Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Upcoming at the Metropolitan Opera

Here are some upcoming performances and productions that are rumored to be coming to The Metropolitan Opera. An asterisk means that it will be a house debut for the artist.


Anna Bolena [new production; Oct. 29, Jan. 23-Feb. 4] with Anna Netrebko/Angela Meade (Anna), Elina Garanca (Giovanna Seymour), Kate Lindsey (Smeton), Stephen Costello (Percy), Ildar Abdrazakov (Enrico/Henry VIII), c. Marco Armiliato, dir. David McVicar

Nabucco with Maria Guleghina/Marianne Cornetti (Abigaille) , Yonghoon Lee (Ismaele), Zeljko Lucic, Carlo Colombara

Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Javier Camarena*/Colin Lee, Mikhail Petrenko (Basilio)

Don Giovanni [new production] with Barbara Frittoli/Annette Dasch/Marina Rebeka*, Maija Kovalevska, Mojca Erdmann*/Isabel Leonard, Matthew Polenzani, Mariusz Kwiecien/Gerald Finley, Luca Pisaroni, Joshua Bloom, Stefan Kocan, c. James Levine/Edward Gardner, dir. Michael Grandage

Siegfried [new production] with Deborah Voigt/Katarina Dalayman, Ben Heppner, Bryn Terfel/Falk Struckmann, Eric Owens, c. James Levine, dir Robert Lepage

Satyagraha with Rachelle Durkin

Rodelinda (Nov) with Renee Fleming, Andreas Scholl, Iestyn Davies*, Kobie van Rensburg, c. Harry Bicket

Faust [new production] with Angela Gheorghiu/Marina Poplavskaya, Jonas Kaufmann/Piotr Beczala, Alexei Markov/George Petean, c. Yannick Nezet-Seguin, dir. Des McAnuff, des. Robert Brill [first seen at ENO]

Madama Butterfly with Robert Dean Smith?, Luca Salsi, Joel Sorensen as Goro

La Fille du Regiment with Nino Maichadze

Hansel and Gretel with Aleksandra Kurzak, Alice Coote

Enchanted Island [new production, original pastiche by Jeremy Sams, featuring music from Handel and Vivaldi] with Danielle de Niese (Ariel), Lisette Oropesa (Miranda), Joyce DiDonato (Sycorax), David Daniels (Prospero), Anthony Roth Costanzo* (Ferdinand), Placido Domingo (Neptune), Luca Pisaroni (Caliban), c. William Christie, dir./prod. Phelim McDermott/Julian Crouch, chor. Christopher Wheeldon?

Tosca with Roberto Alagna

Goetterdammerung [new production, Jan.] with Deborah Voigt/Katarina Dalayman, Waltraud Meier/Karen Cargill* (Waltraute), Ben Heppner, c. James Levine, dir Robert Lepage.

Ernani with Angela Meade, Salvatore Licitra, c. Marco Armiliato

Aida with Micaela Carosi, Stephanie Blythe, Lado Ataneli, Eric Owens (Ramfis), c. Fabio Luisi

Khovanshchina with Olga Borodina as Marfa, Vladimir Galouzine as Andrey, George Gagnidze as Shaklovity, Ildar Abdrazakov as Ivan, Rene Pape as Dosifei, John Easterlin as Scrivener

L’elisir d’amore with Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Florez, Mariusz Kwiecien, Alessandro Corbelli

Macbeth with Nadja Michael*, Gunther Groissbock, c. Gianandrea Noseda

Manon [new production, March] with Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczala, Paulo Szot, c. Fabio Luisi, dir. Laurent Pelly in co-production with Covent Garden, La Scala, and Toulouse

Das Rheingold. With Stefan Margita (Loge), Iain Paterson (TBA). Full Ring Cycles to follow.

La Traviata with Natalie Dessay/Marina Rebeka

Die Walkure with Eva-Maria Westbroek

The Makropoulos Case (Apr-May) with Karita Mattila, Kurt Streit (Albert Gregor), David Kuebler (Vitek), Johan Reuter* (Prus), Tom Fox (Kolenaty)

Billy Budd with John Daszak* as Vere, Nathan Gunn, James Morris, Allan Glassman (Red Whiskers)


Eugene Onegin [new production] with Anna Netrebko, Matthew Polenzani, Mariusz Kwiecien, c. James Levine, dir. Deborah Warner

Un Ballo in Maschera [new production] with Karita Mattila, Kathleen Kim, Marcelo Alvarez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, c. Fabio Luisi, dir. David Alden

The Tempest by Thomas Ades [Metropolitan Opera premiere] with Simon Keenlyside, dir. Robert Lepage, co-production with La Scala, who offers it in 2013-14

Il Barbiere di Siviglia [abridged Family Version, holidays], c. Yves Abel (uncertain whether it’s in rep with traditional performances)

Maria Stuarda [Metropolitan Opera premiere] with Joyce Di Donato as Maria, Elza van den Heever* as Elisabetta, c. Maurizio Benini, dir David McVicar.

Rigoletto [new production] with Diana Damrau/Lisette Oropesa/Aleksandra Kurzak, Piotr Beczala/Vittorio Grigolo, Zeljko Lucic/George Gagnidze, Stefan Kocan

Parsifal [new production] with Katarina Dalayman, Jonas Kaufmann, Peter Mattei, Rene Pape, dir. Francois Girard in co-production with Opera de Lyon

Giulio Cesare [Glyndebourne production, dir. David McVicar?] with Natalie Dessay, David Daniels, Rachid Ben Abdeslam* (Nireno)

Aida with Marco Berti, George Gagnidze, Stefan Kocan

Carmen (fall, then Feb-Mar) with Ekaterina Shcherbachenko*/Maija Kovalevska, Angela Gheorghiu?/Vesselina Kasarova, Yonghoon Lee, c. Michele Mariotti*

Le Comte Ory with Juan Diego Florez

Dialogues des Carmelites (Apr.-May) with Kristine Jepson (Mere Marie), Felicity Palmer (Mme. De Croissy)

