Monday, December 29, 2014

A Smash on VOD: The Interview

The Interview, out on limited theatrical release and VOD as a result of the Sony Pictures hacking scandal and alleged threats from the government of North Korea, might just be the silliest, most sophomoric film to have gotten world-wide news coverage. Though way too much has been written about this movie already, Sony has announced that it has made $15 million, which makes it a groundbreaking VOD success, and definitely something to spill more ink about.  Let me get my poisoned pen.

Though the film tries to be a satire of a contemporary dictator, it lacks the talent to take its mission to the end, preferring to veer away from political mockery and head downhill to the lowest of the lowest burlesque. As expected, the result is no Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be or The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin's brilliant sendup of Hitler's Fascist Germany. Both of these classics were released in the middle of World War II, and each offered insightful satirical parody while commenting on the nature of evil. The Interview, instead, knocks loudly at the door of Pyongyang and then runs away. More or less that's the nature of the humor throughout the film. That, and a penchant for anal penetration jokes.

James Franco overplays Dave Skylark, the kind of obnoxious TV talk host that drools all over Eminem (in a surprisingly understated performance) after the rapper admits on the air that he is gay. Inside the booth, Seth Rogen is Skylark's producer, who after meeting a college buddy who is now a senior producer on 60 Minutes, begins to understand that the product he's putting out is garbage. He conceives the brilliant idea to travel to North Korea, and land an interview with Kim Jong-un. However, when the CIA finds out about this unlikely, unexpected road trip (which Skylark continually compares to the journey in The Lord of the Rings), agent Lacey (Lizzie Caplan), like a siren, bewitches the two cable news dodos into assassinating the North Korean leader.

As far as good taste is concerned, it all goes downhill as soon as the pair arrive in North Korea. The Supreme Leader (Randall Park) is a psychological mess whose father has trained him from childhood that it is gay to drink margaritas. No doubt, this has led Kim Jong-un to make sure that his people believe that he has no need to urinate or defecate. Needless to say, his butthole does not fail to make an audio appearance during the course of the film. And there you have it, folks: there's the big difference between this film and, say, The Great Dictator. When Chaplin played with a globe of the world, bouncing it up and down, it becomes a comic/chilling moment. Here, the most graceful thing this dictator can do is to rip one out for laughs.

Too bad, because the film starts out a bit more promising. Following an old-fashioned Columbia Pictures logo, the angelic face of a Korean girl, singing about her hatred of the United States of America, appears in closeup. "May your women all be raped by beasts of the jungle while your children are forced to watch!" she sings. And as the camera pulls back, a nuclear warhead launches into the sky. If only the movie would have continued at this level.

My biggest fear about this entire mess is that I can already see Dave Skylark making a comeback (like a low-grade James Bond) in a future adventure.  Let's hope that everyone involved thinks thrice before this happens.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Die Meistersinger is back at the MET

The Otto Schenk, Günther Schneider-Siemssen production of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is back at the Metropolitan Opera, playing for seven performances, including an HD telecast of the Saturday matinee on December 13.  I will be in the house for that performance.

These are turning out to be very important performances.  To begin with, it is the only Wagner opera that the MET will be presenting this year, and all the performances are slated to be conducted by James Levine, who is experiencing a tremendous year, celebrating his full-time comeback to the MET after a prolonged illness.
This is also the last time that this famed production will be seen at the MET.  The conservative staging will be retired, and in its place the Metropolitan Opera will present in the future the new Stefan Herheim production (pictured above) that premiered at the Salzburg Festival last summer. Mr. Herheim is a world famous proponent of "Regietheatre" and his production of Parsifal, which I saw at the Bayreuth Festival in 2012, takes extensive liberties with the plot of the opera. Michael Volle, who sang the role of Hans Sachs in that Salzburg production will be singing some of the performances this year, although house bass-baritone James Morris (who sang Hans Sachs last time this production was mounted) will be singing the majority of the performances.

Peter Gelb has made sure that Mr. Volle will be singing the HD telecast, and he is already in conversation with the singer about singing the role of Wotan next time the MET mounts their controversial staging of the "Ring."

Friday, December 05, 2014


 Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a major achievement from Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the director of Amores Perros and Babel. Playing Riggan Thompson, a once popular actor famous for his superhero films, Michael Keaton gives a phenomenal, one in a lifetime performance. His character yearns to make it back into the limelight, this time as the writer director of a labor of love Broadway play based on the Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About when We Talk About Love."

Riggan might be a decent stage actor and might have even nailed it as a playwright, but his inner voice, the thunderous growl of his alter-ego Birdman overwhelms his entire on-the-edge present existence.  Even when he is in the lotus position, meditating in his underwear, and levitating off the ground in his dressing room of the St James Theater, his former incarnation is constantly taking over, overcrowding his mind.

The film is an expressionistic backstage journey through Riggan's mind as it slowly begins to drift south throughout the play's previews. Magnificently photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar last year for the cinematography of Gravity, the film gives the appearance that it was shot in one long, continuous take: no doubt, the director's homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, which pulled the same balancing act trick back in 1948.

