Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hans Jürgen Syberberg and I

A few weeks ago I was invited by Per-Erik Skramstad, the webmaster of, to submit my choices for favorite important and influential recordings, in CD and DVD's, of Richard Wagner's operas. I have just read his article, and little did I realize that I was going to be in such prestigious company. Click here in order to see my choices, as well as the choices of some of my fellow Wagnerites, who include filmmaker Hans Jürgen Syberberg, author Penelope Turing, the Artistic Director of the Royal Danish Opera, Kasper Bech Holten, baritone Detlef Roth, and many others. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Here We Go Again!

It's Groundhog Day at The Metropolitan Opera -- all over again.

Illnesses and tenor replacements in the opera Tristan und Isolde have been the norm at the MET for a long time while, at the same time, rock-solid Isoldes have been able to survived whole runs of the opera unscathed. The most famous of these events, of course is when powerhouse soprano Birgit Nilsson sang the role with a different Tristan for each act.

Last year, the broadcast of Tristan und Isolde featured tenor Robert Dean Smith who flew in to New York to replace the ailing Ben Heppner. Smith had been the Tristan in the new production at Bayreuth, and although the American tenor had some problems tackling the monumental role up at the Green Hill, he did a satisfying and creditable job as a replacement here in New York last March. In my own review of the performance on this blog, I called his coming to the rescue a triumph.

Also, I don't think we have forgotten that Mr. Smith debut at the MET was just the tip of the iceberg to another multi-leveled drama that occurred last year. John MacMaster, Heppner's replacement was himself replaced after being boed during one of the Tristan performance. It was after that event that Gary Lehman came in, and he was warmly greeted by the MET audience. Of course, this is the same Gary Lehman who at the next performance clunked his head on the MET's prompter's box when the contraption where he lies on in Act III barelled down the inclined stage of the MET, out of control. He would have gone right into the orchestra pit like an out of control toboggan, had his head not stopped the momentum of the speed at which he was sliding down. Incredibly, he finished the performance, although friends that were there told me that he just wasn't the same after the incident. Despite everything, many people last season believed that Mr. Lehman sang very well and deserved to sing the radio broadcast.

This year he is getting his chance. Peter Seiffert, this season's Tristan is ill. The tenor has only sung the opera's premiere (the evening I attended), and rumors are wild as to whether or not he knows this role well enough: at the premiere he was spotted wearing a prompter's electronic earpiece. At the second performance on December 2nd, Gary Lehman filled in for Sieffert. This afternoon he is scheduled to sing the role of Tristan at the Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcast. Let's see how he comes across. This might be the beginning of something big for this rising opera performer.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Confessions of a MET insider

This was sent to me today, and I thought that it would be appropriate to post here. Here is some of the musical backstage drama that occurred last week as Daniel Barenboim was preparing his MET opera debut conducting Tristan und Isolde.

"His approach to the orchestra was very arrogant. He has a way of presenting his ideas as though it is our fault that we didn't think of them. Nevertheless I think most people admired his musicianship and either learned or were reminded of a lot of important musical values. On the other hand, while every phrase was beautiful, I don't think he got the same shape, intensity, and drama that Levine gets. I think a lot of the problems resulted from his disorganization at the rehearsals.

"We had nine hours of rehearsal with the orchestra alone, and other than a cursory run of the Vorspiel, we never played longer than 10 seconds at a time. He jumped around from spot to spot for 3 long mornings, unsure of how to proceed. It's very difficult to recover from that sense of disjointedness and disorientation. Once we reached the pit, he decided after an hour that our usual setup would not work, so he radically reorganized our seating. Whereas we usually sit more or less like a normal orchestra (with the winds in the middle) he moved all the strings left and all the wind and brass right. The 1st Violins were moved into a formless mass surrounding the podium and the seconds to where the firsts normally sit. The winds are now way off to the right. I happen to like this seating, mostly because it brings the string section together as a unit, but it takes a lot of getting used to, esp after years the other way. I think he likes to keep everyone (including himself) guessing. It's a power thing. I suspect the performances will improve as we remember the sweep of the piece and get used to the new seating. It's been refreshing… it's always great to do something differently, and Barenboim is very good at demanding accountability from everyone (not JL's strong point). We are all on the edge of our seats, in a good way, but I miss a certain depth that Levine gets from this most profound piece."

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Tristan und Isolde und Barenboim at the MET

The commentary that I hear most often by New York seasoned opera goers is that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is a well-oiled machine. Even I, after a particularly satisfying performance, have used similar words to describe this fine orchestra. I have always understood this comment to be a loving compliment which has its roots as a response to the many years when the pit at the MET was not the best musical ensemble in New York City. On the whole, however, I object to this robotic comparison which seems to turn the players into a group of automatons where the conductor pushes a button and off they go playing whatever score is in front of them as predictably as the holes in a piano roll. I am sure that the majority of the players, as a result of their musicianship and the repetitive aspect of opera production, know their parts inside and out, but I hardly think that they should be compared to a heartless machine that just plays the right notes. The greatest achievement that James Levine has accomplished with the orchestra is that he has populated it with intelligent musicians who are flexible enough to be responsive to just about any conductor who comes in to lead them.

This is exactly what happened on Friday night when Daniel Barenboim finally made his debut at the MET conducting the 450th performance of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Peter Seiffert might have been singing his first Tristan along with Katarina Dalayman's first Isolde, but as far as Friday night's audience was concerned all eyes and ears were on the debut occurring in the pit. And the orchestra did not let him down. It responded to Barenboim's baton with such incredible passion and precise playing that in gratitude the maestro made the orchestra stand up to receive the audience's enthusiastic ovation at the beginning of each act.

What does it take to get this incredible sound? An orchestra of accomplished flexible musicians. Under Levine, Tristan und Isolde is a robust wonder, sure of itself at all times and marvelously sonorous. In Levine's hands we are reminded that this opera brings the Romantic movement to its apogee while destroying it completely. In contrast, Barenboim elects to concentrate less on musical history historic; instead his Tristan und Isolde reaches into the dark night of love via his expansive tempi, slowing down the rhythms, and causing the final "Liebestod" conclusion to explode with incredible passion. At the risk of making it all too simplistic, Levine is about precision and brains, while Barenboim is more about instinct and heart. And over and over again, the MET orchestra delivers no matter who carries the baton.

On stage, the musicianship was equally strong. Both Seiffert and Dalayman were excellent in the title roles. Acts I and II were simply perfect. Seiffert survived the musical onslaught of Act III, although his voice was, at times, pushed to its limit. Dalayman sang a very strong Act I and II. However, when she came in at the end of the opera to sing its famed conclusion, it seemed as if her voice had lost much of the warmth we had heard earlier. The "Liebestod" came out a bit breathy, the sound quality totally different from the previous two acts.

Gerd Grochowski's splendid, vocally secured Kurwenal was greeted with enthusiastic applause, and Michelle De Young's Brangäne was a tower of strength in all three acts. The biggest ovation of the evening was reserved for René Pape who returned to the MET to reprise his well-known characterization of King Marke. A very popular singer at the MET, Pape never disappoints. His expressive phrasing and clear diction always make his Act II monologue heart wrenching. Pape will be singing the role for only two performances. South Korean bass Kwangchul Youn, one of the current staples at The Bayreuth Festival for the past few summers, will replace him starting with the December 6th performance.