Don Carlo (Jan-Mar) with Eric Halfvarson, c. Lorin Maazel?/Fabio Luisi

Francesca da Rimini (Mar) with Eva Maria Westbroek, Marcello Giordani, c. Yannick Nezet-Seguin

Norma with Sondra Radvanovsky, Kate Aldrich

Le Nozze di Figaro with Maija Kovalevska, Mojca Erdmann?, John Graham-Hall* (Basilio)

Otello with Krassimira Stoyanova, Jose Cura

Il Trovatore [fall] with Anja Harteros, Fabio Armiliato, Franco Vassallo, c. Daniele Callegari

Les Troyens with Susan Graham, Karen Cargill (Anna), Marcello Giordani

Turandot with Takesha Meshé Kizart (Liu), Marco Berti, c. Dan Ettinger

Complete Ring Cycles with Simon O’Neill (Siegmund)


Two Boys [commissioned work by Nico Muhly with libretto by Craig Lucas], dir. Bartlett Sher, co-production with English National Opera.

Falstaff [new production] with Lisette Oropesa, Stephanie Blythe, Franco Vassallo (Ford), dir. Jack O’Brien

Die Fledermaus [new production] with new dialogue by David Hirson

Prince Igor [new production] with Ildar Abdrazakov, dir. Dmitri Tcherniakov?

Werther [new production] with Elina Garanca, Jonas Kaufmann, dir. Richard Eyre?

I Puritani [new production, Apr] with Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Florez, Mariusz Kwiecien, c. Michele Mariotti

La Fanciulla del West with Marcelo Alvarez

Die Frau ohne Schatten with Anne Schwanewilms* (Empress), Ildiko Komlosi (Nurse), Johan Reuter (Barak), c. Vladimir Jurowski

The Nose

La Rondine


Der Rosenkavalier with Mojca Erdman (Sophie)

La Sonnambula with Diana Damrau, Javier Camarena


Commissioned work by Osvaldo Golijov, libretto by Alberto Manguel, dir. Robert Lepage [subject matter relationship of science and religion]

Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci [new production] with Marcelo Alvarez, c. Fabio Luisi

The Merry Widow [new production] with Renee Fleming, dir. Susan Stroman

Monday, October 11, 2010

In Memoriam -- Joan Sutherland (1926-2010)

She had the most beautiful voice. Arturo Toscanini said of Renata Tebaldi that hers was the voice of an angel. Of Joan Sutherland, who died in Switzerland yesterday at the age of 83, the Maestro would have no doubt placed her among the Seraphim -- the angels of the highest order whose name means fire. Hers was the second soprano voice I ever heard on records (the first was Tebaldi), and her voice, full of fiery ardor beneath that gorgeous tone, ignited in me a love of beautiful singing that I carry to this day.

I saw her a couple of times live at the Metropolitan Opera in the late 70's and 80's. Once as Gilda in Rigoletto and another time in her signature role, the title character in Lucia di Lammermoor. I missed her singing days in the 1960's when her voice was the purest. However there are the recordings. Sutherland arrived on the opera scene, and with her classical recordings reached a zenith of perfection. Her label was London Records, which always seem to have an edge on RCA and Angel when it came to impressive sound. For me Joan Sutherland was a voice I came to know and appreciate as it was captured in the recording studio.

Her recording of Rigoletto was one of the first opera albums I ever owned, and one of the definitive recordings of that score. Along with the young Luciano Pavarotti and Sherrill Milnes in the title role, this album is one of the classics in that golden age of opera studio recording. Alongside Pavarotti, she recorded opera's basic repertory (and then some) in one classic album after another, nearly all, conducted by her husband Richard Bonynge. In Giacomo Puccini's Turandot, a recording which also featured Luciano as Calaf, and which was led by Zubin Mehta, she tackled the title role of the icy empress, abandoning bel canto and entering into a realm which at that time was dominated by Birgit Nilsson. Quite often, critics, when mentioning the strength of Sutherland's voice, would comment that she would have made a great Wagnerian. And she did: as the Forest Bird in John Culshaw's titanic recording of Richard Wagner's Siegfried conducted by Sir Georg Solti.

She certainly had her critics. They mostly complained of her acting, and of the fact that her Italian and overall diction left something to be desired. They were right. It was often hard to understand the words that she sang. I remember one of the many Live from Lincoln Center programs where she performed the aria "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls" from the operetta The Bohemian Girl by Michale William Balfe, and wondering what language she was singing in. Still, the beauty of her tone more than made up for it.

Let's listen to Joan Sutherland's beautiful voice once more. The following video is from the Sydney Opera House where Sutherland had her first early triumphs. Here she is in the opera Norma singing "Casta Diva," once again conducted by Maestro Bonynge. I can't think of a better way to remember Joan Sutherland than by listening to her in one of her signature roles.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Dudamel and the Vienna Philharmonic

The Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall is always a hot ticket in New York, especially when they are led by Gustavo Dudamel, the young music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Maestro Dudamel chose an eclectic program with music that ranged from Europe to the Americas, and included works by Gioachino Rossini, Leonard Bernstein, Julián Obrón, and Maurice Ravel.

The program began with Rossini's overture to La Gazza Ladra. This well-known piece from this obscure opera never fails to please, and Dudamel brought out exquisite playing from the orchestra. It's wonderful how Dudamel managed to bring out a warm Italianate sound from the orchestra, and it shows the incredible flexibility of this world-famous ensemble. The next piece, Tres versiones sinfónicas by Spanish-Cuban composer Julián Obrón -- a pupil of Aaron Copland, mixes harmonies reminiscent of the American composer with the Afro-Cuban rhythms of Obrón's adopted homeland (he was born in Spain and became a Cuban citizen). Obrón is pretty much a minor figure in 20th century music, and largely unknown in the United States. Whereas thumbnail pictures of the composers were included in the Carnegie Hall playbill, Obrón's likeness was curiously absent. Despite the relative obscurity of many Hispanic classical composers and their music, Dudamel has always been a champion of the composers of the continent of his birth, and his passionate reading of Obrón's rhythmic score had him doing some fancy angular movements on the podium, and oftentimes leaping in the air. He also chose to have key players of the orchestra stand while playing selected passages of the score. This directorial decision has become a Dudamel trademark.