Birdman is also referential to a host of artistic icons, and particularly right at home when it channels the Magical-Realism of 1960s Latin American literature. Riggan is able to levitate and make objects smash to the ground with a wave of his hand like any one of the Buendía children in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. He is also able to soar up to the skies, in the middle of a colossal cgi fracas, and defeat a winged gigantic creature who threatens to destroy Manhattan from the rooftops, like a latter-day King Kong.

But it is the performances in this backstage drama that propel this film forward. Think of Birdman as a magical-realist All About Eve but with the ghost of an action hero and references to Roland Barthes and Jorge Luis Borges. Not only is Michael Keaton the perfect actor to play a former action hero movie star searching for a come back vehicle (its been almost thirty years since the release of Tim Burton's Batman), but Edward Norton manages to play a fictionalized version of himself, with all the complexities that those in the know say he brings to a set.  Emma Stone and Naomi Watts also shine, as well as Zach Galifianakis, playing against type, as Keaton's feet-on-the-ground manager.

Birdman is a smash hit in quite a lot of levels, and it will certainly bring Academy Award nominations for many categories. I predict an Oscar for Mr. Iñárritu's fascinating, multi-faceted screenplay, and without a doubt, another statuette in a row for Mr. Lubezki's amazing cinematography that I predict will be talked about and studied by future filmmakers for years to come.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer at the MET tonight

The Death of Klinghoffer, music by John Adams and the libretto by Alice Goodman is scheduled to premiere at the Metropolitan Opera tonight despite a massive protest outside on the Lincoln Center Plaza.  The HD and Saturday afternoon radio broadcast, as well as the Sirius transmissions, have been cancelled.  Is the opera Anti-Semitic? Is it pro-PLO? Make up your mind by listening to the work here.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Verdi's Macbeth at the MET

The trick with the early operas of Giuseppe Verdi, from the conductor's point of view, is to treat them with the same respect as his mature works. Riccardo Muti has been known to remind his musicians that with such a work as Falstaff they have lots of notes with which to create a world, and that even though the early works offer fewer notes, a world has to be created just the same.

Luckily, this is the approach that Fabio Luisi has taken at the Metropolitan Opera with this year's performances of Macbeth. He has conducted this early 1847 work (it was the composer's tenth opera) with utmost care; certainly going way beyond merely providing metronomic accompaniment to the oompah-pah nature of the score, and trying to find the  Shakespearean realm in a work which, although is highly influenced by the bel-canto works of Bellini and Donizetti, is definitely looking forward, trying to push the boundaries, and re-invent the Italian lyric theater.

Anna Netrebko and Željko Lučić, both in top form as the murderous couple, head a cast that also includes German superstar bass René Pape as Banquo and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Macduff. Netrebko's voice has darkened, achieving the perfect timbre for Lady Macbeth, while Lučić's baritone (a voice similar to the legendary Leonard Warren, who first sang this role at the MET) was a solid personification of the title role. This is an artist whose voice usually is described as dry, but on Wednesday of last week he was in top form. In fact, every member of the cast sang with distinction, and if perhaps Calleja's tone is exhibiting a heavy vibrato these days, his rendition of "Ah, la paterna mano" was sung with true Verdian style.

The updated production by Adrian Noble holds up well, although, at times the direction given to the chorus of witches seems to be a bit too busy.

All in all, it was one of the rare times at the opera when everything worked.  How many times does one get a chance to admit that? Without a doubt, this run of Macbeth performances has been the highlight of the first part of this season.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Roberto Alagna: "I'm going to sing Wagner with Netrebko"

The rumors are that French tenor Roberto Alagna is discussing a production of Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival, with Anna Netrebko, to be conducted by Christian Thielemann. "If he thinks I can do it," says Alagna, "it's going to happen."

Bayreuth is due for a new production of Lohengrin. The current Hans Neuensfels production, which was booed when it was first presented at the Festspielhaus in 2010, featured Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and a chorus of rats. Since its rocky start, the audience has received it warmly, and it has been issued on Blu-Ray/DVD with Klaus Florian Vogt playing the swan knight. I saw this production in 2012, and it was one of the most satisfying evenings that I spent at Bayreuth that year.

The Green Hill will see a new production of this opera in 2018. Latvian director Alvis Hermanis (who this summer gave us the Netrebko/Domingo "museum Trovatore" at the Salzburg Festival) is scheduled to direct the work, and indeed, Thielemann is slated to conduct.  However, Bayreuth has not published the cast as of this writing.

Monday, October 13, 2014

New Ring Cycle for The WNO

The Washington National Opera announced their complete casting for its first full presentation of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. Three cycles will be presented from April 30 to May 22, 2016. Artistic Director Francesca Zambello will direct and Philippe Auguin will conduct the orchestra.

