Sunday, March 17, 2024

Verdi's La Forza del Destino at the MET



The last time the Metropolitan Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi's titanic opera La Forza del Destino it was the 1970's: a decade that saw some of the reigning voices of the MET take their last bows (Leontyne Price, Robert Merrill, Franco Corelli) and give way to the new kids on the block (Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Renata Scotto).  It was the decade when voices ruled, and productions were carefully overseen by the MET's general director Joseph Volpe, an administrator who believed in spending millions on a new staging because it was his belief that a production must last at least twenty years. In those days productions were lush, detailed and faithful to the libretto. The last time I saw Forza at the MET Leontyne Price and the young Domingo sang a memorable performance, dressed in the cloak-and-dagger finery of eighteenth century Spain.

Peter Gelb is no Joseph Volpe. Since he assumed the general management of the MET he has tried to bring the institution into the 21st century, meaning, replacing the old tried-and-true stagings with "Regietheatre" productions (which some call Eurotrash) where the voices become secondary and the director is the star of the show. 2024 was the year for Verdi's grim melodrama to get the Gelb treatment. There were rumors that he sought out Calixto Bieito, the iconoclastic Catalan director, but Mr. Bieito's plans for the opera, coupled with his track record of avant-garde productions around the world, proved to be too much for the MET's board of directors. Finally, Gelb settled on Mariusz Treliński, the artistic director of the Grand Theatre of Warsaw. 


Mr. Treliński gives us a modern staging devoid of any certain locale. It could be Eastern Europe or even a banana republic. Given the fact that the last act takes place in a decrepit New York subway station gives us the clue that we are in The United States of America after the killing of an important official has thrown the country into the chaos of a second Civil War.  All references to Spain in the Francesco Maria Piave libretto have been eliminated. For instance, in the recitative to the poignant "Oh, tu che in seno agli angeli" Don Alvaro sings "Seviglia..." reminiscent of his homeland. The English translation of this reads "happier days."  This translation change of the libretto's original words is not something new. During the MET run of the "Las Vegas Rigoletto," the libretto's words were updated into a "Rat-Pack" argot worthy of Frank Sinatra and Joey Bishop.

If the production is dark and grim, gray and steely, the singing was luminous from the superb cast headed by superstar Lise Davidsen who is on a roll these days. As the NY times wrote she has "become the rare singer you want to hear in everything." Perhaps her voice does not have the inherent sweetness of a Price or a Renata Tebaldi (and the jury is still out whether or not Ms. Davidsen is a true Verdi soprano), but with the MET absence of Anna Netrebko, Ms. Davidsen is the best we've got, and that is a great thing.  I'm looking forward to the day when Ms. Davidsen gleefully faces her father Wotan and greets him with a fiery "Hojotoho."  It's coming!

The rest of the cast was very strong, especially Igor Golovatenko as Don Carlo di Vargas.  He has a wonderfully pleasant baritone with a clear attractive top. Tenor Brian Jagde as Leonora's beloved Don Alvaro, has a stentorian dark voice with ringing high notes. The roles of the Marquis of Calatrava and Padre Guardiano were played by bass Soloman Howard: a strange choice, but one that almost worked except when the ghost of the dead Marquis kept popping up at melodramatic instances (way too many times!). Fra Melitone was sung with dour perfection by Patrick Carfizzi. He was the rudest religious friar I've ever seen. Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin led an exciting reading of this memorable score, and the orchestra sounded strong and together.

I found the performance last night powerfully cathartic, like a Greek play that dares to show unbelievable tragedy and somehow purifies the audience. Perhaps a curious output from such a melodramatic piece, but it worked, strangely enough, in that respect. The production had something to do with it, but in the final analysis it is Verdi's music that has the power to elevate your soul into a different realm; and in that respect, having one of the world's greatest soprano stop the show with the incredible "Pace, Pace mio Dio" doesn't hurt either.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon: a new Scorsese film

