Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Parsifal on DVD

Wagner's concept of "total art work" was not something that he liked to share. Mozart and Verdi were fortunate to have had Lorenzo Da Ponte and Arrigo Boito respectively writing their lyrics. Wagner, whose abilities as poet and dramatist were not equal to his prodigious gift for composing, aimed to achieve his Gesamtkunstwerk by writing his own ponderous libretti that were mired in 19th century dramatic forms. The conventionality of his dramaturgy also extended to his conservative views on scenic design. His stage concept for Parsifal, his last opera, came to be regarded as his sacred legacy, and the sets of the original production were not replaced until the 1930's.

The 1951 production of Parsifal at Bayreuth was an economic and socio-political necessity, and it radically changed the course of Wagnerian staging. Wieland Wagner needed to rid his grandfather's works of the Nazi legacy that they had acquired and, in the harsh economic reality of post-World War II Germany, the operas needed to be mounted as cheaply as possible: the true reason for the simple sets, plain costumes, and the inventive use of lighting of the so-called "New Bayreuth" style.

It was the 1976 Bayreuth Centenary Ring, brilliantly conceived by Patrice Chéreau, that brought us to a new era in Wagnerian staging: the age of the director. That landmark production, gave carte blanche to stage directors and scenic designers to take liberties with Wagner's works, and offer the public concept productions. This is where we find ourselves in 2005. A few of these experiments have achieved a certain amount of brilliance, while the large majority of them have been downright silly, ridiculous, and even offensive. The 2004 Parsifal at Bayreuth might have been a new low in Wagnerian staging.

The new Parsifal DVD from Opus Arte captures for posterity the Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Kent Nagano production from the stage of the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden, Germany. It was recorded live in 2004. This DVD was put together from the three performances that the opera received at the Festival in the month of August, last summer.

This production, which was originally conceived by Mr. Lehnhoff for the English National Opera was also performed in San Francisco as well as in Lyric Opera of Chicago, before arriving last year at Baden-Baden. The cast for this DVD is superb with Christopher Ventris as Parsifal, Waltraud Meier as Kundry, Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz, Thomas Hampson as Amfortas, and Tom Fox as Klingsor. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under conductor Kent Nagano plays the work with flair and precision, in what I would call a swift reading of this Wagner work.

If you like your visual representation of Parsifal to be as the composer intended, then stay far away from this production. It is abstract, unconventional, "Euro-trashy" to some, and totally fascinating to any lover of contemporary Wagnerian staging. The curtain rises on a post-apocalyptic world, strewn with debris and painted in submarine grey. The set is an unwelcoming steel platform which curves up at the back showing suspended chairs that seem to defy all sense of gravity. To add to the clutter, a giant meteor is lodged on the wall. Gurnemanz's young knights are dressed like the statues of the famous terracotta army in Xian, and Kundry wears the kind of "roadkill" fashion that makes her look like one of the less fortunate felines in the musical Cats. The first time we meet Parsifal he makes his entrance wearing a headband and war-paint. Amfortas is a feverishly tormented character, plagued with self doubts and wrapped like a mummy. Even Titurel makes a rare appearance in this production, looking like a medieval George Romero flesh-eating zombie.

Act II opens with a gigantic projection of an X-ray of a human pelvis, Klingsor, dressed like one of the evil characters from a Kabuki work, appears floating in a kind of bubble, hovering between the sacrum and the symphysis pubis bones. Kundry, in her Act II role as the seductress, shows up with the kind of hair and dress that would make the Versace runways at the annual spring show come to life. Visually, Act II does not leave too much of an impact on the viewer, and it is one of the weakest aspects of this production. Particularly disappointing is the way by which Parsifal obtains the spear from Klingsor. Those familiar with the old MET production of this opera will remember how Klingsor would hurl the spear at Parsifal and he would catch it in midair -- a clever and effective bit of stagecraft that would leave audiences gasping and wondering how it was accomplished.