The Ring cycles will feature two outstanding Brünnhildes. Acclaimed British soprano Catherine Foster, who has sung the sole at the Bayreuth Festival, will make her U.S. debut in Cycles I and II. Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, whose performances as Brünnhilde were highly acclaimed in this production's San Francisco run in 2011, makes her Washington debut in Cycle III. American heldentenor Daniel Brenna will take on the role of Siegfried in the United States for the first time. American bass-baritone Alan Held will return to his celebrated portrayal of Wotan.

Newly announced includes the return of American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as Fricka and American baritone Gordon Hawkins as Alberich; the Washington debut of American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World winner, as Second Norn and Waltraute; veteran Wagnerians such as American bass Eric Halfvarson as Hagen and Christopher Ventris as Siegmund; rising American stars such as soprano Meagan Miller as Sieglinde, soprano Melody Moore as Freia and Ortlinde, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as Donner and Gunther, and contralto Lindsay Ammann as Erda, Schwertleite, and First Norn. There will also be the Wagnerian debuts of two Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, American soprano Jacqueline Echols as Woglinde and the Forest Bird and American bass Soloman Howard as Fafner.

Regular subscription packages will go on sale in March 2015.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

NY Film Festival: FOXCATCHER

In an acting tour-de-force, Steve Carell throughout the film Foxcatcher, keeps his head raised at an unnatural, arrogant angle, as if to make sure his was above everyone else's -- a preening peacock with bottomless pools for eyes. His voice a gentle whisper that is delivered, deliberately and aristocratically, from half-opened lips. A prosthetic Roman nose giving him the proper patrician look of a bored emperor. This is the actor's approach to playing John E. du Pont and the events surrounding the true story of the billionaire, heir to the DuPont chemical fortune, who in the 1980s, with an air of dangerous jingoism, decided to sponsor the American wrestling Olympic team at his Pennsylvania home, the country estate Foxcatcher, where in the old days the blue blood Brahmins of the Northeast gathered to participate in elaborate English fox hunts. Mr. Carell's approach to his complex character not only works, but has become the surprise stellar performance of the New York Film Festival, already gathering plenty of early Oscar buzz.

Directed with great intensity by Bennett Miller, the cast also includes Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, Olympic gold medal wrestlers who are brought to Foxcatcher to be the anchors of the team that du Pont aims to coach and lead to victory. Former teenage actor from John Hughes's Sixteen Candles, Anthony Michael Hall appears as duPont's assistant, while the great Vanessa Redgrave has a cameo as Jean du Pont, John's octogenarian, wheelchair bound mother, who sees her son's decision to sponsor Olympic wrestling as beneath the family's dignity.

Following the real events of this story, du Pont first seeks the brutish Mark Schultz and lures him to Foxcatcher. Mark's humdrum life of morning training and eating ramen by night at his shabby apartment is now replaced by an existence in the lap of luxury. Before long, Mr. du Pont is introducing him to alcohol, cocaine, and dinner events with Washington DC movers and shakers. And as Mark's life heads into a hedonistic twisted relation with the billionaire, their complex father-son relationship rapidly derails.  That's when du Pont brings in the more gregarious Dave and his family to Foxcatcher to coach the team. Mark, who has always been in the shadow of his older brother, is unhappy about this. The entire film begins to take on the rhythms of a ticking time bomb, which eventually explodes in a series of events that ultimately leads to a ghastly murder.

Under Miller's direction, Greig Fraser's cinematography produces warm bright colors and beautiful wintry images. Likewise, Rob Simonsen's ominous score is full of chilling, subtle moments. If you enjoyed Capote and Moneyball, Mr. Miller's previous films, I am sure you will find Foxcatcher a thrilling experience that explores the temptations of wealth and the abuses of power.

Friday, October 03, 2014

NY Film Festival: PASOLINI

On paper, it must have looked like the perfect concept: iconoclast director Abel Ferrara to helm a biopic of Italian Marxist writer, poet, novelist, film director Pier Paolo Pasolini. The great man to be played by Willem Dafoe, who not only bears an uncanny resemblance to Pasolini, but who has also played Christ as well as the Antichrist. With all these elements in the bag, even Pasolini, who nearly 40 years ago in 1975 was brutally murdered, would have given his atheist blessing to this project.

However, the results are far from perfect. Mr. Ferrara's film, entitled Pasolini, focuses on the man's last days, perhaps the most promising period of the director's life before it was cut short by his grisly murder, on a beach near Rome, hours after picking up a male prostitute. The film also recounts Pasolini's efforts to finish his avant-garde novel Petrolio, and Ferrara stages some of these scenes, including a harrowing jetliner crash. At the same time, Pasolini was preparing a new film to follow up the controversial Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. The film was to be called Porno-Teo-Kolossal, and Ferrara dreams up the most magical and satisfying sequences in the entire film, using actor Ninetto Davoli (Pasolini's former lover and life-long friend). Two characters, Epifanio (played by Davoli) and Riccardo Scamarcio (who plays the young Davoli) follow a star in the sky that promises that the Messiah has been born. The star takes them on a bizarre journey to Utopia, Sodom and Gomorrah where they witness an orgy in which gay men and women copulate for one night in order to procreate the species. The visual style tries to mimic Pasolini's cinéma vérité, and the effect works. As a matter of fact, these kaleidoscopic sequences are some of the few segments of the film that really take off.

