Friday, February 23, 2007

Lorin Maazel to conduct at the MET

The following bit of news appeared in The New York Times on February 22. The article is by Daniel J. Wakin.

It took only 45 years, but Lorin Maazel is returning to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera.

Mr. Maazel, the music director of The New York Philharmonic will lead five performances of Wagner’s Die Walküre in a run from Jan. 7 to Feb. 9, 2008, the Met said yesterday.

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said the appointment — which was announced a week before next season’s unveiling — was part of a long-held plan.

“It’s been my intention from the beginning of my appointment to populate the Met with the world’s greatest conductors,” Mr. Gelb, who took over this season, said in a telephone interview. “To have Lorin Maazel conducting ‘Walküre’ next season is a great coup.”

Asked why it had taken so long for him to return to the Met, Mr. Maazel said there was no particular reason. “Once in a while they would contact me about some project, which somehow didn’t work out because I was busy elsewhere, or about a revival of something I was not interested in being involved in,” he said. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles. It happens to many artists.” He also said he was busy over the years with other opera projects.

Mr. Maazel said he was particularly attracted to the tenderness of “Walküre.” “There’s that kind of warmth and passion that appeals to me greatly,” he said. The choice was a surprise because, as Mr. Gelb put it, Wagner is the “musical territory” of James Levine, the Met’s music director and one of the world’s leading Wagner interpreters.

But Mr. Gelb said that Mr. Levine decided to step back from the production because of scheduling conflicts. Mr. Gelb said he approached Mr. Maazel after a Philharmonic concert last month to congratulate him and raised the idea, pointing out how long it had been since Mr. Maazel had conducted at the Met: the 1962-63 season, when he led performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier.”

“He seemed pleased,” Mr. Gelb said. Remarkably, for a profession famous for dates being booked years in advance, Mr. Maazel had time free for the “Walküre” run, Mr. Gelb said.

Mr. Maazel, who has extensive experience conducting opera and running opera houses, said that at one point he had sworn off the art form.

“I was getting tired of wrestling with stage directors, and all the problems that opera houses have, organizational ones,” he said. “I’ve never been able to stand by that. I have stage dust in my nostrils.”

Thursday, February 22, 2007

New Production of Tannhäuser in Frankfurt

It is good to be able to report some Wagner news. A new production of Tannhäuser is playing in Frankfurt. Here is a review from Bloomberg News:

Wagner Hero Is Aging Rocker in Frankfurt Tannhäuser

By Catherine Hickley

Tannhäuser is an aging rocker forced to choose either social respectability or degenerate exile with the bewitching and vampish Venus in Vera Nemirova's Frankfurt production of Wagner's 1845 opera.

It's the 34-year-old Sofia-born director's way of dramatizing Wagner's conflict between profane and sacred love, which has lost relevance in an age when sex is used to sell everything from tires to insurance. More typically, Tannhäuser is a medieval troubadour whose fling with Venus brings exile and misery, but also forgiveness from the saintly burg-dwelling Elizabeth.

Nemirova starts the show during the overture, bringing up the curtain on a group of young pilgrims strewing mats and backpacks on a near-empty stage. Clad in unstylish camping gear, they clamor around a large wooden crucifix, arms outstretched in ecstasy.

They then toss aside their clothes to bathe, before morphing, trance-like, into a group of writhing, heaving bodies. Remorse and more crucifix-worshipping follow.

Enter Venus (Elena Zhidkova), with a bottle of red wine and her boyfriend Tannhäuser (Ian Storey). Zhidkova looks great, with a mane of honey-blonde hair that she tosses and preens to show- stopping effect. She is beautiful and yet verges on the sluttish in her frilled spotted skirt, red fishnet stockings and cowboy boots. No aging rocker would resist.

When Tannhäuser finally escapes from Venus to find his way back to the Wartburg, the first people he meets are his former singing friends. In Nemirova's version, the Minnesänger are a bunch of middle-aged crooners of the type often invited to sing at weddings. Johannes Leiacker's inspired costumes include purple frilled shirts under black suits for the singers.

Nemirova's satirical Act Two transforms the singing contest into a modern-day provincial German fest, complete with live coverage by regional television, ribbon-cutting by a local politician, hostesses in black top hats and an advertisement for the beer company sponsoring the event beamed onto a screen at the back of a stage. It's perfect and drew a chuckle from the opening- night audience.

