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!