Friday, December 01, 2006

Deborah Voigt's Year of Birth

Online searches come up empty if you want to know when Deborah Voigt was born. I found this a little unusual because, being a highly respected public figure, that kind of information should be readily available to everyone online. Recently, the year of her birth has been made known to me by very reliable sources, and it is now published on the sopranos section of my Wagner website. I am sure that Ms. Voigt would not mind a bit if we find out when she came into this world. At one point, she might have had a problem with us knowing her age, but now that she is looking (and sounding) better than ever, that should not be a concern.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


I am not sure if The Metropolitan Opera needed a new production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, but the new Peter Gelb administration has brought a new one in via Bartlett Sher, the director of last year's Tony award-winning musical The Light in the Piazza. The cast of this new production of Rossini's sunny comedy features Juan Diego Flórez as Count Almaviva, and by the manner by which it is being advertised, with the young Peruvian tenor's handsome likeness all over the place, this popular young artist is the reason why this production is being mounted. Also in the cast are John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo, veteran Samuel Ramey as Don Basilio, the fabulous Diana Damrau as Rosina, and Swedish sensation Peter Mattei as Figaro. In the pit, conductor Maurizio Benini keeps things moving briskly, and makes the pint-sized orchestra sound bigger than it really is.

It is almost impossible these days for a new production of a favorite opera to avoid the throes of controversy. Wagner fans have dealt with, and also delighted in this trend for decades. In the past few years the age of the director has arrived in the Italian repertory, and in the recent past unusual productions of Italian warhorses (The Ana Netrebko, Rolando Villazón La Traviata in Salzburg, and the Robert Wilson's Aida ) have stretched the boundaries of Italian opera staging. This new MET production is certainly the most abstract that New York audiences have seen. The set consists mostly of multiple doors which are wielded about on stage to form geometrically pleasing patterns, and to convey the sense of claustrophobia and imprisonment. Orange trees, a staple of Seville's landscape, are also everywhere, adding a genuine touch to the setting.

The most controversial aspect of Mr. Sher's production is an extension to the stage built past the orchestra -- a passerelle, if you will -- which thrusts the entire action forward, and also manages to do some tricky unexpected turns with the sound of the human voice and the orchestra. Acoustically, the MET was designed for voices to be contained within the proscenium of the theater, and making unmiked singers perform well beyond the safe confines of the stage (and behind the conductor) reduces the sound of their voices. When they step around the orchestra to the passerelle they might be closer to the audience, but they sound miles away. The orchestra also ends up sounding muffled and confined. These directorial tricks are fine on a Broadway stage where both performers and orchestra are miked, but it does not help the natural sounds of an opera house.

Also, can anybody tell me why at the end of Act I a gigantic anvil (the kind that the Coyote would purchase from Acme to catch the Roadrunner) comes down and crushes a wagon full of pumpkins?

I would say that if Mr. Sher does away with Warner Brother's cartoon tricks and liberates the MET's acoustics once again, we might have a production of Barber worthy of Mr. Gelb's vision of the new Metropolitan.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The New Butterfly at the MET

Madama Butterfly is the one opera that never fails to please, even when the cast is not ideal, the production questionable, and the orchestra not playing up to par. Last night at Peter Gelb's new Met Opera (from here on in this article, and in every one of my articles called the MET) none of the above was in order. The new production by Anthony Minghella, which opened the new Met season, and had already been seen recently at the English National Opera, is a memorable production that successfully updates the work without changing its locale, harming its intentions, or otherwise changing the intentions of its creators. The operas of Giacomo Puccini do not lend themselves to new interpretations as easily as the works of other composers. Tosca, for instance, one of the pivotal works of this composer, has to be staged as taking place in 1800, otherwise references to socio-political events that are alluded to in the libretto would not make sense if the locale and time is changed.

Anthony Minguella's staging is successful at conveying the delicacy of the story, as well as the fragility of the title character. The setting, with its mirror-like floors and over-head covering shows us a reflection of Japanese society (which is exactly what Puccini achieved in his Western melodies with hints of Japanese sounds) seen through the eyes of a European. The setting is decidedly Western in its look, but it successfully achieves a distant world. The mirrored surfaces of the stage allow us a distant look at the events. We are looking at two sides of the same issue, so to speak, though we are distant observants, depending, of course, on your seat in the house. From my seat in the rear orchestra (Row Z) I felt a little removed. I can't imagine this production from the Family Circle. It is definitely a production that was conceived for a smaller house: the London Coliseum where the ENO performs is perfect for this version of Butterfly.

The bunraku puppets that are used in the production are quite interesting, especially Sorrow, Butterfly's child. All you've heard about it is true: one forgets that it is a puppet and begins to think of it as a real child; and yes, the puppeteers do get an incredible response out of their creation. No child actor in my memory has ever given such a heart-breaking performance as this little puppet. Of course, most of what I heard from the very conservative crowd in the orchestra was negative when it came to the puppet. The one aspect that most members of the audience object to are the very visible puppeteers. A little reading about Bunraku theater traditions, and a little suspension of disbelief might solve the problems of these audience members.

Vocally, things were not that rosy last night. I found Cristina Gallardo Domas thin and wobbly in her interpretation of the title role. Her acting is first-rate, however, and she manages to convey the fragility of this Butterfly quite well. Marcello Giordani was a credible Pinkerton, so much so, that he was booed during his curtain calls, not for his singing, which at times sounded force, but for his great interpretation of a heartless Yankee vagabond. If the leads left something to be desired, the roles of Sharpless, Suzuki, and Goro were ably sung by Dwayne Croft, Maria Zifchak, and Greg Fedderly respectively.

The orchestra played well under Ascher Fisch, although I would have liked to have heard what James Levine did with the score on Opening Night. I will have to listen to my Sirius recording of the event to compare.

This production should be experienced for its visual beauty. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Thomas Stewart Dies

The great American bass-baritone Thomas Stewart died this week. He passed away after making par on a golf course. He had turned 78 last month.

Here is the obituary, written by Tim Page, from The Washington Post.

Thomas Stewart died just the way many of us would choose to go -- instantly, in the company of the woman he loved, and on the golf course, immediately after making par.

The great American bass-baritone, who had turned 78 last month, was on the links near his home in Rockville late Sunday afternoon. "He had had heart surgery earlier this year and had not been feeling well for some time, but he was getting along, still active, cheerful and doing things," soprano Evelyn Lear, Stewart's wife of more than half a century, said yesterday. "We went out to the course, played for a while, he made par, and then suddenly turned around and fell backwards. I tried to resuscitate him, but he didn't respond."

Stewart was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead from a massive heart attack.

Onstage, Stewart was a booming, magisterial and frankly awe-inspiring presence (he was, for example, the first American in history to sing the Norse god Wotan in Wagner's complete "Ring" cycle at Bayreuth). Offstage, he was friendly, kind, self-effacing and absolutely unpretentious.

Will Rogers used to say that he never met a man he didn't like; in a similar spirit, I can affirm that I never knew anybody who didn't like Tom Stewart. Yesterday was a day of mourning in the music community -- hours on the telephone, shocked and saddened e-mails floating through cyberspace.

Matthew Epstein, the director of the worldwide vocal divisions at Columbia Artists Management, who knew Stewart for 40 years, called him "just about the most marvelous person in the world, and you'd get agreement with me from everybody from the legendary singers he worked with early in his career, such as Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers, to the young people he nurtured as part of the Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Program."

This last endeavor was especially dear to both Lear and Stewart. In company with the Wagner Society of Washington, the two provided musical guidance for more than 70 aspiring Wagner singers since 2000, presenting two concerts each year.

"Why were the works of Wagner so important to me as an artist?" Stewart asked in an essay he wrote to accompany a recording. "It's because of the marriage of word and music, something every composer seeks to achieve but few accomplish with such perfection. Being a singer who becomes completely absorbed in the text he is singing, I naturally felt an affinity for this aspect of Wagner's art."