The third act is sparser and focuses on the emotions of the players. The singing at the premiere was wonderful, with Danielle Halbwachs giving a memorable performance as the unfortunate Elisabeth. Her voice is rich and expressive. Zhidkova skulks broodingly in the background, the light creating a halo of smoke from her cigarette, while Tannhäuser wrestles with his conscience.

Christian Gerhaher, singing Wolfram, won the loudest bravos from a largely appreciative audience. Paolo Carignani, the house music director, also earned warm applause. Nemirova, whose Dresden Euryanthe was highly acclaimed last February, had to field some boos for her lively, humorous and highly watchable take on this old tale.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Simon Boccanegra at the MET

Giuseppe Verdi found inspiration time after time in the history and literature of Spain. Some of his best works, such as that perennial favorite, Il Trovatore, not only take place in Spain, but were adapted from the work of Spanish playwright Antonio García Gutiérrez. This is also the case with that most Italian of all Verdi operas Simon Boccanegra, which was adapted from the 1843 capa y espada García Gutiérrez play Simón Bocanegra. Verdi completed the first version of this opera in 1857. It was revised many years later, and many improvements were made especially in the orchestration. It is this revised version that The Metropolitan Opera is currently presenting.

It is quite surprising that Verdi, the most nationalistic of all Italian opera composers, would find inspiration in a work from a Spanish author, given that the events of the drama take place about a 100 miles from his native Parma, and that the spirit of the great Italian humanist poet Petrarch resonates through the work. This could very well be the reason why the work's libretto (by two of Verdi's greatest collaborators, Francesco Maria Piave and Arrigo Boito) does not always seem to hang together, and oftentimes feels removed from the action it is trying to portray and the historical epoch which is trying to revive. Verdi's music is also not the most inspired. The score, many times, fails to ignite the spark of some of his best-known works, although it serves as a workshop for some musical ideas that he would later develop in some of his late works, primarily Otello, whose musical landscape is already apparent in Simon Boccanegra.

The MET has assembled a stellar cast for this production, headed by Thomas Hampson singing his first Doge of Genoa at the house. Hampson has always been an artist who carefully selects his roles, and he is at the point in his career when opera houses will mount works as vehicles for him. In turn, he always offers a studied, lyrical interpretation of the role, although his expressive singing is not always a favorite by everyone in the house, especially those that can remember the thunder and lightning approach of singers from previous generations. Angela Gheorghiu sounded somewhat small as Amelia, by comparison with the ample-voiced Jacopo Fiesco of basso Ferrucio Furlanetto. I am also very happy to report that Marcello Giordani sounded magnificent in the role of Gabrielle Adorno (isn't that the prettiest character name for a tenor?) his ringing top assuring us that he is the real deal.

The production by Giancarlo del Monaco holds up quite nicely. The elaborate council chamber of the Doge's palace set never fails to impress, although Monday night's audience was applause-happy throughout the evening, supporting the singers and the settings during times when silence would have been more in order. Conductor Fabio Luisi kept things running smoothly, and he relished the fleeting moments of tone-painting that make this one of the most unique Verdi scores.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Last King of Scotland

I finally got around to watching Kevin MacDonald's The Last King of Scotland, the powerful film about the relationship between Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan. The film offers a powerhouse performance by Forest Whitaker as the Ugandan dictator, and James McAvoy as the young doctor who befriends the dictator. Recognizing that the young doctor is an extremely capable physician, Amin handpicks him to be his personal doctor. The film details Amin's descent into madness as he orders the death of 300,000 of his countrymen in one of the bloodiest reigns of terror in history. For Dr. Garrigan, it was supposed to be a wild adventure in a far-off country, but when the naive young doctor arrives in 1970’s Uganda hoping for fun, sun and the chance to lend a helping hand, he finds himself instead on a shocking ride into the darkest realm of the human heart.

It is one of the most enjoyable films that I have seen this year and, historically, Hollywood has been very quick to give its Academy Award to an actor who offers an outsized performance. Therefore, I definitely see an Oscar in Forest Whitaker's future. He gives a memorable portrayal of the feared dictator in a performance that combines sudden outbursts and quiet, tender moments: both extremes being equally memorable and very scary, as Whitaker crafts a performance that one does not easily forget.