Leonard Bernstein's Divertimento for Orchestra opened the second half of the program. It is a curious piece made up of miniature movements ranging from Latin dances to a Turkey Trot and finishing with a rousing but dissonant march reminiscent of Charles Ives. The piece, which was commissioned in 1980 for the 100th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is one of the composer's late works, and it feels as if Lenny dug into his trunk and found up a few musical ideas that he weaved together for this composition.

The evening ended with two pieces of Maurice Ravel. The short elegy for a dead child, Pavane pour une infante défunte, is a tender composition whose enigmatic title is a companion piece to the composer's other homage to Spanish culture Alborada del Gracioso. The melodic score allowed Dudamel to shape the long phrases with a delicate hand, and the orchestra responded by playing it so sumptuously that it easily turned out to be the highlight of the evening. Bolero, which ended the printed program, began so quietly that you had to bend an ear to hear the opening bars. Before long, it carefully build to a thunderous climax. It was exciting to witness the violin players of the Vienna Philharmonic digging into their instruments with such wild abandon and musical precision at the same time. This is the kind of sound that few orchestras are able to produce successfully.

The audience greeted the program with a rousing standing ovation, and Dudamel took his bows standing in the midst of the orchestra, his customary spot during curtain calls. It's not that he's shy; he clearly enjoys the limelight that his talents have brought him, but this is an artist with a humble streak that always wants to remind us that despite his superstar status he is only a musician, just like the rest of the players on stage. But what a musician, and what an orchestra he led tonight! The kind of concert where everyone -- including the performers -- left the hall wearing a smile.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Das Rheingold opens MET Opera Season

It's a well-known fact that mounting a new production of an opera these days requires a special "vision" from the stage director. It isn't enough anymore just to stage an opera, the work must be dissected, re-invented, and somehow made "new" to audiences that demand a new take on an old warhorse. Needless to say, the less the director follows the stage directions and intentions of the original librettist and composer the better. Richard Wagner's stage works are perfectly suited for this directorial experimentation; and so we have had productions of Parsifal where the Holy Grail has inexplicably morphed into anything from an apocalyptic glow from a nuclear blast to a decomposing giant rabbit in Equatorial Africa. This summer at the Bayreuth Festival the guests at Lohengrin and Elsa's wedding were a chorus of giant rats, and a shower of sneakers rained down from the rafters during the finale of Act II of Die Meistersinger. These days, everything is fair game: the weirder the better.

The Metropolitan Opera made a big deal when it decided to retire the old Otto Schenk production of the Ring and replace it with a new staging by Robert Lepage. The old production went out with a sold-out bang, and everybody waved goodbye to possibly the last "old-fashioned" realistic setting of the Ring left in the world. Weeks later, during a dinner hosted by the Metropolitan Opera Club, of which I am a member, Peter Gelb assured those of us gathered there that the new production would be set in "a mythological world." He had to reassure us of that. American audiences, by and large, are essentially conservative ones, and they are somewhat skeptical of "Eurotrash" stagings.

The poster that appeared all over town a few months later, advertising the new production is worth noting. It shows Wotan (sung by Bryn Terfel) wearing a breastplate and a wig with long locks of dark hair draped over his missing eye. In his right hand he carries a spear which is filled with ancient runes. In other words, in this getup Mr. Terfel can board Dr. Who's TARDIS and be transported back in time, and easily step into a production at the old MET circa 1902. By the looks of the poster you would think that the MET had replaced the Schenk production with an even more traditional one.

Not so! The Met opened the new season on Monday with Mr. Lapage's first opera in the Ring cycle, Das Rheingold. It is certainly set in a mythological world all right, I just don't know which particular mythic realm he picked (although the director claims that the myths of Iceland have influenced him the most). The mammoth set for Rheingold and for the rest of the Ring is a wall that consists of twenty-four planks constructed between two towers. These planks can be configured in a number of ways in order to produce different settings. Also, on their plain surfaces, projections as well as interactive video that reacts to movements and sound (as in Mr. Lapage's 2008 MET production of La Damnation de Faust -- clearly a dress rehearsal for this Ring) can be projected.

This monstrous contraption (the MET had to reinforced its stage this summer) allows for some beautiful stage pictures as well as some very clumsy staging. The first scene features the Rhinemaidens swimming about underwater with bubbles rising to the surface. Then we see them lounging by the banks of the river, their mermaid tails moving the projected pebbles by the river banks. A beautiful and unforgettable effect. Later on, Wotan and Loge's journey to Nibelheim is presented as an aerial view as the two seem to be descending a giant staircase designed by M.C. Escher. The staging of the second scene, on the other hand, proved to be more complicated. The giants Fasolt and Fafner are isolated, standing on their own platform above the gods with nowhere to move, and unable to interact physically with anyone else on the stage. The gods Freia, Froh and Donner enter the scene by sliding down one of the walls as if Valhalla was some kind of immortal playground. Further, when in the last scene Fafner kills his brother Fasolt, the body of the slain giant slides down the wall like the disposal of human garbage. It looked like a scene from Sweeney Todd. This awful bit of staging drew a loud amount of laughter from the audience.

The fairest criticism that one can have of this production is that it is largely unimaginative. The last scene presents us with a small rainbow bridge and rainbow colored lights upstage. However, the gods exit into the wings rather than take the ride up to Valhalla via the rainbow bridge -- why? My understanding is that the wall did not work as it was supposed to. A pity, it definitely left you wanting more, that's for sure, especially at Opening Night prices. After all the years of planning and months of building can't they get these things to work?

Musically, the evening went a lot better. James Levine is back on the podium, looking frail and thin after this summer's 10 hour spine operation. His body may be weak, but his musical talents remain as prodigious as ever. He led a well paced performance which rarely overpowered the singers. The orchestra played beautifully throughout the evening, even inspired at times. Towards the end of the evening, however, there was some unevenness in the brass section.

