Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Ciao, Ennio

Ennio Morricone, the composer of 400 film scores among them The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in America, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Mission and the remake of The Thing died on July 6. One of the great composers for the movies, what would the Spaghetti Westerns of director Sergio Leone be without the iconoclastic musical scores that Mr. Morricone created. He turned the American West into a landscape where duels turned into operatic arias. It was never about the gunshots, but instead about the long moments leading to the gunshots that both Leone and Morricone relished.

So close was their partnership (only equaled perhaps by Eisenstein and Prokofiev in Alexander Nevsky) that Leone created sequences just to feature the inventive music of Mr. Morricone. Just think of that marvelous sequence in Once Upon a Time in the West when mail-order bride Claudia Cardinale arrives by train to meet her future husband and his family, who have all been already gunned down by bad guy Henry Fonda. The sequence is pure Morricone: wordless, lyrical. It makes time stand still.

But he could turn from the baroque excesses of some of his western scores to the minimalism of John Carpenter's The Thing, where two beating chords, like an alien heartbeat is the driving music motif in the film:

But perhaps, arguably the most memorable Morricone composition is his score for The Mission, Roland Joffé's 1986 film about the Jesuits and their efforts to convert the Guarani people of South America. I remember quite well Oscar night when Morricone was nominated for this brilliant score. He did not win. Clint Eastwood's Charlie Parker biopic, Bird, with music by Lennie Niehaus beat him. I was disappointed, I'm sure Mr Morricone was, even more so.

The last time that American audiences were treated to a Morricone score was in Quentin Tarantino's western The Hateful Eight. This award winning score was the first time that Mr. Morricone had composed music for a western since 1981.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

No San Fermín

Today would have been the first day of Spain's annual celebration of men (and women) with balls big enough to run in front of a pack of wild animals with razor sharp horns. The running of the bulls, as most people know it in America, or the feast of San Fermín, is a celebration that runs from July 7-14 in the town of Pamplona, in the Basque country. The "encierro," which is the actual running through the streets of the old town, happens every morning of the feast. In the evening, those same bulls will be the featured stars of the bull fights that will take place every day of the feast. There is a raucous atmosphere at these "corridas" with much singing, eating and drinking throughout the event. At the end of the seven days the people of Pamplona sing the "Pobre de mi," the "Woe is Me" song that signals the end of the feast.

This year they have the right to sing this song from the start of the feast because the whole thing is cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nonetheless, a handful of people of Pamplona gathered yesterday in front City Hall to put on their red bandannas around their necks, just as if the feast had been starting. There was, however, no "chupinazo," the yearly launching of a rocket from the balcony of the mayor's office that signals the start of the feast.  Below is a report about these events:

Friday, July 03, 2020

Hamilton on Disney+

Is this the right time to show Hamilton on the new streaming service, Disney+? Months ago, maybe even weeks ago it would have been the perfect addition to a Fourth of July weekend. But after the George Floyd murder and the countless demonstrations that the country has endured, is a musical about a founding father whose views on slavery were, at best, troublesome the politically correct entertainment that Disney was hoping for?

On the one hand, it is glorious that the show was captured live on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre before the original cast disbanded. Generations to come will have a chance to debate this hip-hop recreation of Alexander Hamilton's life as they watch a pristine 4K capture, showing up close the performances of the show's composer lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, but of the many actors who started out as virtual unknown and became stars during the initial run of the play: Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr, Anthony Ramos as John Laurens, Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette, and Phillipa Soo who plays Eliza Schuyler.

After a statue of George Washington was pulled down in Portland, Oregon by angry protesters, having the first president of the United States dramatized and fictionalized in the musical will not please everybody. Of course, the role is played by Christopher Jackson, an actor who considers himself African-American. Although I'm sure he is proud of his work, and his association with Miranda (they go way back to Miranda's first show In the Heights), I wonder what his feelings are about playing a slave owner in this new normal society?

The racial terrain of the United States is more troubled than ever. Trump will be at the Mount Rushmore monument for a Fourth of July fireworks show this weekend. Will the monument be the cause of controversy as the president of the United States stands under the visage of those former presidents whose statues have come down recently?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

New Woody Allen movie at San Sebastian Film Fest

Rifkin's Festival is Woody Allen's new film, and it will premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Since Spain has been able to flatten the COVID-19 curve and lower it, the festival is set to go in September. According to Yahoo News, the film was "shot last summer in and around the northern seaside resort itself, the story centers on an American couple who come to its international film festival and are swept up by the fantasy of cinema and the charm and beauty of Spain." The movie stars Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, and American Gina Gershon.

Woody Allen was greeted with protests last year when he was shooting the film. As Yahoo News reports "The screening will be a significant moment for Allen who's seen his career stalled as a result of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, which revived decades-old allegations he sexually abused his adopted seven-year-old daughter in the early 1990s."

He has denied all claims which were first leveled by his then-partner Mia Farrow. Mr. Allen was cleared of the charges following a series of

Yahoo News goes on to report that "the sexual harassment firestorm has fueled a growing backlash against him and last year his most recent romantic comedy A Rainy Day in New York ended up being released in various European and Latin American countries rather than in the US."

