Monday, August 24, 2015

New Documentary About Jackson Heights

The Film Society of Lincoln Center has announced that as part of the 53rd New York Film Festival a new documentary by Frederick Wiseman's will focus on my neighborhood: Jackson Heights.  Here is the information as I received it today in a press release.

"In Jackson Heights"
Frederick Wiseman, USA, 2015, DCP, 190m
Fred Wiseman’s 40th feature documentary is about Jackson Heights, Queens, one of New York City’s liveliest and most culturally diverse neighborhoods, a thriving and endlessly changing crossroad of styles, cuisines, and languages, and now—like vast portions of our city—caught in the gears of economic “development.” Wiseman’s mastery is as total as it is transparent: his film moves without apparent effort from an LGBT support meeting to a musical street performance to a gathering of Holocaust survivors to a hilarious training class for aspiring taxi drivers to an ace eyebrow-removal specialist at work to the annual Gay Pride parade to a meeting of local businessmen in a beauty parlor to discuss the oncoming economic threat to open-air merchants selling their wares to a meeting of undocumented individuals facing deportation. Wiseman catches the textures of New York life in 2015, the music of our speech, and a vast, emotionally complex, dynamic tapestry is woven before our eyes. A Zipporah Films release.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Sneak Peek at the MET's New OTELLO

According to the Metropolitan Opera, rehearsals are well underway at the house for opening night, which will premiere the company's new production of Giuseppe Verdi's Otello. This new staging directed by Bartlett Sher will feature sets by Es Devlin, costumes by Catherine Zuber, and lighting and projections by Donald Holder and Luke Halls. The principals: tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello), soprano Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona), and baritone Željko Lučić (Iago) are scheduled to sing on opening night. The principal conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin will conduct this new production.

 As these pictures reveal, this new staging will feature stunning projections, and while the costumes seem to be somewhat in period, (from the sketches the MET has published) the settings offer no specific time frame. Undoubtedly, it is a production that fits the current modernistic trends of the opera house under the leadership of Peter Gelb.   

Lately, director Bartlett Sher has had an impressive number of successes: from the original Lincoln Center production of The Light in the Piazza in 2005, to his stunning revival in 2008 of South Pacific, and this year's megahit production of The King and I. His opera productions at the MET, ranging from The Barber of Seville to The Tales of Hoffmann have rapidly become audience favorites.  I am sure that Verdi's supreme Shakespearean tragedy is in good hands, and I am looking forward to being there on opening night. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mary Jo Heath: The New Voice of the MET Broadcasts

It has been announced that Mary Jo Heath will become the new Metropolitan Opera radio host. She replaces Margaret Juntwait, who died earlier this year. In the history of the MET broadcasts (at one time sponsored by Texaco, and currently by Toll Brothers) there have only been four hosts. Milton Cross was the voice of the MET for four decades, and he was followed by Peter Allen, who had a twenty plus year run. Heath has been a producer for the broadcasts, and she replaced Ms. Juntwait when she fell ill. Heath will officially assume her new role with the first Sirius broadcast of the season, the opening night performance of Verdi’s Otello on Monday, September 21.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Written on Skin at the Mostly Mozart Festival

When George Benjamin, the composer of the opera Written on Skin, was a teenager he traveled to Paris to study with Olivier Messiaen. The great composer/organist was very much impressed with his young pupil, even comparing him to Mozart. It is totally apt, therefore, that the American premiere of Benjamin's tour-de-force opera occurred last night in New York during the yearly summer homage to the boy genius from Salzburg.

The libretto of Written on Skin, by playwright Martin Crimp, takes us back to medieval days to recount an episode in the life of the legendary Catalan troubadour Guillem de Cabestaing. As the story goes, he falls in love with his patron's wife, and when the husband finds out about their infidelity, he kills the troubadour, rips out his heart and cooks it. That evening at dinner the husband forces his wife to eat her lover's remains. After she realizes what she has done (and wanting to preserve the taste of her beloved on her lips forever) she commits suicide by throwing herself from a balcony. In the opera the troubadour is turned into an itinerant artist whose specialty is illuminated manuscripts. Weaving in and out of the medieval story, characters in modern dress called angels reenact the story, entering into the medieval part of the set from their fluorescence lit contemporary space which resembles a laboratory, a place where perhaps illuminated manuscript might be in the process of being restored.

