Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Met cancels performances

An audience member at the Metropolitan Opera threw a white powdery substance into the orchestra pit on Saturday during an intermission of the afternoon performance of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, officials said, prompting the company to cancel the rest of the show and that night’s performance of L’Italiana in Algeri while the police investigated.

No one was injured during the episode, the Met said, which occurred during the second intermission of the opera. “As a safety precaution, the Met canceled the remainder of the performance to err on the side of appropriate caution,” Sam Neuman, a Met spokesman, said.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Tenor Johan Botha is dead

It is sad to report that tenor Johan Botha, the South African superstar that thrilled audiences around the world with his performances of Richard Wagner's toughest roles, died today at the age of 51. Mr. Botha was a mainstay of the great opera houses around the world. I was fortunate to see him perform the major Wagner roles as well as the title role in Giuseppe Verdi's Otello: one of the hardest roles in the Italian repertory.

Mr. Botha started his career in the chorus of the Bayreuth Festival. Twenty years later he would be acclaimed in the role of Siegmund in Die Walküre at that same theater.

Here he is in the role of Walther von Stolzing singing "Morgenlich leuchtend" from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

I last saw him at the Metropolitan Opera singing the title role in Tannhäuser, a performance that the New York Times described as that of a man who "bristled with the desperate intensity of a man who’d been to hell and back — and lived to tell the tale."

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Welcome to the Thunderdome!

When the US Open moved from the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills to Flushing meadows it shed whatever vestige it had of manicured lawns and country clubbers. Aided by players like Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King tennis became the people's sport. Not only was the tournament not ever like Wimbledon, it didn't even try. After the move to Flushing, the permanent adoption of hard courts, the change to yellow tennis balls, and a loose code when it came to player's dress, the US Open became the most dynamic sports event in New York City, and also its most profitable.

When it opened in 1997, the behemoth Arthur Ashe Stadium (the biggest tennis stadium in the world) made strangers of us all. Alienation came to tennis. The players didn't even know we were up there, and we could hardly see them in the distance (never mind being able to judge line calls with any degree of certainty), so there was no reason to maintain the accustomed silence during points. The upper promenade of the stadium featured a constant flow of humanity in search of their seats (and more often occupying other people's seats to try to get a closer view), and constant conversation that seemed to just float up to the nearby clouds and escape to the heavens.

But in the last three years the USTA decided that a roof had to be built so that play could continue during the unstable New York weather that often plagues the fortnight. The acoustics of the place have changed forever. Now that the roof is in place, the thousands of random conversations that take place among the fans (especially during the night sessions) has no place to escape. They bounce around the stadium starting like a background buzz and ending up like a foreground clatter. The other night, in the middle of an ESPN match telecast, John McEnroe complained about the noise, mentioning that it felt like he was in Yankee Stadium.

But the USTA has no one else to blame but themselves. They have built the US Open as the hippest of events where loud and brash is in, After all, it is New York City! To this end, there are videos played on giant jumbotrons during changeovers, together with loud rock music while the players take their break. Often a roving camera travels the stadium giving us a free of charge fifteen seconds of fame.

Allow me a classical music anecdote (after all, it is primarily a music blog):

When Sir Georg Solti brought the Paris Opera to the MET for a series of performances of Mozart's La Nozze di Figaro, he knew he would have to fill the cavernous Metropolitan Opera, an auditorium much bigger than any European house. What he did was the opposite: he asked the orchestra to play quietly, and he begged the singers not to shout. The little, precious sound that they created managed to fill the house. Those that were fortunate to be present during those fabled performances were all on the edge of their seats, bending an ear, trying to absorb it all. These were probably the most engaged audiences in the history of Lincoln Center.

Back to tennis:

Now that the stadium roof is here to stay, perhaps the powers-that-be should re-think how it packages the US Open. They don't have to create excitement. The real excitement occurs inside that rectangular blue and green court ruled by white lines.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Gene Wilder is dead at 83

Gene Wilder died today at the age of 83. How sad when a comedian dies: a person who brings happiness and joy to so many. Young Frankenstein? Blazing Saddles? What was your favorite Gene Wilder role. What about The Producers? During the 1970s Mel Brooks found his muse, star, and co-author in Gene. However, if you never saw him in his breakout role in Bonnie and Clyde, a decade earlier, then you are missing a comedy moment that solidified his career at an early moment.

