Friday, July 29, 2011

Roman Polanski Film to Open New York Film Festival

I just received the following Press Release from the New York Film Festival:

New York, NY, July 29, 2011 - The Film Society of Lincoln Center announced today that Roman Polanski’s CARNAGE will make its North American Premiere as the Opening Night film for the upcoming 49th New York Film Festival (September 30 – October 16).

"From KNIFE IN THE WATER (which screened at the first edition of NYFF in 1963) to REPULSION to THE TENANT, Roman Polanski has shown himself to be an absolute master at making the most restricted spaces come to dramatic life. In CARNAGE, aided by four remarkable performances, he has reached a new pinnacle in his already extraordinary career," says Richard Peña, Selection Committee Chair & Program Director, The Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Based on Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage”, the 2009 Tony Award-winner for Best Play, CARNAGE follows the events of an evening when two Brooklyn couples are brought together after their children are involved in a playground fight. Produced by Said Ben Said, the Sony Pictures Classics release stars Academy Award winners Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz and Academy Award nominee John C. Reilly.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Biogas at Bayreuth: The new Tannhäuser production

A pregnant Venus, a Wartburg transformed into a biogas plant breaking down organic matter, a Venusberg filled with caged subhumans right out of the original Planet of the Apes, and Wolfram von Eschenbach singing the well-known "Song to the Evening Star" while taking a dump sitting on a toilet. What does this have to do with Richard Wagner's romantic opera Tannhäuser? Nothing! As expected, the audience shook the very foundations of the Festspielhaus with their booing after the performance. The verdict? This new production by Sebastian Baumgarten scored another Bayreuth opening night triumph!

When Festspielchief Katharina Wagner staged her revisionist, controversial production of Die Meistersinger in 2007 she opened the Regietheater floodgates at the Green Hill, assuring the world, as she inherited the helm of the festival from her father Wolfgang Wagner, that Bayreuth would remain a place of outrageous experimentation in the staging of her great-grandfather's works. Four years earlier avant-garde artist Christoph Schlingensief had already set down the template for what was to come with his notorious production of Parsifal that set the action in Africa and featured film footage of a decomposing rabbit. When Katharina's turn came up to stage Meistersinger critics and puzzled audiences questioned what a shower of sneakers and masturbating statues of famous Germans had to do with Wagner's only comedy. But the die was already cast. It became clear that the principal aim of these productions was to provoke. As music critic Alex Ross wrote in his insightful review of the Schlingensief Parsifal "The trouble with this sort of provocation is that if you criticize it ... you end up playing a role that the instigator has written for you." In other words, they want you to hate it, they want you to boo, and if you do, then they have a triumph on their hands.

This opening night saw Thomas Hengelbrock conduct the Dresden version of Tannhäuser with a professional swift hand. The orchestra and especially the chorus received the biggest hand of the evening, and they deserved it. The chorus was particularly focused, achieving a smooth, pure sound that suddenly reminded everyone that the Bayreuth sound is quite special when things are done correctly. Unfortunately, Lars Cleveman, in the title role received only a lukewarm reception from the audience, and Stephanie Friede, as Venus, was booed. Camilla Nylund as Elisabeth sang with an assured tone. Both Günther Groissböck (Landgraf Herrmann) and Michael Nagy (Wolfram von Eschenbach) received the biggest applause of the evening. Needless to say, Sebastian Baumgarten and the rest of the production team were booed very loudly.

Hopefully, this production will remain at the Festspielhaus for only a few years. No doubt it will be replaced, in the near future, with another more indignant exercise in provocation. This is what Bayreuth is all about these days.

Monday, July 25, 2011

First video of Sebastian Baumgarten's Tannhäuser

Here is a news report, in German, about Sebastian Baumgarten's new controversial production of Tannhäuser, with actual video clips from the production. The report also includes short comments by Camilla Nylund who plays Elisabeth, as well as scenic designer Joep van Lieshout, and Baumgarten himself. This short video report gives you a hint of the production that premiered today at the Festspielhaus.

