Friday, July 31, 2015

Pope's Visit Forces Change for the NYFF

I received the following from the Film Society of Lincoln Center:

New York, NY (July 29, 2015) – The Film Society of Lincoln Center announced today that the World Premiere of Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk will take place on Saturday, September 26 instead of Friday, September 25 due to Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to New York. The date change was made for logistical and security reasons. The film, which remains the Opening Night selection of the 53rd New York Film Festival (September 25 – October 11), will screen at Alice Tully Hall. Festival dates stay the same, with free NYFF programming to take place on Friday, September 25, prior to the Opening Night screening on Saturday, September 26.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

NY Times Review of the new Bayreuth "Tristan"

The following review appeared today in the New York Times.

BAYREUTH, Germany — It’s the season of re-evaluating well-loved characters we thought we knew. First Atticus Finch, a saintly warrior for racial justice in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was revealed as a patronizing bigot in Ms. Lee’s newly published companion novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”

Now there visionists have come for King Marke. In a new production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” that opened the Bayreuth Festival on Saturday evening, the thoughtful, melancholy king of the opera’s libretto, shocked and saddened by Tristan’s betrayal, is depicted as a brutal, unfeeling tyrant. At the end, rather than blessing the dead bodies of Tristan and Isolde, as Wagner indicated, Marke drags Isolde — here very much alive — away, still insisting on claiming the bride Tristan stole from him.

That is not the only intervention by the production’s director, Katharina Wagner, who has led the festival since 2008 with another of the composer’s great-granddaughters, her half sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier. This “Tristan” abjures magic: The title characters, in an agonized mixture of lust and guilt from the start, ecstatically pour out the famous love potion rather than drinking it, taking radical responsibility for their actions.

The second act is not the lovers’ secluded summer idyll but a fleeting union in a dystopian prison yard where Marke’s thugs have thrown them to be watched over by guards and pursued by harsh floodlights. This is a post-Stasi, post-Snowden “Tristan,” or perhaps it shows that the composer anticipated what we have tended to consider a recent phenomenon: the death of privacy — even, in this production, in death.

Ms. Wagner has made the opera a veritable taxonomy of gray, gloomy nightmares. The first act, set aboard Tristan’s ship, is here a labyrinth of shadowy staircases to nowhere, a combination of M. C. Escher and Piranesi. The looming walls and retracting cylindrical cages of the second act lead to a third act permeated by fog and dotted with a hall-of-mirrors profusion of Isoldes — some living, some collapsing mannequins — conjured by Tristan in his madness.

At this point, it is news when a production at Bayreuth, known for its cadre of fierce traditionalists, does not get booed, and on Saturday, Ms. Wagner and her design team seemed to receive only cheers at their curtain call. That speaks to the sobriety of the staging, and perhaps to some relief that this director has not offered a repeat of her idea-filled but messy, much-reviled “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” first performed here in 2007.

With anonymously contemporary décor (by Frank Philipp Schlössmann and Matthias Lippert) and timeless costumes (by Thomas Kaiser) that are simultaneously medieval and futuristic, this “Tristan” is cleaner than “Die Meistersinger,” its divergences from the original text carefully considered. No, there is not the “tent-like cabin” that the libretto gives Isolde aboard Tristan’s ship, but that tent does find its way into Ms. Wagner’s second act, when the lovers cobble together a makeshift shelter out of some fabric to hide from the glare of the prison-yard lights.

Any restive fundamentalists in the audience might also have been calmed by seeming homages to the festival’s past, in a summer when Wagner’s home here, the Villa Wahnfried, is having its long-awaited reopening as an expanded museum. The third act of “Tristan,” its playing spaces defined by soft fields of light (designed by Reinhard Traub) and punctuated by floating pyramids that keep appearing and vanishing, evokes the abstract “New Bayreuth” aesthetic of the 1950s and ’60s.

Despite its stage-filling sets and its willingness to tinker with details of plot and character, the production’s overall impact on Saturday was modest. It makes few ideological claims, but also, more problematic, few emotional ones. Despite the terrors implied by its settings, its mood is never persuasively disconcerting or, indeed, persuasively much of anything. It is fluent and sensible, but that may not be enough when approaching one of the most disorienting works in operatic history.