New York is once again enjoying a very strong revival of Tristan und Isolde. This is probably one of the strongest casts that can be assembled for this opera. It will be playing throughout the month of December. Don't miss it!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Tonight: Daniel Barenboim at the MET

When Argentinian-born Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim leads a world-class orchestra, the performance immediately becomes a high profile event. When Barenboim conducts the music of Richard Wagner, the event transcends the boundaries of art and enters into the realm of politics, with ramifications that stretch from the Middle East right to New York City.

In 2001 when Barenboim decided to conduct Wagner's music in Jerusalem at the annual Israel Festival his decision was met with severe criticism from many prominent Israelis, including Ephraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who said that what Barenboim did amounted to "cultural rape." The state of Israel has always had an unwritten ban on Wagner's music because he was Adolf Hitler's favorite composer and because Wagner's music was instrumental in the inspiration of the Nazi cultural propaganda that sprang in the decade of the 1930's and on through the War Years.

If you remove Barenboim's outer layers of virtuoso pianist and world-class conductor, however you will find in his inner core the role of humanitarian and peacemaker. As Oliver Mark reported in Time magazine:

"A classical-music conductor taking the podium always becomes a peacemaker of sorts. The central mission of conducting, after all, is to dispel discord and bring dozens of competing voices into concert. The Israeli maestro Daniel Barenboim, 65, sees in this act the opportunity to bring a deeper kind of harmony to one of the most violent and vociferous regions in the world: the Middle East."

One of the maestro's current projects is the West-Eastern Divan Youth Orchestra, an organization that he formed with the American-Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. The ensemble draws together Israeli and Arab musicians, many from disputed territories. The orchestra under Barenboim's direction has played in Weimar, Germany under the shadow of the ruins of the Buchenwald Nazi death camp, as well as in Ramallah in the West Bank, where the musicians played under armed guard.

In January of this year it was reported that the conductor was granted Palestinian citizenship. He is believed to be the first person in the world to possess both Israeli and Palestinian passports.

Now he finally comes to New York to make his debut at the Metropolitan Opera conducting a stellar cast in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The same work with which he opened La Scala, in Milan this season. It is not the first time that New York will hear his "Tristan." He also conducted the work back in the fall of 2001 in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall.

His MET debut tonight may not have the political gravitas of his daring historic concerts in the Middle East, however we must not forget that New York is home to the largest Jewish population outside of Israel and that when it comes to the music of Wagner and particularly when the anti-semitic aspect of Wagner the man is brought to the forefront, emotions can and do run high. It promises to be a very interesting and important debut tonight.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

La Damnation de Faust at the MET

The Metropolitan Opera has not staged La Damnation de Faust since the beginning of the twentieth century (1906); however, this season the MET has revived this unusual work by Hector Berlioz in a decidedly 21st century production. Not entirely big enough to be called an opera, and at the same time too grand to be labeled a mere oratorio, La Damnation de Faust is a unique work that even though might defy categorization ends up being one of the composer's most satisfying creations.

The MET's new production by Robert Lepage (who will be directing the MET's upcoming new Ring of the Nibelung production) makes extensive use of interactive video projections that seem to react to the movement and voices of the actors (Is this the stylistic and directorial approach that he will take with the MET's new Ring?). The result is a phantasmagoric, and at times surreal staging that requires a degree in computer sciences to fully understand, but which manages to be artistic and relevant to Berlioz's music drama.

The composer is just one among many who obsessed over Goethe's epic drama Faust. History tells us that Berlioz read it constantly in a French prose translation by Gérard de Nerval. He even co-wrote the libretto along with Almire Gandonnière. When it came time to write the music, Berlioz created a score of extreme beauty and great power. I think he knew that it was impossible to match the breath and scope of Goethe's masterpiece, but it didn't stop him from letting his own genius go to work on the Faust legend. The result is one of the great adaptations of Goethe's work, rivaled perhaps only by Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele.

Had the MET mounted this work twenty-five years ago, it would have starred Plácido Domingo, Jessye Norman, and Samuel Ramey and I am sure that it would have been one for the ages. The current cast, which features Marcello Giordani as Faust, Susan Graham as Marguerite and John Relyea as Méphistophélès may not ignite the vocal fire of my dream team, but they each do a fine job throughout. John Relyea is particularly strong in the vocally showy role of the devil. His costume, which is reminiscent of the garb usually worn by bass-baritones performing Gounod's Faust circa the late 1890's, is memorable in an old fashioned way, and it makes for an excellent contrast to the otherwise ultra-modern production.

James Levine conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with great flair. The result was a polished reading of Berlioz's quirky score which was matched only by the intensity and polish of the MET's chorus under the direction of Donald Palumbo. Their singing was one of the true highlights of the evening.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Nixon in China comes to the MET

I was very happy to find out this week that the opera Nixon in China is finally coming to The Metropolitan Opera. John Adams's first work for the lyric stage, last seen in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the late 1980s, will be presented by the MET in the original Peter Sellars production. This will happen during the 2010-2011 season.

I remember vividly when I went to see one of the sold-out performances of Nixon in China at BAM. It was an event! Everyone there knew that they were witnessing the birth of an important new opera, something rare for our times. I remember that in those days I was just getting interested in minimalism. I was no stranger to the music of Philip Glass, whose Einstein on the Beach had made its MET debut, for one performance on a Sunday, years earlier. I remember that at that time I found John Adams's score more symphonic, and filled with more details than any Glass score I had heard. Glass treated the entire orchestra as if it was one big repetitive instrument, while Adams's orchestration brilliantly showcased the different parts of the ensemble. I also remember that during the first intermission I caught sight of Philip Glass sitting down a few rows behind me. In my mind Glass had come in to get some pointers, perhaps steal a few musical ideas here and there from John Adams: I was so young at the time!

I find it interesting that Peter Gelb has decided to present Nixon in China in the original production devised by Peter Sellars, and thus patch things up with the director-librettist. Every John Adams opera has had Sellars in the role of collaborator, and it is good that he will be represented alongside the composer when Nixon in China makes its debut.

Of course, we all know that Gelb did not think much of Sellars's original conception of Doctor Atomic and thus had a new production mounted for that opera's MET debut last week. In many ways it was sad that Sellars's production did not grace the MET's stage. It had proven itself to be worthy in San Francisco as well as Chicago. Some critics even preferred it to Penny Woolcock's current production at the MET. Sellars was nowhere to be seen during the curtain-calls at the MET premiere even though he is the opera's librettist. Let us hope that the new production of Nixon in China buries the hatchet between the MET and Peter Sellars.

In the meanwhile, I can't wait for the 2010-2011 season to get here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Doctor Atomic premieres at the MET

Doctor Atomic is the third major work for the operatic stage by composer John Adams. It was given its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera in 2005 in a production by its librettist, Peter Sellars. Since then that production, which revolves around J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the first detonation of an atomic bomb, has been performed at Lyric Opera of Chicago and in Amsterdam. On Monday, Doctor Atomic came to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in a whole new production staged by Penny Woolcock.

