Sunday, November 25, 2012

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

Lincoln begins with a chaotic battle from the middle of the Civil War: brother against brother in hand-to hand butchery.  A scene that reminds us that war is hell, but justified when the cause is just.  Like the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg is not afraid to dig deep into the viscera of combat, making the conflict between North and South comparable to the good fight in the first half of the twentieth century that saved democracy but killed so many young men on the beaches of Normandy.

Lincoln dramatizes the final years of the Civil War in which the president is trying to pass an amendment to the Constitution that would emancipate the slaves.  At the same time, he realizes that the South could surrender and come back to the table and stop the amendment before it can become law.  The president is torn between the fact that an early peace could save thousands of lives in the battlefield, and the ideological moral stance that slavery must end in the United States, and it must end as quickly as possible. Juggling all of these themes, Steven Spielberg has fashioned a mighty film, full of bold strokes, that never gets lost in its own weighty story. Clearly, one of his best works.

Daniel Day-Lewis gives a remarkable performance in the title role.  His interpretation of our sixteenth president is a personal achievement in his career, and one of the most beautifully crafted performances in the history of cinema.  He embodies the spirit of Lincoln without channeling Henry Fonda (Young Mr. Lincoln), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois) or, God forbid, Benjamin Walker in this year's hilariously absurd Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  He does it largely by inventing a new voice for himself: a reedy homespun tenor that from now on we will always associate as the voice of Abraham Lincoln.  Also helping him give a great performance are an army of makeup artists (rarely does contemporary makeup succeed in aging an actor correctly.  This time they nailed it!), the great costumes of Joanna Johnston, and the memorable cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, who with his images manages to transport us back a century and a half. (I can only imagine what the film would have been like if it were shot in Black & White: Matthew Brady photographs and daguerreotypes come to life!)

The rest of the impressive cast includes Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, who plays the president's wife as if she had a thorn buried deep inside her heart.  David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, memorable as the puppet master of backroom politics, and Tommy Lee Jones absolutely brilliant as Senator Thaddeus Stevens: an old fashioned abolitionist Washington politico with a secret that has not managed to leak.

Tony Kushner deserves special praise.  The Pulitzer prize winning author of Angels in America has written a literate, intelligent screenplay that resonates with our current political crises, and reminds us that any successful democratic political system is filled with messy compromise.  It's "sausage-making," in the words of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

In mid November President Barack Obama hosted a screening of the film at the White House with the cast and crew of the film present.  It might not be a bad idea to follow the Executive Mansion showing with a secondary one in the halls of Congress.  It might just remind or teach a few of our present lawmakers and representatives what politics are really all about.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Philarmonia Orchestra presents Wozzeck

The Philarmonia Orchestra under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen visited New York City earlier this week and presented two performances at Avery Fischer Hall.  The first was Gustav Mahler's transcendent Ninth Symphony on Sunday, and the second was a semi-staged performance of Alban Berg's first opera Wozzeck a day later.  Monday's performance of this atonal seminal 20th century work was a memorably exciting experience headed by Simon Keenlyside in the title role (two days after finishing his run of The Tempest at the MET) and Angela Denoke as his wife Marie.  Even though this was billed as an opera in concert none of the soloists used a score, and each of the fifteen scenes that make up this work was acted out as if the work were being performed at the opera house.  What little room was left on the Avery Fischer stage (Berg's orchestration is huge) was used by the cast economically and effectively.  Not for a moment did the evening feel like a stiff concert performance.

Simon Keenlyside had much to do with this.  The moment he appeared on stage, in the first scene, following Peter Hoare's finely acted Captain, Mr. Keenlyside was immersed in his character: a Wozzeck full of ticks, with stooped shoulders, a resigned face and the nervous habit of using one foot to scratch the other.   One has to be totally heartless not to feel sorry for this poor soul.  These days Mr. Keenlyside might just be the best actor working on an operatic stage.

Mr. Salonen conducted the work with his usual attention to detail.  Being a composer himself whose work bares the stamp of modernism, he chose to highlight the atonal aspects of the score.  He whipped the Philarmonia Orchestra into a frenzy achieving very exciting near ear-splitting climaxes.  Particularly memorable -- as well as frightening -- was the D minor interlude that leads to the final scene of the opera.  The players of the Philarmonia, in particular the string section, seemed possessed, giving it their all, and producing a prodigious unforgettable sound.