In his first MET Wotan, Bryn Terfel did not disappoint, although he started the evening a bit shaky and a little gravelly, perhaps trying to save his voice for the long one-act evening. Good performances were also given by Dwayne Croft as Donner and Adam Diegel as Froh. Eric Owens provided the richest, most consistent singing among the men. As Alberich, who renounces love for wealth and power, Mr. Owens gave us a twisted, complex creature with a rich sonorous bass to match. As Freia, Wendy Bryn Harmer sounded strong and sure of herself vocally, easily the best performance from among the women.

I am not one of those who will petition the MET to bring back the Otto Schenk production, which I always thought to be too realistic and mad for details. The years pass, tastes change, and audiences must advance forward with the times. If I am nostalgic for anything, it is for the Wieland Wagner inspired Herbert von Karajan older MET production, with the rocky cliffs and the ever-present darkness and gloom. I have to admit: I loved that Ring!

One quarter of the tetralogy is down and we await to see what this production team will do with the next installment later on in the season. Let's hope that the wall is in working order and that it is used in more imaginative ways in Die Walküre.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Social Network opens the 48th N.Y. Film Festival

All the buzz you've heard is true. The Social Network, director David Fincher's highly entertaining new film chronicling the genesis of Facebook is a first rate biopic of the rise and rise of Mark Zuckerberg, the Ivy League undergraduate creator of that Internet blue-logo social site that, for better or for worse, has most of the world in its virtual grip. With a first-rate script by Aaron Sorkin that fires with both cylinders, with rapid-pace dialogue reminiscent of His Girl Friday, the story takes us from Facebook's humble beginnings in Harvard Yard, and sweeps us along towards a morality tale conclusion where ultimate redemption might just be a click of the refresh button away.

We first meet Mark Zuckerberg, wonderfully played by Jesse Eisenberg, at a Harvard student watering hole where his relation with his girlfriend (the underused Rooney Mara) is rapidly heading for the rocks. Mark is a genius at embracing algorithms, but an utter failure at courtship. His revenge for being dumped starts a chain reaction that knocks down the university computer network, puts him on academic probation, and brings him to the attention of a pair of buttoned-down blue blood twins (both played by Armie Hammer) who lure Mark into building for them a website for elite WASPs. In a wonderful scene Mark is invited to the outer foyer of Porcellian, the elite "final club" to which the twins belong, and present him with their their offer. Mark runs with the idea, and the prototype of Facebook is born, while the brothers are left out of the picture.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark as if he suffers from Asperger syndrome. It is a brilliant performance built on a shaky foundation of fits and starts. Sometimes the character seems to know it all (he walks out of an advanced computer class being the only student in the room who knows the answer to an intricate question that the professor has posed), and at other times his face morphs into an eerie mask where his eyes are all but dead. It is a superb performance of a person unable to relate to others who, ironically, is destined to build the website whose mission statement is the unification and connection of us all.

If Mark is the brains behind Facebook, then Eduardo Saverin is its heart. Mark's best friend, played by Andrew Garfield in a breakthrough performance, is a great foil, and one of the best examples of good guys finishing last. There is a jittery quality to Mr. Eisenberg that is beautifully complemented by Mr. Garfield's grounded performance. He is a noble character for whom we feel compassion, especially when the tide of events turn against him.

Facebook might have had the kernel of its invention in the East, but it does not take off until the operation moves out West, and this move was largely influenced by Sean Parker, the creator of the defunct music-sharing site Napster, here played with great flair by Justin Timberlake. The introduction of Parker's character halfway through the film injects the narrative with a shot of adrenaline and directs the film to another plane. We move from the halls of Academia (beautifully shot digitally on "the Red" by Jeff Cronenweth) to sunny suburban houses with pools and trendy sushi restaurants shot with a palette of bright colors that contrast with the autumnal hues of the first part of the film.

Here lies the genius of David Fincher. He is able to juggle the many worlds of this movie with great accomplishment. Not a stranger to unknown worlds (as he proved with his first film, Aliens 3, and later on in the rain-soaked unnamed city of Se7en), he is comfortable in the binary world of computer geeks as well as in the elite world of privilege. He knows how to show the beauty of modern liquid crystal displays, and then turn around and convincingly lead us through a regatta in England where wealth, royalty, and old money mingle. Very few directors nowadays can perform this feat so convincingly.

In many ways, it is a film about the clash of the old and the new. But the success of the film lies not in the fact that it deals with the latest flavor-of-the-month Internet accomplishment. That is only its outer veneer. According to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the film has little to do with the Internet and everything to do with themes as old as storytelling itself. As he mentioned at the press screening of the film, The Social Network is about "friendship and loyalty, class, jealousy, and power: things that Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Paddy Chayefsky would write about." It is for this reason that this very up to date film about our age seems as ageless as tragedy and comedy, the poles of Western art that this work inhabits and balances so deliciously.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Christoph Schlingensief is Dead

It's so difficult to believe that Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010) is dead. Barely a few weeks ago his name was on my lips as I was putting the finishing touches on my podcast about the new Hans Neuensfels production of Lohengrin at Bayreuth. In 2004 Schlingensief directed an extremely controversial production of Parsifal at The Green Hill, and the current Lohengrin is drawing the kind of loud boos that greeted Schlingensief's work six years ago.

You would not be reading this article had there not been a 2004 Schlingensief production of Parsifal at Bayreuth. The critical outrage, and the overall sheer chutzpa of that production fueled my imagination, and was largely the inspiration for and its companion: this, oftentimes, irregular blog.

Of the many hats that he wore in his brief life, Schlingensief excelled at being a provocateur. To fully understand his art, oftentimes complicated by the politics from which it arose, you have to be German, or at the very least you must have your finger on the pulse of current German politics and history. He often ridiculed Helmut Kohl, leader of the Christian Democratic Union, and often his work was filled with references to Germany's Nazi legacy. His play, Kühnen 94, Bring Me the Head of Adolf Hitler, its title referring to the neo-Nazi leader Michael Kühnen, as well as Sam Peckinpah's 1974 film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, was a controversial examination of German history that drew inspiration from popular history and Hollywood pulp films.