Epstein called Stewart a perfect example of what an American singer should be -- "deeply musical, able to sing in many different styles and languages, a wonderful actor with a fabulous vocal technique. He could sing Wotan, and then he could turn right around and sing a comic Italian part such as Verdi's Falstaff. Every director he ever worked with thought he was a great actor. And every musician he ever worked with knew he was a great singer."

Stewart was born Aug. 29, 1928 in San Saba, Tex. After some early studies in electrical engineering in Waco, he moved to New York, where he studied with Mack Harrell at the Juilliard School. After graduation, he sang with the New York City Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he took on the bass role of Raimondo in Maria Callas's American debut in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor."

He married Evelyn in 1955. The two moved to Berlin, where they sang at the State Opera and then throughout Europe, before returning home to the United States for long and distinguished careers with the Metropolitan Opera. For more than a decade, Lear and Stewart have divided their time between Rockville and Florida.

They made many recordings together, a number of which are available on the VAI label; a five-CD retrospective was recently issued on Deutsche Grammophon. Stewart's own favorite disc was one that he made of Wagner's complete "Die Meistersinger von Nuernburg" with the conductor Rafael Kubelik and the soprano Gundula Janowitz that was taped in the late 1960s but, for contractual reasons, never issued until the 1990s.

Tom and Evelyn came over for dinner at my home in Baltimore in early August. He was clearly tired but was grand company throughout the evening, touching on several favorite subjects -- his interest in alternative medicine, his amused skepticism toward any form of religion, news of mutual friends in New York and Washington. After considerable prodding, he favored us with an impromptu, heartfelt and achingly beautiful a cappella rendition of the old folk song "Shenandoah," which rings through my ears as I write this.

It was a performance of depth, strength, courage, love -- all qualities exemplified by Thomas Stewart. The gratitude felt by his friends and admirers is immense.

Madama Butterfly opens new MET season

The Metropolitan Opera's new season opened with a production of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly. This is the first new production of the first year under the new regime headed by Peter Gelb, who promises to bring back to the MET that long lost spark of theatrical excitement and critical praise that has been absent for many a season in America's most important opera house. I will be attending this production on October 21st and will be writing my own review of this production, directed by Anthony Minguella, at that time. For now, here are excerpts from Anthony Tommasini's review in the New York Times.

In the aisles and lobbies during the second intermission of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which opened the season on Monday night before a star-studded audience, patrons could be overheard heatedly debating the puppet used to portray Butterfly’s little boy.

This nonspeaking minor character is typically played by a cute child in a sailor suit. In this production the director Anthony Minguella has introduced a small puppet boy manipulated by three puppeteers cloaked in black who stand behind him. The child moves with eerily human gestures, and his baldish head has a wizened, hopeful yet anxious look.

Some people thought it was “more real than any real child they could have had,” as one patron put it. Others thought it was intriguing but very strange. Somewhere in the house, Peter Gelb, the new general manager of the Met, must have been beaming.

This is exactly what he had hoped for in bringing to the Met the “Butterfly” production that Mr. Minghella, the Oscar-winning film director, originated at the English National Opera in London. It was a major statement for Mr. Gelb to inaugurate his tenure with this production at a time of diminishing audiences at the house and great challenges to the art form. The Met, of all companies, should present innovative, risk-taking work that challenges audiences, generates interest, gets people talking and, most important, keeps people coming.

ou cannot call Mr. Minghella’s concept a modernized staging because the elaborate costumes by Han Feng, filled with stylized flourishes, are meant to evoke the opera’s setting, Nagasaki at the beginning of the 20th century. The sets by Michael Levine have an abstract look, with dull black side walls and glossy black steps, rectangular shapes of radiant reds and greens, sliding panels deftly used to make characters disappear, and a slanted overhead mirror that hauntingly reflects the action onstage.

The captivating imagery of the production is sure to be its least controversial element. At the end of Act I, for example, during the wedding-night love duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton, black-clad dancers form trellises of white lanterns to shield the couple as flower petals fall from on high, and curtains made from strings of petals descend. The use of puppets may be the production’s most debated element. But the image of this puppet child, with his fixed stare and need to know, will stay with me.

Mr. Minghella’s courageous Butterfly was the Chilean soprano Cristina Gallardo-Domâs. A slight-framed and intense woman, she had a riveting presence. She does not have a conventionally lovely voice; her sound is earthy and sometimes a touch strident. To shape supple phrases, she thins her sound and sings with impressive delicacy, though with some loss of richness. And she has a wobbly vibrato in full-voiced top notes. Yet she gave a vulnerable, utterly honest and, in its way, elegant performance.

Pinkerton was played by the Italian tenor Marcello Giordani, who looked a little beefy to play the dashing American Naval officer. Still, he sang with full-bodied Italianate passion; warm, rich tone; and clarion top notes. And I have never seen him act with more involvement and subtlety. As Sharpless, the robust baritone Dwayne Croft was powerless to stop Pinkerton from his callous courtship of the trusting geisha Butterfly. The fine mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak was an unusually impassioned Suzuki, Butterfly’s devoted servant.

James Levine, in his first performance at the Met since having lost four months of work to a shoulder injury, received a tumultuous ovation when he arrived in the pit. If Mr. Gelb is going to take creative chances and lure directors from the film and theater to the Met, he will need more than ever the solid musical grounding Mr. Levine has long brought to the house.

Conducting his first complete “Butterfly” there, Mr. Levine had this familiar score sounding vigorous, lean and intricate. He was attuned to the modernistic touches of Puccini’s harmonies and to the arching lyricism of Puccini’s lines.

Whatever your take on this production, it is sure to be a hot ticket. Everyone will be talking about the Met. When was the last time you could say that?

Muslim Anger Halts Opera

The following appeared on the CNN website today.

BERLIN, Germany
(AP) -- A leading opera house called off a production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" that features the severed head of the Prophet Mohammed, setting off a furious debate Tuesday over Islam, freedom of speech and the role of art.

The furor is the latest in Europe over religious sensitivities -- following cartoons of the prophet first published in a Danish newspaper and recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI decrying holy war.

Kirsten Harms, director of Berlin's Deutsche Oper, (pictured here) announced "with great regret" that she had decided to cancel the three year old production after state security officials warned it could provoke dangerous reactions in the current politically charged climate.

After its premiere in 2003, the production by Hans Neuenfels drew widespread criticism over a scene in which King Idomeneo presents the severed heads not only of the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, but also of Mohammed, Jesus and Buddha.

The severed heads are an addition by director Neuenfels to the 225-year-old opera, which was last performed by the company in March 2004.

Harms defended her decision, which she described as "weighing artistic freedom and freedom of a theater ... against the question of security for people's lives."

But the move immediately provoked strong reactions across Germany.

Outraged politicians called the decision to pull the production "crazy" and "a fatal signal" of caving into extremism. Response from Germany's Islamic community was mixed, with some praising the decision and others calling on Muslims to accept the role of provocation in art.

The leader of Germany's Islamic Council welcomed the move, saying a depiction of Mohammed with a severed head "could certainly offend Muslims."

But in an interview with German radio, Ali Kizilkaya added: "I think it is horrible that one has to be afraid ... That is not the right way to open dialogue."

The leader of Germany's Turkish community said it was time Muslims accepted freedom of expression in art.

"This is about art, not about politics," Kenan Kolat told Bavarian Radio. "We should not make art dependent on religion -- then we are back in the Middle Ages."

Neuenfels has insisted his staging not be altered, saying the scene where the king presents the severed heads represents his protest against "any form of organized religion or its founders."

"I stand behind my production and will not change it," Neuenfels told the Berliner Morgenpost in its Tuesday edition.

The opera house's decision comes after the German-born pope infuriated Muslims by quoting the words of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

Earlier this year, violent protests erupted across the Muslim world after a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad. The caricatures were reprinted by dozens of newspapers and Web sites in Europe and elsewhere, often in the name of freedom of expression.

Islamic law is interpreted to forbid any depiction of Mohammed for fear it could lead to idolatry.