Twenty years ago I attended one of the performances of Nixon in China at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. John Adams's first work for the operatic stage was a landmark late 20th century production, and it catapulted this composer to the forefront of the operatic world. Minimalism is still the driving style of this work, but don't expect the easy chord progressions and consonance that made Nixon in China so appealing. Doctor Atomic is a mature work. and Adams's music now features more dissonances and complex rhythms than ever before. Also, the opera is filled with instances of electronic sounds as well as recorded rumbling effects that were so powerful that they gave the impression that they were dangerously shaking the very foundations of the opera house.

If at times Doctor Atomic appears to be a bit episodic and disjointed, the culprit might just be Peter Sellars's libretto which is made up of memoirs, letters, and transcripts of conversations (which recently became declassified) of the actual members of the Trinity project at Los Alamos. Adding further distance, Sellars also weaved into the libretto poems by John Donne, Muriel Rukeyser and Charles Baudelaire. The first act ends with Oppenheimer singing an aria whose words are adapted from John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV "Batter my heart, three person'd God." It ends up being the most moving and memorable part of the entire evening. In the second act there is an amazing choral number based on the text of the Bhagavad Gita (which Oppenheimer could read in its original Sanskrit), where the wrath of the god Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, is invoked as the minutes tick down to the first nuclear blast.

Many of the singers at Monday's premiere were reprising their roles from the San Francisco world premiere. These include Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer, Richard Paul Fink as Edward Teller, and Eric Owens as General Leslie Groves. All of them gave wonderful performances. Gerald Finley was in astonishingly good voice on Monday, and his portrayal brought out all the complexities, doubts and fears of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The production by Penny Woolcock, with sets by Julian Crouch, sets the action on a unit stage of compartmentalized niches, flying debris and white sheets which are suspended on wires to form New Mexico's Oscura Mountains. For most of the evening, the bomb, which is a gray iron orb covered with a maze of dangerous looking wires, hovers above the action like a malignant moon.

Doctor Atomic is not an easy evening at the opera, and if you don't like modern music, you should stay far away. But if you are interested in operatic theater that attempts to broaden the horizons of the art form, then make sure that you catch the remaining performances of this important new production.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The NY Film Festival concludes with The Wrestler

In Darren Aronofsky's sentimental new film The Wrestler, which closed this year's 46th annual New York Film Festival last night, Mickey Rourke, in a comeback role reminiscent of John Travolta's in Pulp Fiction, plays Randy "The Ram," a down-and-out, has-been wrestler preparing to stage a jingoistic re-match with an old arch-enemy named the Ayatollah. Nevermind that after a lifetime of steroid and physical abuse, Randy should not be anywhere near a ring, especially after suffering a near fatal heart attack. In the course of the film, Randy exiles himself from the ring, and takes a job at the deli counter of a supermarket to pay the bills. Needless to say, it is a career move that can neither sustain nor contain him. In Aronofsky's world the wrestler is a mythic American hero, and wrestling is not just a sport, but the call of the wild which can only be answered by a chosen few. "The Ram" shares a direct link to the cowboy heroes of our film history: men who cannot be domesticated and must wander the American landscape in search of adventures.

Randy repeatedly must take on the lonesome road, and he does it alone, listening to rock-and roll, like a latter-day Wim Wenders wanderer. He is a modern Shane, a modern Ethan Edwards. His destinations are high school gyms and civic centers where he participates in sad, ill-attended autograph sessions with other older, retired, infirm wrestlers. Now and then, crowded, poverty-row wrestling matches are set up for the delight of an insatiable bloodthirsty crowd. These are the last grounds left where the modern hero can trod.

It is a gritty kind of romanticism, the kind that we see in Wallace Beery wrestling films (like 1932's Flesh) as well as the classic The Champ from a year earlier. Even Randy's quasi-girlfriend, a topless dancer (Marissa Tomei in a daring performance), is a caring single mother who knows where to draw the line between her seedy business and her personal life. Further on, when The Ram stages a meeting with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) their scene is punctuated with tears, and they both end up dancing a sad waltz in a dilapidated condemned building. This is very old-fashioned, predictable filmmaking in many ways, and the knee-jerk reaction we get is that we've seen all of this before. The Wrestler is definitely not a Rocky, and it isn't even a Raging Bull (although it shares many similarities with Martin Scorsese's film). In many ways, as wacky as it may sound, it is the movie that Barton Fink was supposed to write in the Coen's brothers 1991 Hollywood send up.

Mickey Rourke is perfect in this film. After years of rehab, multiple arrests, and his own decision to alternate show-business with a boxing career (he was billed as "Marielito"), he has come back full time to the movies with an intense passion for the craft that once made him one of the most sought-ought actors in Hollywood. His looks are gone, and his face is now a mask of broken dreams and botox. But his frightening appearance is the catalyst for the total depth that he achieves in the role. Robert De Niro carefully morphed his appearance for Raging Bull, but Mickey Rourke seems to have fallen into his present physical state, and he is making the best of what he can with it -- and when you are talking about Mickey Rourke, that's pretty good. Thank goodness that his years away from Hollywood have not made him forget what is like to craft a performance in front of the cameras. Arguably, this Mickey Rourke has incredible gravitas, Aronofsky has extracted an unforgettable performance from him, and he is now a deeper, more convincing actor than he ever was. Already there is a very creditable early Oscar buzz about him. And why not! He received a wonderful ovation last night at the New York Film Festival -- he truly deserves it.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Changeling at the New York Film Festival

Changeling is Clint Eastwood's 28th feature film. He is the director of such diverse fare as Play Misty for Me, Unforgiven, and Space Cowboys. His work shows an incredible track record which is at once uneven at the same time that it is prestigious. For every Million Dollar Baby there's a Honkytonk Man or a Breezy lurking around in the celluloid shadows of his lifetime achievement. It may just be the reason why we think of Clint Eastwood first as an actor. His work in front of the camera arguably casts a longer shadow, and might just be superior to his efforts as director.

Changeling, which premiered this weekend at the New York Film Festival, is one of Eastwood's greatest films. Based on a true story, the period piece (the narrative starts in the late 1920s) stars Angelina Jolie as a single working mom who comes home one day to find that her son has been kidnapped. Set in Los Angeles at the time when its police department was facing charges of corruption, the film narrates the "Film Noir" ordeal that Jolie's character undergoes in her search for the truth about her child's whereabouts in a labyrinthine urban maze. Ms. Jolie's character works for the telephone company, although ironically for most of the story she is never in communication with the true facts of what really happened to her son.

Changeling will remind you of some recent noirish films. The corruption, the period costumes, the cars, and the sets will bring to mind Roman Polanski's Chinatown. Eastwood's film even begins in black & white, with Universal's old 1930s logo stretched to fit the film's widescreen academic ratio. The music of this film (for which Clint Eastwood takes a credit) is also vaguely reminiscent of Chinatown's cool Jerry Goldsmith jazz score. While watching Changeling this weekend, I was also reminded of LA Confidential, Curtis Hanson's fine film that exposes the underbelly of LA's police department.