Both the libretto and the music travel back and forth in time and space. Mr. Benjamin's score freely mixes twentieth century thunderous dissonance with elements of contemporary tonality. His use of instruments such as a glass harmonica (a Benjamin Franklin invention favored by both Mozart and Gaetano Donizetti) as well as claves, pebbles, sleigh bells, and sandpaper offer a history of what is accepted as musical. The sounds coming out of that pit last night were exciting and mysterious. The audience is kept guessing as to the nature of those cryptic sounds. At the same time, the music is dictated by the dramatic events onstage. It never feels like the musical inventions are overwhelming the drama. Meanwhile, the libretto offers lines like “Strip the cities of brick . . . strip out the wires and cover the land with grass” which transcends the notion of time and space.

Most of the principal singers, as well as the musicians (The Mahler Chamber Orchestra) performed this work at its world premiere at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012. The new kids on the block were countertenor Tim Mead, and conductor Alan Gilbert. Reprising the roles they created were baritone Christopher Purves and soprano Barbara Hannigan. All of them deserve much praise for their incredible work.

Written on Skin is a landmark work. I have no doubt that its score will be on the reading, and future performing lists of many conservatories. I am also sure that audience raconteurs will delight (or bore) later generations with tall tales about how they were present at the premiere. Consider yourself lucky if you were able to snatch up a ticket to the three performances being presented in this year's Mostly Mozart Festival.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Fun Home and Hamilton

I saw Fun Home last night, a few months after it won the Tony Award as best musical. I thought I was a little late in getting to it, but the original cast is still together, and the show is as powerful as it was when it showcased at the Public Theater downtown on Lafayette Street. I particularly enjoyed the chamber musical ensemble, which was the perfect accompaniment to what is essentially a musical largely assembled from private scenes and recollections. Fun Home is a modern, chamber opera about the coming of age of a lesbian graphic novelist, her closeted gay father, and her dysfunctional family. Written by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, and based on Alison Bechdel's autobiographical story, the show features stellar performances headed by Michael Cerveris in a Tony Award winning performance as the father, and child actress Sydney Lucas as the young Alison Bechdel.

This week, a new musical opened on Broadway: Hamilton. Like Fun Home this show, a musical tribute to our nation's Founding Fathers, also started humbly at the Public Theater where it soon became the hot ticket in town. It has moved to the Richard Rodgers Theater and it continues to be the show that you just have to see. Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the memorable Tony Award winner In the Heights (which also played at the Richard Rodgers Theater) is the author and star of this new work which takes the story of political figures (who have been immortalized in marble statues, and whose likeness adorns our money) and brings it back to the realm of mortality. History might have immortalized them, but this show remind us that they were just angry young men with a driven political purpose. To this end, the score, a mixture of hip-hop, rap and pop, is the perfect musical idiom to tell the story of these youthful trailblazers. The fact that they are largely played by black and Hispanic performers makes this work groundbreaking on many different levels.

Thankfully, I managed to get tickets.  But I couldn't get in until mid December. At least I will see this show with its original cast, months before the next Tony Award ceremony. I predict that it will be nominated for all major awards, and it will be a winner in many if not all categories.  From all the reviews that I have read this is the musical that will be featured in the history books of the great landmarks of the American musical theater.  I'm not sure if Mr. Miranda planned on ending up in a history book (for a show that desperately debunks history) but that is, oftentimes, the irony of success.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Just Stick to Singing, Juan Diego!