In that sense, one of the production’s greatest strengths may also be a weakness: Christian Thielemann’s conducting was perhaps too subtly colored, too easily flowing, too effortlessly responsive for its own good, bolstering the impression that tension was all but missing from the performance.

Mr. Thielemann’s approach to Wagner has unique naturalness. In the first act, which frequently takes the form of a kind of call-and-response between singers and orchestra, his answers always arrived with alert immediacy. But like his oddly unanxious “Parsifal” at the Salzburg Easter Festival two years ago, his “Tristan” smooths over the work’s strangeness, its emotional extremes, its revolutionary harmonies.

Recently given the essentially new title of music director at the festival, Mr. Thielemann, rather than Ms. Wagner, was the one to bear some scattered boos at his bow. Perhaps that was a response to his musical choices, or perhaps to his controversially conservative politics or his seemingly ever-growing power here at Bayreuth.

It was clearer why the soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, announced last month as a replacement for Anja Kampe as Isolde, got her own catcalls: Her voice is angular rather than luxuriant, though her sound has clarity, and she acts with febrile focus. She was the odd woman out in a cast with considerable vocal glamour. The bass-baritone Iain Paterson was a hearty Kurwenal, and the mezzo-soprano Christa Mayer floated Brangäne’s offstage warnings to the lovers in Act 2 with haunting poise.

Stephen Gould actually sang Tristan — no mean feat — with a tone mellower and more lyrical than the pressured bellowing of many other tenors in this impossible role. Best of all was Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke, his bass rich and pitch black, his malignancy potently underplayed. He made the production’s most surprising revision entirely convincing.

Friday, July 24, 2015

More Green Hill Shenanigans

The following article appeared on The Guardian:

It’s that time of year again: the balmy nights of late spring are the augurs of the annual ritual of blood-letting in northern Bavaria, when the remaining Wagners do their best to tear each other apart in public on the eve of the Bayreuth Festival

This week’s fun on the Green Hill concerns the following: it was announced over a year ago that Eva Wagner-Pasquier would be leaving her co-managerial duties with her half-sister Katharina at the end of this season. But that’s not enough, it seems. Malevolent forces somewhere within the poisonous, Nibelheimisch politics of Wagner’s Bayreuth mean, apparently, that Eva isn’t even allowed to be seen anywhere in the environs of the festival theatre, otherwise their star conductor Christian Thielemann will apparently humph off in a massive schtropp and not conduct Tristan und Isolde in the production that Katharina is directing to open the festival on 25 July. 

Allegedly, that is: Thielemann denies it, as do key partners in the festival organization, but Wagner-Pasquier’s lawyer seems to confirm the rumours. And, in a personal statement, Daniel Barenboim has called the treatment she is being subjected to as “inhumane.”  “I thought you couldn’t take away people’s freedom of movement – unless they were criminals,” he added.

And all of this comes on top of Kirill Petrenko, the Ring’s conductor and the sole unsullied hero of Bayreuth’s current production of the tetralogy, voicing his disapproval at the late, late replacement of his Siegfried, Lance Ryan, with Stefan Vinke describing the treatment of Ryan – and Wagner-Pasquier – as “unprofessional and wholly undignified”, and saying that only his responsibility to and respect for his colleagues have stopped him from cancelling altogether. 

So, are Bayreuth and the Wagner clan in crisis? Far from it: Bayreuth just wouldn’t be Bayreuth without its annual curtain-raiser of gossip and scandal. Let’s instead be grateful to everyone at the Green Hill for the drama that makes it an on- and offstage saga that just keep on giving, year after year.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Shenanigans on the Green Hill

Lots of news to report.  First, a poster advertising Opening Night of the Bayreuth Festival (on the left) is now available. The festival will begin this Saturday with a performance of Tristan und Isolde, a new production by Katharina Wagner. The composer's great-granddaughter shocked audiences with her strange, irreverent production of Die Meistersinger. This new production of Tristan will be shown on German theaters on August 7.