The film has Oscar written all over it. Mr. Eastwood, who took over the project when director Ron Howard abandoned it, is sure to earn a well-earned nomination, and so will Ms. Jolie. Her heart wrenching portrayal of a mother whose only wish in life is to be reunited with her son is nothing short of brilliant. For years paparazzi have reminded us that Ms. Jolie knows something about children, and we as an audience react to this and readily accept her in this mom role. She also gets to downplay her glamorous looks and hide her famous tattoos as she dons tweeds and hats, and morphs into the perfect late 1920s housewife. Her incredible lips, painted beautifully ruby red, however, are the only hint that this is one of the most glamorous stars of our time. She can't hide those lips, and Eastwood's cinematographer, Tom Stern doesn't want to, as he photographs her in such a way that we can't help but be fascinated by the contours of her mouth.

Working from a tightly-written script by the ubiquitous J. Michael Straczynski, Eastwood tells his tale in a leisurely manner, at times punctuated by powerful, gripping scenes which have the power of hammer blows. Eastwood excels in this type of story structure, and this kind of script is tailor-made for his talents.

Given the title of this movie and Clint Eastwood's erratic artistic output, the question that rises in our minds is "will the real Clint Eastwood please stand up?" However, I can assure you that this time the real thing has appeared. Changeling might just be his best film, and it is one of the strong early contenders for this year's Academy Awards race.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: latest Woody Allen film

There was a time when Woody Allen mattered. When one of his new movie came out, you had to see it on the first day (for fear that everyone would spoil the jokes for you), and preferably you had to see it on the Upper East Side (like at the Beekman Theater) where it didn't matter that you had to wait on line for hours. His movies spoke to audiences with a high-brow comic clarity that was unique in cinema. We understood his language and he defenitely spoke ours. His likes and dislikes were pretty much ours as well, and the relationship between artist and audience which began in the late 1970s, survived almost intact until Shadows and Fog (1992), to my mind, the film that detached him from his audience. His greatness is that he keeps on making films, although his audience of disciples seems to be shrinking.

In his latest film Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he essentially explores the impossibility of living "a trois,"
as he traces the triangles and quadrangles of the geometry of love. He travels to the lovely city of Barcelona, which his cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe has lit with lovely golden sunset colors, in order to narrate the story of how two American tourists (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) meet Juan Antonio, a Spaniard artist and bon-vivant (Javier Bardem), and how their lives are forever changed when Juan Antonio's former wife (Penélope Cruz) arrives on the scene. Surrounded by all the modernista Antoní Gaudí architecture Allen seems to be an ageless tourist with a passion for life and an uncanny eye for beauty, whether that be the neo-barroque curves of Catalan arquitecture or the heavenly bodies of the three main female stars.

For all its charming qualities, the film feels at times like a beta version of François Truffaut's Jules and Jim -- arguably the director's greatest, and most romantic film. Allen is no stranger to postmodernism, and has always been ready to pay homage to the giants on whose shoulders he likes to stand: Federico Fellini, once in a while, and more often, Ingmar Bergman. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he yearns to channel the spirit of the French New Wave complete with scenes of couples bike riding in a pastoral countryside, and a narrator who tells us more often than not what we already know or what we could have figured out for ourselves. But the spirit of Truffaut's film is ellusive and hard to capture. Truffaut's work is essentially grand and tragic, and in this film Allen is unable or unwilling to escape his comic background. This makes Allen's film feel inferior and light by comparison, and the end result is a bittersweet movie which aims high but falls short of the mark it might have intended.

The cast is just right, though, and whatever enjoyment you can get out of this film is attributed to their performances. Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz are perfectly cast as the Barcelonian artist couple. It is great to see Bardem playing a likeable character once again after his Academy Award performance in No Country for Old Men. Likewise, Penélope Cruz is perfect in the part of the "other woman." The Spanish banter between them when they fight (which sounded improvised) was delicious, although it would have been more believable had they been able to do it in Catalan.

Scarlet Johannson is now enthroned as Woody Allen's muse (rivalring Leonardo Di Caprio for Martin Scorsese) with a total of three films for the director. As the outright winner of the judgement of Woody, the golden apple that this goddess received is her ticket to join the list of Lasser, Keaton, and Farrow. As of yet, of course, there are no believable romantic rumors between director and star, and I hope that it continues this way. Better a Svengali-Trilby relationship for this Hollywood couple than to see Woody Allen displayed on the pages of the New York Post all over again.

I enjoyed Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but because of its imperefections I did not love it. One thing's for sure: the film's images continue to linger in my mind, and something tells me that they might be deepening with time.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

HAIR in Central Park

The Public Theater is ending its summer Shakespare in the Park season at the Delacorte Theater with an awesome production of one of their own creations: 1967's Hair. Billed as the "American Tribal Love Rock Musical," Hair was the first show mounted by producer Joseph Papp after he bought the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street and converted it into The Public Theater. In 1968, the musical moved to Broadway (featuring such unknowns at the time as Ben Vereen, Melba Moore, and Diane Keaton), where it played a smash run of 1, 750 performances, was a critical and popular hit, and forever changed the landscape of the American musical.

Hair is a landmark work. When you consider some of the other offerings of the Great White Way at that time: Fiddler on the Roof, George M, and Zorba, the tribe of hippies that landed at the Biltmore Theatre must have looked to the average theater-goer of that time like an invasion from another planet. But make no mistake about it, Hair accomplished many things that no other musical had even attempted. It was one of the first to use rock as the musical idiom of choice, it featured a racially integrated cast, it called for young people to use drugs, rebel against society and adopt as a lifestyle all aspects of the sexual and drug revolution that characterize the 1960's.

This musical is the spiritual granddaddy of many successful shows that could not have been created had Hair not paved the way for them. A Chorus Line (a show that also began its life at the Public), Rent, and Spring Awakening are three works that come to mind immediately.

This production at the Delacorte is Hair's first major New York production since its initial run. This revival shares a powerful link with the original production. Not only is it a Public Theater production, but the work's inherent anti-war message speaks very clearly to us in our post 9/11 world.

Removed from its time, but with a clear voice for a new generation, the show might look a bit too manicured and polished for my taste. I remember the 1960's as a bit more gritty. Still, the young cast is a joy to see, and the energy level is so high that their enthusiasm becomes infectious. All the old songs are there: the great classics like "Aquarius" and "Good Morning, Starshine," as well as the sillier ones like "Frank Mills," which I have always argued is the most curious song ever written for a Broadway musical.

Hair saves its most powerful moments for the end. The closing moments of this work are some of the most powerful I have seen in quite a while, and this production manages a memorable coup de théâtre with the song "Let the Sunshine In." I dare anyone not to be moved, enthralled, and even angered during the closing bars of this score.