The rest is pretty much a mixed bag. Ferrara's entire approach is to embrace randomness, and Mr. Dafoe is caught up in the director's net. His performance, memorable though it is, goes nowhere fast, and he is left with just an imitation of Pasolini. Further, unless you know something about Pasolini's life and the political events happening in Italy at the time of his murder, you will most likely be confused by the narrative. Ferrara is interested in creating vignettes from Pasolini's life, but these don't go anywhere, and the scenes end up confusing the viewer.

At Thursday night's showing at the New York Film Festival, Mr. Ferrara recalled when as a young man he first saw a film by Pasolini. It was The Decameron, and the director revealed that he admired how Pasolini seemed to be making the film up as the film unwound before your eyes. I'm sure that Mr. Ferrara was aiming to do the same here. But Pasolini was a genius, and he could get away with it. No such luck with Mr. Ferrara and his latest movie.

Sunday, September 28, 2014


Screenwriter Bruce Wagner introduced today's showing of the film Maps to the Stars at the New York Film Festival by warning us that the path to Hell is filled with laughter. He should have also reminded us that laughter is the nervous sibling of horror, a specialty of director David Cronenberg, whose new film brings us back to his horror beginnings. This time, the boogeymen are set free in the beautiful but rancid world of the Hollywood elite, whose million dollar post-modern homes and shopping sprees to Rodeo Drive hide a nether world of drug addiction rehab, mental anguish and faded hopes. And among the manicured lawns, glass houses, and backyard pools the ghost of the dead often visit the living, as in a Shakespearean tragedy. They refuse to sleep in peace, and, at times, seem eager to drag the living into their circle of death.

Mia Wasikowska plays the burn-scarred Agatha, who comes back to Hollywood after having set fire to her home years ago. Her dysfunctional family includes her father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a self-help quack guru, his guilt-ridden wife Cristina (Olivia Williams), and her brother Benjie (Evan Bird), a child star who makes Justin Bieber seem a model of mental and social togetherness. Agatha ends up becoming the assistant to has-been, fading actress Havana Segrand (the brilliant Julianne Moore, who won the Best Actress Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for this role) who will give anything to play the role of her dead mother, a Hollywood legend who died tragically in a fire, and whose ghost now haunts her deranged daughter.

There have been great satires of Tinsel Town: Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard and Robert Altman's The Player come to mind, as well as Nathaneal West's 1939 novel The Day of the Locust (adapted into film in 1975 by the great John Schlesinger.) But none are as toxic as this film. Screenwriter Wagner doesn't just hold the mirror up to nature, he seems eager to smash it in our faces after showing us the bacteria that is growing behind the façade of the beautiful and the damned.

Cronenberg is, once again, at the top of his game, leading Julianne Moore into what surely will be an Academy Award nomination. A great performance, whether she is screaming in self-loathing, while in the lotus position, for having lost a part, or dancing for joy at the consequences brought on by the death of a child. Her rabid performance is counteracted by Ms. Wasikowska's eerie, underplayed approach to her part.  Together, the two offer a contrasting lesson in fine acting in a great story that, like Greek drama, often has the power to frighten while moving us to tears.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

MET Opening Night: Controversy & Figaro

If a work of art is deemed controversial, the passage of time will surely erase whatever ills people accuse it of. It happened with W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte's 1786 masterpiece Le Nozze di Figaro, which opened the 2014-2015 season at the Metropolitan Opera last night, and it will eventually happen with John Adams and Alice Goodman's The Death of Klinghoffer, a 1991 work that the MET is presenting later this season, and which brought hundreds of protesters to Lincoln Center. The opera depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of a disabled Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. Many feel that the work is sympathetic to the Palestinian hijackers, and have thus condemned the opera as anti-Semitic.

Away from the turmoil on the plaza, where arriving opera patrons in evening dress were taunted by demonstrators, the MET presented a new production of Mozart's work, directed by Sir Richard Eyre and conducted by James Levine.  If out on Broadway the scene was chaotic, inside the opera house there was bliss. Levine led the well-known score with a firm hand that also allowed for some genuinely beautiful, transparent playing from the MET orchestra. At this stage in his career, Levine continues to grow as a musician, delving deeper than ever into the score, and finding surprises in the inner harmonies of this precise score. He's found the sparkle and charm in the perfection of form and utter spontaneity of Mozart's work, and his approach infects the cast, all of whom get their moment to shine in their respective roles.
Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro, who triumphed last year as Prince Igor, has a dark voice, but it is an inherently small instrument. He warmed considerably as the evening progressed, adding some volume to his portrayal without giving the feeling that he was forcing himself. Marlis Petersen was a sweetly-voiced  Susanna, while Amanda Majeski, making her MET debut as the Countess, allowed her wide vibrato to interfere with beauty of sound. In contrast, the Cherubino of Isabel Leonard was a joy to listen to. Her acting as a hormonal teenager was top-notch from beginning to end. The evening belonged to handsome Peter Mattei, who as Count Almaviva proved that he is one of the great Mozarteans of our time. He is simply marvelous, stealing the show with his velvet voice and commanding stage presence. He just doesn't sing the role, he caresses it, and lovingly delivers it back to us.