For many he is and will always be the one and only Willy Wonka, and nobody else should attempt to usurp the chocolate factory. He was perfection in that role. Sheer genius and pure imagination.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Juan Gabriel dead at 66

Juan Gabriel, the legendary Mexican singer, known as "el Divo de Juárez" died in Santa Monica after giving a concert on Friday in Inglewood. The cause of his death was a heart attack. Beloved by millions of Spanish-speaking fans, Juan Gabriel (born Alberto Aguilera Valadez) was Mexico's top selling artist with sales of more than 100 million albums.

Below is a video of his song "La mujer que yo amo" dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico's beloved icon.

Gay Jewish Kangaroo in Bayreuth

Barrie Kosky, an Australian theater and opera director from Melbourne who labels himself as a "Gay Jewish Kangaroo" has been invited by Katharina Wagner to direct the new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Bayreuth for the summer of 2017. The Bayreuth Festival has been trying to face up to its troubled past, which included the infamous patron-ship of Adolf Hitler who forged a friendship with the Wagner family and made the Green Hill a showplace for Third Reich politics, which of course included the banning of all homosexual and Jewish artists. In 2012, the year I visited Bayreuth an exhibition named "Verstummte Stimme" (Silenced Voices) chronicled the racial cleansing of the festival during the 1930s.

Mr. Kosky's new production will replace Katharina Wagner's own staging of her great-grandfather's work, a concept that brought ridicule and boos during its performances. Her take on Wagner's most nationalistic operas was downright irreverent including nudity, masturbating puppets of Germany's great intellectuals, and rethinking the character of Walter as an "Action-Künstler" in the vain of the late Christoph Schlingensief.

Here is a taste of her departing Meistersinger:
 It will be interesting to see what Mr. Kosky comes up with. Nuremberg, with its infamous anti-Semitic past will surely fire the imagination of the director. Perhaps a Meistersinger that takes place in the shtetl filled with deeply rooted Yiddishkeit? Why not! When the director was asked about the leading positions held by Jews in the Berlin cultural institutions, Kosky responded : "the more Jews the better... bring it on!"

Friday, August 26, 2016

Faust: Clowning Around in Salzburg

At the center of the first and the last scenes of Charles Gounod's opera Faust. as seen through the wacky lens of director and set designer Reinhard von der Thannen, a sign of the French word "Rien," meaning nothing, descends lazily from the rafters. And after watching the telecast from the Salzburg Festival of this new production I wonder if ultimately "nothing" is what the director wants his audience to take away with them.

One stays with this production out of curiosity to see what von der Thannen is going to come up with next. As soon as the curtain goes up we get a clown Faust, and in the next scene a clown chorus, establishing, perhaps, a carnival atmosphere. But in the second act the picaresque ambience is broken by a gigantic skeleton hovering over the Soldier's chorus (obviously an anti war statement), and gigantic black balls (the kind that King Kong might use in a bowling game) are rolled around the stage during Margerithe's most poignant moments. What does it all mean?
 We must remember that Mr. von der Thannen was also the set and costume designer for the infamous Hans Neuenfels rat infested production of Richard Wagner's Lohengrin at Bayreuth. There are similarities between the two productions. Both feature sleek, white-walled sets reminiscent of a laboratory, and both stagings are supported by choruses weirdly costumed in unexpected ways and richly directed in a manner that integrates the ensemble with the dramatic setting. Lastly, a sparseness pervades Mr. von der Thannen's settings, which he is quick to populate with colorful intellectual incongruities, like little houses on wheels and gigantic lilies. This is the kind of Regietheatre that does not offend, but which titillates the viewer's fancy, and causes smiles, not growls. It can become highly popular and habit forming. Unlike the audiences at Bayreuth, who at times behave like carnivores waiting to devour a director's new production, this premiere received no audible boos during the curtain calls.
 Perhaps the first rate cast assembled had a lot to do with this reception. As is usually the case during the summers at Salzburg, all the performers were quite excellent. In the title role, the young Polish tenor Piotr Beczala was in marvelous voice, his ringing high C in "Salut! demeure chaste et pure" thrilling and secure.  Italian soprano Maria Agresta superbly conveyed the extremes that her role demands:  young innocence and shattering tragedy. Ildar Abdrazokov's Méphistophélès was a dashing figure who commanded the stage at all times.  Perhaps not the basso profundo voice that we are accustomed to hearing in this role, he was lyrical and ample of voice. Alexey Markov as Valentin seemed at times overwhelmed by the production, although he sang firmly throughout most of the performance.

