Monday, July 25, 2022
Thursday, April 21, 2022
The musical is back on Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre, starring Beanie Feldstein as Ziegfeld's funny girl. Sarah Bernhardt not only created some of the great stage roles of the 19th and early 20th century, but she was also a film pioneer, and a number of her performances were filmed. Of course, when we watch these early films the first thing we notice is how artificial stage acting of the turn of the century feels to modern audiences. Since Bernhardt's time acting has passed through Stanislavsky and the Method, and Maria Callas on stage, although operatic acting of her time maintained more than an ounce of the histrionics of the past century, feels very modern when compared to Bernhardt's technique. And the camera does not lie. Most people today know Ms. Streisand's girl not through her 1964 breakthrough role in the original Broadway production of Funny Girl, but through the 1968 William Wyler film that earned Ms. Streisand her first Academy Award as Best Actress -- "Hello Gorgeous!"
So, this is what Ms. Feldstein is up against: the collective memory of a great performance forever preserved in celluloid. In 2016 The Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. It's an uphill battle that requires all the help she can get. And many come to the rescue with varying degrees of success. First, there's Harvey Fierstein, whose name alone (and his reworking of the original book) helps box office receipts. Ms. Feldstein is also aided by Ramin Karimloo, as her lover Nick Arnstein. He has the charms and good looks that Sydney Chaplin (the original Nick) and Omar Shariff (The film's Nick) both had. Add to this a pleasant singing voice, and you have a memorable performance. The idea of putting Jane Lynch in the role of Mama Brice might have looked great on paper, but
unfortunately she is horribly miscast, possessing little of the proper
"Yiddishkeit" needed to bring this character to life. Help or no help, when it comes to Ms. Feldstein, I can't help but think that a star is born with this role. She is a trooper: loads of charm, huge energy, good comic timing, and a beautiful, smooth soprano that makes those Jules Stein/Bob Merrill songs come to life. (and no, you won't find the song "My Man" in this revival, oddly enough.) For a musical that tries to please an audience weened on the film this was a brave directorial decision by Michael Mayer, who otherwise has overproduced most aspects of this musical. A true standout are the beautiful costumes by Susan Hilferty: truly inspired creations that bring to life the period in which this musical takes place.
Is it a good revival? Should you go to see it? I say yes, go see Ms. Feldstein, it's always exciting to see a star in the making. But be aware that the show tries way too hard to please you. The orchestra at times is a tad sloppy, and it is really loud. I don't remember such a loud, miked show. Performers address the audience directly, throw money in the direction of the first few rows near the stage for no reason at all, and confetti falls upon the orchestra section. Great theater tricks to get the Big Black Giant on your side. Most of the time it works, when the strings don't show. This time they do. But what bothered me most were the lights around the proscenium of the stage. They light up time and time again to give those songs that extra oomph they really don't need. Some of the time in rhythm to the music. Tacky! Already the creative team of this production feels that every song in the score deserves a loud, crescendo fortissimo style. It brings them out of their seats during the curtain-calls, but then again what show these days does not end with a standing ovation? Broadway audiences pay a lot for those seats, and they want to be entertained or talked into the illusion that they are being entertained. If a show doesn't get a standing ovation, it's in trouble.
Sunday, April 10, 2022
When the 2021-2022 MET season was announced, this revival of Patrice Chéreau's production of Richard Strauss's Elektra immediately became the one to see. And yet, last night there were two empty seats right next to me in the center of the Orchestra section, row K. Was it the persistent April showers that dominated Saturdays weather that caused some people to stay home, or did they have advanced word that Nina Stemme, in the title role, was suffering from seasonal allergies? This was announced to the audience last night, together with the news that she would go on and sing. The announcement was greeted by thunderous applause. I've been noticing this year that pre-curtain announcements have become the norm at the Metropolitan Opera. While the appearance of a MET staff member's appearance before a performance usually brings jitters to an audience, this season is being used more as a friendly reminder to keep those masks covering one's mouth and nose.
As expected, the pollen that's floating around everywhere did have an effect on Ms. Stemme. She is onstage from beginning to end, and most of the time trying to rise above one of Strauss's wildest, most savage music played by an ensemble of over one hundred musicians. It is one of the composer's largest orchestrations. It mostly affected her lower notes, although during her opening monologue some of the notes leading to the high notes suffered as well. It might not have been one of Ms. Stemme's greatest performances, but it was great that she attempted it and was able to achieve such high standards. I always marvel at how professional singers can sing over a cold or an allergy and still manage to sing such a poignant performance as Ms. Stemme was able to do last night.
Lise Davidsen as Elektra's sister Chrysothemis continues her New York love fest tour with these performances. What a season it has been for her! Also how well calculated it has been, starting slowly with the role of Eva in Die Meistersinger, then increasing the odds with Ariadne aux Naxos. Her Chrysothemis is the culmination of an incredible season of singing. I have been critical of her that she overpowers all the other singers with her enormous voice. Last night was different. She seems to have been holding back (perhaps because she knew that her co-star was not in good voice), and this was good for the entire production. What a contrast in voices we have in these two women. Ms. Stemme's lush but powerful soprano against Ms. Davidsen's loud, strident, bottom heavy voice (she started her career as a mezzo!). This is what we come to see in opera: two amazing singers approaching those notes from different camps and offering a delicious contrast that also speaks volumes about the characters they are playing.