When the Osage people find oil in their newly acquired land, hungry, greedy wolves come prowling in the guise of white cattle barons: white men courting and marrying Osage woman only to kill them in order to get their new-found wealth. This is the bare bones plot of Martin Scorsese's new film Killers of the Flower Moon, an epic film clocking in at just under four hours. The film is an examination of American greed and the relationship between the native nations of America, and the settlers that hungered for their land. Scorsese has made a film that is part western, part murder mystery, and court-room drama with shades of the conclusion of Goodfellas. The film premiered out of competition at the 76th Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and it was curiously absent from the film festival circuit. With a budget reported to be over $200 million, the film avoided the film festival circuit in order to make money, but with such a massive running time, which means fewer daily showings, the film is going to have a hard time making its money back in its initial theatrical run.  As of today, the film has grossed $23 million in the United States and Canada, and $11 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of only $44 million.

I saw the film today, and it is the best work that Robert de Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio have done in quite a while. This is De Niro's tenth collaboration with Scorsese, and he gives a subtle performance as William King Hale, the mastermind of the Osage massacre. It is great to witness such inventive acting from De Niro, even mastering a Midwestern accent to perfection. Mr. DiCaprio is no stranger to Scorsese's films either. In this, his sixth collaboration with the director, he also gives a performance rooted in nuance; and although he seems to progress through the role with a permanent frown on his face, he brings to life the role of Ernest Burkhart, who becomes a pawn in Hale's greedy schemes.

But is is Lily Gladstone, an actress that portrays Mollie, Ernest's Native American wife, who casts the longest shadow in the film. Ms. Gladstone, who is part Native American (and who is related to British Prime Minister William Gladstone), grew up in the Blackfeet Nation reservation, and has only made a handful of films before this one. You will not forget her expressive face and her sorrowful eyes. Many of the members of the Osage Nation also took part in the film behind the scenes, as well as taking important roles in the film.

Mr. Scorsese is in top form as a director, even making an Alfred Hitchcock-like cameo appearance in a denouement to the film that I can only describe as inspired. The final shot of the film, as memorable a shot as can be, brings to mind scenes from Scorsese's 1997 Kundun, and it populates the field of flowers of the title with a vibrant homage to the Osage people.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

A Mahler Fall

My Mahler fall continues. Let me explain. No sooner did autumn start turning leaves a myriad of seasonal colors, and the weather bid goodbye to summer heat, that Gustav Mahler began to make itself present in my life. In many ways this is not unusual. Mahler has always been one of my favorite composers. Very few composers can reach the heights like he can: those lush melodies, those exciting, ear-splitting crescendi, and best of all his concentrated effort time and again for his music to reach the sublime.


In a completely roundabout way, but maybe not, it all started with my introduction to Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto: that popular but strict twelve-tone composition written to honor the death of Manon Gropius, the teenage daughter of Bauhaus giant Walter Gropius and Mahler’s wife, Alma.


What strange times those must have been for Viennese society.  The child of the great architect, and the wife of Vienna’s greatest composer dead at a tender age, and Vienna’s other great composer writing what many consider his masterpiece only to die a short time after its completion. Berg never heard his elegy for Manon, and the piece served to be Berg’s own requiem.


As autumn progressed, the New York Film Festival came to town, and Tár made its debut. In what arguably is this year‘s most interesting film, Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, a virtuoso conductor who is preparing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic for a live recording. I saw the movie back in October. Today is November 12 and I’m at the Redeye Grill having dinner before going to see The Berlin Philharmonic led by their music director Kirill Petrenko. They will be playing Mahler’s seventh. And, oh yes, how can I forget. In October I also went to Carnegie to hear Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic. I didn’t know what they were going to play, but when I got there I saw the poster outside of Carnegie Hall and to my great surprise they were going to perform Mahler’s First. Perfect!


Yesterday I was at the Longacre Theatre. I went to see Leopoldstadt, the great new play by Tom Stoppard. Gustav Mahler’s name was on the lips of those Jewish Viennese characters. Sigmund Freud’s name and his radical theory of dreams was also bandied about, but Mahler was praised: he was their composer, the recipient of rousing L’Chaim. A toast I’ll also take a part in for making this autumn so musically memorable.

Monday, July 25, 2022

NOPE - Don't Look Up!

