Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds -- new film by Quentin Tarantino

What if World War II had come to an explosive end not in Hitler's bunker in shattered Berlin, but in a movie theater in Nazi occupied France? This is the premise for Quentin Tarantino's new film Inglourious Basterds, the story of how a band of avenging American Jews demolish the Third Reich with the help of the explosive glories of silver nitrate. Tarantino's new film is both exasperating as well as enjoyable; it is also episodic, juvenile, and way too long. But if you latch on to its postmodern riff, mixing everything from 70's films to 1940's pulp, it is a helluva good ride into the kind of Hollywood fantasy land that only exists in the mind of the director.

Tarantino's film is based on a little known Italian war movie called The Inglorious Bastards, an almost forgotten 1970's B movie rip-off of Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen. This complicates things for any viewer who wants to know where Tarantino is coming from. It all becomes crystal-clear, however, if you bring to mind one particular genre that nowadays we usually don't think about: the Western.

Once Upon a Time in the Western part of Europe there were advancing hordes of Jewish-hating Nazis who came into conflict with good-hearted Frenchmen who tried to save Jewish families from extermination. The pastoral first scene of this film captures this confrontation while at the same time surprising us by conjuring the spirit of the American Western. The scene is vaguely reminiscent of the opening of The Magnificent Seven, a film based on Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. This is the smoke and mirrors celluloid world in which Tarantino inhabits. This new war film surprisingly conjures up the spirit of the American Western as seen by Italian director Sergio Leone, and it features music written for those "spaghetti Westerns" by the great Ennio Morricone. Even Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who leads the band of Nazi hunters, demands, like a pre-politically correct redskin on the warpath, that all Nazis killed be scalped. Inglourious Basterds might just be the first WWII Western, whatever that is!

For a postmodernist, Tarantino's WWII is curiously devoid of too many references to the classic war films made in the 1940's. There's very little John Ford or Raoul Walsh in Tarantino's vocabulary, hence don't look for the spirit of They Were Expendable or Objective Burma! to creep through. Instead, Tarantino's war comes complete with Samuel L. Jackson's narration in which he tells us that film shot on silver nitrate is highly combustible. I'm not surprised. Tarantino is a child of the 1970s, and for anyone who came of age in that decade the jingoism of WWII American films just did not jive. It was the era of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. And in Hollywood, it was the era of M*A*S*H, Apocalypse Now, as well as 1970's Kelly's Heroes, a film with which Inglorious Basterds shares many a comparison.

For my money, Inglorious Basterds belongs to Austrian actor Christoph Waltz who shines as Colonel Hans Landa, better known as "The Jew Hunter." His performance is carefully and memorably crafted: over the top one minute, minimalist the next. In reality, it is nothing more than an update of a wonderful caricature of the Hollywood Nazi: the kind of role that the great Conrad Veidt excelled at. Waltz's Landa, however, is more tongue-in-cheek, smoother, funnier, and as a result more dangerous. His Best Actor Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for this performance was well deserved.

I don't think that Quentin Tarantino fans will be disappointed with Inglorious Basterds. It is a worthy addition to the small number of films that he's directed. If we boil the film down to its essence, it is a series of disjointed dialogue scenes, broken into various chapters, brilliantly choreographed and acted, which eventually come together in a fiery Wagnerian climax that channels the spirit of Brian De Palma's Carrie. The rhythms of Inglourious Basterds are reminiscent of Pulp Fiction though it lacks the earlier film's incredible crackling dialogue or its brilliant handling of the story's timeline.