"We know the consequences of the conflict over the (Mohammed) caricatures," Deutsche Oper said in a statement. "We believe that needs to be taken very seriously and hope for your support."

Berlin security officials had warned Harms that staging the opera could "in its originally produced form .... pose an incalculable security risk to the public and employees."

But Germany's interior minister condemned the cancellation.

"That is crazy," said Wolfgang Schaeuble, the country's top security official, speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C. "This is unacceptable."

It is not only Muslims who have been offended by depictions of religion in art.

Last month Madonna sparked criticism from some Roman Catholics in Germany for a show that staged a mock crucifixion. Mel Gibson's 2004 movie, "The Passion of Christ" met with disapproval from some Catholics and some Jews. In 2004, a Birmingham, England, theater canceled its run of "Behzti" after a violent protest by members of the Sikh community.

Still, many in normally open and tolerant Berlin, which has become a home for cutting edge and often contentious artistic productions, cautioned against compromising on issues of freedom of speech and art.

"Our ideas about openness, tolerance and freedom must be lived on the offensive. Voluntary self-limitation gives those who fight against our values a confirmation in advance that we will not stand behind them," said Mayor Klaus Wowereit.

Bernd Neumann, the federal government's top cultural official, said that "problems cannot be solved by keeping silent."

"When the concern over possible protests leads to self-censorship, then the democratic culture of free speech becomes endangered."

Sunday, August 20, 2006

By Any Other Name

The Metropolitan Opera's new text logo in both print and online media has changed with the new Peter Gelb administration. Now, the official line is to call the place "Met Opera" since it is those letters of the official name of the place that have been bolded in all documents issuing from Lincoln Center (see above).

I have heard what's left of the old-guard call the place "The Metropolitan Opera," and for many, many years, the rest of us have affectionately called the house "The Met." Even official radio and TV advertisements, if you remember, adopted this more "user-friendly" name for the house: the announcer would end the thirty second spot with the words "at the MET." One thing I have never heard anyone call this institution, though, is "Met Opera" as the current literature suggests. On the cover of the current issue of Opera News magazine, the house's main propaganda tool, the cover story headline reads "New Direction: Anthony Minghella stages Madama Butterfly at the Met." This opera company is indeed headed into new horizons, but Opera News knows enough about good advertisement to know that the words "the Met" have the necessary gravitas that the words "Met Opera" do not.

I would love it if this got corrected. It's easy. From now on just bold the initial six letters that spell out THE MET, and everything will be solved. At the risk of making this first batch of literature from the house collector's items, please do it right away before more and more people realize the mistake.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Little Wagner at the 2006-2007 MET Season

As one examines the Metropolitan Opera's schedule for the 2006-2007 season as the company gets ready to begin general sales for its inaugural year headed by the new management of Peter Gelb, one can't help but notice the dearth of operas by Richard Wagner. Last year there was no quantity either, but there was quality: an amazing Lohengrin (Ben Heppner, Karita Mattila, and René Pape) and an inspiring Parsifal (Ben Heppner, Waltraud Meier, and Thomas Hampson) each of these productions, as you can see, headed by casts that any opera house would kill for.

Although the revival of Die Mistersinger von Nürnberg, which is the only Wagner on the MET's roster for this upcoming season, looks promising (Johan Botha is back as Walter and James Morris is reprising his critically acclaimed Hans Sachs), I personally wish that we would get Tannhäuser back for another season. Last year's revival production with Hampsen as Wolfram was superb.

Also interesting for next season will be that James Levine will be sharing the podium for Meistersinger with John Keenan, a conductor that I don't know anything about. I don't know if this is a result of his health issues and the fact that Meistersinger is a long stretch, or perhaps, more likely, that the Maestro is overextending himself with his responsibilities in Bean Town. There will only be four performances of Meistersinger this season, and the work will be broadcast on Saturday afternoon, March 10 2007. James Levine will be conducting only the first two performances.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Bayreuth 2006: Parsifal

The Christoph Schlingensief production of Parsifal came back to the Bayreuth Festival for its third consecutive year. Which means that for the third consecutive year overwhelming boos have mingled with applause for this enigmatic, and some might say, disgusting production of Richard Wagner's last work. The first two years of this production were led by Pierre Boulez who added unquestionable charm and tradition to the event. He also decided to take the work at blinding speed. Was it that he could not stand looking at Schlingensief's mish-mash for too long? I had never heard such a fast Parsifal in my life: the first act last year was done in all of ninety minutes: Incredible! Of course, Pierre Boulez retired last year, and this production was handed over to Adam Fischer, who perhaps decided that he had a stronger stomach for this production, and he went ahead with a slower reading of this score.

There is not much to report about the production from just listening to it. This is a Parsifal for the eyes, more than for the ears. There is something absolutely wrong when one has to admit that, but it is so true. What I heard was a good reading of the score, although some voices do not really belong at the Bayreuth Festival, in my opinion, and would fare better at a provincial opera house elsewhere. The star of this show is Christoph Schlingensief, who was booed louder than on previous years.

This Parsifal will play again next year, and then it will be retired. That's an unusually short tenure for a Bayreuth staging. I guess the management (Wolfgang Wagner) has read the awful reviews, and the loud audience reactions. No information has yet been disclosed as to who will conceive the next production of this work.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Bayreuth 2006: Tristan und Isolde

There have been a lot of changes since the last time that I heard this production of Tristan und Isolde, which premiered last year at the Festspielhaus. First, the conductor of the original performances, Eiji Oue, was replaced after very negative critical reviews as well as heavy booing from the festival audiences. Honestly, I really did not think that he had done a bad job at all. The worse that could be said about him was that he led a boring reading of the score, and given the very boring production by director Christoph Marthaler, that had been handed to him, I thought that the two went hand in hand. Nonetheless, Mr. Oue was replaced by Peter Schneider who conducted last year's production of Lohengrin at Bayreuth, and who also subbed for James Levine this year at the MET for three performances of Parsifal.

Andreas Schmidt, who sang Kurwenal last year was replaced by Harmut Welker. This was a good change, but I can't say that Mr. Welker was that much of an improvement. There were more than a few rocky spots in his performance, and the voice seemed shaky and unsure of pitch throughout the performance.

Nina Stemme, Robert Dean Smith, Petra Lang, and Kwangchul Youn all came back to reprise their original roles from last year. Ms. Stemme is one of our most able Isoldes: the voice is strong, steady, voluminous and a pleasure to listen to. Mr. Smith has improved quite a lot since the premiere of this production. This time around, his Tristan sounded steadier and he was able to pace himself much better. As a result, he was able to carry the third act with no vocal mishaps, although you can hear that the voice was getting close to the breaking point. Both Ms. Lang and Mr. Youn (who is a really busy beaver these days at the Festival) ably sang their respective roles. Peter Schneider led an expressive reading of this lush score, but certainly not a memorable interpretation.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Anthony Tommasini at Bayreuth

The following is New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini's review of the Bayreuth 2006 Ring

BAYREUTH, Germany, Aug. 1 — During the curtain calls for any new production here at the Bayreuth Festival, it is practically a tradition for the audience to greet the creative team with a lusty chorus of competing boos and bravos. On Monday night the audience in the Festspielhaus honored that tradition at the end of “Götterdämmerung,” which concluded the festival’s new staging of Wagner’s four-part epic, “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”

Before agreeing to take on the “Ring,” Tankred Dorst, the eminent 80-year-old German playwright, director, filmmaker, storyteller and actor, had done just about everything one could do in theater with one exception: direct an opera.

“My advantage is that I don’t have to continue a career as an opera director,” he said when his appointment was announced. Judging from the audience response and the initial buzz in the opera world, his debut will be heatedly debated for months. I found his work fresh, provocative and mostly effective. But more on that later.

The real hero of the Bayreuth “Ring” is not Siegfried or Brünnhilde, but the conductor Christian Thielemann. Whether the Bayreuth Festival can still claim to be the world’s premier Wagner house has long been an open question. But whatever one’s take on the production, Mr. Thielemann drew a probing, radiant and exhilarating musical performance from this orchestra of dedicated instrumentalists (drawn from top-tier German orchestras), as well as from the robust festival chorus and an involving, if vocally uneven, cast.

