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.