On a personal note, I wish they would have held off the summer opening of this film and saved it for a prestige premiere at this year's New York Film Festival. This year the festival promises to be mostly a ho-hum affair, and I think that Inglorious Basterds would have given that New York institution a good kick in the pants as well as brought Tarantino back to the place that launched his unusual career.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Bacchae in Central Park

The Bacchae is perhaps Euripides' s greatest tragedy, and it is currently running as the second offering in this summer's Free Shakespeare in the Park. Under the direction of the Public Theater's former artistic director Joanne Akalaitis, this production is a compact, fast-moving one-acter played in modern dress, but maintaining the drive and savagery of the 2,500 year-old text. It is 90 minutes of Aristotelian unities, translated by Nicholas Rudall, and reenacted to the driving, undulating minimalist rhythms and melodies of composer Philip Glass.

This story of the hubris of a king, the foolishness of old men, and the wrathful vengeance brought about by the alien minion of a disrespected god makes for incredibly exciting theater. The Bacchae is part of the trilogy (along with the author's Iphigenia in Aulis and the now lost Alcmaeon in Corinth) that won the great prize at the Dionysia Festival posthumously for Euripides. They truly don't write them like they used to.

This production, performed outdoors as was the original, trades the blinding Aegean sun for the evening skies of late August New York. This transfers the essence of the work from sun-beaten rocks and blinding natural light to chic "late-night cool," and in keeping with this adaptation, the lead is a rock-and-roll Dionysus singing into a microphone like Elvis, and a chorus of Maenads (the possessed Bacchant women enchanted by Dionysus) in bright orange costumes. The men and women's costumes offer an interesting contrast. Staying true to the play's theme of opposing forces, the male characters are uniformly in modern dress, while the women aren't.

Likewise, the set itself seems to be of two minds. Performed in a barren, metallic circular arena (complete with a narrow moat of water) to an audience sitting in a semi-circle -- a space reminiscent of the configuration of Greek amphitheaters, the playing area has an industrial feel to it, and that is also seen in the upstage lopsided bleacher-like construction that the actors often inhabit like spectators at their own play. The setting gives no specific clue as to the time the play takes place, and as a result a timeless feeling is achieved quite effortlessly.

A drawing card for this production is an original score by Philip Glass. The composer's work and style is a well-known commodity, and for this production he stays the course and provides a rich, sultry score in keeping with the kind of Glass that we are accustomed to. As we enter the theater a recorded minimalist pattern is repeated over and over again, setting the scene and perhaps adjusting our ear for the musical sounds that we will hear for the rest of the evening. But as we enter the course of the play, that barren overture seems to pale by comparison to the rest of the lush score. Glass's musical settings for a chorus of sopranos and altos are just lovely, with beautiful harmonies and attractive melodies throughout. He is less successful, however, when it comes to the music of Dionysus which seems contrived, often uninspired and seemingly searching in vain for a distinctive style. Not the kind of music I would have written for this haughty, self-assured character.

The last time I went to see The Bacchae was back in 1980 in the Michael Cacoyannis's production at the Circle in the Square, starring the great Irene Papas. It was a play that left me cold back in my salad days because Ms. Papas's star turn as Agave, though memorable as it was, happens during the last half hour of the work, and I remember not paying enough attention to the play waiting for Ms. Papas to show up on stage. When she did, it was worth it, but the long wait, I remember, left me cold.

The present cast features no superstars, but solid theater actors well-known to the New York stage community. In my opinion, this is the best way to experience this kind of play. As Dionysus and Pentheus Jonathan Groff (of Spring Awakening and Hair fame) and Anthony Mackie are strong foils. Groff in his long locks, and tight jeans seems to still be playing the teen rebel, while Mackie, handsome in his dark suit, adds an air of elegance to the production. When Mackie has to don a woman's dress, in the latter part of the play, the result is far from camp, but rather a prelude for the wild carnage that will occur. In addition, giving strong performances are the great André de Shields as a thyrsus-carrying Teiresias (I am glad that he is not encumbered with woman's breasts in this production) and Joan MacIntosh who shines in her Agave monologue.