The iconography of his Parsifal at Bayreuth (see above) drew from many themes, inspirations, and styles. Setting the work in what appeared to be the African continent drew angry responses from the crowd year after year that the production was presented. It even drew one angry Spaniard to yell "To Jail!" at the conclusion of one of the acts. Anger overflowed backstage to the cast. Tenor Endrik Wottrich refused to sing in the production after the first year, and did not honor his contract after he and Schlingensief fought bitterly and called each other names that ranged from "Racist" to "Fascist."

Often, critics who understood his penchant for provoking masses accused him of not having a true visual style. His "Voodoo Parsifal," as the Bayreuth production was nicknamed, drew inspiration from the controversial film Our Hitler by director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, one of the most radical filmmakers from the New German Cinema of the 1970s. The truth of the matter is that Schlingensief was influenced by everything that touched him, and he wanted to put everything in the pot and stir it up, always curious to see what came out.

It is this sense of exploration and curiosity, coupled with a need to shock and disturb that Christoph Schlingensief brought to Bayreuth when he was invited to come up with a new Parsifal. Now that he is gone, his creativity and determination will be greatly missed.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

David Fincher at the New York Film Festival

The Film Society of Lincoln Center has announced that it will kick off its 48th annual New York Film Festival with The Social Network, the new film by director David Fincher. The new film, written by Aaron Sorkin, stars Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake.

David Fincher broke on the scene with the dark, apocalyptic Alien 3, perhaps the darkest and most personal of the first "Alien" films. In 1995 he released the mega-hit thriller Se7en, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. He followed this film with a score of triumphs, all bearing the stamp of a genuine American auteur. Fight Club, Zodiac, and the recent The Curious Case of Benjamin Button have become instant classics, and have transformed Mr. Fincher into one of the genuine visionaries in American cinema today.

Currently, Mr. Fincher is in pre-production on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on the Stieg Larsson novel. This film is slated for Christmas 2011 release.

The Social Network opens at the New York Film Festival on Friday, September 24th 2010. It is due for release by Sony Picture Classics on October 1st.

Monday, August 02, 2010


I recently found out that one of my favorite productions of Parsifal, Nikolaus Lehnnhoff's post-apocalyptic setting of Wagner's last work at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus was advertised with the above poster. The conductor for this production was the American Kent Nagano, who is of Japanese extraction. I was really shocked that the management of the Festspielhaus would stoop down to this kind of opportunistic attention-grabber tactic.

The ad bears the logo of the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, and reads "Kent Nagano conducts Wagner." Although I don't believe their intention was to offend, but rather to produce amusement, the image is still disturbing, and the fact that it was developed to cause amusement in the first place betrays much of its problematic nature. It shows a photo-shopped image of the composer manually slanting his eyes in order to make himself look "more Asian." This obviously alludes to a racist European custom of trying to mimic Asian facial characteristics by doing this. The ad comments on Kent Nagano's Japanese-American ethnicity while at the same time it indirectly reminds us of Richard Wagner's own prejudicial view of the world.

Under the surface of the visual "joke" the ad touches a deeper vein. It recalls the fact that when Parsifal premiered at Bayreuth in 1882 Wagner asked conductor Hermann Levi to submit to Christian baptism in order to be purified of his "Jewishness" so he could be worthy to conduct this Christian work. The ad touches upon German (Christian) supremacy, perhaps announcing that someone of Japanese extraction conducting Wagner's most holy work is not only somehow preposterously humorous, but that it soils the true "German-ness" of the work (these were Wagner's own fears of having a Jewish conductor lead the opera's premiere). As a result the composer's most famous portrait has now metamorphosed into a grotesque mask, itself already having been "soiled."

Needless to say this is the kind of ad that clearly nobody would dare to show in the United States, England or in many other European countries. The fact that it won advertising awards in Berlin, and that nobody protested or even batted an eye when it came out speaks volumes about questions of sensitivity in Baden-Baden and the rest of Germany. On the other hand, we have to ask ourselves if our society has become way too tender to questions of race that we are in danger of completely losing our sense of humor, which I believe was the point of departure for this ad. Of course, humor directed at minorities is no humor at all.

The only question that remains in my mind is what did Kent Nagano himself think of the ad?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Bayreuth's new Lohengrin: Of Rats and Men, and More Rats

One of the many results of the so-called Regietheater, the director-driven style of presenting opera that has Europe and most of America and the rest of the world in its tight grip, is that along with an askew, left of center imagination that sets the opera in a place, time and space that the original composer never dreamed of, the production team has to ensure a certain level of controversy at opening night for the whole thing to properly work. Therefore, if the audience does not feel uncomfortable, or worse yet, if the audience behaves, then the production is deemed a dismal failure. On the other hand, if enough pockets of audience members throw themselves into an endless polemic during intermissions after participating in a rowdy booing attack, then the production might be considered a hit.

This is the easy recipe for Regietheater in which the director responsible for the transgression hopes to achieve the utmost in controversy. Christoph Schlingensief did it at Bayreuth in 2004 with his "voodoo Parsifal" that came complete with time-lapse photography of a rotting carcass of a rabbit being devoured by hungry maggots. Last year, at the venerable Metropolitan Opera, which has opened the door to a careful select version of Regietheater via the appointment of Peter Gelb, Luc Bondy's ugly new production of Puccini's Tosca featured a whore giving Scarpia a blowjob at his offices in the Palazzo Farnese. A wave of boos (which started from the Family Circle and moved on down) greeted the conclusion of each act only to intensify at the end when Mr. Bondy took a curtain call. He smiled; he was happy; he had accomplished what he set out to do: The MET finally had a Regietheater scandal.