This production is so wonderfully polished, though, that I hope there is a future for it on Broadway. Come award time, I can even see it winning best revival, even though the original production was not even nominated for any Tony award. Will it come to Broadway? Well, let's just say that if there is a Republican win in November, then we really need this production of Hair, with its message of love and peace, to come to Broadway immediately to rescue us.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Katharina's Meistersinger: Year Two

This year the Bayreuth Festival took the show on the road to city plazas and home computers near you. During the spring months leading up to the festival, the Bayreuth website was updated to include information in German and English, and in the weeks prior to opening night virtual tickets were sold (at the price of 49 euros) to view a telecast straight from the stage of the Festspielhaus. The result was that thousands were able to experience Katharina Wagner's controversial staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg through their computer in a live video webcast. In addition, a large screen set up outdoors in one of Bayreuth's squares presented the performance to an estimated 35,000 spectators.

This is the second year for this Meistersinger, and those of you who read this column regularly will remember that I blogged extensively about this new production last year, basing my reports on whatever information I could get my hands on: mostly still pictures and various reviews from many periodicals. This year, however, I was able to actually see the work itself (via the webcast) and my conclusion is that this production has to be seen to be believed.

I wish that they would have done a webcast like this for Christoph Schlingensief's infamous production of Parsifal, which lived its short lifespan on the Green Hill amid jeers and loud boos. That certainly was a stage work that demanded to be seen as well as heard, although its enemies will argue that it never should have seen the light of day. Wagner's famous idea of "total art work" demands that the visual element be as important as the music. In this respect, this year's computerized marriage of audio and visuals brings Bayreuth to a larger public in a way that Wagner himself might have approved.

While on the subject of approval: I am not sure that Wagner would approve or even understand what is currently passing as his Meistersinger at Bayreuth these days. If you know the work and have grown up with a traditional staging of it, such as the Otto Schenk staging at the MET, this production contains so many "what the f**k" moments that save for the music it is really impossible to recognize Katharina's production as a Richard Wagner opera.

This staging is so different and shocking that the feeling you get is that you are watching a whole new work. Turn down the sound and you won't recognize what opera you are watching from the staging. There is very little of Die Meistersinger in this Meistersinger. Transposed to modern times, the old singers are now academic gown-wearing teachers in an art school where the pupils wear drab uniforms. Hans Sachs is a chain-smoking, nonconformist writer who likes to walk around in his bare feet, while Walther is a paint-splashing SoHo "Aktionkunstler" who bears more than a slight resemblance to Schlingensief himself.

Given these inherent changes, there is very little in the opera that can be presented in any way resembling the traditional way, and Katharina makes sure that tradition is thrown to the four winds at every turn. In Act II, for instance, sneakers rain down on the performers while Sixtus Beckmesser practices his song with Hans Sachs, and the act ends with an uproarious melee featuring, among many things, half-naked men wearing giant Campbell soup cans on their heads. As if this was not enough, Ms. Wagner leaves the best for last. In Act III, during the introduction of the various guilds, Ms. Wagner stages a sort of dream sequence where big-head caricatures of famous Germans suggestively play with each other while topless show girls attempt to give Hans Sachs a lap dance. During the song contest, Beckmesser sings his half-learned nonsensical tune wearing a Dr. Frankenstein apron while bringing to life a naked man who rises out of a bed of dirt like a newly awakened golem. By the end of the opera Hans Sachs and Walther have both turned into suit-wearing conservative while Beckmesser, wearing a black t-shirt with the English words "Beck in Town," has transformed himself into a radical.

Although everything is pretty imaginative in an absurd kind of way, there is really nothing here that remotely has anything to do with Wagner's original story. The production ends up suffering because it tries to incorporate too much of everything, and nothing of what it puts in was intended to be there in the first place. Katharina's theater is one of provocation making her the absolute center of attention. "Look, everybody," she seems to be saying, "I'm here, I've arrived, daddy is stepping down, and I'm running the show now!" The boos that greeted her curtain call appearance were as loud as those heard when Schlingensief stepped before the curtain after the first performance of his 2004 Parsifal; and like Schlingensief, Katharina Wagner seemed to relish the audience's disapproval of her work. The more they boo the greater the provocation, and therefore the greater the success. The icing on the cake is that everybody got to see it live around the world; and for those who missed it, the DVD comes out just in time for Christmas 2008.

To be totally fair about it, the production is never dull, and when it does come out on home video you might want to pick it up to see what the hullabaloo is all about. It is a wacky look at Wagner's human comedy, and Katharina makes it even more human than we thought possible. It certainly is not one for the ages, but it does introduce the next generation of the Wagner family that will run the festival, and that alone makes it an important piece of history.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Parsifal at Bayreuth: Calling All Angels

As I listen to Robert Dean Smith and Iréne Theorin (singing beautifully with a cold!) ignite the Bayreuth Festival in Tristan und Isolde, I would like to post some information about yesterday's new production of Parsifal.

A big reason why WagnerOperas exists is due to a large part to my interest towards the Christoph Schlingensief production of Parsifal that has been replaced this year. That production was perhaps the most controversial that Bayreuth ever witnessed, and year after year it was booed so riotously that the performers must have felt some kind of indignation towards the audience. Of course, as Alex Ross music critic of The New Yorker noted in his initial review of this production back in 2004 that's exactly the kind of thing that the director was aiming for in the first place: "the provocateur will always have the upper hand against the provoked. 'If my enemies shout ‘boo’ at the première, then all is in order,' Schlingensief (said). Indeed, when the curtain fell, the audience responded with the loudest, lustiest boos I’ve heard outside of Yankee Stadium. Less than a third of the audience applauded when Schlingensief took his bow. In other words, a triumph."

Now the Schlingensief production is history, and it has been replaced with a new staging from Norwegian director Stefan Herheim. I know little about him, except that his background is both musical and theatrical: he studied the cello in his youth, and later toured Norway and Germany with his own puppet theater. His concept for this production (as best as I can tell from the pictures and from the reviews and interviews) is a kind of time travel through the history of Germany, starting at Wahnfried and ending in the rubble of the Reichstag after World War II.

As you examine the photographs of this production you will also find many winged characters. Most notably, Kundry, sung by Mihoko Fujimura, is dressed like Marlene Dietrich, straight from the film Morocco, complete with top hat and tails. The addition of a huge pair of wings on her back however is more reminiscent of Bruno Ganz in Wim Wenders's great film Wings of Desire.

In a recent interview, Herheim promised that his vision of Parsifal would be controversial. Perhaps, but you couldn't tell from the opening night audience reaction. After the first act there was only one person booing, and he was rapidly out-shouted by roars of applause, cheers, and bravos. As the evening continued, the loud approvals became even more evident. Whatever the critics think of this Parsifal, the audience seemed to love it. Of course, after three years of Schlingensief's images of rotting bunnies and African tribes the mainly conservative audience at Bayreuth is prepared for anything. This production even has a grail: of course they're going to like it!

And for such an expansive cavalcade through German history and culture, who better to conduct the Bayreuth orchestra than Daniele Gatti, whose lush reading of the score almost forced time to stand still, bending tempi every which way possible, and offering perhaps the most Italianate reading since Arturo Toscanini was invited to conduct the festival back in the early 1930's.