What can one say about the Vienna Philharmonic that has not been stated so many times before. They played with the kind of expert musicianship that makes them one of the world's great ensembles. The young Argentinian conductor Alejo Pérez led them in a passionate reading of a score that many times can sound overly familiar and trite.

Despite its idiosyncrasies this is a production that needs to be seen live to be fully appreciated. That was certainly the case with the Bayreuth Lohengrin for which Mr. von der Thannen designed sets and costumes. I first experienced it through photographs, then on Blu-ray; but the concept did not hit home until I saw it live at Bayreuth in 2012. I hope that other opera houses pick up this staging after its initial Salzburg run.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

All singers know that they sound very different to themselves than to the people listening to them. This audio phenomenon is at the heart of Florence Foster Jenkins, the new biopic of the infamous New York patron of the arts. She would have been a forgotten name in the annals of New York society had she not made a number of recordings that forever captured her lack of operatic singing talent. Led on by her British husband and cheered on by her sycophantic circle of friends, Ms. Jenkins rented Carnegie Hall for one evening and filled it friends, servicemen returning from World War II, and celebrities. It turned out to be one of the strangest recitals ever given on any stage.

Cinematically, this is a character that is very close to Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard: women who were lied to about their artistic abilities or popularity, and who ultimately paid the price for this deception.

Brilliant in the cast is Simon Helberg, best known from the TV show "The Big Bang Theory," as her timid but talented accompanist, who at first finds the whole idea of playing for this matronly lady hilarious. His laughter soon turns into fear that this job will hurt his fledgling career. Ultimately he succumbs to the big con that is largely orchestrated by her husband.

St Clair, her husband, is the closest this film gets to having a villain. Casting Hugh Grant in the role, however, softens the character's edges admirably. For Mr. Grant this is a comeback film of sorts, and he is great in the part. The years have lined his face. Gone is the boyish, bumbling character who won our hearts in Four Weddings and a Funeral. St Clair is a two-timing liar, but his winning smile, even as he reaches into his pocket to bribe a newspaper critic wins us over.

But ultimately director Stephen Frears makes sure that the film is all about Meryl Streep. She embodies the character of Florence in the same manner that she has tackled the great roles of her career, and undoubtedly this is another milestone: a memorable characterization that will win her many accolades come award season. She knows how to play it big without chewing scenery, and that's one of the wonders of this performance. Needless to say, audiences love that. In addition, she has shown that she can belt out a tune when she wants to. In Mamma Mia! she literally stopped the show with her rendition of "The Winner Takes it All." Here she is deliberately singing flat and off key, which is so difficult to do for a talented, trained singer like her.

In many ways the film is a paean to relativism. Here's a lady who has no business singing, but by golly she got up there and did it, and therefore she is a winner for trying, even though the results were awful. She rips through Mozart's Queen of the Night aria from Die Zauberflöte murdering every note and never reaching the high F. "Right you are if you think you are" as Luigi Pirandello would have concluded. Ms. Streep makes it all seem OK somehow, and that's why the film succeeds. Lady Florence herself said it best: "Some may say that I couldn't sing, but no one can say that I didn't sing."

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Rio 2016: Smoke and Mirrors?

The 2016 Olympic Games are underway in the beautiful city of Rio De Janeiro. The first time that the Olympics have been held in South America. A great feather in the cap of a country rich in beauty, history and culture but drowning in political mismanagement, social injustice, and random crime. Currently, the country is without a president after Dilma Rousseff was impeached. It's been up to Michel Temer, the current interim president, to hold down the fort while the rest of the world arrives to the shores of Copacabana and Ipanema. And while the world is rediscovering the Bossa Nova classics of Antônio Carlos Jobim, which portrays a Brazil which no longer exists, or may never have existed, the proverbial Girl from Ipanema has to be careful that while walking on the beach she is not robbed, or worse kidnapped.