But true to the democratic spirit of Euripides (and of the Public Theater) the greatest moments of the evening, in my opinion, belong to the two great monologues of the two lowliest characters in the drama: the Herdsman, played by Steven Rishard, who recounts with great relish the bacchanalia of the Maenads, and the Messenger, played by Rocco Sisto, who electrifies the audience with his powerful and monstrous details of the death of Pentheus.

Basically, this is a "not-to-be missed" production of a play that ought to be mandatory reading and viewing for everyone. It is one of the great works of the Western canon, and this production does more than justice to its greatness. The production will play at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park until August 30. For information about tickets visit The Public Theater's website.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Phèdre at the National Theatre

When it seemed that it was impossible to get a ticket to the sold out run of Phèdre at the Lyttelton auditorium of The National Theatre in London, lo and behold a pair of tickets opened up two days before my flight back to New York. It was one of the reasons why I had flown to London in the first place: to see Jean Racine's tragedy with the incomparable Helen Mirren. When I got to London though, the writing was on the wall and it spelled the sad reality that I was going to go back home just having been to the city where Phèdre was playing.

There were other ways of getting in. One was the black market, where tickets were going upwards of £100. The other possibility was praying for returns the day of the show. Neither paying 100 quid for a ticket that normally cost £39.50 or having to get up early in the morning, cross the Thames and queue up for returns that may not materialize excited me. Near my hotel, every morning I would pass the crowds lining up early outside Wyndham's Theatre for the scarcely few standing room tickets to see Jude Law in Hamlet. Call me lazy, but somehow I just didn't see myself lining up for returns for this or any other show on this trip. There had to be another way to see Phèdre.

And there was ... and his name was Ian. Ian, a prince among concierges, works at the St Martin's Lane Hotel where I always stay when I am in London. He kept his eye on the National's website until he observed that one of the weekend days I had requested had transformed itself from sold-out black back to an orange colored link that spelled availability. He immediately picked up the phone and sped-dialed my room urging me to come down right away with my credit card in hand. Thankfully, the online transaction went without a hitch, and I had in my hand the hottest ticket in town, or at least the hottest ticket confirmation printout.

The rainy evening of the show, I took my umbrella and hailed a taxi right outside the hotel. The driver was interested to know what I was going to see at the National, and when I told him about my prized ticket, he was almost as excited as I was. We spent the rest of the short journey talking about the late Ted Hughes whose translation of Racine I was going to see that night, and the fact that some years ago Phèdre had been performed in this same translation with Diana Rigg in the title role.

Well, what was Phèdre like? Actually, a bit disappointing overall, but certainly no disaster. First the good news: Bob Crowley's brightly-lit setting was breathtaking: earthy rocks set against a gorgeous blue sky in a stage whose dimensions reminded one of a Cinemascope screen splashed with Technicolor hues. Nicholas Hytner's directed with a solid hand throughout, and the cast headed by Mirren, Dominic Cooper as her son Hippolytus, and veteran Margaret Tyzack as Oenone managed to create three-dimensional breathing human beings out of their classical roles.

The challenge of Phèdre for an English-speaking audience is the fact that the French theater of Racine's time maintained the classical unities of Greek drama. In effect, the great plays of Corneille and Racine are re-tellings of Greek myth, and are all written in the most sumptuous, wonderful verse. Unlike Elizabethan drama, no real dramatic action is shown onstage, and any violent act happens offstage and later on the audience is informed of it by a chorus-like character. This demands a unique gift for the spoken word from the author and acting of the highest order by the cast. In this production the acting is terrific, it is Ted Hughes's translation that appears to be at the root of the problem in this staging.

Though wonderful to read, Hughes's free verse translation, as opposed to Racine's gorgeous alexandrines, remains earth-bound when mounted on the stage. In the original, the poetic language catapults the play into the stratosphere, but in English no such starry journey seems to be possible. Our language just doesn't allow for a rhyming evening of tragic theater without the whole thing sounding alarmingly phony. French, of course, is another story. For instance, just compare the rhyming French of Racine to Hughes's translation:

Le dessein en est pris, je pars, cher Théramène,
Et quitte le séjour de l'aimable Trézène.
Dans le doute mortel où je suis agité,
Je commence à rougir de mon oisiveté.
Depuis plus de six mois éloigné de mon père,
J'ignore le destin d'une tête si chère ;
J'ignore jusqu'aux lieux qui le peuvent cacher.