I hope you have a chance to listen to a rebroadcast of the performance, or better yet, if you are lucky, I hope you get a chance to see it at Bayreuth. Do let me know what you think of this new production.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Last Laugh

As he proved in Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger could carry a picture. But in the last stages of his short-lived career, he also proved time and again that his name did not always need to be the first one on the list in order to be memorable and steal a scene or two. He did it last year in I'm Not There, where he was one of the many performers who channeled the living spirit of Bob Dylan. Now, after his tragic passing earlier this year, he is doing it again: making The Dark Knight his very own with his demonic, impish portrayal of the Joker.

The Joker is the most popular villain in the Batman series. Going against the grain of Bob Kane, the creator of "The Bat-Man" for DC comics, Cesar Romero made the Joker a campy, nasty clown in the 1960s television series, and Jack Nicholson was highly praised when he played the villain as a buffoon with a decidedly deadly streak in Tim Burton's resurrection of the Batman story. Both Romero and Nicholson offered ideal characterizations of this character for their time and their particular venue. The campy TV series needed Romero's outlandishness, and although Nicholson was far deadlier and nastier than Romero could ever be, their styles were not too different and both sprang from the same clown college. They could have both ended up as washed-up performers at some third-rate big top in the sticks.

Heath Ledger's Joker inhabits another world. Although he has stepped inside the high-tech noir universe that Christopher Nolan has fashioned in this latest take of the Batman story, his low-tech crime wave contrasts brilliantly with the polished world of billionaire Bruce Wayne, and the space-age, computer driven, gadget-replete caped crusader alter ego thus making him the perfect villain outsider.

Visually, this incarnation of the Joker is truly a sight to either behold or, better yet, to turn your eyes away from. A Medusa-like sprout of dirty matted green locks hang limply on a ravaged face where slovenly-applied makeup barely hides more than just scarred tissue. This Joker's soul seems to have been hacked into deeper than his skin. Ledger finds the key to the character by delving into his tortured soul, and he comes up with truly brilliant acting results. What must have been the character's old habit of licking the wounds on the side of his face have now turned into an even nastier habit of darting his tongue in and out of his dirty, yellowed-teeth mouth. It's a great way of reminding the audience of his serpent-like qualities. If William F. Buckley, Jr. had mated with a reptile while on a Republican junket to Gotham City, probably the Joker would have been the result.

Heath Ledger's look for the Joker references the world of film that inspired the character. The Man Who Laughs, the 1928 silent classic based on a novel by Victor Hugo, is the genesis of this character. In that story a small boy's face is disfigured into a perpetual smile, pretty much mirroring the tale that the Joker relates of his disfigurement in this film. Further referencing other movies, my friend Skydin noted that Heath Ledger's visual conception of the Joker bears more than a passing resemblance to Brandon Lee in the film The Crow -- another movie where an actor met an untimely death (that time on the set of the film itself) and left behind the work for which he will arguably be best remembered.

In Tim Burton's movie, we witness how Jack Nicholson's Jack Napier becomes the Joker. In Nolan's film the Joker already is. In fact, it is the character of Harvey Dent, marvelously brought to life in a breakout performance by Aaron Eckhart, who undergoes a disturbing transformation from high profile District Attorney to disfigured-beyond-belief Two-Face: a deranged character whose penchant for throwing up a coin and leaving fate to chance might just make him get along really well with Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh in last year's No Country for Old Men.

Nonetheless, this does not make The Dark Knight a lopsided movie when it comes to its selection of villains. The story is well crafted and the late transformation of Harvey Dent does not feel like a late inclusion just for the sake of having yet another twist of plot. Unlike last summer's unfortunate Spider-Man 3, where the appearance of villain upon villain, late in the film, kept nullifying whatever had happened before, Two-Face and the Joker in this movie come together and share an unbelievable scene in a hospital. As a matter of fact, it is thanks to the tutelage of the Joker that Harvey Dent finally goes overboard and achieves true comic book villainy and fully transforms into a fiend.

The greatest aspect of Batman has always been that he is one of the best anti-heroes that has appeared in popular culture. As much a rebel and a criminal as he is righteous, this mysterious character, born out of the mire of Pulp novels and predating Hollywood "Film Noir" (his first appearance in DC Comics was in 1939!) by a few years, casts his longest shadow when America feels confused about itself and begins questioning its own values. Our very own War on Terror is the perfect landscape for Batman. At the end of this film there is a great scene between Batman and the Joker in which they dissect their roles of hero and villain. A similar scene, albeit less serious, occurs in Tim Burton's version, where both characters engage in a discussion of their doppelgänger existence.

But at the end of Burton's film, the Joker is disposed of, and Batman stands as a beacon for Gotham City to stand behind -- the perfect Ronald Reagan American hero to an America that was so full of itself (the film came out in Reagan's last year as president). In the last frames of Christopher Nolan's movie, Batman is a criminal on the run, the people of the city bewailing that they got the kind of hero that their society deserves. That's who we are! That's present day America.

Every hero-less American teenage kid (of whom there are millions) should adopt Batman as their hero. Why not! He is the hero we deserve.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Live Stream Webcast of Bayreuth Opera

Historic events have occurred at the Green Hill since the 2007 Bayreuth Festival ended. The old generation is giving way to the new as Wolfgang Wagner prepares to give up the reign of the family business to the younger members of his quarrelsome family. When it comes to the festival's online presence, there is also good news to report. Bayreuth's clunky old website has been replaced by a modern portal which, although still totally in German, promises to have a mirror in English soon.

The real exciting news for those of us unable to be at Bayreuth this year is that for the first time in its history an opera will be telecast live over the Internet. Katarina Wagner's controversial staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, will be playing in a computer near you on July 27 at 4pm. The time of the Live Stream is CEST (GMT +2), so that would be 11:00am Eastern Daylight Savings Time.

The Bayreuth Festival has always had a fine tradition of broadcasting on the radio the opening days of the festival. Further, in the last few years these broadcasts could also be heard on the Internet via various online radio stations. This year for the first time you will be able not only to hear the opera, but see the controversial staging that everybody was talking about (and booing!) last summer.

But here's the best part: when you purchase a ticket to the webcast you are also buying access to see and hear the work on demand whenever it is convenient for you between July 27 and August 2.

I've already bought my ticket. Let's hope that the technology works, and that the broadcast is as historic as it promises to be. Here is the Bayreuth Festival's website if you would like more information about the webcast or the repertory for this year's festival.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Die Soldaten at the Park Avenue Armory

Two amazing things happened at the Park Avenue Armory this evening. The first was that nobody around me walked out of the incredible staging of Die Soldaten, a complex, 12-tone serial opera by composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann: the kind of work that would usually have them walking up the aisles even before the intermission. The second amazing thing was that there was not a single cough heard in the house during the entire length of the work. If this opera would have been staged at a venue like the MET, let's say, a good number of the audience would not have returned for Act II, and the chorus of coughs would have been deafening.