Hans Neuenfels is no stranger to these kind of scandals, as a matter of fact he specializes in manufacturing them. This is the man that re-thought the Ethiopian slave Aida as a 20th century domestic black servant, and who caused a city-wide security issue when his production of Mozart's Idomeneo at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin had the title character carry in the severed heads of Jesus and Muhammad. It was about time for the 69 year old director to finally make his debut at Bayreuth, an opera theater committed to the new and unafraid of controversy. The director has chosen Richard Wagner's most romantic opera, Lohengrin. The musical direction has been given to the dynamic 31 year old Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons.

Neuenfels has transformed Lohengrin from a utopia fairy tale and has turned it into a dystopia of deep philosophical concepts that examines the human condition via kitschy images filled with outrageous humor. The chorus is dressed as white and black rats, perhaps letting us in on the fact that not all seems to be right in the colorful world that the composer has painted. Lohengrin's entrance (according to Wagner's stage directions, the knight enters in a boat pulled by a swan) is instead replaced with the figure of Lohengrin walking in, in shirtsleeves and undone tie, as if he has just finished a long day's work on the set of Mad Men with his stuffed swan carried in behind him by a swarm of black rats. I'm dead certain that King Ludwig II (1845-1886), who had the fairy tale castle Neuschwanstein built after he became enraptured by Wagner's Lohengrin, must surely be turning in his grave.

It is the kind of production that wants and needs a strong audience reaction and gets it, and that is exactly what Neuenfels craves. He has surrounded himself with a very talented set of collaborators just to make sure that the success is legitimate. The sets by Reinhard von der Thannen are mostly in shades of whites, while his costumes, particularly those of the chorus, when they are not dressed as rats, are brightly yellow and betray a smart haute-couture retro feeling. Think 1950's by way of Versace and you get the idea.

The main draw of this production is Jonas Kaufmann, opera's current sex symbol, whose name seems to be drooling on everybody's lips these days after making some of the most talked about, successful debuts around the world's stages this year. (His visit to the MET this spring in the roles of Cavaradossi and Don José re-charged the last months of the opera season.) His strong tenor, in the tradition of Franco Corelli and Plácido Domingo, may not possess the true heldentenor timbre, but it is perfect for this virile conception of the title character -- and his drop-dead gorgeous looks go a long way to fill in what may be missing vocally. His baritonal lower register again might not be what Wagner imagined for his Grail Knight, however, in this production he fits right in. Alongside Kaufmann is the beautiful and beautifully-voiced Annette Dasch who has been making some acclaimed debuts herself around the world. Are they the new opera couple? Are they the new Netrebko-Villazón replacements? Time will tell, but their opening night vocal displays moves them up a notch or two in the direction of world acclaim and instant celebrity recognition.

Finally, Riga-born conductor Andris Nelsons conducted a passionate reading of the score. Wagner was in his early thirties when he completed the music to Lohengrin, and having a young man at the podium channels the vigor that the pre-Ring, pre-Tristan und Isolde Wagner possessed when he wrote this totally German in spirit, but Italian opera-infused effervescent score.

Now that Wolfgang Wagner is dead, total control of the festival has passed down to Richard Wagner's great-granddaughters. Both Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier have been chosen by Bavaria's culture minister, Thomas Goppel, to lead the festival into the 21st century. In the same way that Wieland Wagner and his brother Wolfgang revived the festival from the ashes of World War II, Katharina and Eva seem to want to take the festival to the forefront of the opera world and to the outer reaches of artistic merit. Their recipe appears to be a kind of operatic theater where youth (or youthful thinking) is at the helm, and where conservatism is continually engaged in an awkward dance with the forces of the avant-garde. When one thinks about it, not too different from the post-War years that brought back the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. Essentially everyone is engaged in an artistic journey in search of the Wagnerian truth.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

RED on Broadway at the Golden Theatre

The Donmar Warehouse, that magnificent British theatrical institution, is on a roll these days. Recently, three of their productions (Frost/Nixon, Mary Stuart, and Hamlet) have successfully made it to New York City after sold-out runs in London. Donmar’s latest offering is Red, written by John Logan, (who wrote the screenplay to the films Gladiator and The Aviator) and directed by Michael Grandage: a two-man play centering on the relationship between American painter Mark Rothko and his studio assistant during the time when the artist was awarded a commission to paint murals for the newly-built restaurant The Four Seasons. This stormy period of the artist’s life is brought to life by actors Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne, who respectively play the tempestuous Rothko and his young inexperienced studio assistant.

When you enter the Golden Theatre, the first thing that hits you is the smell of paints and linseed oil. Set designer Christopher Oram has created a hyper-realistic environment that looks and smells like a working artist studio. Then, when you settle in your seat you instantly become aware that already sitting on the curtain less stage, his back to us, is Molina, his hand cradling his shaved bald head. He sits there, already being Rothko, looking hard and deep at one of his “red” paintings that hangs on a pulley-system easel upstage. I had not seen this theatrical conceit of having the lead actor already there before the audience arrives since Ian McKellen sat on a wheelchair as old Salieri in the original production of Amadeus. As he sits there, in silent communion with his work for what seems like an eternity, already in character, he is preparing us for a play which is essentially about probing, about looking deeply past the obvious surfaces and into the pulsating heart and soul of a piece of art. When the house light go down, Rothko lights a cigarette, stands up from his chair and approaches the painting. He extends his hand and touches the stretched canvas in front of him, feeling its delicate surface -- the creator in search of his creation's hidden truth and secrets... perhaps its soul. It is a magical theatrical moment, and the first line of the play has not even been uttered.

The first words I ever heard about Mark Rothko, indeed, the first time I ever heard of the man I was an undergraduate at NYU. Rothko was dead less than ten years, and my best friend was taking an Art 101 course. He was puzzled by his professor's statement about Rothko's work. "His paintings carry the weight of the Old Testament" the professor lectured to the class. The words resonated within me, but my knowledge of art at the time did not allow me to understand the reason anybody would utter such a statement about abstract colors on a canvas. I dismissed the comment as ridiculous, but for some reason the memory of it stayed with me. That summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a huge exhibit of paintings by Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still. I bought the show's catalogue and slowly became engrossed by this period of American Art. At the Golden Theatre the words from my undergraduate days came back as I entered this recreation of Rothko's world, and John Logan's script has made these words reverberate once more.