It cannot be denied that Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez has the kind of voice that only comes once in a lifetime. His lyrical, leggero instrument may never serve him well in late Verdi or Puccini, but in the triumvirate of the major bel canto composers he has excelled like very few can in this delicate, difficult repertory.  He broke the long-standing custom of banning encores at the Metropolitan Opera when the uproarious ovation that he received for singing the 9 high C's in "A mes amis" from The Daughter of the Regiment forced him to reprise the aria in its entirety; a feat that not even the great Luciano Pavarotti was able to do. Encores had not been heard at the house since the Golden Age of Enrico Caruso. He owns the role of Count Almaviva, reviving some arias from that work that many tenors had skipped due to its difficulty, and he possesses a high frequency voice that easily spans two octaves up to a high E flat (which he proved in a live performance of Rossini's Zelmira in 2009).

At the Salzburg Festival this week he offered a recital of Italian and French art songs that clearly displayed his astounding vocal technique. Accompanied by Vincenzo Scalera, Flórez was in splendid voice, and the audience was enormously receptive of his choice of repertory. He offered as an encore "Fra poco a me ricovero" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, which was heartbreaking, and wonderfully received.

Then he returned to the stage with a guitar.  This is when things started getting a little weird. He took off his bow tie and hurled it away (it landed inside the piano), and went on to sing "Besame mucho." Mr. Scalera returned to the piano, and accompanied him in a rousing rendition of Agustin Lara's  "Granada."  By this time Mr. Flórez had gotten way too playful with his audience. He started comically reaching for his throat, as if telling the audience that he was running out of gas.  Nothing doing, though: as a final encore he launched into the nine C's of the aforementioned "A mes amis" each high note beautifully placed.  However, by the end of the aria once again he started mugging for the audience, making a joke of the vocal gymnastics required to sing this piece. Let us just say that comedy is not Mr. Flórez's forte. I often feel that his comic timing lags behind the beat, and this was clearly evident at the stage of the Großes Festspielhaus this week.  He just wasn't as funny as he thought he was, and it took away from the beauty of his remarkable singing. Just stick to singing, Juan Diego!

Below is the concert in its entirety.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The NY Film Festival welcomes Laurie Anderson

A recent press release from the Film Society of Lincoln Center reveals that Laurie Anderson has been commissioned to design the poster for the 53rd New York Film Festival. The yearly cinematic event will run from September 25 to October 11, and, as usual will feature films from around the world, as well as major releases from American studios.

Ms. Anderson is one of the most daring and creative personalities in the arts. She is best known for her gigantic multimedia presentations as well as her cutting-edge use of technology. She has been a director, writer and composer of works that span theater, performance art and experimental music. Her upcoming installation called Habeas Corpus will be at the Park Avenue Armory from October 2-4.

Below is the poster that Ms. Anderson has created for this year's New York Film Festival.

Regarding the poster, Ms. Anderson revealed “The NYFF is such an eclectic and ecstatically wild mix of films, and I wanted to try to capture some of the variety of subjects and styles. The original piece this is is based on, Follow the Sound, is 18 feet long with lots of plots and characters and fragments. I made this painting two years ago when I was feeling especially inspired by the scale of projected film and the possibilities of abrupt jump cuts. I’m so happy it’s the poster for this year’s festival.”

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Benedict Cumberbatch's HAMLET

Next week Benedict Cumberbatch begins his sold-out run of Hamlet at the Barbican in London. The production will be directed by Lindsey Turner and produced by Sonia Friedman. I do hope that the powers-that-be decide to bring this production to Broadway.  Jude Law's turn as the melancholy Dane sold out in London. I was there during his run, staying at my usual St. Martin's Lane Hotel, a block away from Wyndham's Theatre. Every morning a queue would form before sunrise for day tickets. I never bothered to wake up early to try to snatch up a ticket. Why spend my early morning hours watching the sun rise over Leicester Square, inhaling the fumes from the constant traffic on Charing Cross Road? The production eventually came to New York, and not surprisingly it sold out its brief limited run. I saw it on Broadway, at the Broadhurst Theater, and it was worth the wait.

Now it's time for us to be given the chance to experience how Mr. Cumberbatch will shape Shakespeare's greatest role.