Mr. Thielemann, who is not the most articulate talker, has a way of getting into trouble when he speaks of national tradition in German culture. What he means, though, it seems from reading some of his most recent comments, is that German orchestras in the first half of the 20th century brought a natural pathos and a traditional connection to their playing of Wagner. In striving to recapture this quality today, musicians are in a bind. The struggle comes through, and the pathos seems strained. Moreover, Mr. Thielemann, 47, is a conductor with a contemporary sensibility who also wants playing to be incisive and up to date.

This is a difficult balancing act. But he pulled it off in the “Ring.” His tempo for the stormy opening music of Act 1 in “Die Walküre” was on the slow side. The tension came from the clarity he brought to the strangely overlapping lines and riffs. By revealing the complexity of this driving, frightful episode, he made the music seem interesting as well as hypnotic.

As always, he showed keen insight into what could be called musical rhetoric: that is, the ways the phrases begin, end and overlap. The music of the three Norns at the beginning of “Götterdämmerung” was murky and languid, yet never lugubrious, because Mr. Thielemann laid out the intertwining contrapuntal lines with such lucidity. And I will not soon forget the spacious, rich colorings and tragic nobility of the final scene in “Walküre,” when the god Wotan casts a sleeping spell over his rebellious daughter, Brünnhilde, perhaps the most sublimely sad music ever written. Here Mr. Thielemann achieved that elusive mix of pathos and clarity.

Returning to the production, Mr. Dorst was tapped for this assignment only after the festival’s first choice, the acclaimed film director Lars von Trier, withdrew. This could not have been an easy spot for Mr. Dorst. But he is an immensely interesting artist. His production concept was driven by a question that has long dogged “Ring” buffs: What happens at the end with the twilight of the gods? My interpretation has always been that through corruption and overreaching the gods bring about their own destruction. At the end, the Immolation Scene, the gods are gone. For better or worse, mankind will have to get along without them.

Mr. Dorst disagrees, and he is not alone. To him the gods are always with us, continually reliving their stories. But we mortals do not see them. In this production the gods appear in some woefully makeshift contemporary sites as they try to re-enact their sagas. The consistently striking sets were designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann. In many scenes everyday people are going about their business, oblivious to the invisible gods. The exception is a young man with long blond hair, an Adidas T-shirt and a skateboard, who senses the goings-on of the gods around him.

Of course, peopling a scene with modern-day observers can be a theatrical cliché, but not here. The outsiders see nothing, and the concept engages that intriguing question of what happens to the gods. It also helped that Mr. Dorst clearly worked well with the cast, drawing nuanced and poignant portrayals from even the silent characters.

In “Das Rheingold,” when we meet Wotan and his extended family of gods, they are living in what looks like a run-down building in a public park, with a nearby lookout post of dingy stone walls marred by graffiti. When Wotan and Loge, seeking the power of the magic ring, descend to the mine that the maniacal dwarf Alberich is operating, the place is a modern energy plant. A power plant, get it? A meter reader comes through at one point, looking at gauges, unaware that Wotan and Alberich are engaged in a battle of wits.

The home of Hunding, the brut ish clansman, and his oppressed wife, the captured demigodess Sieglinde, looks like some formerly grand estate, now damaged by a street pole with a downed power line that has smashed through a wall. Curiosity-seekers mill about. And when the clouds clear around Wotan striding atop his mountain, the site is revealed to be a hilltop park with a viewing area to which some bicyclists have made their way.

I loved the idea that the best place the calculating dwarf Mime was able to find to rear the young Siegfried was an abandoned classroom, with a chemistry lab table for Mime to mix his potions, a chalk board and an old crib in a cluttered corner where the infant Siegfried once slept. Also striking was the stone quarry that represented Valhalla, where the Valkyries were not doing a good job of serving fallen heroes, here pasty-skinned and delicate young men in lacy robes, sleeping as if dead to the world.

For me, the costumes designed by Bernd Skodzig are the biggest lapse of the production. Mr. Dorst wanted the gods to look alien, not human. Alien is one thing, silly another. In “Rheingold,” the gods’ outfits look like rejects from the “Star Trek” costume shop.

Of the major roles, the most vocally compelling performance was from the bass-baritone Falk Struckmann as Wotan. He sang with earthy tone and plenty of power, fully conveying a god torn by uncertainty and arrogance. The American soprano Linda Watson won fairly consistent ovations for her Brünnhilde. I tried to like her. She sang with vibrancy, with a voice that sliced through the orchestra and, in reflective passages, offered some lovely phrasing. But her sound was just too strident and wobbly for me.

The American Stephen Gould, the Siegfried, is far from a born heldentenor. His voice lacks heroic heft and clarion top notes. But he sang with unflagging verve, acted with agility and pulled it off. Until a real contender comes along, he will do. But in their many scenes together, his work was usually overshadowed by the nasal-toned tenor Gerhard Siegel as a wonderfully impish Mime, a character role.

Andrew Shore was an aptly conniving Alberich. Other standouts were the luminous soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Sieglinde; Hans-Peter König, chilling as Hagen; and the dusky-toned Mihoko Fujimura as Erda and also as Waltraute (in “Götterdämmerung”).

Because of Bayreuth’s unique covered pit, the orchestra players cannot be seen. So it was a lovely touch during the final ovations on Monday when the curtain opened to reveal the musicians standing onstage, instruments in hand, in their dressed-for-comfort wear. They won a huge and much-deserved ovation. And their outfits of colorful T-shirts, jeans, shorts and summer dresses looked a lot better than the production’s costumes.

The Bayreuth Festival runs through Aug. 28, including two more cycles of the ‘‘Ring.’’

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Bayreuth 2006: Götterdämmerung

Every day at the Bayreuth Festival this year there has been some kind of surprising event that makes the entire experience memorable and unique. Without a doubt the most exciting part of the live broadcast of Götterdämmerung was discovering the voice of Hans-Peter König, who sang the role of Hagen. Lately at Bayreuth, this is the kind of role that is being cast with a "mature" artist who brings with him a lifetime of interpretive prowess, but who also leaves much to be desired when it comes to an ability to handle the notes. The role of Kurwenal in last year's new production of Tristan und Isolde was sung by one of these aging beauties, and it was a disaster. That artist was replaced this year, but to no avail. There seems to be a plethora of over-the-hill basses and baritones just waiting to grace the stage of the Festspielhaus.

Imagine what a great surprise it was to listen to Hans-Peter König sail his way through Hagen's treacherous music with absolutely no problem whatsoever. This is the kind of bass that reminds you of Gottlob Frick, the great German bass who sang Hagen in the Sir Georg Solti recording of this opera. Frick was called the "blackest bass in Germany," and although König's voice is not as cavernous, it does have the proper evil, dark quality that is perfect for this role. He was a wonderful discovery, and he made this broadcast of Götterdämmerung a real treat.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Bayreuth 2006: Siegfried

Any new production of Wagner's Siegfried ultimately has to be judged based on the merits of the heldentenor singing the young title role. It is one of the longest roles in opera, and also one of the most difficult. Like Bellini's bel-canto masterpiece, Norma, Siegfried only works if the singer is able to present the public with a credible portrayal of the role by making them aware that the notes on the staff only present the kind of challenge that the singer is able to conquer. Thankfully, this is what happened two days ago when American heldentenor Stephen Gould stepped up to his first Siegfried at Bayreuth. He was an amazing Tannhäuser last year, but during this festival he has proven that he has the right stuff to tackle the really big role. Right from the start his Siegfried rang true with a clean top and secured notes that one rarely hears. Mr. Gould did not warm up to the role, right from his first entrance he came prepared. The worse one can say about his performance is that as the evening progressed, one started hearing a bit of tiredness in his voice, but given the length of the part that is normal. He managed to complete the role without any vocal misshaps whatsoever. These days, that is a really rare event when it comes to the two last operas of Wagner's Ring.