If your idea of Brazil is based on Marcel Camus's 1959 Oscar winning film Black Orpheus, which portrays favela life as an idyllic hub of samba culture, then you are in for a rude awakening. Forty percent of the crime in Rio happens in these hillside slums. Drug use is highly concentrated in these areas run by local gangs. Regular shoot-outs between drug lords, police and other criminals, as well as assorted illegal activities, lead to excessive murder rates which descend down the hill to the city of Rio. Higher rates occur in the favelas although, oftentimes, much crime goes unreported for fear of reprisals. Still, the favela is the place where much of Brazil's culture comes from, even though those who maintain its culture alive, favela dwellers, are marginalized. However, favela culture is alive and well, and to the percussive rhythms of the samba one can now add the hybrid musical forms such as funk carioca and hip hop. The favela might seem to be an isolated outpost, but  it is no stranger to influences from abroad, even though the majority of tourists avoid these hillside shanty towns which they can see in the near distance from their expensive hotels.

It is so interesting that the person chosen to mount the Rio games was Fernando Meirelles, Brazil's most famous contemporary movie director. His 2002 film City of God presented with gritty realism the current reality of favela life: the antithesis of Camus's film. By contrast, his concept for the opening ceremony was an abstract realization of Brazil's motto which adorns its green and yellow flag: "Ordem e Progresso" (order and progress). He presented a Brazil knowledgeable of its troubled past, but facing the future with a bright, rhythmic optimism. Smoke and mirrors? Perhaps, but what host country does not put its best foot forward when the eyes of the world are focused on it?

The Olympic flame, the traditional focus of the games, in many ways says it all, and it might be Meirelles's ironic comment on the whole Olympic experience. A relatively small cauldron of fire suspended in mid air (in contrast to the epic flame towers of past Olympics), and surrounded by dozens of revolving mirrors creating a kaleidoscopic blinding effect. Smoke and mirrors? Literally, yes! Long may it burn for the sixteen days that the world visits the shores of this country.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Hillary Clinton at the DNC Last Night

She came out dressed in white: a knight in shining armor ready for the fight ahead. America's own female Lohengrin. A Wagnerian sight if ever there was one!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Parsifal on BR Klassik

 I'm not sure how long it's going to be up there, but you can stream Monday's Parsifal performance from the stage of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus by going to BR Klassik. This performance marks the beginning of the annual Bayreuth Festival which will run until the end of August. The new production by Uwe Eric Laufenberg is a mixture of classical staging and Eurotrash, with Islamic elements thrown in for good measure. It's a hodgepodge that although does not live up to the beauty and intelligence of the Stefan Herheim production it replaced, manages to leave a lasting impression. The picture above should speak a thousand words where this concept is at, although do go ahead and watch the performance.  There is some fine singing from Georg Zeppenfeld (Gurnemanz), Klaus Florian Vogt (Parsifal), and Houston Grand Opera Studio alumnus Ryan McKinny, who makes a fine Bayreuth debut as Amfortas. The orchestra is under the direction of Harmut Haenchen who at the last minute took over from Andris Nelsons who left the production citing artistic differences.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Following Terror Attacks Security Tightens at Bayreuth

 Mere days before the start of the Bayreuth Festival, Germany is on edge after five people were injured in an axe attack in a Bavarian train in Wuerzburg, an event claimed by the Islamic State, and the Munich rampage where nine people were gunned down by an 18 year old German Iranian who then took his own life.

The festival begins on Monday with a new production of Parsifal, and new security measures have been implemented at the Green Hill this year thus robbing the event of the summer carefree idyll setting that it has had for 140 years.