While Act II is a bit disappointing, the concept of Act III is inspired. The same wall that we saw in Act I now opens into a dark tunnel with railroad tracks leading out of it. Where these tracks might be going or where they come from is never answered. To one side, stuffed in a hole, we see the bodies (or are they statues) of dead knights. Once Parsifal brings back the spear Amfortas dies but not before passing down his crown to Parsifal, who rather than accepting it, carries it to the dead body of Titurel and places it on the head of the dead king. Kundry, whose wrappings from head to toe make her look like a mummy, gets up and slowly heads back to the tunnel via the train tracks. From the depths of the darkness now a powerful light shines and drives her forward. Parsifal follows her, and little by little so do a number of knights. It seems as if the brotherhood is desolving itself as the knights, one by one, decide to go somewhere else. Gurnemanz holds the spear with reverential respect, but as the curtain slowly closes, it seems that very soon he will be the only one left, as more and more knights get up to follow the others down the tracks.

The most powerful images and concepts of this production are found in the second scene of Act I. Particularly superb is Lehnhoff's interpretation of the Holy Grail as a radiant blinding light on the other side of the steel wall. Is this powerful glow the aftermath of some recent spectacular nuclear holocaust that has now been accepted as a new god, or is it the light of some older established deity shining on humanity once more in times of trouble? Equally superb is the sequence when the knights meekly exit through the two side doors only to come back through the center glowing opening marching, wearing helmets and carrying spears. The Grail has miraculously metamorphosed them into warriors. This scene, which comments on the link that has historically always exhisted between religion and war, is one of the most memorable statements of this unforgettable production.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Dirty, Rotten... / Piazza

Over the years, the Broadway musical has developed into two stylistic entities. At the risk of offending the buffs, one of these camps is occupied by the serious musical, and the other, well, ... shall we say, the not so serious musical. Always a risky thing to call a musical creation not serious, especially since these creations have been more popular and more profitable than the so-called serious ones; and when it comes to money, seriousness is everyone's middle name.

Stephen Sondheim's musicals, brilliant in their execution and thought-provoking in their ideas, are the pinnacle of the genre of our time. The audiences to these works, however, are limited and as a result the shows themselves have always suffered disappointing runs. The recent revival of Pacific Overtures, one of Sondheim's most interesting shows, closed prematurely despite favorable reviews and positive audience reaction.

It's been the mind versus the heart when it comes to Broadway musicals. In 1939 the incredibly popular show Hellzapoppin opened, and so did Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock; the year 1954 saw the Broadway premiere of the sardonic The Threepenny Opera as well as The Pajama Game. More recently, Cats and Little Shop of Horrors opened the same year as Maury Yeston's Nine; and to the great delight of Broadway audiences, who normally relish the great variety that a rich theater seasons can bring, at one point you could see Annie, Sweeney Todd, Sugar Babies, and a nifty revival of Oklahoma! all running simultaneously. Many times, in shows such as A Chorus Line, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and almost everything by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Loewe the mind and the heart meet, and masterpieces are born.

Two shows this season, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Light in the Piazza are representative of this stylistic split down the middle between the heart and mind that we have come to know (and love) about Broadway.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Imperial Theater is tacky, loud and filled to the brim with fun. It is a funky romp where the best thing for the audience to do is just let it all hang out and go for the ride. There is an inherent slyness to the show, as well as an inherent crudeness, and all of it is cleverly sugar coated by the wonderful performances of the five talented principals. David Yazbek's music is a hodgepodge of styles, all with a decidedly agreeable Broadway swagger. The songs are loaded down with lowbrow humor and range from the unforgettably delish to the instantly forgettable. Norbert Leo Butz steals the show. His Tony Award was well-deserved. I dare anyone not to laugh out loud when he performs the number "Great Big Stuff," which at this point of the run flows out of him so effortlessly that it will be hard to see anyone else doing it. It's like he owns it! It is an early showstopper that gets the audience going, and it alone is worth the exorbitant price of admission. "All About Ruprecht," another number also prominently featuring Mr. Butz, is what Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is all about: sheer zaniness translated as popular entertainment. It is the kind of show that can run for years if properly taken care of.