It's always interesting to see how many people leave a performance of Wozzeck before the work has concluded.  Clearly, these people had no idea what they were getting themselves into.  For the uninitiated twelve tone music can be as alien as the sounds from the dark side of the moon.  However, listen carefully and repeatedly to the work and you will begin to hear the spirit of old Vienna.  Study the score and you will decipher how Berg fashioned a scene between Wozzeck and a quack doctor who is doing experiments on him from one of J.S. Bach's favorite musical forms: the passacaglia.  If you go and do your homework, Wozzeck is not as strange as it first might sound.

Thomas Adès's The Tempest at the MET

When The Tempest, Thomas Adès's opera based on Shakespeare's play of the same name, premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2004 it did so with the kind of success that recalled the 1945 triumph of Benjamin Britten's Peter GrimesThe critical and popular success of the work made it clear that British classical music was back on the map. Britten's work was hailed as the most important musical British work for the stage since Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas  and The Tempest has been hailed by today's critics as the greatest British opera since Britten.  It has gone on to have a very early active shelf life with a revival in London as well as productions in Strasbourg, Copenhagen, and Santa Fe.  This year the opera made its Metropolitan Opera debut with a new production staged by Robert Lapage Baritone Simon Keenlyside sang the role of Prospero, which he created at the London premiere.

In Lapage's grand production, Prospero has been banished from Milan to a remote island, and with the aid of magic, as well, I imagine, with a lot of elbow grease he has recreated the La Scala opera house in the middle of his remote exile.  This enchanted isle is also home to Ariel, a supernatural creature who, in the composer's hands, almost never sings below high C.  The result is an ethereal, if at time unnatural sound: a kind of Queen of the Night run amok who refuses to lower herself to dwelling within the staff.  The MET is lucky to have Audrey Luna singing this role: a coloratura soprano who ably manages to reach the stratospheric tessitura called for.  Caliban is the other non-human being living on Prospero's new kingdom, and by the logic that made Ariel's vocal line seem audible, at times, only to canines, you would think that the composer would make Caliban the lowest of the lowest basso profundo.  Instead, Adès writes the part for a stentorian tenor, and gives him the last words of the opera.  In the role of this monster, who ends up inheriting Prospero's island, Alan Oke is memorable and quite wonderful in the part.  It is Prospero, however, who casts the longest shadow in this work, and Simon Keenlyside will own this role for many years.  He sang with conviction and expressive beauty of tone.

Adès's music is complex and subtle, mostly tonal with some ravishing forays into the kind of atonality that does not send audiences screaming out to the lobby.  Still, the music very much smacks of the contemporary conservatory; meaning that in our current post-minimalist period the score creates an intellectual, lush sound scape reminiscent of the best work by the best post-post romantics. The storm that begins the work is a memorable symphonic prelude, clearly comparable with Verdi's Otello and Wagner's  Die Walküre, two other works that begin with a musical depiction of the powers of nature at their wildest.  In general, my biggest complaint with this work is the libretto by Meredith Oakes.  Instead of using Shakespeare's words, she adapts the narrative into a series of rhymed couplets.  Her choice of this poetic scheme gets tiresome quite fast and it ultimately makes for a substandard libretto.  For instance, a few years ago when I saw Phèdre at the National Theatre in London with Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper, Jean Racine's alexandrine play was translated into free verse, and it saved us from an evening of constant rhyme.  Its libretto robs The Tempest of a place among the truly great modern English language operas.  Say what you will about John Adams's Nixon in China, but if in the large scheme of things 1980s minimalism turns out to be only a blip in the history of music, Alice Goodman's amazing, poetic, revelatory libretto will be remembered and studied as an example of what a contemporary modern opera libretto should be like.

The fact that we saw The Tempest with Adès himself conducting his work continues a tradition at the MET of presenting an operatic work lead by its creator.  From Italo Montemezzi leading his L'Amore dei tre re in the 1920s to John Adams leading Nixon in China a few years ago, this is a fine creative tradition that the MET should continue.