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Ian Holm: Dead at 88

Sir Ian Holm, one of the great British actors of stage and screen, died yesterday at the age of 88. That memorable, even disgusting picture above is from one of Sir Ian's greatest successes: Ridley Scott's magnificent sci-fi shocker Alien, in which he plays the mischievous, scheming android Ash, who ends up in pieces towards the end of the film. But he also had the ability to play less showy roles and still leave a memorable mark on the screen. I'm thinking about his incredible performance as Sam Mussabini, the track coach who trains Ben Cross, in 1981's Chariots of Fire. It was a subtle, beautiful performance that won him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting actor.

In 1985 he graced the screen with what is perhaps his most complex character in Mike Newell's neo-noir Dance With a Stranger. Sir Ian nearly stole the picture as a humiliated gentleman caller, emasculated by Miranda Richardson's Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England.

Sir Ian's recent performances included Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, as well as David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, and Martha Fiennes's Chromophobia, in which he had a comic sex scene with Penélope Cruz.

In today's obituary Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian that "there was always a cool, rational, weighted intelligence in Ian Holm. On screen, he was never exactly a heart-on-sleeve performer; he did not need or even appear to want the audience’s sympathies. Holm could be a mandarin and almost priestly presence, but always with a pressure cooker of emotion inside. He brought a commanding strength and a stillness to his work, a less-is-more economy that gave him what few theatrical knights have had since Olivier: equal success on stage and screen. He was a character actor with star quality."

Thursday, June 18, 2020

No Wagner at the Green Hill

The year 2020 will be remembered not only because the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the  Bayreuth Festival to close its doors for the first time since World War II, but, as of this writing, this is the first time that a Wagner has not been at the helm of the yearly Richard Wagner celebration. In early April, the management of the festival announced that Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of the composer, was suffering from a "long-term illness" which has forced her to leave her position as artistic director of the festival.

Since 2008, Ms. Wagner has been at the helm of the festival her great-grandfather founded – initially with her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier as co-director, and since 2015 she has bared that responsibility alone.

Over the years, It has also become very noticeable that Ms. Wagner has gained a considerable amount of weight -- never a good thing. The pressures of the job, no doubt, as well as the natural aging process have surely been responsible for this. It could be, perhaps, that her illness, whatever that is, has something to do with it. Reports from Bayreuth assure the public that Ms. Wagner's illness is not related to the Coronavirus outbreak.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Castorf Ring is on YouTube

Perhaps no production of The Ring of the Nibelung at Bayreuth has caused so much controversy in the last two decades as Frank Castorf's staging of Richard Wagner's tetralogy. Before he came to the Green Hill to stage Wagner's epic work, Castorf was well-known in Germany for his avant-garde productions at Berlin's second largest state-owned theater, the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. Katharina Wagner knew exactly what she was getting when she hired him. His production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Volksbühne, for example, used only one opera singer (the rest were vocally untrained actors) and the opera narrative was often interrupted by readings of texts by Ernst Toller, a Jewish writer who managed to escape Nazi Germany, and who later committed suicide by hanging himself in a New York City hotel room in 1939. As a result of this production, Castorf's contract at Bayreuth included a clause forbidding him to tamper with Wagner's original words or music.

But that did not stop Mr. Castorf to change just about everything else in the four part music drama. Das Rheingold took place in the USA along Route 66 at a cheap motel. Die Walküre's drama was moved to the oil fields of Azerbaijan, while Siegfried took place under a fictitious Mount Rushmore that replaced the American presidents with famous communist leaders, and Götterdämmerung featured Berlin's Alexanderplatz with its famous World Clock filled, not with tourists, but hungry crocodiles.

What did it all mean? I saw the production in 2017 on my second trip to Bayreuth. By this time the knowledgeable Bayreuth audience knew what to expect. Gone were the boos of opening night that erupted most violently during the premiere of Siegfried. Audiences were not ready for the title character to kill Fafner with a very loud machine gun, and they were not ready to see a nest of reptiles invade Berlin trying desperately to eat the Forest Bird (who is not even supposed to be in the third act!). In 2017 the boos were gone, and so was Castorf who did not take a vow during any of the four evening that I attended.

What Castorf did was to take Wagner's music and adapted it to his own strange story. He even added a mute character throughout the four nights who resembled Squiggy, the funny character played by David Lander in the ABC sitcom Laverne and Shirley.

Just to prove that I'm not making any of this up, you can see the whole bloody thing for yourself. The production has appeared on YouTube, and if you are interested in Wagner (which is why you are here!), and especially if modern opera stagings are your cup of tea, take a look at the embedded Youtube links I have provided.

I suggest you go to it right away. These videos tend to disappear overnight rather fast because, perhaps, they should have never been uploaded in the first place. But such is the nature of the Internet.  Enjoy this production, if such a thing is possible. Oh, and by the way, if you close your eyes you will hear some marvelous singing in all the operas. And maybe this is the best way to "enjoy" Castorf's Ring.

Does anybody know if there are plans to release this Ring on DVD/BluRay?