Israeli Musicians to play at the Bayreuth Festival

The following article appears through the courtesy of AFP News Agency:

Germany's 100th Richard Wagner opera festival kicked off here Monday in an edition that will include a taboo-busting performance by an Israeli orchestra.

The annual tribute to the works of the 19th-century composer, a fervent anti-Semite who later inspired Nazi leaders, will include for the first time a concert by musicians from Israel, which maintains an unwritten Wagner ban.

On Monday afternoon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet led a parade of political and business elites mounting Bayreuth's famed Green Hill to the concert hall built in 1876.

Audiences were keenly awaiting the opening performance of Tannhäuser, a romantic opera considered the seminal work of Wagner's younger years, but the Israel Chamber Orchestra's concert Tuesday was the hottest ticket in town.

The musicians are scheduled to perform Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" during a concert otherwise dominated by works by Jewish composers including Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn.

Performances of Wagner's work are almost unheard of in Israel.

When Israeli-Argentine conductor Daniel Barenboim led the Berlin Staatskapelle in a performance of an excerpt from Tristan und Isolde in Jerusalem in 2001, dozens of audience members stormed out.

Israel Chamber Orchestra first clarinettist, 27-year-old Dan Erdmann, said he had attended that concert with his father.

"He (Barenboim) indicated to those who wanted to leave to do so but at the same time, the orchestra was ready to play for those who chose to stay," he told AFP.

"Thirty or forty people left, some of them shouting and cursing and slamming the doors. The rest stayed and gave a standing ovation at the end."

Ten years on, the Israeli concert is not part of the official Bayreuth Festival program but it has nonetheless set some tempers flaring.

"The decision of the Israel Chamber Orchestra sadly represents an act of moral failure and a disgraceful abandonment of solidarity with those who suffered unspeakable horrors by the purveyors of Wagner's banner," said Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.

"Nobody suggests that Wagner's music not be played. But the public Jewish refusal to do so was a powerful message of indignation to the world that exposed Wagner's odious anti-Semitic ideas and those who championed them."

The city of Bayreuth and the Wagner family, which notoriously courted Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, are meanwhile trying to break with the past.

Bayreuth plans to start a Jewish cultural centre while Katharina Wagner, the 32-year-old great-granddaughter of the composer and co-director of the festival, has pledged to open the family archives revealing the extent of her ancestors' entanglement with the Nazis.

Felix Gothart, a leader of the Bayreuth Jewish community, which now has about 500 members, twice the number in 1933 when Hitler came to power, was also critical of the decision to invite the Israeli musicians to play this year.

"As soon as a single person was offended by the fact that Wagner is being played by Jews in Germany it would have been better to keep a lower profile," he told AFP.

However the president of Israel's fledgling Wagner society said he was delighted that an Israeli orchestra would be performing in Bayreuth, saying it could represent a new beginning.

"I hope that the concert will mark a new step towards the lifting of the taboo in Israel against Wagner, one of the principal composers of the 19th century, and that he will soon by performed freely in our country," Jonathan Livni said.
The Bayreuth Festival runs to August 28.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Bayreuth Festival Begins

The 2011 Bayreuth Festival opens this Monday with a performance of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser, in a new production by avant-garde director Sebastian Baumgarten. As usual, this opening night performance, as well as the first nights of the rest of the operas being performed this year, will be broadcast via the Internet over a variety of online stations. For clarity of sound, together with uninterrupted broadcasts, I recommend listening to it over Bavarian Radio (Bayerische Rundfunk), but if you click here you can examine this year's schedule, and the various radio networks that will be broadcasting the performances.

In addition, on August 14th there will be a live video broadcast of Lohengrin, directed by Hans Neuensfels. This production premiered last summer to great critical acclaim. This year the leading roles will be sung by Klaus Florian Vogt, Annette Dasch, and Georg Zeppenfeld. For information about how you can watch this transmission click here.