The Light in the Piazza is as ephemeral as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is brassy. Currently running at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, this musical is based on a novella that first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker magazine. The show has the radiance of summertime in Florence, and it flows with a calculated delicacy that not even the Arno river can equal. The show is all about restraint, both musically and dramatically. Adam Guettel's music and lyrics are rooted in operetta, which is to say that the musical language is post-Sondheim with a backward glance to Gian-Carlo Menotti. The result is music that Guettel's grandfather, the great Richard Rodgers, would have never written for a Broadway show, but could have written any time he wanted. The music is subtle, intelligent, at times extremely complex, expertly written and orchestrated and, like the worst moments of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, utterly forgettable as well. (Just to be fair, though, did audiences come out humming the music of Maurice Ravel when they first heard it at the beginning of the 20th century? Of course they didn't!) The music to this show is not really pretentious -- it just sounds that way! In this regard, The Light in the Piazza is the "serious" show of the season. It is the one that intelligent critics will discuss intelligently; it is the one that won the Tony award for best score, and of course, it is the one that will give its final performances at the same time that the producers of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels will be busy trying to find a replacement cast.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Light in the Piazza is the Big Winner!

The Light in the Piazza was the big winner at the Tony Awards this evening. The elegant, subtle musical about a Southern mother and daughter vacationing in Florence in the 1950's won six well-deserved Tonys, including the award for Best Actress in a Musical for the wonderful Victoria Clark, and best Score to composer Adam Guettel.

I didn't do that badly in my Tony predictions, and actually some people that I was secretly rooting for won. Here are the winners of the big categories. The ones in red are the ones I called correctly.

Best Musical: Monty Python's Spamalot
Best Play: Doubt
Best Musical Revival: La Cage aux Folles
Best Play Revival: Glengarry Glen Ross
Best Actress in a Musical: Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza)
Best Actress in a Play: Cherry Jones (Doubt)
Best Actor in a Musical: Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels)
Best Actor in a Play: Bill Erwin (Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
Best Featured Actress in a Musical: Sara Ramirez (Monty Python's Spamalot)
Best Featured Actress in a Play: Adriane Lenox (Doubt)
Best Featured Actor in a Musical: Dan Fogler (Spelling Bee)
Best Featured Actor in a Play: Liev Schreiber (Glengarry Glenn Ross)
Best Director of a Musical: Mike Nichols (Monty Python's Spamalot)
Best Director of a Play: Doug Hughes (Doubt)
Best Musical Score: Adam Guettel (the Light in the Piazza)

So, out of fifteen categories I called nine of them correctly. And although I didn't think they were going to give it to him, I was very happy that Bill Erwin received his Tony for his wonderful performance as George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Congratulations to John Patrick Shanley

The day after I saw the play Doubt, I wrote to its author, John Patrick Shanley. (He includes his e-mail address in the Playbill, and urges theater-goers to write to him.) In my e-mail I basically congratulated him on his play and on his Pulitzer prize, and wished him luck at the Tony Awards. I also sent him the address of this blog which has my impressions about his play as well as some thoughts about education and the role that nuns played in it. He wrote back yesterday. This is what he had to say:

"Thank you Vincent! The nuns are still out there, but few and old and invisible. My best, Shanley."

Antoinette Perry Awards Predictions

The Tony Awards are being presented tonight at Radio City Music Hall, and will be telecast by CBS. This season I got to see three of the nominated musicals (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Light in the Piazza, and Monty Python's Spamalot) and three of the new or revived plays (Democracy, Doubt, and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?)

Based on my own excursions to Broadway this year, and totally relying on news articles, reviews, hearsay, and gossip, here are my predictions for some of the big awards being presented tonight:

Best Musical: Monty Python's Spamalot
Best Play: Doubt
Best Musical Revival: Sweet Charity
Best Play Revival: Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Best Actress in a Musical: Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza)
Best Actress in a Play: Cherry Jones (Doubt)
Best Actor in a Musical: Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels)
Best Actor in a Play: Brí­an F. O'Byrne (Doubt)
Best Featured Actress in a Musical: Kelli O'Hara (The Light in the Piazza)
Best Featured Actress in a Play: Heather Goldenhersh (Doubt)
Best Featured Actor in a Musical: Dan Fogler (Spelling Bee)
Best Featured Actor in a Play: Liev Schreiber (Glengarry Glenn Ross)
Best Director of a Musical: James Lapine (Spelling Bee)
Best Director of a Play: Doug Hughes (Doubt)
Best Musical Score: Adam Guettel (the Light in the Piazza)