I have made my decision.
It is six months now
And there hasn't been one word of my father.
Somebody somewhere knows what happened to him.
Life here in Troezen is extremely pleasant
But I can't hang around doing nothing
With this uncertainty. My idleness makes me sweat.
I must find my father.

What is lacking in this production of Phèdre is just a hint of the beauty of the original French language. The slightest hint would have done it. Which leads us to the question, can English ever approximate the experience of watching this play in its native language? Probably not, but one can certainly hope that English-speaking poets will continue trying their hand at it.

I just found out that a new translation by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, who grew up in the French basque country, will premiere at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Autumn of this year in what promises to be a very sexy production starring Seana McKenna.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Un Ballo in Maschera at the ROH

LONDON, UK -- The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden is having a winning summer season this year. Between performances of Tosca with Bryn Terfel's Scarpia ignating the stage, and Juan Diego Flórez singing his familiar Count Almaviva in "Barbieri," I managed to catch a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, featuring Ramón Vargas, Angela Marambio, and Dalibor Jenis.

It is not surprising that in the UK, a country with a monarchy, the American version set in Boston was performed. We rarely get to experience this version at the MET, and it always serves as a good opportunity to delve into that other "censored Ballo" forced upon Verdi by international assassinations occurring during the time that the opera was composed. Although I prefer when it is set in Denmark with King Gustavus, it is fun to catch the Boston setting even though some of the lyrics are laughable. Exactly which Massachusetts's "castello" did Riccardo steal from his enemy?

The ROH current Verdi productions are a mixed bag, as they are everywhere else in the world. Their mounting of Rigoletto, for instance, which I saw in February, reveals a gray, bleak Mantua where orgies are conducted nightly, and strewn garbage litter the dangerous streets. The current production of "Ballo" is decidedly prettier to look at, but it still presents us with a mixed bag of styles. We go from Ulrica's scary and appropriate pit, to Renato's empty house dominated by an unused hobby-horse, to a very memorable gallows scene (with some of the Rigoletto garbage making a cameo appearance), and we end up at the ball scene where designer Sergio Tramonti shows us what wonderful images can be conjured with a simple mirror: the effect is kaleidoscopic, conjuring up the world of M.C. Escher and thus showing us the dark labyrinthine paths that lead to a major political assassination.

The singing on Friday night was also decidedly mixed. Elena Manistina was an appropriately dark Ulrica and Anna Christy sang an Oscar that made the character a lot less annoying and quite endearing. Dalibor Jenis as Renato was a tale of two voices: his bottom dark ugly and wobbly, while his top revealing a grace, flexibility and beauty of tone that may reveal that this artist might have missed his calling as a heldentenor. Chilean soprano Angela Marambio sang the role of Amelia with huge lung power and at times little subtlety. As in the rest of the production, the voice was uneven throughout the evening, although her big voice when it settled was very thrilling to hear. Ramón Vargas sang with his usual Italianate style, giving the most satisfying performance of the evening. At the 4,000 seat Metropolitan his voice sounds small as it does in Row V of the Orchestra Stalls at Covent Garden which is half the size of the MET. It's not the hall, it is Mr. Vargas's voice, which lacks the heft to catapult him to the stratosphere of the greats. And yet, it is an instrument which serves this singer well in many different roles. Maurizio Benini conducted with style, at times bringing up sections of the orchestra that usually remain hidden in the fabric of the music.