The improved audience behavior I experienced tonight is the result of taking a knowledgeable opera audience, removing them from the warm confines of a proscenium theater, and throwing them into an alternative barn-like space for the ride of their lives -- literally. Sitting on motorized platforms, the audience travels up and down the length of a t-bar stage. This is an incredibly brilliant staging that eliminates the distance between performers and audience. The 110-piece orchestra sits on the left, while across from them a smaller satellite percussion "banda" contributed to the stereophonic effect. The singers were miked, of course, due to the size of the space. But given the fortissimos that composer Zimmermann achieved in his score, those microphones really came in handy for the cast. Thankfully, the enhanced sound felt quite natural and unobtrusive.

I am a newcomer to this work and to its composer, but I am no stranger to Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, and Alban Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu, the other seminal works of the 12-tone musical period. Die Soldaten might have been new to me, but I was familiar with its musical terrain. Let's just say that the dissonances did not disappoint. It was one of the most exciting and dense writing I have heard, rivaling the best moment of the better known serial composers. Schoenberg's musical invention was supposed to revolutionize German and world music. However, like Hitler's one thousand year Reich, Schoenberg's musical empire crumbled as a result of its inherent monolithic approach. As a matter of fact, by the time that Bernd Alois Zimmermann started working on the first version of this work in 1957, serialism was no longer avant-garde, and the Cologne Opera rejected the work as unplayable. The same accusations that were hurled at the score of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde a century earlier.

Die Soldaten might not have the classical structure of Wozzeck, or the mathematical precision of Moses und Aron, but it is brilliantly orchestrated, and Zimmermann never runs out of musical inventions. The prelude and the last scene, in particular the very last chord, are instances of sheer virtuoso writing.

This is one of those productions that New Yorkers will talk about for years. I am happy that Die Soldaten has led the way for the Park Avenue Armory to become a venue for challenging 20th century opera. The next operatic work to be staged at this space will be Oliver Messiaen's Saint François D'Assise, which will be presented in mid December. This is a truly wonderful way to celebrate the anniversary of Messiaen's 100th birthday.

You have one more chance to see this production of Die Soldaten (July 12): don't miss it!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Mad Men: Season Two

Last week, I attended, as a guest of AMC, the sneak preview of the first episode of the second season of Mad Men, the show that has been hailed by The New York Times as: the smartest show on television." Written, created and executive produced by Matthew Weiner, Mad Men has become the darling of critics and critical viewers alike. And with good reason: the show creates a world of hard drinking, Madison Avenue ad-men in the 1960's Camelot that was lost never to be regained again. These Mad Men shaped the way America thought, and they accomplished it all with a martini in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and prodigious juggling acts that balanced wifes and mistresses in ways that corporate American males of today could not compete. Don't look at it as nostalgia, but more like a carefully crafted, beautifully researched slice of life of a time gone by.

The Museum of Modern Art
, where the screening took place, could not have been a better venue to show off the first installment of the second season. In the same building where the principal works of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock hang, Matt Wiener's series feels right at home. New York was the center of the art scene at the time that Mad Men takes place. And even though it might be a stretch for these corporate characters to share excitement about the artistic experimentations of the Abstract Expressionists, the precise writing, sleek design, and cool look of the show is definitely influenced by this downtown movement. In future episodes, I can most definitely see Sterling Cooper acquiring a nice Clifford Still: it would complement reception's decor rather nicely.

Talking with Matt Weiner after the screening, I shared with him my thoughts that it was very satisfying and rare to get a chance to watch the show with a large audience, a treat that most television viewers never get. On the small screen the details are more vivid and the viewer easily focuses on subtleties. Watching it on TV is like looking at an artist's sketch. At MoMA's theater, HD projection is like standing in front of those Abstract Expressionist canvases that hang at the museum upstairs. I am convinced that home viewing is the ideal home for Mad Men because it best serves the show's stylistic landscape. At the same time, it was a wonderful experience to share those great dramatic and comic moments in such a unique communal fashion.

I'm excited about the second season of Mad Men. After watching the first show, I'm certain that the second season of the series will be extremely successful. Lightning can definitely strike twice; I'm just curious about how it will streak across America's screens this summer.

Friday, June 06, 2008

In the Heights heading for Tony Glory

You don't have to be Latino to enjoy In the Heights, but it definitely helps. The salsa driven, hip hop-infused musical by Broadway newcomers Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes about Washington Heights is selling out every night at the Richard Rodgers Theater thanks to its infectious score, feel-good story and lovable characters. Further, in a weak year for new shows this work is well on its way to winning the Tony Award for best musical of the season.

Washington Heights has always been a neighborhood in transition. The area has been home to Jewish and Irish communities over the years, but it is the current Latino residents of the neighborhood, in particular the Dominican enclave, that sets the tone as well as the beat for Mr. Miranda's very likable musical.

Any art work which is based on a particular geographical place mythologizes its terrain. Benjamin Britten transformed Aldeburgh, on the coast of Suffolk, England into his opera Peter Grimes, and Spike Lee forever changed our perception of "da hood" in his film Do the Right Thing. As portrayed in this musical (which at times feels very close in spirit to Spike Lee's film) this is a Washington Heights of the mind and of the heart. A neighborhood filled with patience and hope where there is never any mention of drugs, crime, urban blight or HIV. The NYPD doesn't even show up in this story! You might argue that it is, after all, a musical and that matters ought not to get that serious. I would argue back that in West Side Story, that landmark musical about the tough gritty New York streets, there is a sardonic song dedicated to a police officer, and that when bloody violence erupts it is to the tune of some of the greatest music ever written for the American stage. But is is unfair to compare these two musicals -- absurd, really.

In the Heights borrows from many urban artistic elements and manages to lay down a very convincing geography populated with some stereotypical, yet lovable characters, and it accomplishes this very well. Among the recognizable barrio types are the matriarch grandmother, the gossipy hairdresser, and the lovable bodega owner. The only stock characters missing are the domino-playing Greek chorus. But, who knows, they might be waiting around in the wings in case the show develops a sequel at some future point in time.

Despite all its faults, In the Heights is not a dreary experience whatsoever, quite the opposite: its Latin beat suffused with more than a dash of hip hop makes it a toe-tapping, head-bobbing evening. Even actor Billy Crystal, who was sitting in the row in front of me, stood up at the end to give the show a standing ovation.

Giving excellent performances are Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia, Robin de Jesús as Sonny, and Priscilla Lopez (Diana in the original production of A Chorus Line) as Camila. It is a true ensemble musical, and the entire cast is quite energetic and they work well together.

At the center of it all, Lin-Manuel Miranda is the glue that keeps it all together. It is his show, his conception, and he stands out above the rest of the performers. The rest of the cast sings and dances boleros, sons, and merengues, but Mr. Miranda raps, and although his rhymes, lyrics and music lack the subtlety and flair that once made Broadway unique, his whole-hearted belief in his little show and his incredible energy wins us over to his side.

In the Heights might not reach the stratosphere that it aims for, but it does offer an entertaining night at the theater.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Indiana Jones is Back!