When Ken, Rothko's new studio assistant, arrives at the studio the first day wearing a suit and tie Rothko berates him for not coming in properly dressed to a working studio. As the extraneous layers of clothing are shed we get to know him as a young man who aspires to be a great artist one day. Rothko roars back that he will never be a great artist unless he learns the canon of Western art, literature music, and above all that he must read Nietzsche. The stage is set for an Apollonian versus Dionysian struggle of wits between the two. The young man genuinely wanting to understand the spark of genius that ignites the old man's artistic drive while the towering, seemingly unfeeling Rothko eternally reminds him that he is nothing more than a mere unimportant employer, and that in this studio it is all about Rothko.

Easy to see Rothko as a self-absorbed sour bully, and Alfred Molina embodies that to the hilt (this being his strongest Broadway performance to date), but the truth of the matter is that in his own monomaniacal way he is trying to make the kid understand that art is deeper, much deeper than he ever thought it could be. Molina is also able to bring that across admirably. When he must fire Ken because he has decided to turn down the Four Seasons commission, Molina tenderly touches the young man's cheek and urges him to make something of himself by learning to see things differently. Eddie Redmayne's Ken is an absolutely brilliant creation. Throughout the course of the drama he goes from being a wide-eyed ingenue cowering in the shadow of both taskmaster and tormentor to becoming a spokesperson for the new generation of Pop Artists who threaten Rothko's very own artistic existence. Mr. Redmayne's performance is one of the great Broadway debuts of the season.

Then there are the paintings themselves, beautifully recreated by Mr. Oram. They are the other characters in this play. They enter and exit and play their mute roles as the two characters carry them in an out of their big easel, each replacement cleverly signaling a new scene. The paintings are monumental, and yet fragile and sad -- perhaps carrying the weight of Scripture within their frame. They are the subject of the drama, and yet they will forever be relegated to being decoration. For Rothko, who envisioned his work occupying the most sacred of spaces, this was the saddest revelation: that his creations would become nothing more than backdrops for wealthy diners. However, as John Banville wrote "In a way, the murals would have suited the Four Seasons, one of those modern-day temples ... where the sons of man - and sons of bitches - feed daily upon the blood sacrifice of their own ferocious, worldly triumphs."

Even though Rothko says at one point that "there is tragedy in every brushstroke" the paintings themselves tell that story, and the story of the compulsive, ego maniacal self-destructive genius who created them.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Addams Family, The Musical

At one point, somewhere in the second act, Gomez Adams, played by Nathan Lane, looks up at statuesque Bebe Neuwirth, playing his wife Morticia and tells her that what he lacks in height he makes up for in shallowness. In many ways this quip could be a good description of The Addams Family, The Musical, the new show that is ready to open at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

The production had a troubled out-of-town run in Chicago and garnered mixed reviews. Its original director was fired and Broadway legend Jerry Saks was brought in to patch things up. Mr. Saks is billed in the current playbill as creative consultant while the team of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (who brought Philip Glass's Satyagraha from the English National Opera to the MET last year) are billed as the show's directors and designers.

The press release of this production informs us that the creators have gone back to the original source and drawn their inspiration from the kooky, macabre, but lovable cartoons that illustrator Charles Addams published on the pages of The New Yorker magazine from 1933 to his death in 1988. That is true in that they even borrow some of the captions from the famed cartoons and incorporated them into the script. In actuality, any musical that claims to have the Addams Family as its title has to draw primarily from the 1960's ABC TV sitcom which codified and labeled Charles Addams's unnamed cartoon characters. Likewise, Barry Sonnenfeld Paramount films from the early 1990s: The Addams Family and Addams Family Values (written by Paul Rudnick) are sources of inspiration for this musical.

As they went from the pages of The New Yorker to TV to the movies, the characters underwent interesting transformations. The TV series Gomez (played by John Astin) was a wacky aristocrat who dabbled on Wall Street and often called his Witch Doctor in Africa for medical consultations. His Spanish ethnicity, largely hidden, only erupted in moments of passion when the word "querida" escaped from his lips and he kissed the length of Carolyn Jones 's arm. Her Morticia was a kittenish witch who might have been the descendant of a clan that escaped the Salem burnings. The TV Addamses were very WASPy blue bloods with deep ancestral roots (as opposed to the blue-collared Munsters on CBS), and might have lived on Park if the avenue had room for a haunted house. In this production the mansion is inside Central Park! In the Sonnenfeld films Gomez (deliciously played by Raul Julia) became a full-blooded Latin lover while Anjelica Huston's Morticia was a sultry, gothic siren beautifully lit around the eyes to give her a ghostly appearance. The character of Uncle Fester, who was played in the TV series by silent film former child star Jackie Coogan, was a lovable man-child who was able to conduct electricity, while for the big screen Christopher Lloyd brought out a darker side to the character.

In this show, Nathan Lane plays Gomez at his oiliest: an over-the-hill lounge lizard with an outrageous Spanish accent. Bebe Neuwirth does a creditable job with Morticia, but the truth of the matter is that the show doesn't give her the scene stealing opportunities afforded her co-star, so she ends up being no more than a ghoulish gothic hottie with a plunging neckline. And speaking of her dress and other things: she and Lane get to cut up a rug on the dance floor. They dance a sultry tango where Ms. Neuwirth gets to show us the shapely legs that are hidden beneath that tight black dress.