Mr. Chéreau's production updates the action to the present, and thus makes a firm statement of the universality of this story. His staging, however, comes close to robbing the work of the purpose of some of the music. For example, Klytemnestra's entrance is some of the most evocative music Strauss ever wrote. It is a wild depiction of an old lady whose guilt over the murder of her husband, Agamemnon, is plaguing her. I always pictured this character, weighed down by amulets, stomping in to this music. Perhaps this approach is way too stereotypical for today's audience. Perhaps it is too much like a silent movie villain entering to the tune of brutal, dissonant chords. Here she just walks in. It can be argued that now Strauss's music, meant to accompany a more melodramatic entrance, now sounds over the top. In the pit, Donald Runnicles offered an intelligent reading of this work in tune with this production. The orchestra sounded incredible under his baton.
If you want to see two of the great singers of our time together on the same stage, then do not miss this revival of Elektra.
Saturday, March 05, 2022
The story begins on the night of October 31st, and half of Gotham City is masked and reveling in a Halloween night where the other half is engaged in various criminal activities. The Bat Signal is up, its weak light shining against the ominous clouds, and the Batman has heeded its call. This is a caped crusader full of doubts and misgivings about his choice to be a vigilante. He calls himself "vengeance," and he ably saves a subway passenger from the wrath of a gang in skull makeup. This is a world-weary crime fighter, worlds away from being a super hero.
And when Batman's alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, shows up, Mr. Pattinson, lighted in the film's muted colors, looks more spectral than ever. Surrounding him are a cast of characters all played memorably by a great cast. Jeffrey Wright as Lieutenant James Gordon seems to be the only good cop in the whole city. Colin Farrell is a round, scarred mobster they call The Penguin, John Turturro is memorable as a mafia boss that likes to wear shades despite the gloom that surrounds him, and Andy Serkis is given very little screen time as Alfred, Bruce Wayne's butler and confidant. A sick-in-the-head masked serial killer, who likes to leave riddles inside greeting cards for the Batman after he murders important civic leaders, ends up being Paul Dano, who regretfully performs the worse rendition of Franz Shubert's "Ave Maria" I've ever heard. This well-known song is used as a leitmotif throughout the film, but I fail to see its connection with anything happening on the screen. Alongside the Batman we also have another costumed vigilante played by Zoë Kravitz. She likes to wear slin-tight leather outfits and loves cats.
To be honest, I usually don't run out the first weekend to see a film like this. But the other night I was at Lincoln Center for the premiere of Ariadne aux Naxos, the Richard Strauss opera starring superstar soprano Lise Davidsen. Little did I know it was also the New York premiere of this film. So, the entire Lincoln Center Plaza was mobbed: barriers everywhere and autograph seekers running around. Serkis and Pattinson passed by surrounded by a horde of bodyguards. Jeffrey Wright stopped by to sign a few autographs, and so did Paul Dano. He stopped next to me to sign a fan's poster, fast enough for me to snap a picture of him.
So, I said to myself, "maybe I should go see this movie." And I did, this afternoon, and I had a great time, even though we had to get moved to another screening room because they were having technical problems with the projector. In any case, it was an enjoyable afternoon at the movies, and I recommend this film. It's a very entertaining way to spend 176 minutes of your life.
Thursday, February 24, 2022
Yes, Broadway has been back for a while, stumbling out of the COVID-19 nightmare in spurts. But this afternoon was MY first time back inside a Broadway theater since 2020. And if it wasn't for the masked crowds and a new job for ushers (see the picture below) the magic is back, and the audiences are more excited than ever.
Sunday, January 16, 2022
Mr. Sher began his association with the MET at the start of Peter Gelb's tenure. His production of The Barber of Seville featured an extension of the stage in front of the orchestra pit -- the infamous passerelle that many critics pointed out was not made for the MET's acoustics. There were also cartloads of pumpkins, and a giant anvil that threatened to fall on the characters Wile E. Coyote style. Perhaps his most successful production at the MET is his staging of The Tales of Hoffman, with its René Magritte bowler hats and homages to different films from Federico Fellini to Ingmar Bergman.
This season Mr. Sher has staged a new production of Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi's masterpiece of 1851. As is the current trend in opera staging, God forbid the director set the scene according to the wishes of the original creators. So, instead of traveling to Mantua we get Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic. Now, I have to be careful here criticizing the change of locale. After all, this opera is based on a Victor Hugo play (Le Roi s'Amuse) which takes place in the depraved French court of François I. Verdi's lyricist Francesco Maria Piave thought it best to transfer the scene to Italy. So, the original setting of this work is the depraved court of the Duke of Mantua, a made-up person who was based on Vincenzo Gonzaga, a 1500's royal scoundrel whose family motto, according to the program notes on the playbill, was "Forse che si, forse che no" (Maybe yes, maybe no).Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz. But again: why Germany's Weimar Republic? Certainly the unit set built on the MET's turntable (which spins around too much for my taste) by Michael Yeargan recreate a period of grandiose Fascist architecture that was already entrenched in Mussolini's Italy years before Hitler brought Fascism to Germany.