Every evening of this year's Ring production has offered a welcomed surprise. Das Rheingold offered good ensemble singing and wonderfully evocative conducting from Christian Thielemann. Die Walküre revealed the wonders of Adrianne Pieczonka's incredibly beautiful interpretation of Sieglinde. (Clearly she wins the prize for surprise of the summer!) As I write this blog during the intermission between Acts II and III of Götterdämmerung, I am incredibly excited to report that the Hagen (Hans-Peter König) is absolutely out of this world. His call to arms of his vassals in Act II was one of the highlights of this entire Ring. Wow!

Don't forget to catch the rebroadcasts of these performances if you have missed them. They will be playing on Internet radio, and you can get an entire schedule of the upcoming performances by going here.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Bayreuth 2006: Die Walküre

Die Walküre is, and will continue to be, the audience favorite in any complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Audiences will sit through its interminable, but musically exquisite second act (not the favorite act of Walküre lovers) as long as they get an opportunity to listen to the great stormy prelude that opens the opera, the love duet the closes the first act, the familiar "Ride of the Valkyries" at the beginning of the third, and the poignant "Wotan's Farewell" and "Magic Fire Music" that end the work. It is the opera towards which most people gravitate when it comes to the Ring. Not just because it has some of Wagner's most inspired music, but as a result of having the most human elements in the entire cycle. Die Walküre will tug at your heart strings, nevermind that it also does a good job on your intellect.

I have listened to this years's performance of this work from the Bayreuth Festival twice now, and the first thoughts that come to mind is what an amazing job Christian Thielemann is doing with the orchestra. Right before our ears, he is becoming one of the great Wagnerian conductors of our times. This Ring Cycle is exciting, lush, and it promises wonders by the time that it eventually reaches Götterdämmerung.

The other great surprise is the Sieglinde. I must confess that I had not heard of Adrianne Pieczonka before, but now I want to hear her live. Her Sieglinde was focused and touching, and her pretty, lyrical and secured voice made a great impression on me, Her ovation at the Festspielhaus was deafening.

I have also been very impressed by the quality of voice of Falk Struckmann, an artist that I have seen live at the MET, and consider an accomplished singing actor ( I have seen him a number of times in Alban Berg's Wozzeck.) He does have a tendency to push beyond his limits, though, and sometimes he makes some rather less than beautiful sounds. Also, after a long afternoon of singing, he lost his concentration because unfortunately he temporarily lagged behind the beat right at the beginning of the "Leb' wohl, du kühnes." A shame because the rest of his performance was truly first rate.

Linda Watson got through the role of Brünnhilde, but I can't say that her singing pleased me very much. She has a powerful instrument, and she knows what to do with it when it comes to strength. I do wish that she would control the steely edge that it has and bring out the poetry that the role possesses. Likewise, Endrik Wottrich as Siegmund sounded overwhelmed by the role. He has been singing beyond his talents for a few years now, and I wish he would go back to lighter repertory. He was to have sung the role of Erik at the opening night The Flying Dutchman but was replaced at the last moment by Alfons Eberz. It seems that every time Wottrich cancels, Eberz takes over for him. When Wottrich and director Christoph Schlingensief traded insults, and the tenor swore that he would not sing in the current staging of Parsifal, it was Eberz who replaced him, and who will sing the role again this season.

I am very much looking forward to hear how the rest of this Ring turns out.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Bayreuth 2006 has finally arrived!

Thus far there have been three performances at the Bayreuth Festival. The whole thing started on July 25 with a revival of the Freudian staging of Der fliegende Holländer, and by now, half of the new Production of the Ring has been revelaed with a performance of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Check out my website to see pictures of this new Ring production, and while you are there you can also check out the schedule for webcasts for the festival (so you can hear the operas right from the comfort of your own home or office). On my website you can also read reviews of the productions. Go to and click on the Bayreuth tab. By the way, this little picture is a thumbnail of the CD cover that I have designed for Das Rheingold when I record and burn the performance.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Bayreuth 2006 approaches

We are now just days away from the opening of the Bayreuth Festival 2006. This year's edition of the festival opens on July 25 with a revival of Bayreuth's current production of Die fliegende Holländer. However, the focus of this year's festival will be the new production of the Ring directed by Tankred Horst and conducted by Christian Thielemann. Click here for information and rehearsal photos of this new Ring. The festival will also feature revivals of last year's Christoph Marthaler production of Tristan und Isolde, as well as the infamous Christoph Schliengensief production of Parsifal. As usual, performances of this year's festival will be broadcast on the radio and on the Internet. Click here for a schedule of these broadcasts.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Grendel at the Lincoln Center Festival

I saw Grendel, Transcendence of the Great Big Bad last Saturday at the Lincoln Center Festival 2006, and I must say that Elliot Goldenthal's music left very little of an impression on me. Also, can anybody tell me what "Transcendence of the Great Big Bad" means? The only "Big Bad" that I know is Little Red-Riding Hood's wolf, and there is nothing great about him. Last I check, Grendel was not a wolf, but rather a monster, and a rather nasty one too. He is, of course, one of the featured players in Beowulf, one of English literature's most maligned works. At one point or another every English-speaking student has to read some part of the epic, and most people detest the experience. Woody Allen in his film Annie Hall advises Diane Keaton's character, who is thinking of taking an English Lit adult education course at NYU, not to take anything where they make you read Beowulf.

This opera is based less on the epic (although portions of the work are sung in Old English) and more on John Gardner's book of the same name, where the story is told from the monster's point of view. Although this was considered terribly original when the book was published, most American critics were ignorant of the fact that this kind of approach had already been done, many years earlier, by author Jorge Luis Borges in his great short story "The House of Asterión." In this brilliant work, the Argentinean writer retells the story of the Minotaur, approaching it from the point of view of the half-man, half-bull creature that lives in the labyrinth of Crete.

What I did find totally fascinating and fun was Julie Taymor's staging of this work. What an incredible visionary talent she is! Using her trademark puppets and marionettes, she creates a make-believe world that is both remote and familiar. The most memorable part, from the point of view of staging, is the dragon scene. You could feel what every Wagner fan in the house was thinking: A Taymor Ring! She would be the perfect person to stage a Ring that people will actually like, and try to understand, but that is perhaps the topic of another post.

Commanding the stage for the entire evening (he's in almost every scene) was bass-baritone Eric Owens in the title role, who earned a well-deserved standing ovation. He was an excellent monster with a booming voice to match. Denyse Graves also got a big hand for her sultry role as a sexy Dragon. Too bad that Goldenthal was not able to write music for her that truly soared. Only towards the end of her single scene, did the vocal straight-jacket come off, and she was able to sing some rather exciting music above the staff. The fact that this dragon has a tail which ends in a backup trio of "dragonettes" made the scene a popular favorite, but not only did they have very little singing to do, this device was used in another opera, namely John Adams' 1987 work Nixon in China, where Chairman Mao's lines are echoed by a trio of secretaries that follow him around.

Though the lack of originality is clearly evident, I'm glad that I had a chance to see this work. For one thing, I got to see Ms. Taymor at her visually best, and it's a once in a lifetime chance to experience it. I simply don't think that in its current state this opera will see the light of day anytime soon.