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brings back to the summer screens one of the biggest franchises in the history of the movies. Indiana Jones has returned, and this time he is battling Soviets, South American Indians, the FBI, and 1950's post-war complacency. Dr. Henry Jones has finally achieved tenure in his manicured academic world, but he is as restless as ever. He is also a bit older, a bit grayer, and his politics appear to be a little more confusing. His hatred for the Nazis in the first installments of the series was well documented, and now this same hatred has switched to the Soviets. For such a free spirit adventurer, however, the words "I like Ike," which he utters early on in the film in order to prove his patriotism, don't really register as the kind of political allegiance that Dr. Jones would have. Indiana Jones a Republican -- who knew!

For anyone who watches Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (now, that's a mouthful! That's the longest name for a sequel since Benedict the Sixteenth replaced John Paul Two) one question definitely comes to mind: why didn't they do this fifteen years ago when it would have all been more believable? It's not just that Harrison Ford is looking considerably older, it's that this kind of filmmaking has already exhausted itself in the previous three films. The franchise is starting to feel its own age.

But make no mistake, despite its occasional creakiness, the movie is a very enjoyable ride. Steven Spielberg has returned to the kind of populist filmmaking that only he can pull off. The special effects are awesome to look at, the performances strike the right chords, and there are enough references to the past three films to make any fan of the series happily nostalgic. In addition, the brisk pacing the film makes for an enjoyable summer popcorn movie.

One very good reason not to miss it is Cate Blanchett. As Irina Spalko she is one of the greatest villains this series has ever had. Cold as ice, Ms. Blanchett has never look prettier on screen, while at the same time creating an unforgettable menacing figure. With her Louise Brooks hairdo, her sword, and her immaculate gray communist uniform she looks as out of time and place as the crystal skull that the principals chase down.

Less successful is Shiah LeBeouf as Indy's young sidekick and fellow adventurer. Playing the role as a junior Marlon Brando in The Wild One, this character aims to be a wannabe Indiana, and ends up, time after time, rejecting the old fashion values, such as education, that makes the old man a credible character.

Karen Allen is also back as Marion, but the movie is almost half way over before we see her. As Mr. Ford, Ms. Allen has aged more or less gracefully into an older version of her original role, but one gets that same feeling when we watch her that this Indy return would have made more sense a decade or two ago. Newcomers to the cast are John Hurt and Jim Broadbent. I am sure that both picked up hefty paychecks for playing two-dimensional characters who occupy very little screen time.

If you read Erich von Däniken's 1970's bestseller Chariots of the Gods? or know the theories behind that book, then you will figure out the inspiration for this movie. It's odd that this Indiana Jones film is so careful not to portray third world caricatures (Soviet caricatures are all right, it seems!) and yet, von Däniken's theories about the achievements of the ancient people of South America are some of the most racist views ever expressed. His bestseller argues that the Mesoamerican people could not have achieved such high levels of learning, mathematics and architecture without the aid of extraterrestrial beings. The days of such lines as "Ah, fried monkey brains..." coming from third-world, dark-skinned characters might be gone from Indiana Jones, but that good ol' racism (which comes right from the 1930's serials that Indiana Jones is based on) is still very much present in the series.

This film is a mixed bag, but it is a well-made, fast-paced summer entertainment. Thankfully it does not destroy the legacy of the franchise (are you reading this George Lucas!) Go see it, it might just become your favorite Indiana Jones film -- or maybe not.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Very Best Wagner Music on CD's

If you follow this link, you will come to a page loaded with recommendations for complete Richard Wagner operas, as well as highlight discs of these works. This is a list of the best recordings available. You can buy them at my megastore website through

Among the recordings you will find are the fabled live Bayreuth recording of Tristan und Isolde with Birgit Nillson and Wolfgang Windgassen, as well as the complete Ring Cycle conducted by Sir Georg Solti. Check it out!

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Hardball Tango

Brian Carson, the announcer on my WagnerOperas Podcast was the videographer on this new video that was just put up on YouTube. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Satyagraha comes to The Metropolitan Opera

Last April, I went to London to see the English National Opera's production of Satyagraha, the opera about MK Gandhi, by American composer Philip Glass. A year later, that very same ENO production has reached The Metropolitan Opera where I got a chance to see it on Friday.

Visually, very little has changed from London, although the dimensions of the Metropolitan stage are much bigger than those of the London Colosseum. Last month when I attended one of the MET's performances of Peter Grimes I happened to sit next to the puppeteers who had come from the UK in order to work on Satyagraha. Basically, they informed me that indeed very little had changed with the production, although they had had a longer rehearsal period at the MET. Also, the bigger dimensions of the MET's stage allowed them to fly the puppets much higher than in London

Overall, the New York performance was tighter musically than London's. In the second act, the MET chorus was as precise as a metronome as they sang an unbelievably difficult four-square section repeating the syllable "ha" over and over again. Regretfully, last year in London, the ENO chorus crumbled during this section.

The focus of the evening in any performance of Satyagraha is the tenor singing the role of Gandhi. Richard Croft sang a beautiful performance on Friday. From my seat in the second row there was no doubt that he was wholly immersed in his character. Twice, however, he was forced to step out of character and cover his mouth when he sneezed twice. I had never seen this happen to a singer on stage, but he dealt with it as silently and discreetly as possible. So good, in fact, that I don't think anybody noticed beyond the first few rows.

They say that nobody comes out of a modern opera humming the tunes -- not true! I dare anyone to come out of a performance of Satyagraha and not intone in your head, or outright hum or sing the ascending phrygian scale that Gandhi repeatedly intones over and over again in the last scene of Act III. That incredible restful line is one of the most serene moments in opera -- old or new.

It was wonderful to revisit Satyagraha on this side of the ocean. Although there was something special about experiencing an opera about Gandhi in England, the MET production this year was the culmination of the journey that started last year at the ENO.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

News from Bayreuth

This week two news items came out of Bayreuth. The first was that after 57 years, Wolfgang Wagner would be leaving the leadership of the Bayreuth Festival. Since the historic re-opening of the Festival in 1951, Wolfgang Wagner has been at the helm of the Festival. The second bit of news involved the replacement of a singer for this summer's festival. Soprano Linda Watson will be replaced by Adrienne Dugger in the role of Brünnhilde. Here is how The New York Times reported the change of leadership at the Festspielhaus:

After 57 years as chief of the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany, Wolfgang Wagner, 88, plans to step down, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Wagner, right, grandson of the composer Richard Wagner, wrote to donors on April 8 to express his support for his daughters Katharina Wagner, from his second marriage, and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, from his first, as part of a group to succeed him. He had previously rejected the appointment of Ms. Wagner-Pasquier, who is supported by the Richard Wagner Foundation, which supervises the annual Bayreuth Festival. And he had insisted that he would step aside only if Katharina were allowed to succeed him. The German-language television network 3sat reported that Mr. Wagner had suggested that the half-sisters could be part of a team that included the German conductor Christian Thielemann and Peter Ruzicka, the former director of the Salzburg Festival. Mr. Wagner has led the festival since 1951, first with his brother, Wieland, and then by himself after Wieland’s death in 1966.