I sat next to a Scottish gentleman who is good friends with John Boyle who directed the new production of Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera. It was fun to talk about Grimes, Benjamin Britten, and the Suffolk Coast with him during the opera's two intervals. These days the luxury of having two intervals was in itself something to cheer about.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Public Enemies

There are two scenes in Michael Mann's new film Public Enemies that stand out because of their complexity and interesting points of view. In both, which occur towards the end of the film, Johnny Depp, who embodies Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger with a subtlety that we have not seen from this actor in quite a while, becomes a kind of spectator joining us in the visual creative process of the film. In the first, Dillinger enters a Chicago building and walks right inside the special crime unit that bears his own name right on the door. Once inside, he ambles through the FBI's semi-deserted office, and through maps and pictures that document his own crime history and recap the earlier scenes and characters of the film. Depp ambles through the office like a stranger in a strange land, as if he had landed on another planet where the faces are recognizable but the language is not. Exhilarated that he has entered the holy of holiest, and fascinated as he witnesses his life translated into the foreign jargon of G-Men, Johnny Depp's expression is priceless. As he observes the photographs of his dead associates and the POV camera rests on his own mug shot (the only one not bearing a stamp that says "Deceased") that poignant existential moment ought to be the scene's payoff. But Mann has another trick up his sleeve. Johnny Depp turns around and realizes that the emptiness of the office is due to the fact that the G-men have dropped everything, and are gathered around a radio listening to a baseball game. The scene finally comes to a climax when Depp boldly asks them for the score, and he gets an answer without a single agent raising his head from the radio. The second scene is a little more problematic. In the film's climactic sequence, Dillinger has gone to the movies and the FBI has been tipped-off and are waiting for him outside the theater. Inside the movie house, Hollywood greatness is running through the projector. The silvery images of Myrna Loy, William Powell, and Clark Gable flicker by our eyes as well as Depp's. As he watches MGM's Manhattan Melodrama, a tale of the friendship between crook Gable and governor of New York Powell that ends with Gable going to the electric chair and refusing Powell's pardon, Johnny Depp's eyes are filled with wonder, as are our own. In Gable, Dillinger sees a romanticized picture of himself, as we ourselves witness the final scenes of a romanticized life of John Dillinger. But beyond this, there is something else, something deeper in Johnny Depp's eyes. Quite frankly, a look that shouldn't be there. There is way too much of the film buff on his face. He is sitting in a 1934 theatre with the look of a Columbia Film School graduate. Was John Dillinger really that much of a film lover, and would he have shown it the way that Depp does? Depp's enraptured gaze can easily label him as a Jacques Derrida deconstructionist, or an avid collector of back-issues of Cahiers du Cinéma more than a 1930's Depression era mid-westerner out for a night on the town.

But any movie called Public Enemies is referential to the world of film. Its title is inspired by the greatest of all the Warner Brothers gangster films (The Public Enemy), and following this postmodern tip of the hat, Public Enemies is also about Bonnie and Clyde, as well as Miller's Crossing and Mr. Mann's own The Last of the Mohicans, a film that was based on the screenplay of the 1936 version and which was also shot by the great cinematographer Dante Spinotti.

Spinotti's outstanding and revolutionary digital cinematography along with Johnny Depp's understated performances are just two of the many things to recommend in Public Enemies. Christian Bale is enigmatic and chilling as G-Men Melvin Purvis and Marion Cotillard plays Billie Frechette, as the most faithful and trusting gun moll in the history of crime drama. As head of the newly-formed FBI, Billy Crudup is almost unrecognizable as J. Edgar Hoover, and there are also fine, if fleeting performances by Channing Tatum as Pretty Boy Floyd, Giovanni Rabisi as Alvin Karpis, and a blink and you'll miss her turn for Diana Krall as a Torch Singer at a club. This last bit is wildly reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright's cameo as a Cocoanut grove singer in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator.