Set designer Rob Howell presented us with a unit set that updated the action to the beginning of the 20th century. Dark revolving towers with bronze walls turn the Count's house into a labyrinthine maze. The idea might have been that the mechanics of the set comments on the machinations of the plot, but this conceit is far from a requirement.

In general, this opening night was a triumph for the MET.  After months of bitterness and instability that took the institution to the brink of a labor strike, it is good to have this New York institution opened again doing what it does best.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

MET/AGMA Memorandum of Agreement

A strike at the Metropolitan Opera has been averted as the house management and various unions have agreed to new contract terms. For those of you with legal minds, and anyone curious enough to see what these documents are like, click HERE in order to view the Memorandum of Agreement between the MET and AGMA (The American Guild of Musical Artists).

Friday, August 22, 2014

Frank Martin and JS Bach Conclude Mostly Mozart

Louis Langrée put together an interesting concert to end the Mostly Mozart festival at Lincoln Center this weekend. He chose the 1973 piece Polyptyque: Six Images of the Passion of the Christ by Swiss composer Frank Martin, a relatively rare piece for orchestra and solo violin that was originally commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin to commemorate the 25th anniversary of UNESCO's International Music Council. The movements of this piece were played alternating with the chorales from J.S. Bach's St. John Passion, BWV 245. The dialogue that this musical juxtaposition created between these two compositions, separated by 200 years, was quite profound.  

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the Moldovan-Austrian violinist had much to do with the success of this musical experiment. Her virtuoso playing ran the gamut from elegant to inspired, and it was filled with passion at every turn. The third polyptype, known as "Image de Judas" was particularly memorable for its shrieking, tormented strings that presented a Freudian portrait of Judas's troubled mind. The contrast with Bach's reverential "Wer hat dich so geschlagen" offered the most satisfying dialogue of the evening.   The Concert Chorale of New York sang each of the chorales beautifully, and they returned in the second part of the program as the backbone of W.A. Mozart's Requiem, K. 626.

An audience favorite, Langrée led a smooth reading of this well-known score, opting for swift tempi and transparent sounds. He was aided by a quartet of capable soloists: Morris Robinson, a sepulchral sounding bass, and tenor Dimitri Pittas being the two stand-outs of the evening.

There will be one more performance of this program tomorrow, August 23, at 8:00 at Avery Fisher Hall.

Monday, August 18, 2014

We are Not Ourselves to be Published Tomorrow

We Are Not Ourselves the powerful first novel by my friend Matthew Thomas is due to hit bookstores all over America tomorrow.  I was lucky to read his work while still in manuscript form, and I can assure you that you are in for an amazing journey into the lives of some unforgettable characters. A journey that will take you through Post-World War II America, as it focuses on the lives of an Irish-American family, and its indomitable matriarch, Eileen, one of the most memorable characters ever created in recent American Literature.

Here is a review of the novel from author Neal Thompson: "Ten years in the making, Matthew Thomas’s heartfelt debut launches with the gritty poetry of a Pete Hamill novel: brash Irishmen on barstools, Irish women both wise and strong, and the streets of New York splayed out like a song. What’s special about this book is how Thomas takes us, slowly and somewhat unexpectedly, deep inside a family battling the gray-toned middling place of their middle-class existence. At the core is Eileen Tumulty Leary, urging her complacent husband and their impressionable son forward. Along the way, lives come and go. (“Fair enough,” her mother said, and in a little while she was dead.) There are some gorgeous scenes, some taut lines (I liked the air-conditioning unit’s “indefatigable wind”), and some heart breakers (a mother tells her son, at the funeral home, “That’s probably enough”). It’s thrilling to see an emerging writer test and flex his voice. Eileen and her husband are “co-conspirators in a mission of normalcy”; in truth, there’s occasionally too much normalcy in these 600 pages. Then again, it’s oddly addictive to watch this family unfold, age, and devolve. Intimate, honest, and true, it’s the story of a doomed father and a flawed son and the indefatigable and loving woman who keeps them all together, even as they’re falling apart."

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Il Trovatore at the Salzburg Festival

Ever wonder what happens when a museum closes its doors to visitors after a long day of tours and tourists? According to Alvis Hermanis the director and scenic designer of the new production of Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore at the Salzburg Festival the guards put on a show.

The doors shut, the lights dim, and those silent sentinels who spend their day seated in a corner of a gallery making sure visitors stay away from the art as well as the flashes on their cameras take on the roles of the portraits around them. Two of the guards just happen to be Anna Netrebko and Plácido Domingo.  Before you know it, they've become Leonora and the Count di Luna, and are soon joined by Francesco Meli as Manrico, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, a giddy tour guide who turns into the tormented gypsy Azucena, and Ricardo Zenellato, an Italian tour guide who, at the beginning of the opera, scares his group of tourists out of their wits with a tale that could only be told by Ferrando, the bass character that he later becomes.