I hope you get an opportunity to see this film either before or after Forest Whitaker picks up his Academy Award for Best Actor.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Of Oscars, Mexican Directors, and the Bible

With the Oscars ceremony a mere twelve days away, and the nomination of Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, and Babel for major awards, the American public is realizing that the world of cinema is experiencing a Mexican Renaissance. The directors of these three movies were all born in the country that in the 1940's and '50's gave us Emilio Fernández, María Félix, Gabriel Figueroa; and, of course, the country which harbored Luis Buñuel after the Spanish Civil War, and allowed him the artistic freedom to grow as an artist.

The present "Nueva Ola" started when the New York Film Festival premiered Guillermo del Toro's Cronos in 1993, and it continued in 2000 when the French and American public discovered Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros at Cannes and, later in the same year, again in New York City. Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También soon followed a year later. Since the press and the public likes these things in threes, the stage was set. These three film directors are the new "Los Tres Grandes," to borrow the phrase that was often used to describe the three great muralists of Mexico's Revolution (Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros).

And now, since religion and Latin America cannot really be separated, allow me to present to you a really interesting coincidence. The following excerpt is from the eleventh chapter of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament.

"And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the Children of Men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth."

The last time that two titles of movies were taken from the same portion of the Bible it was in the 1960's when Ingmar Bergman consciously decided to use a verse from the book of Corinthians as inspiration for two of his masterpieces: "For now we see Through a Glass, Darkly; but then Face to Face."

I hope that you get to enjoy these new masterpieces from the New Wave of Mexican Cinema.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A New Ring for the MET is announced

The following exciting news was reported on Playbill arts:

Peter Gelb, the new general manager of The Metropolitan Opera, revealed some juicy casting information to New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini during a TimesTalks event on Saturday January 5.

The Times reported that, during the panel discussion, Gelb revealed that soprano Deborah Voigt will sing her first (and eagerly anticipated) complete Brünnhildes, tenor Ben Heppner will sing Siegfried and bass-baritone Bryn Terfel will sing Wotan. (The Associated Press subsequently reported that tenor Jonas Kaufmann would take the role of Siegmund in Die Walküre.) Canadian theater director Robert Lepage will direct the new staging of Wagner's four-part epic, which begins in the 2010-11 season. A full cycle will be performed in the 2011-12 season (the third that Gelb will have overseen in its entirety). Company music director James Levine is scheduled to conduct.

The Met will present its current Ring production, by Otto Schenk and Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, once more, during the 2008-09 season, before retiring it.

Saturday's TimesTalks event was presented at CUNY Graduate Center as part of the Times's annual Arts & Leisure Weekend.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

American Songbook: Jason Robert Brown

Last night I was very fortunate to be a part of the American Songbook series at the Allen Room inside the AOL-Time Warner Building. As a member of the Juilliard Choral Union, directed by Judith Clurman, we sang back-up to Jason Robert Brown. If you've never heard of Jason, you should know that he is the Tony award winning composer and lyricist of the musical Parade, and one of the handful of young post-Sondheim composers who are instilling new life to what has often been called a moribund art form. Playing with Gary Sieger on guitars and Randy Landau on bass (Jason provided his own percussion via his busy stomping left foot), the evening also included two amazingly talented singers: Laura Benanti and Rozz Morehead.

The men and women of the chorus sang the stirring "The Old Red Hills of Home" from the musical Parade, the touching anthem "Music of Heaven," and "Hear My Song" from his show Songs for a New World. Regretfully, at the very last minute, Jason decided to cut one number: his poignant "Coming Together," a song which he wrote six days after the events of September 11.

The men of the chorus were fortunate to be featured in a really cute number called "Being a Geek," in which we paraded up to the stage in über-geeky fashion and served as a kind of Geek (or is that Greek?) chorus to Jason's autobiographical 1950's-style confession of what it's like to be uncool. The sold-out audience at the Allen Room ate it all up, and the number got one of the biggest hands of the evening.

It was a great way to spend a Friday evening, and if you were at the concert, let me know what you thought of it.