Like Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann is a good student of film, meaning that he knows how to avoid Brian De Palma "excessive borrowings" and make a good movie that manages to capture the flavor of another age and time. Public Enemies is no exception: a fine historical gangster film that entertains and often makes one ponder about our never-ending love of gangsters and the Underworld.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Waiting for Godot is back on Broadway

The Roundabout Theatre Company has a hit on their hands with a superb production of Samuel Beckett's masterpiece Waiting for Godot played by a cast of superb quality. In the roles of the two existential vagabonds, Estragon and Vladimir, Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin are joined by John Goodman and John Glover in the supporting roles of Pozzo and Lucky. As was reported by UPI back in December, the role of Lucky was originally to have been played by David Strathairn, whom many will remember as the Academy Award nominated actor who played CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow in the film Good Night, And Good Luck. When Mr. Strathairn dropped out, John Glover joined the cast.

Waiting for Godot is the beginning of modern theater. The play is the precursor of the "theatre of the absurd" movement, and Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee and David Mamet are all its children. I am sure that at the time of its writing, the author never imagined how influential his work would be. Written against the background of Post-World War II Europe, and the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust, his carefully crafted skeletal play (first published in French in 1953, then translated by the author into English) dramatizes the trivialities of everyday life, while never for a moment being trivial. It caused a literary revolution as the work's non-plot oftentimes appears to be nothing more than a string of glorified vaudeville numbers. Through his cast of comic clowns (based largely on the great Hollywood comedians of the silent era) Beckett explores the loneliness of modern Man in an apocalyptic godless world. And yet, this serious intent is cleverly disguised in two enigmatic acts filled with comic possibilities, but which never quite seem able to get started. A critic of the time wrote that Beckett "had achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice."

This production of Waiting for Godot manages to strike all the principal chords that any staging of this work must have. In the first place, it is funny, and every successful Godot production must cut through the seriousness and attack the funny bone. This is not hard to do when you have Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin, and John Goodman on board. Each is hilarious, but each is also heartbreaking. This is the other requirement for the play: it must indulge our sense of tragedy. A perfect example of the comic and the tragic is found in John Glover's Lucky, who easily evokes our pity as a creature resembling more a beast of burden than a man, but who can also make us roar with his reading of the nonsensical Act I monologue.

It is interesting to note that right now in London a production of Godot, featuring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow, and Ronald Pickup is enjoying a sold-out run at Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Not having seen it, I cannot comment on it, but one thing is for sure: given that illustrious British cast, it must be a wonderful but wildly different take on Beckett's play.

The New York production is also rapidly selling out. At this point there are very few seats left for this limited run. Make a dash to Studio 54 fast, and don't miss this genuine theatrical event.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

An Excellent Elixir (without Villazón)

Rolando Villazón did not sing the broadcast of Gaetano Donizzeti's L'Elisir d'Amore at the MET yesterday afternoon. The official word is that the tenor is suffering from laryngitis, although many believe that the Mexican tenor is in the kind of vocal crisis which just might imperil next year's new dreamcast production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Already, earlier in the season he cancelled almost all of his appearances in Lucia di Lammermoor. Whatever is happening to him, it appears to be quite serious, and he is taking care of himself by staying away from the stage and resting his voice. Although he is disappointing fans right and left, medically he is doing the right thing. It has been a season of cancellations and cast changes at the MET, and the absence of one of our generation's most sought-after tenors puts a damper on the final weeks of the MET's season.

In any case, the MET went on with the show yesterday afternoon, and a pretty good show it was. In many ways, one of my most satisfying afternoons at the opera this season. Filling in for Mr. Villazón was Massimo Giordano who sang a lusty, oversized Nemorino. He is a husky man with a big voice to match: not my ideal sound for this sweet bumbling character, but his singing was secure from top to bottom. Angela Gheorghiu was the feisty Adina, and the soprano sang with the kind of vocal confidence that makes the character a believable three-dimensional entity. Often, throughout the afternoon, her singing achieved a beauty of sound that we rarely get these days. Her notes above the staff, in particular, were vocally strong and rather memorable.