Oh yeah -- the wall was great! This massive set, that had caused the work to be postponed in its world premiere, worked without a hitch on Saturday and, as I understand it, throughout the run at Lincoln Center. It was a great thing to behold. Bravo Taymor!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Shanties and Shabeens

The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Martin McDonagh's play at the Lyceum Theater, is a delightful monstrosity. The work about the mindless vicious cycle of violence by members of an IRA splinter group in a remote island in County Galway resonates with the voices, rebel songs, and the cries of Ireland; and it does so with what has to be the most graphic violence ever depicted on a Broadway stage. Last season McDonagh offered us The Pillowman, his first and only play not set in Ireland, and it was a macabre tale where the chills and thrills made you jump right out of your seat, as in a scary movie: a kind of theatrical homage to John Carpenter, if you will. The Lieutenant of Inishmore tips its hat to the violent posturing of Quentin Tarantino, and it borrows buckets of blood and gore from George Romero. All that McDonagh needs are Romero's zombies, but then again, the characters in this play seem to be sleepwalking through life, all of them transfixed on a personal idée fixe that goes from hair narcissism, to blinding cows, to an unnatural devotion to a pet cat and to the cause of Irish freedom. If you have a strong stomach go to see it, just don't expect this old sod to resemble John Ford's The Quiet Man. The absurd situations that put the plot in motion, bring to mind the theatrical world of Samuel Beckett. Indeed, McDonagh's characters are the grown-up, dysfunctional grandchildren of Vladimir and Estragon.

As in Waiting for Godot, and the other works of Beckett, the language of The Lieutenant of Inishmore is truly enchanting. One of McDonagh's great gifts is his way about the English tongue. He can write the most vulgar sentence and let it give off the smell of roses. His words can elevate the shanty to the level of white linen.

Don't miss this production. It is an unforgettable night in the theater. It's the perfect play to see for Halloween, mind you, but don't wait that long, it may not be around come October. See it now!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

You Catching?

The sea. Has there been a greater source of inspiration for composers than the enormous expanse of saline water that makes up the majority of our planet? Maurice Ravel (Une barque sur l'océan) Claude Debussy (La Mer) and Richard Wagner (Der fliegende Holländer) were fascinated by it, were fearful of it, and their music depicting the sounds and the furies of the ocean probably ranks among their most evocative.

Raymond Lustig,
the young American composer and doctoral student at The Juilliard School is following this watery tradition. His You Catching? is a tone poem with narration which has as its central theme the depiction of the sea, and the eternal but fleeting hope of one day catching the big one -- or at least, lots of little ones. It was performed at a New York space called The Stone as part of a CD pre-release concert.

Structurally written so that it reminds this listener of Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, Lustig's work, like Copland's, is totally American in its subject matter and, also like Copland's, it celebrates democratic ideals that are inately American. The text, adapted by Ana Berlin, from weekly reports from a Montauk fishing maven, speaks to anyone who has ever cast a line and hoped and prayed for something to bite. At the same time, it should also speak to anyone who has ever attempted the impossible. It is a very romantic work in this respect, although its musical language is decidedly post-romantic, clearly rooted in late 19th and early 20th century chromaticism, but also in tune with the contemporary language of composition. In You Catching? Ray Lustig, as a composer, is definitely ready to take you on a journey to the edge, but don't worry, unlike many of his peers, he knows how to find the way back. Oh, and by the way: you are going to have fun doing it.

You can hear You Catching? on Avian Music. For more information about this composition you can visit

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

In the Faust legend, the aged philosopher yearns to regain youth, discover love, and seek supreme knowledge. In his quest, he sells his soul to Mephistopheles, who transforms him into a young man and grants him all that he asks, but at the price of his immortal soul. In The Devil Wears Prada, the new movie based on Lauren Weisberger's novel, young Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) sells her soul to fashion magazine Runway for a shot at eventual literary success in New York City. When we first meet her, Andy is oblivious of the bitchy ways of the fashion game and its rules -- her goal, after all, is to become a great writer. But before long, she finds herself under the spell of the magazine's demanding Mephistophelian editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). In order to survive, Anne dashes away her polyester sweaters, and transforms herself into a stunning beauty. It's a pretty nifty reworking of the Faust story as Miranda shows Andy the beautiful world of haute couture, while Andy develops into a glamorous rising star, but at the price of becoming increasingly alienated from her friends, and in peril of losing herself to the Valentino/Prada powers that be of her new circle.

When Meryl Streep delivers one of her bravura performances, it stays with you; her celluloid image is haunting. She has, in previous occasions, achieved this phenomenon namely in The Deer Hunter and in Sophie's Choice, which to my mind, is one of the great performances in American cinema. Here she does it again, this time in a featured comedic role, which is even harder to pull off successfully. The result is one of the most satisfying performances of the summer months. Although her character never speaks above a whisper, Streep manages to command the film. Her Miranda Priestly rules Runway by fear and intimidation, not by histrionics. Her subtle performance draws you in, and within it you will find treasured moments.

Equally priceless are the performances of Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci as two of Andy's co-workers at Runway. They are perfectly cast as underlings who equally adore and despise Miranda and the life that they have scratched and clawed for themselves. Ms. Blunt may not be a household name, but she is an accomplished actress, and she proves to be a fine foil. The well-known Mr. Tucci, sporting the biggest ring in the history of the movies, is delightful as a Yoda-like mentor, pulling $800 shoes off the rack and transforming Ms. Hathaway's character into a stunning beauty.

Anne Hathaway is wonderful in this movie. Her transformation from fashion victim to promising star at the magazine isn't exactly on the same level as Eliza Doolittle learning to talk more "genteel-like" but it is in the same cinematic league. The chemistry between Streep and Hathaway is really what makes the film work. In one of the most memorable scenes, Miranda tells Andy that she sees a lot of herself in the young assistant. Somehow, the audience can see this confession coming. It's the kind of candid reflection which is rare in characters that usually populate summer movies.

In the best stories, characters go through incredible life-changing transformations which catapult them into experiences which they never thought they would live through. This is what all the great stories deliver, and this is what draws us to them. The Devil Wears Prada is one of these great stories, and cinematically it is told in such a likeable way, that I am sure that you will enjoy it very much.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

JOSE +10 Adidas Ad (Part 2)

Here is the second part of the José +10 Adidas commercial that has been running during the broadcasts of the World Cup Games. It's a really nice commercial, and the kids acted very well. It also feels like it must have been a thrill for them to have worked with all of these soccer superstars. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The New Tankred Horst Ring at Bayreuth

We are now less than a month away from the opening of the 2006 Bayreuth Festival and the new production of The Ring, which will be directed by Tankred Horst. In the words of the 80 year-old director, this new production of Richard Wagner's magnum opus will be a "world fairy tale." Even though this reveals very little about the approach the director will take, it does sound somewhat reassuring that it will not try to top Christoph Schlingensief's infamous production of Parsifal, which opened two summers ago to loud boos, and which will play again this summer. In the picture above, director Horst (standing on the left) is talking to Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandson and current Bayreuth festspielchef. The new Bayreuth Ring will open on July 26 with a performance of Das Rheingold.

Monday, June 26, 2006

JOSE +10 Adidas Ad (Part 1)

The first part of the Adidas commercial that is being run during the World Cup coverage. The greatest fantasy football ever played.

I'll post the second part of the commercial soon.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The last ABT Giselle for Julio Bocca

Last week I went to see Giselle in order to see Cuban dancer Xiomara Reyes, and instead found myself at one of the the last performances of Argentinian ballet superstar Julio Bocca. He will be making his last appearance with American Ballet Theater this Thursday in the ballet Manon. You can tell I am not a ballet fan, or rather, that at this point I do not follow the careers of the superstars of ballet because I did not know anything about Mr. Bocca's retirement from the company.

Last Friday's performance of Giselle was magnificent. Xiomara Reyes and Julio Bocca complemented each other beautifully as Giselle and her Count Albrecht. I suppose that I was lucky to attend the performance and experience an up and coming star and a legend ready to retire all in one night. I only wish that I would have been more of a ballet person and been able to enjoy Mr. Bocca's performances earlier. The truth of the matter is that more than likely I have seen him years ago, and did not even know. These things happen when one does not follow an art form. In any case, the performance was really delish and I hope to catch ABT again before the summer is out.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Drowsy Chaperone Awakes and Sings

The American musical is not dead, let's get that out of the way right now! What is dead, buried and pretty much decomposing is the culture that bred the great musicals of the 1940's, the 1950's, and any other decade of the 20th century that produced the kind of lyrical theater that we have been reviving in the past twenty years. Good or bad, musicals are still being written, but they are coming from some pretty odd places (Toronto!) and are being adapted from really unusual property.

