've only been to performances where the tenor has either been terrible, or in the case of the new Traviata, miscast when it comes to the dynamic and timbre levels of the rest of the singers. And let's not forget the Jonas Kaufmann episode on the night I went to see him in Fanciulla del West. He went ahead and sang, when instead he should have stayed in bed with a hot toddy. Let's face it, it has not been a very good season for the tenor voice at the MET.

Last night, the cast did not disappoint. Netrebko as Adriana was her vocally exciting self crafting a character as complex and vulnerable as any diva that has step in front of the footlights. And Beczała, fresh from his triumph at Bayreuth, stepping in for Alagna in Lohengrin at the last minute, finally made my trips to Lincoln Center worth it when it comes to hearing an exciting tenor voice that does not disappoint.

Perhaps the two great performances of the evening came from Anita Rachvelishvili as the Princess of Bouillon and Ambrogio Maestri as Michonnet. Miss Rachvelishvili,who was a fiery Amneris to Ms. Netrebko's Aida earlier this year, once again was a vocally-impressive rival in this opera. Mr. Maestri, our current worldwide go-to Falstaff, proved that he could be heart-breaking in his unrequited love of Adriana.

Gianandrea Noseda led a knowledgeable, if at times pedestrian reading of a score rich with amazingly beautiful melodies, but lacking musical invention. It proves once again that in the verismo generation, the last great generation of Italian opera, very few composers can even dream of comparing to the greatness of Giacomo Puccini.