I thought that Franco Vassallo sang a very nice Sergeant Belcore, although throughout the afternoon he seemed to be singing to the broadcast microphone. I really wonder if he was heard up in the upper reaches of the house. As Doctor Dulcamara, Simone Alaimo avoided the old basso-buffo excesses of past performers. For instance, he did not intone an old man's voice in the Act II duet with Adina ("Io son rico, e tu sei bella..."), a tradition that I have never liked, and which I found a good directorial choice for this performer. However, I really wonder if these kind of characters, when played more naturally and less cartoonish, achieve the kind of comedy that they were meant to achieve in the first place.

The John Copley production, with sets by Beni Montresor is serviceable. But I still miss the old production that featured Doctor Dulcamara arriving and leaving the village via a hot air balloon à la Wizard of Oz.

I hear that Rolando Villazón is due to return to this production this week. If he does return, let's see in what kind of vocal shape he arrives.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Rehearsing La Sonnambula

There is a very cute payoff at the end of Mary Zimmerman's new production of Vincenzo Bellini's La Sonnambula at The Metropolitan Opera that almost validates the director's conceit of transferring the action of the opera from an 1800's Swiss village to a modern rehearsal room where a contemporary opera company is putting together a production of this bel canto work.

Very much like the English National Opera's satiric production of The Mikado, where director Jonathan Miller stages Gilbert & Sullivan's work at a resort where British vacationers put on a show, Ms. Zimmerman's Sonnambula takes flights of fantasies with Bellini's work although her reason for doing so is somewhat cloudy. She is convinced that this opera is short on plot and needs a modern hand in order for it to work for modern audiences. La Sonnambula might be short on plot, but I'm not totally convinced that it works outside of its original setting. Dr. Miller's Mikado is successful because it is a biting satire on all things English, especially that yearning by the Victorians for exoticism that partially led to the creation of the work in the first place. Dr. Miller's production is a calculated satire of a satire. Ms. Zimmerman seems to conclude that Bellini's work, with its half-baked libretto and string of rapturous melodies, is as incomplete as the rehearsal of a stage work. Since Maria Callas first sang I Puritani at La Fenice, and revived the works of the bel canto composers, scores of creative artists have tried to make sure that these works remain fixed in the pantheon of great Italian operas. Ms Zimmerman's Regietheater staging of Sonnambula either does not respect Bellini's work enough, or respects it too much thinking that it can stand anything that you do to it. If the latter is her way of thinking, then that just shows that she does not know enough about this composer. Bellini is not Wagner. Bend Bellini enough and he will break. This production gets dangerously close to that.

On the musical front, everything is in good hands. Natalie Dessay's Amina is a sprite, lithe creation packing a powerhouse coloratura that rivals anyone else singing the role today. Likewise, Juan Diego Flórez sounded secure throughout the evening, although I find that his voice is getting tighter at the top these days. Still, the encore pairing of these two, after last year's phenomenal La Fille du Régiment proves that the MET knows they have a gold mine whenever these two singers appear together. Michele Pertusi proved to be a sonorous Count Rodolfo and Jennifer Black was a cute Lisa. Conductor Evelino Pidò accompanied the singer's with true bel canto style getting some sumptuous sounds out of the Met Orchestra. Some exposed french horn passages, a favorite Bellini instrument, sounded quite beautiful and effortless.

Throughout the evening in a corner of the rehearsal room that serves as the only set, there is a model of the finished La Sonnambula production that these actors are rehearsing. It is a lighted model inside of a miniature proscenium stage that sits atop a platform. I wanted so much for the cast to be miniaturized and be transported inside that little stage -- and me right along with them.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Villazón is Out: Two Wonderful Tenors are In

The current revival of Lucia di Lammermoor, at the Metropolitan Opera, sold out months ago when subscribers saw that the MET was bringing together opera superstars Rolando Villazón and Anna Netrebko. The pair, who in the last few years have become the darlings of the international opera scene, were set to bring monumental sparks to the cold and dreary month of February in New York City. No such luck. By the time I went to see this production last Tuesday (February 3) Villazón was out sick, and soon after that it was officially announced that he would not be singing the rest of the performances, which included the Saturday matinee broadcast and HD live telecast.