There are also reports that the rehearsal period for this festival has not gone smoothly. Already two sopranos have bowed out of this new production, and now the latest news is that there is growing animosity between Kirill Petrenko and Christian Thielemann. The root of this animosity might stem from the fact that Mr. Petrenko has just been named chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a position that Mr. Thielemann coveted as a result of being a disciple of Herbert von Karajan who was appointed music director for life of this orchestra in 1955.

Currently Evelyn Herlitzius is singing the role of Isolde.  She replaced Anja Kampe a few weeks ago. However, the singer has not stormed out of Bayreuth and will honor her contract to sing the role of Sieglinde in this year's revival of Frank Castorf's dreadful Ring production. It is interesting to note that Ms. Kampe is Mr. Petrenko's companion, and Mr. Thielemann is conducting the new production of Tristan.  You do the math!

Further news about Katharina's Tristan reveals some early pictures of this new production.
This beautiful stage image bears more than a passing resemblance to the "New Bayreuth" style of Wieland Wagner, Katharina's uncle, who revolutionized the festival when he took over the reins in 1951. In an effort to get rid of all vestiges of Nazism that the festival had acquired, thanks to the many times that Adolf Hitler attended during the 1930s, Wieland Wagner employed light and darkness to re-invent the Wagnerian world. It became a style much imitated around the world.
An interesting image from what can only be Act II of the opera.  Though the centerpiece of this work is the glorious love duet between the title characters, it seems that Katharina is underlining the impossibility and the danger of this elicit love affair by placing the two characters on opposite sides of a turnstile, while Tristan seems to be choking his beloved.
Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke looks more like a pimp from a 1970s blaxploitation film.

As always, opening night of the Bayreuth Festival is an event, and this production will, I'm sure, divide audiences and further the debate over the kind of productions that are being presented at the Green Hill these days.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Great Jon Vickers is Dead

Jon Vickers, the great Canadian tenor who excelled in such operatic roles as Otello, Tristan and Peter Grimes died at the age of 88 of Alzheimer's disease. I was lucky to have thrilled to his colossal singing in my early days of opera-going, at the end of the 1970s at the MET. He was a shining star in roles which ranged from Handel to Britten, and his performances of Otello, Pagliacci, The Bartered Bride, and most memorably, Parsifal, were unforgettable. Likewise, he shared the stage with some of the great sopranos of the post World War II era, from Maria Callas to Birgit Nilsson, with whom he sang many memorable performances of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde all over the world.  Unfortunately, I never saw him sing a performance of Samson et Dalilah, one of his signature titanic roles, which he brought to life with his huge voice. Nor was I lucky enough to thrill to his great Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio.  Luckily, many of these performances were recorded, and quite a lot exists in video as well.

Below is video of Jon Vickers performing Otello, from 1978, from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. This was one of the first "Live from the Met" telecasts. Here we have the duet "Dio ti giocondi" from the beginning of Act III.  Renata Scotto sings the role of Desdemona, and the memorable production was designed by Franco Zeffirelli.  The young James Levine conducted.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Jurassic World: More of the Same

Mankind's twisted dream to play God is at the heart of the best horror movies in cinema history. It is the driving force behind not just Frankenstein but every other movie that features a mad scientist throwing a monkey wrench in the machinery of the natural universe, only to be punished for his folly, usually by his own creation. It is also the primal essence of Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park and the Steven Spielberg franchise adapted from that bestseller that features the original film, two sequels, and now a reboot: Jurassic World, also produced by Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg's company, and directed by Colin Trevorrow, a helmer who is not afraid to liberally pay homages to the earlier films and its famous creator.

If you remember Jeff Goldblum's line in The Lost World, the uneven sequel to the first film, then you're already pretty familiar with the main plot of this new film. Back in 1997, reprising the role of Dr. Ian Malcolm, the character quipped as he once again stared at the ferocious biological dinosaurs that DNA cloning had brought back to life, and the initial sense of wonder that it produced on people: "Oh, yeah, Oooh, Aaah, that's how it always starts. Then later there's running and um, screaming." In Jurassic World there is plenty to Oooh and Aaah. We are back in Isla Nublar, a remote island near Costa Rica, where the original Jurassic Park was built. Now an amazing resort, a la Disney World, has emerged from the ruins of that failed enterprise where the tourists can indulge in the fantasy of having a close encounter with a host of extinct creatures. There's even a petting zoo where the kiddies can ride the mild baby herbivores. But to satisfy the spectators blood lust there is also a show where the carcass of a dead shark is eaten whole by a gigantic Mosasaurus, an aquatic carnivore, who jumps out of his pool, like a killer whale, splashing those in the stands. The scene is one of the early highlights of the film, and it is a magnificent example of cgi at its best.