 On the 19th of June, 1877 British pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge made a series of photographs of the race horse Sallie Gardner, owned by the former governor of California Leland Stanford. The result is well-known to every student of film. When the photographs are shown in sequential succession the horse is seen at full gallop, at one point all four legs off the ground.

Arguably the beginning of motion pictures, or at least an intermediate stage towards true cinematography. This, and the fact that the jockey riding the horse is an African-American man is the genesis of Jordan Peele's latest film NOPE. But that's just the beginning. The writer/producer/director starts there and his imagination propels him towards not just a rumination of motion pictures, but also its link to the American West, or better yet: the myth of the American West as created by Hollywood, and how this myth continues to survive in our collective unconsciousness. And, oh yeah the film also explores the afterlife of child actors once the limelight has either faded away, or in this case, ripped apart. And, oh yeah, it's also about aliens. Not the ones that cross our American border everyday, but the ones that they say come from many light years away, from another galaxy, and who reach us via flying saucers.
In the last few months, the various trailers have revealed some of the cryptic images of the film: a veiled lady with no lips and a horrific smile (shades of Conrad Veidt's character in the silent film The Man Who Laughs), a chimp with bloody hands and mouth, and most mysterious of all those colorful dancing man ballons that dot the western valley prairie, and rise up to the sky. Also we can't ignore the fanboy Internet chatter that the title of the film is an acronym for Not Of Planet Earth. Guess what? All of those images are tied together in what has to be Mr. Peele's most audacious and bewildering reflection on modern American culture. And the meaning of the title? Yeah, there's something to that as well.

And of course there are the stars of the film: OJ, played memorably by Daniel Kaluuya, and his sister Emerald, the incredible Keke Palmer. These siblings own a ranch where they breed and train horses for the Hollywood and TV industry, a business started by their father who early on in the film dies a rather mysterious death. To further make ends meet, OJ sells horses to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Stephen Yeun), a former child star who now runs a Western-themed amusement park called Jupiter’s Claim, and who is haunted by a terrible event that happened on the set of his TV show. When strange occurrences begin happening at the ranch they seek the help of an IT guy (Brandon Perea), and later on when things really start getting weird, they bring on an even weirder cinematographer (Michael Wincott) to photograph the event and get "the Oprah shot." Angel, the IT guy installs surveillance cameras at their house, but Antlers, the cinematographer, comes in with a hand-cranked IMAX camera. Even though this is a contemporary story, you'd think all of this this was happening forty years ago: the film is filled with turntables, VHS recorders and all kinds of obsolete technology.

NOPE is an entertaining movie that will produce interesting conversations. It is certainly one of the most thought-provoking films this summer by a filmmaker that specializes in making sure you think. And at the risk of further spoiling the film, let me just say that you will be doing a lot of unpacking when you go to see this movie.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

FUNNY GIRL back on Broadway

For Sarah Bernhardt, the great actress of the turn of the century, playwright Victorien Sardou wrote the melodrama La Tosca in 1887.  From then on Bernhardt owned this role until Giacomo Puccini turned Sardou's work into one of the seminal operas of the Verismo period, and Maria Callas came along to usurp the role, albeit in its musical form. As time erased the collective memory of audiences who actually saw Bernhardt on stage, and as video of the second act of the opera surfaced, La Callas became the soprano against who all subsequent performers must measure themselves against. Is it the same with Barbra Streisand and her portrayal of comedienne Fanny Brice in the musical Funny Girl?

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 BATMAN - Robert Pattinson in the suit

In the new film The Batman, Gotham City is an amalgamation of 1970's urban blight New York City with surreal touches of London and Chicago. Add to that geographical stew that unnamed city where David Fincher's SE7EN takes place (where it never stops raining), and you got the makings of a brooding chapter in the Batman saga. In addition to the downbeat atmosphere already described, director Matt Reeves and his cinematographer, Australian Greig Fraser, turn down the lights to gloom level just to make things really "noir." It is three hours of a cinematic universe where lights rarely shine, and where most of the denizens seem to live only in the nighttime hours. 

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.