In addition, to prepare yourself for the video transmission you can listen to "Of Rats and Men and Lohengrin" my podcast of last year's opening night by clicking here.

The Bayreuth Festival is always an important cultural event, and this year's live video performance of Lohengrin will allow fans all over the world the chance to experience Mr. Neuensfels controversial vision of Wagner's opera (see picture above). If anything, it promises to be a puzzling but fun staging, and I am sure it will be greeted, as it was last year, with the usual mix of bravos and boos. Make sure you tune in.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Alexander McQueen - Savage Beauty

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is enjoying more than a palpable hit this summer. The show Alexander McQueen - Savage Beauty has become one of the best attended exhibitions in the history of this institution. The retrospective of the meteoric career of the British fashion designer traces a decade that changed the world of fashion and earned McQueen international fame. It starts with his 1992 "Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims" graduation fashion show from London's Central St. Martin's College of Art and Design, when his family and friends knew him as Lee McQueen, (influential British fashionista Isabella Blow suggested he use Alexander, his middle name, after she bought his entire first collection) and ends with McQueen's last complete show before his untimely suicide in 2010.

The exhibition, curated by Andrew Bolton, hits all the right points in establishing McQueen as more than just a fashion designer, but a visionary in tune with historical artistic movements and British socio-political concerns. Gallery after gallery we meet the many sides of a very complex artist not afraid to change styles even further than those dictated by the ever-changing whims of the fashion world. There's the Gothic McQueen, the primitive McQueen, as well as the exotic, naturalist, and nationalistic McQueen. But throughout all the different phases of the man, there are two constants that never waiver: an intense grounding in Romanticism as a point of departure for all his ideas, and solid craftsmanship skills learned while an apprentice at Anderson and Shephard, Gieves & Hawkes and other bespoke tailoring houses on Savile Row. The meeting point of a fervid imagination and spectacular couture is at the very heart of this exhibition, and the MET has done a terrific job not just collecting all the dresses together, but providing the appropriate lighting, ambiance and music (George Frideric Handel's Sarabande used in Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon and a haunting composition called "Disco Bloodbath" by Mekon are unforgettable) that makes us seem as if we are attending an actual McQueen runway show.

And then there are the accessories. The majority of the mannequins in the show are presented wearing appropriate headgear or masks fashioned by influential British hairstylist Guido Palau. These are essential to every single creation, and I would not dream of imagining this show without them. Unfortunately, the exhibition catalog, which does a very good job of capturing in photographs this show, fails to include any of them. Thankfully, the catalog does picture the amazing "butterfly hat" created by Philip Treacy for the "La Dame Bleue" Spring/Summer 2008 show as well as many other accessories that were key to the McQueen experience.

Whatever your interest or knowledge in the fashion world you are going to be impressed by how well this exhibition has been put together. What's more, you are going to come out with a greater appreciation for the world of haute couture. No doubt you will emerge from the show with some definite favorites in mind. You might be carried away by the incredible flower dress (pictured above) that McQueen created for the Spring/Summer 2007 show which he called "Sarabande." Or you might be totally fascinated by the dress made entirely of pheasant feathers for his "Widows of Culloden" collection a year earlier. Two impressive creations filled with a pervading sense of finality. From his Jack the Ripper collection to the very end, McQueen was not afraid to court Death throughout his career.

On my second visit to the exhibition I was fascinated by the hologram that concluded the "Widows of Culloden" show. Model Kate Moss appears out of the void, floating in space, wearing an incredible billowing dress of ivory silk and organza while the music of the film Schindler's List plays in the background. So brave and noble of McQueen to conclude his show in a celebration of Kate Moss as a fashion icon only months after the model had been involved in a drug scandal.

Here is the incredible finale to "The Widows of Culloden."