As usual, the MET had to scramble to fill the role of the tenor. But this time they got it right. Giuseppe Filianoti filled in the evening I attended, and he sang with flair, loads of gusto, and true Italianate sound. His high notes rang solid, his acting was believable and, from the tenor point of view, the evening turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Ms. Netrebko, on the other hand, sounded tentative throughout the evening, and avoided most of her high notes. She did manage to make some truly beautiful sounds in spots, but her performance was, on the whole, uneven.

On Saturday, the MET struck gold once again: For the HD Live telecast performance they brought in Polish tenor sensation Piotr Beczala. He has been singing the role of Lenski in Eugene Onegin at the house to great critical praise, and agreed to sing the Donizetti role for the Saturday broadcast/telecast. The result was marvelous. His singing was sumptuously rich and powerful and his Italian diction was impeccable. He succeeded in conveying over the radio airwaves a fully rounded interpretation of this tenor role. Netrebko finally rose to the occasion, giving her all in what probably was her best performance of this run. She took all the high notes that she had dropped on Tuesday, they managed to come out pretty well, and thus scored a great success for herself. Mariusz Kwiecien, the wonderful Polish baritone who these days seems to do no wrong, offered his usual strong (if at times, loud) interpretation of Enrico. With a Russian and two Poles in the main roles, this Lucia had a decidedly Eastern European flavor that brought a surprising exotic, but wonderful sound to the MET. I can't wait to see what the video turned out like.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Katharina Wagner's Meistersinger DVD

Once upon a time, operatic audio recordings would unite the world's greatest singers into make-believe studio productions that introduced millions to the world of opera. The opera recording started when Enrico Caruso signed a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company, and it may have ended with Plácido Domingo's recording of Tristan und Isolde a few years ago. Making an audio recording of an opera has become a prohibitively expensive undertaking, and these days it is far more cost-effective to film live performances in opera houses, and release the results on DVD. Not only do you get the music, but you also get to see the productions and the artists. As the number of opera CDs continue to diminish, opera DVDs are flourishing. These days opera productions are breaking out of the proscenium and landing right in our living rooms, not only via DVD releases but also through HD telecasts and webcasts.

Bayreuth has long been a pioneer in distributing recordings of their long and distinguished legacy in the latest recording medium. It was in Bayreuth where the first live stereo recording of an operatic work was produced, and now they are busy releasing DVDs of their most illustrious productions.

Recently, the folks at Bayreuth sent me their new DVD release: Katharina Wagner's controversial staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a production which premiered at the Green Hill two summers ago. Last summer this production, conducted by Sebastian Weigle, launched the 2008 festival in a unique way: the event was broadcast live on the Internet. Millions of people around the world were able to experience the production live from the stage of the Festspielhaus right on their own home computers.

Now this uniquely cinematic production has been released in Europe in a deluxe DVD set (it will be released in the United States later this year) featuring widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio as well as spectacular 5.1 Surround-Sound.

It is the practice at Bayreuth to film productions without an audience in order to fully control the soundscape and take advantage of the possibilities of camera placement that would otherwise interfere in the course of a performance in front of a live audience. This particular production is filled with minute details which have been captured by an army of cameras that seem to be everywhere capturing every salient moment. The summer webcast of this production offered a look at the production during a live performance, and it was a very successful experiment which I hope that the management at Bayreuth continues this year. This DVD however, offers a finer, more detailed look at Katharina Wagner's first staging at Bayreuth.

Don't hesitate to buy this DVD if it is available in your part of the world. It is the next best thing to being at the Festspielhaus.