The basic plot of this show channels a classic story premise used in the TV series as well as in the movies: a "normal" family visits the Addamses at their house. This visit has a distinctive "Cage aux Folles" flavor since the reason for the visit involves Wednesday Addams (Krysta Rodriguez) who has fallen in love with Lucas (Wesley Taylor), a young man from Ohio who is in New York with his parents (Carolee Carmelo and Terrence Mann). Yep! You know what's coming! Pretty soon the visiting family begins to see things the Addamses's way. All of this is treated with plenty of crowd-pleasing goofiness through songs that unfortunately try to top each other. Does every composer on Broadway these days feel that every song must be a showstopper? Apparently, yes, they do! Regretfully, what should be the real theme of the Addams family, starting with the cartoons themselves, which is questioning the definition of what is normal, remains undeveloped behind the glitz.

The reason for this problem lies with Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and their uneven book which fails to conjure the true spirit of the Addams Family cartoons. True to the cartoons, they do succeed in putting together a show which feels episodic, and for some reason I just don't think that was their intention. The show is also chock full of topical references ranging from Health Care to texting, which do get a big laugh, but which make the show feel as if the creators are trying to grab an audience that is ebbing away from them. Also, there is a surprising amount of philosophizing about the existential aspect of life. One character, with dread, compares our fleeting days on Earth to a tight rope with a coffin waiting for us at the end. The real Addamses would never fear death! Instead they would probably invite him over for drinks, offer their umbrella stand for his scythe, and ask him to stay overnight in one of the guest rooms if he wasn't too busy.

The show's supporting cast is an interesting mix. Kevin Chamberlin as Uncle Fester plays the character as a sweet weirdo who's in love with a nocturnal celestial body, His love song, visually inspired in part by a famous Georges Méliès silent film is a memorable part of the show. On the other hand, the character of Grandma, played with showstopping energy by Jackie Hoffman, is turned into a foul-mouthed, ex-hippie hag who peddles various drugs out of a wheeled cart that looks like a voodoo altar.

Here's a scene they did manage to get right. Gomez is sitting on a swing outside his mansion, behind him a beautiful backdrop of Central Park West. Suddenly, gunshots are heard. Gomez's face breaks into a pleased, satisfied smile. That's the spirit of Charles Addams! I wish there was more of it in this cute, at times lovable, but ultimately flawed show.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

ATTILA: Verdi, Muti, and Prada at the MET

For Peter Gelb the new production of Giuseppe Verdi's Attila might just be the pinnacle of his tenure thus far at the MET. It is a star-studded event on many levels, with all kinds of debuts that spell the kind of success that most opera houses dream of. At the helm, leading the MET orchestra for the first time, is Riccardo Muti, perhaps the greatest Verdi specialist of our times leading an early Verdi opera never before heard at the house. Also making debuts are visionary director Pierre Audi, costume designer Miuccia Prada (that's right, an opera with Prada gear!) and the architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron, who have given us London's Tate Modern and Beijing's "Bird Nest" Olympic Stadium, in charge of the sets. Onstage, Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role, soprano Violetta Urmana, tenor Ramón Vargas, and veteran bass Samuel Ramey (himself a legendary Attila). On paper this is a dream team, at the house it is a revelation!

Attila occupies an unusual space in Verdi's canon; one that is also shared by the opera Stiffelio, both works heard at the MET this season. These two "minor" works come just before better known works by the composer. Attila is Verdi's ninth opera coming right before his early masterpiece Macbeth, and Stiffelio was written right before the legenday trio of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata. Given the chronological spaces that these works occupy, it is easy to see why they have been eclipsed by the composer's more popular, more mature works. But make no mistake about it: Attila, which presents the life of the Scourge of God as a melodic pageant of early Italian history written for a Venetian audience of 1846, might be weak in its libretto, but the music already shows a master of Bel Canto who is slowly discovering his personal musical language and paving his own way for the masterpieces that he would soon create in the decade of the 1850s.

Riccardo Muti drew inspiring playing from the MET orchestra, the likes of which I have not heard at the house in quite a long time. It was so exciting to hear the expansive richness of sound that this ensemble is able to produce under the right hands. Muti was in complete control throughout the evening, leading the orchestra through memorable textures and rich sonorities. The subtleties of the score came through as well as the impressive fortissimo tuttis (one of which made one member in the audience Saturday evening burst out in enraptured applause).

In many interviews, Muti has declared that his personal aim in this production is to show how Attila already contains the kernel that makes the mature works great. Needless to say, he has succeeded in this endeavor. He gives the reading of Attila the same respect and attention to detail as if he were conducting Otello or Falstaff, and that's the secret to making these early Verdi operas work musically for today's audiences.

Pierre Audi's production tackles the problem of presenting an operatic fresco from 1846 by instilling a modern look. The battlefield of Aquileia is an impressive mount of rubble that gives you the feeling that if you take away a stone the whole thing would tumble down. The rest of the opera is played in front of an impressive wall of foliage, complete with giant leaves and impressive tree trunks worthy of the best scenes in James Cameron's Avatar. Thankfully, the costumes by Ms Prada do not channel the Na'Vi, but are nonetheless tres chic and quite elegant. The Act II banquet scene, in particular, stands out for its impressive use of golden yellows.

The cast assembled for this production is first rate. Ildar Abdrazakov may not be a powerhouse Attila, but his attractive bass is lyrical and easily reaches the low notes required for the role. His good looks brings incredible charisma and stage presence to the title role. Violetta Urmana started out a bit shrilly, but it took her no time at all to bring down the house displaying Odabella's beautiful but difficult coloratura. Giovanni Meoni, filling in for Carlos Alvarez, brought tender and expressive singing of great beauty to the baritone role of Ezio. Ramón Vargas looked uncomfortable in his costume, and the music seemed to overwhelm his light tenor for most of the evening. His third act aria "Che non avrebbe il misero" however, was sung expressively in true Verdi fashion. Samuel Ramey made a memorable cameo in the role of Leone a Roman bishop.

It is good to see Riccardo Muti make his long overdue Metropolitan Opera debut. He is unquestionably the reason for much of the spark and magic of this production. My first thoughts after the last echo of the resounding ovation was over was that New Yorkers deserve to hear him again in the opera house: perhaps next time leading one of the more beloved warhorses of Giuseppe Verdi's oeuvre. Are you reading this Mr. Gelb?