The stage is set for Verdi's "capa y espada" opera to be performed in a museum against the backdrop of familiar Renaissance and Baroque paintings. It's a night at the museum like no other night. Is it the director's view that opera belongs in a museum, with Il Trovatore the biggest museum piece one can find in the repertory? Are the many paintings of Madonna, Christ and John The Baptist supposed to remind us of the two children of the old Count di Luna? Like many "Regietheater" productions this one poses more questions than it actually answers, and the museum conceit grows tiresome almost immediately, although the deep reds and crimson velvets of the stage design and costumes are sumptuous to look at.

Anna Netrebko sang with fiery conviction. Leonora is a role that falls easily in her range, and she was quite convincing in just about every one of her scenes. Sadly Francesco Meli was not the impressive figure that the role of Manrico calls for.  Short of stature and thin of voice, he oftentimes seemed to disappear into the background. Plácido Domingo sang the role of the Count Di Luna under the weather. A few years ago when he began to take on the baritone repertory it sounded like a strange decision. To hear him in this role, his voice somewhat frayed, his natural tenor superficially lowered and darkened, assures me that he is no baritone. Still, he has had decades of experience and possesses a rock solid technique. He was able to get through "Il balen del suo sorriso," possibly Verdi's most demanding baritone aria, with minimal strain. He may not be a baritone, but he is a helluva performer, and he can't hide that he loves to be onstage.

Daniele Gatti led the Vienna Philharmonic firmly, but with the kind of gusto I have not heard from him in a while. The results were long Italianate lines and wide transparent sounds.  The work in the pit was perhaps the most memorable part of this very strange night in the museum.

Licia Albanese: 1913-2014

The incomparable Licia Albanese, an Italian soprano, and a mainstay at the Metropolitan Opera for 26 seasons, died last night at her home. She was 101.  At the MET she performed 17 roles in 16 operas 417 times. She left the MET in 1966 after a dispute with then general manager Sir Rudolf Bing. After performing in four productions during the 1965-66 season, she was scheduled for only one performance the next season. She returned her contract unsigned.

In 1946, in her prime, conductor Arturo Toscanini chose her to be his Mimi in the live broadcast concert performance of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème, from NBC's Studio 8-H. This classic broadcast was later issued on LP and CD on RCA Victor.

She belonged to a golden age of opera singers the likes of whom we will perhaps never see again. She might not have been as popular as her contemporaries, Zinka Milanov, Maria Callas, Victoria de los Ángeles or Renata Tebaldi, but she was a consummate singer who night after night shared the stage with the great baritones and tenors of her day, which included Jan Peerce, Robert Merrill, Richard Tucker, and Leonard Warren.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tristan und Isolde at the Grosses Festspielhaus

A sold-out event is happening at the Salzburg Festival on August 21 at the Grosses Festspielhaus.  Conductor Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (an ensemble of young Israeli and Palestinian musicians) will perform segments from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.  The concert performance labeled "Projekt Tristan und Isolde" will include the Prelude, the entire second act, as well as the Liebestod. It will feature an all star cast that will include Peter Seiffert and Waltraud Meier in the title roles. Ekaterina Gubanova singing Brangäne, René Pape will be King Marke, Stephan Rügamer will be Melot, and in the role of Kurwenal, Plácido Domingo. The former tenor has been performing the baritone roles of Giuseppe Verdi, primarily, for some time now, with various degrees of success. Personally, when I hear Domingo sing Simon Boccanegra (the first baritone role that he sang at the MET) I hear a distinctive tenor fach which fails to convince me that he is a baritone. The effect is that of a tenor without any high notes. Perhaps Wagner's lush orchestrations will allow him a little more credibility. He certainly was a more than credible, if not successful Parsifal and Lohengrin during his tenor heyday.

And needless to say, the sights and sounds of Israelis and Palestinians making music together is something that right now we desperately need. I'm convinced that this kind of event is not going to solve any deep present-day conflicts, but it will remind us of the kind of world that we all aim to live in.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Medea at the National Theatre

 Medea by Euripides, written nearly two and a half millennia ago, is the archetypal revenge tragedy, and the ultimate portrait of the inner life of a murderer.  Whether presented traditionally (a rare occurrence these days) or in this modern-dress staging, in a new translation by Ben Power, and directed by Carrie Cracknell in the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre of Great Britain, the play possesses an inherent power to move audiences, and inflict a wave of catharsis that left many in tears at the performance I attended last night.

To review the basic plot, Medea and her children have been abandoned by her husband Jason after the family moved to Corinth.  Jason has found a new love, the young daughter of King Kreon, and is about to marry her. Meanwhile Kreon has banished Medea since he genuinely fears her.  Medea begs that she be allowed to stay for one more day. This is all the time she needs to fashion a chilling revenge that includes the killing of Kreon and his daughter as well as the slaughter of her own children: a ghastly decision that she knows will forever torment Jason for as long as he lives.