Here's the real question we should be asking: Do some people feel that the Broadway musical is so dead that audiences would feel perfectly comfortable paying top dollar to attend a postmortem, postmodern Broadway recreation of a musical? The people behind The Drowsy Chaperone seem to think so, and they have cooked up a cute, totally likeable one act, no intermission diversion that explores the clumsy kind of musical entertainment to which audiences apparently flocked during the 1920's. Watching The Drowsy Chaperone is like going to a really enjoyable lecture where a nameless Theater Queen (Man in Chair) dissects a pretty unimportant work (hell, it's not even a real musical!) in ritualistic fashion for our delight.

Had I seen this show before the Tony Awards, I would have concluded that what creator Bob Martin had in mind was simple homage to a genre he loves, and I would have left it at that. After listening to his Tony Award speech, things became a little more complex, and I concluded that all he had in mind was pure satire. Let's make fun of that second-rate entertainment by those third-rate composers and while we are at it, let's also do a hatchet job on that weird pack that just goes wild over them! Did he not mention in his speech the fact that his Tony Award will now give him a further chance to poke fun of even more musicals? I'm not surprised: Mr. Martin is an alumnus of Second City from Toronto, and this kind of biting satire is their middle name.

Although for true satire to work, a society must have a clear idea of what is being satirized, (and I am not sure how many in the audience were well versed with early 20th century musicals) on one level, I enjoyed The Drowsy Chaperone, although as most people, my knowledge of 1920's shows is quite limited. While enjoying the show, I thought of The Cocoanuts, the Irving Berlin musical that is only remembered today because it was one of The Marx Brothers' biggest Broadway hits, and served as the vehicle for their first film for Paramount Pictures. Later on, in the 1940's, when the brothers moved to MGM (minus Zeppo who became their agent) and made A Night at the Opera, they did to Verdi's Il Trovatore what should be done to Verdi's Il Trovatore, and everybody had a good laugh doing it. Think of The Drowsy Chaperone in this same vein: Bob Martin is doing to The Cocoanuts what could be done to The Cocoanuts; except that he does it with a sharper hatchet, and with songs and lyrics that may not match the style of the times, but which do match the quality of the original music of some of these shows of that time (The Cocoanuts might be the only Irving Berlin musical that does not have a single hit). Just don't expect the same artistic level as the Marx Brothers, and you'll be fine.

The ensemble cast is excellent. Alluding to one of the lines in the show: they all do well with their two dimensional characters in the well-worn plot. Sutton Foster and Tony Award winner Beth Leavel, in the title role, are particularly memorable, but so are Garth and Jason Kravits who play two funny gangsters, and Danny Burstein who plays an oily Latin lover character called Adolpho -- a cross between Rudolph Valentino and Cesar Romero on a bad day.

But it is all Bob Martin's show. As our host he allows us to enter the brain of the Man in Chair. What we find there is a bit complex and really sweet. Watching the show I thought how interesting it would be if the characters that he had conjured suddenly took arms against their creator, giving way to a kind of Luigi Pirandello situation with forgettable songs. Alas, that would not be this kind of a Broadway musical (maybe a Stephen Sondheim musical), and certainly not the kind of fluff that our host is captivated by, and with which he entertains us for a little under two hours.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

"Boys" Night Out

My first Tony Awards Ceremony was really memorable. The seats were great, and the program itself was very enjoyable, probably more enjoyable as a theater piece than as a CBS broadcast, but I would literally have to go to the videotape to prove my above statement. All I know is that I was very pleased that the producers also thought of the thousands gathered there as well as the millions watching it at home, and gave those of us fortunate to have a ticket a very enjoyable show. The Radio City Music Hall itself is a gorgeous venue to hold this kind of award ceremony: the place was made for gowns and tuxedos, and it was great to see the lobby filled with thousands of people in evening attire.

I was also very happy that The History Boys came up the big winner in the play category taking home six of the coveted Tony Awards, including Best Play of the year. It really deserves it, and I was very happy that both Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour won their respective Tonys. It would have been perfect if Samuel Barnett had also won, but he was beaten by Ian McDiarmid from Faith Healer.

Personally, I was very disinterested in the musical scene this year, to the point that I have not seen what ended up being the two main winners in this category: Jersey Boys and The Drowsy Chaperone. I did get to see the memorable revival of Sweeney Todd, and the outrageous East Village version of The Threepenny Opera, but it was The Pajama Game (the one I didn't see!) that took home the prize. I think that I will make my way to see The Drowsy Chaperone this week, though, just to satisfy my curiosity about this work: some swear by it, while others would love to see it buried. Jersey Boys won four awards, while The Drowsy Chaperone won five.

Taking all into account, it was a memorable New York evening, which goes to prove that even though the 60th Tony Awards might not have had scores of historic plays and musicals to honor, just being at such a star-studded glamorous evening makes all the difference.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Tony Awards are this Sunday!

The Tony Awards are this Sunday -- and I'm going! I'll be attending the broadcast for the first time, and I am looking forward to being there during this live television event. Of course, it is one of the shows with the lowest ratings on television, and this poor musical year will not help the show's ratings. I marvel at how CBS keeps the show on its roster year after year! Still, it will be fun to see the stars, and to attend a "black-tie" only affair. Those are becoming very rare these days. I will be sitting there cheering for The History Boys, which I am sure will win the "play" categories. I am sure that The Drowsy Chaperone will sweep the "musical" awards, but that show and I have not yet been properly introduced.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Bayreuth by Frederic Spotts

The book Bayreuth, A History of the Wagner Festival is one of the best written accounts of the history of this famous institution.

The operatic festival Richard Wagner founded in 1876 is the oldest and most famous in the world. It is also the most controversial, for it became the cultural showcase of the Third Reich. In this prize-winning and generously illustrated book--the first to provide a frank and fully rounded history of Bayreuth--Frederic Spotts describes the festival's performances and productions, the Wagner family who have run it. its debasement into "Hitler's court theatre," and its postwar liberation from its chauvinist, anti-Semitic past. Provocative and compelling, the book will fascinate all Wagner enthusiasts as well as those interested in European cultural and intellectual history since 1876.

Buy your copy of this book by clicking here.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Bayreuth 2006 Casts and Production Teams

The Festival Management of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus has announced the following cast lists for the Bayreuth Festival 2006. These lists are, of course, subject to alteration.

New production.
Conductor: Christian Thielemann
Producer: Tankred Dorst
Stage design: Frank Philipp Schlössmann
Costumes: Bernd Skodzig

Wotan: Falk Struckmann
Donner: Ralf Lukas
Froh: Clemens Bieber
Loge: Arnold Bezuyen
Fasolt: Kwangchul Youn
Fafner: Jyrki Korhonen
Alberich: Andrew Shore
Mime: Gerhard Siegel
Fricka: Michelle Breedt
Freia: Satu Vihavainen
Erda: Mihoko Fujimara
Woglinde: Fionnuala McCarthy
Wellgunde: Ulrike Helzel
Flosshilde: Marina Prudenskaja

Siegmund: Endrik Wottrich
Hunding: Kwangchul Youn
Wotan: Falk Struckmann
Sieglinde: Adrianne Pieczonka
Brünnhilde: Linda Watson
Fricka: Michelle Breedt
Gerhilde: Satu Vihavainen
Ortlinde: Amanda Mace
Waltraute: Martina Dike
Schwertleite: Janet Collins
Helwige: Iréne Theorin
Siegrune: Wilke te Brummelstroete
Grimgerde: Annette Küttenbaum
Rossweise: Alexandra Petersamer

Siegfried: Stephen Gould
Mime: Gerhard Siegel
Wanderer: Falk Struckmann
Alberich: Andrew Shore
Fafner: Jyrki Korhonen
Erda: Mihoko Fujimara
Brünnhilde: Linda Watson
Woodbird: Robin Johannsen

