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.