In the title role, Helen McCrory presents us with a modern portrait of a scorned, jealous woman. Dressed in a tank top and cargo pants, nervously rolling up and only half-smoking a cigarette, she could be one of the thousands of abandoned single mothers who are having trouble making ends meet. However, when she changes into a white outfit, a costume that recalls a traditionally staged performance, and fashions her horrific revenge, the real Medea, as conceived by the author, pushes through. Ms. McCrory possesses a dark voice, and is able to command a powerful fury which often erupts with a volcanic intensity. She commands the stage when she is preparing a lethal gift for Jason's new bride, and especially at the conclusion of the play when she carries the bodies of her dead children into a windswept, smoky, dark wilderness.

 Danny Sapani gives a memorable performance as Jason, a man who loves his two sons, and is only marrying in order to advance his social status. The rest of the cast is generally good, especially  Dominic Rowan, in his brief scene as Aegeus, the King of Athens, who brings the only light of hope for Medea by offering her sanctuary in his kingdom. The chorus is a nimble group of thirteen women who dance, gyrate, and generally look spooky as they slink all over the stage to the music of Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, their primitive-sounding, moody score is a memorable addition to this production.

Medea will be broadcast live from the Olivier Theatre to cinemas around the world on September 4 at 7pm. I urge you not to miss it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

I Miss Last Year's Wagner Celebrations

You don't get too many celebrations when you are 201 years old.  But last year's Richard Wagner's bicentennial celebrations around the world were quite a show. Some more successful than others, of course.  Frank Castorf's Ring at Bayreuth was a huge failure last year.  It will be presented again this summer, and hopefully he has gone back to re-examined his concept in order to deliver a better show.

By far, one of the most interesting events to mark the 200 anniversary of Wagner's birth took placed in Munich. Spencer Tunick's art installation "The Ring" consisted of over 1000 nude volunteers, some painted red and others silver, who "recreated" various scenes from the Ring Cycle in the center of the city.

 According to the artist "I'm very interested in the history of the city, the close links with Richard Wagner's work, but also the dark chapters of the city's history and the building structures from the Nazi era."
“I'm very interested in the history of the city, the close links with Richard Wagner's work, but also the dark chapters of the city's history and the building structures from the Nazi era,” - See more at:
“I'm very interested in the history of the city, the close links with Richard Wagner's work, but also the dark chapters of the city's history and the building structures from the Nazi era,” - See more at:

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes constantly poses the question whether Man and Ape can co-exist in a ravaged world where a virus has wiped out most of the human population. "Can't we all get along?" The answer to this proverbial question is "no" if the aim of this latest reboot of the Apes saga is to get us to the beginning, i.e. the classic 1968 sci-fi film Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston and his time traveler companions land in a dystopian Earth that has de-evolved into a backwards Darwinian state where apes rule and Mankind has descended into a primitive primate.

20th Century Fox knows that it will take a few sequels to get us there, and this latest installment advances to a world where apes have begun to reason and talk, all led by Caesar, the smart chimpanzee that James Franco raised in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the previous film of this series.

Once again Caesar is played by Andy Serkis together with the wonders of technology. His performance (as well as that of some of the other ape characters) is created by the latest wonders that the Weta Digital motion capture company can achieve and cgi can render. The results are truly mesmerizing.

Ten years have passed since the last film, and Caesar has developed into an ape leader, a kind of grassroots, simian revolutionary. He has gathered his clan, and made a community in the forests outside of San Francisco. Here in this primitive, secluded Utopia the apes have built a home where most are loyal to Caesar, who is the most advanced of his species as a result of his ability to speak. But all is not well in Ape Land. Caesar's leadership is constantly being challenged by the one-eyed, sinister Koba (Toby Kebbell), an ape character from the previous film who as a result of being caged and tortured has a big ax to grind against Man. Koba has evolved as much as Caesar, and is also able to speak, which makes him a prime candidate for ape leader, but a major threat to any possibility of peace between Ape and Man. Over on the other side, a handful of humans, led by Gary Oldman, are living in the ruins of San Francisco. When a small party of humans venture into the land of the apes searching for a hydroelectric station, that's when the conflicts begin.

The humans, led by Jason Clarke and Keri Russell, are a likeable, brave couple, and eventually Caesar is wise enough to understand their good intentions. Likewise teen actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Ms. Russell's son, establishes a great friendship bond with Maurice, the huge orangutan played with great tenderness and nobility by Karin Konoval. The inter species relationships in this film are well handled, and provide much of the memorable material in the film, whether it be a tender scene between a teenager and an ape reading a book together, or a woman coming to the aid of Caesar's ill postpartum female.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the kind of entertainment Hollywood once knew how to produce and release by the dozen during the summer months. It's puzzling how the industry has gotten lost amid super hero franchises, and questionable reboots that don't deliver. Finally there's a film to ignite this drab, uninteresting season. I have no doubt that it will prove a smash hit at the box office (it grossed a gorilla-sized 73 million on its first weekend) provided that there is enough word of mouth from the audience to keep it alive.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Two Chords that Shook the World