The plot is pretty basic. Two brothers are sent on a dream vacation to Jurassic World where their aunt (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the operations manager of the place. Even though she is supposed to personally give the kids the VIP tour of the park, she is too busy recruiting corporate sponsors for a new attraction called Indominus Rex, a genetically modified Frankenstein of a dinosaur made from the DNA of several dangerous predatory creatures. Meanwhile, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a Velociraptor trainer, and Great White Hunter type, warns the powers-that-be that Indominus Rex poses a real threat because it  has lived in isolation all its life. Further, Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) believes that the raptors can be trained for military use. This is the "Oooh and Aaah" section of the film.

But what would the Jurassic Park franchise be without the running and the screaming?!

And there's plenty of that as Indominus Rex, tired of his isolated existence, escapes from his walled enclosure in search of freedom and a viable second act to this film. Its escape is followed by four Velociraptors busting out, and most thrilling of all the spectacular flight of escapee winged Pterosaurs, who descend on the park's visitors, like a squadron of fighting planes, and attack them like the Avialae descendants of dinosaurs in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. There's running for ya! Also, there's the sight of Ms. Howard racing through the island's thicket in her business suit and 4 inch heels. Soon to become a camp classic! And speaking of classics, the film manages to channel the spirit of King Kong as well as the original Jurassic films.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition trying to be a creator is bad enough, and it has to be punished, but the producers of Jurassic World also know that we live in a secular society. Therefore, the bad guys in this film are not the scientists who originally cloned these creatures, but the shady men who represent the corporate greed that leads to the destruction of the enterprise. It's the one interesting take on the Frankenstein myth that the Jurassic franchise has added, and it is a formula that adds some interest to an otherwise predictable journey to a man-made segment of the Mesozoic Era.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Booing at the Royal Opera House

The opening night performance of the opera William Tell, by Giacomo Rossini was booed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden because of the on-stage dramatization of a rape scene with nudity. The following excerpts are from an article on the BBC website:

The Opera House issued a statement after the performance... apologizing for any distress caused. Director of opera Kasper Holten said: "The production intends to make it an uncomfortable scene, just as there are several upsetting and violent scenes in Rossini's score. We are sorry if some people have found this distressing."

Holten said the scene "puts the spotlight on the brutal reality of women being abused during war time, and sexual violence being a tragic fact of war." Rossini's opera of the Swiss patriot, William Tell, who shoots an arrow that splits an apple atop his son's head, has been directed by Damiano Michieletto and stars Canadian baritone Gerald Finley as Tell and American tenor John Osborn.

Osborn told Reuters after the performance that the scene "maybe ... went a little longer than it should have. But it happened and I think it's an element you can use to show just how horrible these people were that were occupying this town," he said. "If you don't feel the brutality, the suffering these people have had to face, if you want to hide it, it becomes soft, it becomes for children."

The Stage gave the production one star. George Hall called it a "dire evening" in which the "gratuitous gang-rape" scene provoked "the noisiest and most sustained booing I can ever recall during any performance at this address. Intellectually poverty-stricken, emotionally crass and with indifferent stagecraft, the result is nowhere near the standard an international company should be aiming at", he said.

Mark Valencia writing for What's on Stage pointed out that first night booing is "a fast-growing problem at Covent Garden that doesn't happen at other opera houses. It's become standard practice for the director of practically every new production to be jeered by practiced factions in the audience who object to ideas that go beyond the literal reading of an opera," he said.

But at last night's first night "the perpetrators did something unheard of: they booed during the music. And they did so loudly and long." They also booed at the end of the performance when the production team came on stage for the curtain call.
The opera is Italian director Damiano Michieletto's debut at the Royal Opera House.