Why not set it in Fascist Italy, then? All the ingredients are there. There's the work of poet Gabriele D'Annunzio, whose writings serve as the precursor of the ideals of Italian Fascism. And of course, there's Pier Paolo Pasolini's film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a work very much entrenched in the work of D'Annunzio. If you want depravity don't look any further. Salò is the GOAT.
Piotr Beczała has returned to play the Duke, as he did in the last MET production of this work which took place in Las Vegas. He returns with a more mature voice. It is now deeper and his memorable ringing timbre of years past seems to be disappearing. Could it be that he has sung too many performances of Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival, a role that many tenors stay away from because it tends to cloud the voice? I would recommend Mr. Beczała to stay away from the swan boat and concentrate more on the Italian and French repertory.
Quinn Kelsey is a huge, bruiser from Honolulu Hawaii with a voice to match. His instrument fills the house, and then some. It is not a particularly beautiful sound, but then again if you are playing a hunchback jester you want a growl in your voice, and Mr. Kelsey can provide that in spades.
For me, if the Sparafucile stinks, then the opera doesn't work. What I mean is that he has to have a strong sustained low F that ends the Act II duet with Rigoletto. Thank goodness the MET has re-hired Italian basso Andrea Mastroni (he made his MET debut in this role in the previous production). Once again he made a vocally chilling assassin, and that outstanding low F is his bread and butter. He has sung this role everywhere from Covent Garden to Madrid.
Unfortunately, I did not get to hear Rosa Feola as Gilda. She could not sing because she had just gotten boosted and was suffering through the effects of the injection. The understudy was announced from the stage. It was a late cancellation for Ms. Feola so there was no paper insert in the programs. So, I have no idea who I heard. She did have a pretty soprano voice, and her "Caro Nome" was greeted with a healthy ovation. MET audiences always treat understudies well, especially if they are able to deliver.
Daniele Rustioni, the new principal guest conductor of the Bavarian State Opera led an enthusiastic reading of the score. Under his direction, the orchestra brought out the transparent and sonorous beauty of Verdi's orchestration which many times is just taken for granted. Particularly fine was the backstage storm chorus, one of the great innovations of this score.
So, there's a new Rigoletto in town. Maybe not the most memorable of productions, but the New York crowd will continue to support this staging as long as the MET management fills it with fine international singers.
Sunday, November 28, 2021
I saw this film in 70mm at the Village East theater, a landmark building that presented Yiddish entertainment at the beginning of the century. Very few people will be able to tell you who played this house. I noticed the young crowd around me that gathered to see this movie, and I realized that even fewer had any clear memory of the 1970's. And yet, PT Anderson's film, filled with such loving nostalgia for days gone by, his days gone by, resonated with this young audience. The director presented a very personal story, but he also knows that if you grew up at the turn of the century in New York's Jewish ghetto, or in the Taxi Driver New York blight, or in any other decade, or any place on Earth, one thing is certain: everyone goes through adolescence and everyone falls in love. That is the simple reality and universal theme of this film.
So, the director's approach is to mine his memory banks. Episodes of his life are beautifully recreated, focusing on a young 15 year-old high school student and child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and his pursuit of Alana Kane (Alana Haim), a twenty-something who eventually becomes his business partner and main squeeze. Together, they travel the landscape of Southern California at a time when prices were so low that a high school kid could open a water bed store and sell one to Jon Peters (a hilarious Bradley Cooper) during the time the ex-hairdresser turned producer was dating Barbra Streisand.
In PT Anderson's coming-of-age enchantment, Old Hollywood is still hanging on as the new lions are storming the gates. We don't get a glimpse of Stephen Spielberg or George Lucas in this film, but figures like Jack Holden (Sean Penn as William Holden), and Rex Blau (Tom Waits as an aging film director -- a John Huston / John Ford composite), play memorable parts in this film. The movie is also filled with cameos. Blink and you'll miss John C. Reilly, a PT Anderson stalwart, as Herman Munster. But you won't forget Christine Ebersole as a Lucille Ball-like character who beats up Gary after he commits a faux-pas on live TV.
The San Fernando Valley has never been portrayed so charming before. Especially during the gas shortage sequence, when Gary runs past lines of cars to the tune of David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" In this film we find a softer PT Anderson. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and The Master were tough subjects, and his scalpel had to be sharper and cut deeper. Here, the director's main prop is his camera (he takes the DP credit for the first time), and it seems that his main concerns are to present a rosy recreation of his coming-of-age years, and to make sure Cooper Hoffman and Alana Kane come out of this as bright new Hollywood stars. Not a bad reason to create this film. Cooper's dad, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman had a long association with PT Anderson, the actor giving some of his best, defining performances under this director's lens. Now is the time for a new generation to spring forward, as the director turns his gaze back to the past.