In August of 1857 Richard Wagner stepped away from the massive half-completed Ring of the Nibelung (he had already fully orchestrated Das Rheingold and Die Walküre) and began work on what would become one of his most important achievements. The opera Tristan und Isolde, the well-known story of forbidden love, was based on the medieval romance by Gottfried von Strassburg, and inspired by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and Wagner's illicit love affair with the wife of his patron, Mathilde Wesendonck. With a libretto written by the composer, the music was completed in August of 1859. Within the first few seconds of the astonishing score, Wagner established the disintegration of tonality and pointed the way for the future widespread use of atonal musical composition in the 20th century via the arrangement of four simple notes: the musically unexpected combination of F, B, D# and G# which has come down to be known as the famous "Tristan Chord."
It was fifty years ago, on July 6, 1964 (and nearly a hundred years after the June, 1865 premiere of Tristan) that Richard Lester's black-and-white film A Hard Day's Night forever changed rock and roll, and became one of the most influential musical films of all time, capturing forever in celluloid John, Paul, George, and Ringo at the height of the Beatlemania craze. Both the madcap comedy film and the album of the same name begin with a musical chord that has been described, discussed, and debated as much as its famous antecedent of the 19th century.

To know how Wagner did it, all we have to do is read the sheet music (although during the early rehearsals for the first performance, both the musicians and the conductor complained that the score was unplayable). They were unaccustomed to playing what must have been for their ears the music of the future. Ever since, orchestras around the globe have followed the composer's careful notation and have played the "Tristan Chord" exactly as Wagner wrote it. It hasn't changed in more than a century. 

But Rock is a different animal, especially the output of The Beatles who during their meteoric career resorted more and more to remain in the carefully controlled safety of the recording studio and eschew live performances. Inside EMI Studios was the "Fifth Beatle," George Martin, who as arranger and musical guru literally made the confines of the place a research lab where he filled the gaps between the band's raw talent and the actual recorded sound they wanted to achieve. The creation of the famous chord that opens the film was a creative ensemble that included the Fab Four as well as Martin.
The above shows more or less how the chord was achieved, although this is still highly debated. The basic ingredient to much of the sound is George's 12-string guitar Fadd9 chord (an F and a G chord played together). But to this we also have to add Ringo, who added a riff on his snare drum, and the ever-present George Martin, who struck five notes on a Steinway grand piano while holding down the sustaining pedal and caused the harmonics to blend.

Perhaps we will never know how this famous chord was completely achieved. Likewise, a lot of ink has been spilled detailing how the "Tristan Chord" affected music for the rest of the 19th century, and its impact on composers ever since. In a similar way, the opening chord from A Hard Day's Night will continue to mesmerize listeners, who care about great music, for many years to come.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

McKellen & Stewart in Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett's post-war absurdist play: bleak? Impenetrable? The abyss?  Not on your life!  This production, directed by Sean Mathias, resurrects the inherent comedy that was always present in the work (after all, the characters were inspired by the great clowns of the silent cinema), and it provides a felicitous vehicle for the genial comic talents of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Their Estragon and Vladimir could very well be two former vaudevillians, or more aptly two forgotten stars of British Music Hall, at the end of their rope, waiting for their next big break which will never come.

I would welcome a production of Godot staged under a dilapidated circus tent or the crumbling marquee of an abandoned theater, and Stephen Brimson Lewis's brilliant stage design for this production, featuring the bare back wall of the Cort Theater, and faux empty boxes at either side of the stage, certainly alludes to this. The audiences seem to have abandoned poor Didi and Gogo (where these their stage names?), and their unseen agent Godot is definitely not returning their phone calls.

Sir Ian and Sir Patrick are having a ball embodying these roles. Their chemistry onstage is infectious, and audiences are eating it up. As the more sprite and optimistic Vladimir, Mr. Stewart is a natural at comedy (which he so seldom has been asked to do, especially in his current film career) whether it be curiously inspecting the inside of his itchy hat (lice?), or picking up his heels and doing a little song and dance that welcomes audiences to the second half of the show. Mr. McKellen as the more downtrodden Estragon is heartbreaking at portraying the pathos of a poor soul who claims he gets beaten every night, and who often needs a hug, or to be lulled to sleep by his woeful partner. In the secondary roles, Shuler Hensley plays the blowhard, dominant Pozzo with a Southern accent, turning the role into a tyrannical Kentucky colonel of the old order. His slave, Lucky, portrayed by Billy Crudup, complete with white face, is quite good, his long meandering monologue, a masterpiece of absurdity which is played with a great deal of physical comedy.  Perhaps that's the best way to approach this moment in the play for modern audiences, because after many viewings and readings of the play, I still have no idea what he is talking about.

In recent interviews, Ian McKellen has hinted that this might be his swan song on the Great White Way. Therefore, you'd be crazy to miss his performance in this play, or his equally fine Spooner in  Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, currently playing with the same cast in repertory.  If this is the last time that Broadway will see this masterful actor, all I have to say is what a way to go!