Siegfried: Stephen Gould
Gunther: Alexander Marco-Buhrmester
Hagen: Hans-Peter König
Alberich: Andrew Shore
Brünnhilde: Linda Watson
Gutrune: Gabrielle Fontana
Waltraute: Mihoko Fujimara
First Norn: Janet Collins
Second Norn: Martina Dike
Third Norn: Iréne Theorin
Woglinde: Fionnuala McCarthy
Wellgunde: Ulrike Helzel
Flosshilde: Marina Prudenskaja

Tristan: Robert Dean-Smith
Isolde: Nina Stemme
King Mark: Kwangchul Youn
Kurwenal: Hartmut Welker
Melot: Ralf Lukas
Brangäne: Petra Lang
Young Sailor: Clemens Bieber
Shepherd: Arnold Bezuyen
Steerman: Martin Snell
Conductor: Peter Schneider
Producer: Christoph Marthaler
Costume and stage design: Anna Viebrock

The Dutchman: John Tomlinson
Daland: Jaako Ryhänen
Senta: Adrienne Dugger
Erik: Endrik Wottrich
Mary: Uta Priew
Steerman: Norbert Ernst
Conductor: Marc Albrecht
Producer: Claus Guth
Costume and stage design: Christian Schmidt

Parsifal: Alfons Erberz
Amfortas: Alexander Marco-Buhrmester
Titurel: Jyrki Korhonen
Gurnemanz: Robert Holl
Klingsor: John Wegner
Kundry: Evelyn Herlitzius
Squires: Clemens Bieber, Samuel Youn
Grail Knights: Julia Borchert, Atala Schöck, Norbert Ernst, Helmut Pampuch
Flowermaidens: Julia Borchert, Martina Rüping, Carola Guber, Anna Korondi,
Jutta Maria Böhnert, Atala Schöck
Alto soloist: Simone Schröder
Conductor: Adam Fischer
Producer: Christoph Schlingenschief
Stage design: Daniel Angermayr, Thomas Goerge
Costumes: Tabea Braun

Chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Joseph Volpe Gala at the MET

It started at 5:30 pm in the house, and it ended about six hours later. On the radio, WQXR started at 8:00 pm in the East Coast and the broadcast ended around 12:30 am. I am not sure what was on tape and what, if anything, was heard live, but I do know that it was a very special event at the Metropolitan Opera.

Not everybody that was due to appear did, but at this kind of event that's to be expected. It would have been fun to have had Luciano Pavarotti serenade the General Director, but he didn't even show up, unlike Mirella Freni, to bid adieu to his former boss.

Plácido Domingo was there conducting and singing. His conducting was secure and pleasant, his singing was not. It was the first time that I have ever heard Domingo give a mediocre performance at a gala like this. Time waits for no man, and Domingo seems to have held its march well. It might have caught with him that evening. His zarzuela aria "No Puede Ser" sounded tight, and the staple "Granada" even tighter. He didn't even attempt to hit the climactic high B flat. However, I still think that Domingo is the operatic man of steel. I can totally see him rebounding and singing a great performance of something (operatic, I hope) in the near future.

Over the radio, the singer that came off sounding the best was baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Posa's aria from the last act of Verdi's Don Carlo. And while we are at it, the second best singer of the evening was bass René Pape, who sang an amazing rendition of "Ella Giammai M'amo" from the same opera. I can't wait for Pape to sing the role of King Philip after hearing this aria, and I can't wait to hear Dmitri in the role of Posa again. Their fresh young voices made veterans like Domingo, James Morris, and Samuel Ramey sound really old.

By the way, where was Bryn Terfel? I would have loved to have heard some Wagner or Mozart from him.

I hope that there are plans to issue highlights from the evening in DVD. The show will be broadcast on PBS June 1st, so I am sure that the DVD can't be far behind.

When Sir Rudolf Bing retired from the MET in 1972, DG issued an LP of the event featuring the greatest stars of that era. In some ways, the Volpe Gala tried to mimic that incredible event, even to the extend of having a funny song composed just for the occasion (and sung by Deborah Voigt) in the same vein as when Regina Resnik serenaded Sir Rudolf with new words to "Chacon a Son Gout," from Die Fledermaus. Needless to say, the new song just could not compare to the re-worded Strauss composition.

It was a memorable event, but not a perfect one, not by a long shot. Still, I would like to see the video, and I will most likely purchase the DVD of the event when it is issued.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

See George Fall!

See George fall, pick him up, or knock him about. Just use your mouse. Click here

The Da Vinci Code Film Opens Worldwide

It seems to me that if you have a product to sell these days that has something to do, even vaguely, with the Holy Grail, that your numbers have been pretty much in the black for a while, and will continue to remain on that side of the ledger. Just yesterday, for instance, I picked up Piers Paul Read's book The Templars in preparation for the onslaught of Grail talk that will continue to engulf us for a while. The publication of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code in 2003 has sparked an interest in this medieval topic, and has already propelled at least one successful legitimate spoof (Monty Python's Spamalot) that lends a welcome respite from all the serious medieval and conspiratorial plots and subplots that we currently seems to crave. Now with the worldwide release of the film The Da Vinci Code, which opened on May 19, we are back on track, once again submerged in the thick of all things conspiratorial and ecclesiastical, getting lost in both, and not being able to tell one thing from the other, which is the main goal of this new movie.

It is the first blockbuster of the summer, and it will do marvelously at the box-office. Most certainly, every other film this summer will have to compare itself to this one in box-office receipts, and I think that they will all fall short. This bonanza will be further sparked by all the talk-show banter about what the film is advocating, by the recent ruling in favor of Dan Brown in the British courts, and by the recent attacks against the movie by The Vatican, who is spending as much money to denigrate the film as Columbia Pictures is shelling out bucks to promote it.

Now to divulge some deep-seeded secrets that will no doubt stand your hair on end: If I told you that Jesus married Mary Magdalene would you believe me? If I told you that I saw this movie in sleepy Danbury Connecticut and that actor Harvey Fierstein was sitting right in front of me (with a woman!) would you think I had some kind of hidden agenda to report? "There are things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio..." let's just leave it at that.

What director Ron Howard has managed to do in his adaptation of the novel is to turn a juggernaut page-turner into a 148 minute boring day at the museum. Novel adaptations are always fun. The masterful ones (A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather) show us hidden potential that the work merely hinted at on the printed page. The truly awful ones like The Bonfire of the Vanities (also starring Tom Hanks) magnify the original work's deficiencies to the point where the once faithful public now begins to question the integrity of the original source.

Tom Hanks with his long locks, which don't look too bad on him, goes through the film with the same quizzical smirk on his face. Also, early on in the film, Mr. Hanks delivers a line from the script that contains a factual mistake concerning the garb penitents (not priests) wear during Holy Week in Spain, and this destroys for me the cinematic character of Robert Langdon right from the outset. A Harvard professor would not make this kind of error. Audrey Tautou plays it much too quiet and insignificant considering the secret that she carries, and Paul Bettany is much too pretty and not threatening enough physically as the deranged monk Silas. This is Paul's second film for Ron Howard where he plays a ghost either literally or figuratively. Jean Reno is not too effective as a French policeman. He was a lot more successful playing Gendarme Gilbert Ponton in this year's The Pink Panther than playing a legitimate cop in this film. The only one who survives this movie is Ian McKellen. That twinkle in his eye, and the way he caresses every line assures us that he knows exactly that all of this is Hollywood dribble. By not approaching it with any kind of seriousness at all, he makes us believe that he is the most serious performer in the entire cast. Bravo Sir Ian for making the two hours plus duration of this film bearable!

It's not that I hated The Da Vinci Code, it's just that I think it could have been trimmed down, speeded up, and it would have made a better film. This is the kind of story that needs Hollywood's smoke and mirrors in order to work. You need to fool the people into believing your side of the story. If you go slowly into it, you end up possibly exposing all the tricks, and the illusion is lost. This is the problem with Ron Howard's movie: it takes the subject matter way too seriously, and approaches it the same way you would a ponderous medieval tome. It's just a novel! It's just a movie! Entertain, don't preach!