Katharina Wagner sent the following letter to all Bayreuth ticket holders:

Dear Sir/Madam, Dear Festival-goers,

Due to the overall increased threat level, the 2016 Bayreuth Festival is increasing its security.  We would like to inform you of several important aspects as follows:

As advanced security measures by the police cannot be ruled out, please plan to arrive at the Festspielhaus a little earlier than usual.  We recommend arriving about 45 minutes before the performance.
  • Please carry a valid government-issued ID, so you can be identified
  • For safety reasons, it is prohibited to take the following into the Festspielhaus:
    • Bulky items, in particular bags and backpacks of any kind, except for evening handbags
    • sharp or pointed objects as well as any other objects that are hazardous or can be used as a weapon
    • cushions
    • drink bottles and other liquid containers
Please note that there are no storage facilities for them inside the Festspielhaus
  • There is a different route for directions by car to the Festspielhaus.  Exiting is as usual.
  • Please note that direct access from the parking lots to the Festspielhaus is only possible via one route.
We hope that you will understand these rules.  All visitors cooperating as best as possible can significantly help to avoid problems and inconvenience to a large extent.

If you are unable to use your tickets yourself, we respectfully request you provide the users of the tickets with this information.

Thank you for your understanding and we wish you a pleasant and fulfilling visit.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Madam Butterfly at the ENO

It is such a delight to rediscover Anthony Minghella's poignant, unforgettable production of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the place where it originated: The English National Opera, in its home base at the London Coliseum. Though it might be the biggest theatre in London's West End, it is an intimate house compared to the Metropolitan Opera, where I first saw this remarkable production. The ENO is the place where the late director envisioned this production, and it is wondrous to experience it in its original home. As is the custom of the house, the opera was performed in English in a translation by David Parry.

So much of the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica is part of my operatic muscle memory, that hearing it for the first time in another language is disconcerting. Many times I had to resort to the supertitles at the ENO which are not ideally placed if you are sitting in the seventh row of the stalls (orchestra seats in the US). However, it is the tradition of the house: to perform all the operas in English, and eventually one gets accustomed to it. Actually, the only time I did not hear English at the ENO was many years ago when I went to their production of Philip Glass's Satyagraha, which was performed in Sanskrit.

One of the remarkable aspects of this production is the use of Bunraku style puppets, used throughout the production, but especially for Butterfly's little son. These life-like creations, operated by visible, but black-clad puppeteers gives a truly authentic Japanese air to the production, and needless to say no child actor can ever emote such longing as this amazing wooden creation in his cute, white sailor suit. This unique feature sets apart this staging of the opera from any other. So remarkable is the idea that many of the world's opera houses have borrowed this production.

The orchestra, under the baton of Sir Richard Armstrong never achieves a quiet moment, which is so important in this tender work. As a result the voices are either covered, or, as was the case tonight, forced to throw away the composer's dynamic markings. I have never heard a "Flower Duet" sung fortissimo before, but here it was. Rena Harms, in the title role certainly has the voice and stamina for the role, and the same can be said for David Butt Philip, her BF Pinkerton. I just wished that the conductor had given them a break and allowed some subtlety to enter into the evening.

Despite the company's faults, which are not many, at least the city of London has an alternate choice to The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. At the ENO families can still go to hear grand opera at popular prices. Boy, do I miss the New York City Opera. But hope springs eternal, though, and perhaps one day the phoenix will rise once more.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Disney and Netflix deal

Back in 2012 Netflix struck a deal with Disney to have exclusive rights to stream new films from Marvel, Pixar, LucasFilms, and Walt Disney Animation Studios. The deal will go into effect this September.

What does this mean for the company, and for us consumers? Basically it will mean that all new films in 2016 from this point forward will only be released on Netflix. If you want to find anything from Captain America: Civil War to The Jungle Book to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will only be found on Netflix. According to the contract it cannot be found on any other streaming platform. Further, new content will not be found on cable channels, and it won't be available on premium pay channels and networks.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Poster for the 54th NY Film Festival

The Film Society of Lincoln Center has announced the poster for the 54th New York Film Festival. It was designed by film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The following is an excerpt from a press release sent from the Film Society:

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is more than just a ‘logical’ choice to do our poster—he’s one of the world’s greatest filmmakers and he works in the visual arts,” said New York Film Festival Director Kent Jones. "I knew that he would send us something extraordinary: a beautifully wrought, self-contained little world. The more you concentrate on the image, the more detail you see, and the further your dream extends. The NYFF has had many great posters designed by a long list of great artists, but this is one of the very best."

The renowned Thai filmmaker and artist, whose works deal with memory and subtly address personal politics and social issues, has had a fruitful relationship with the New York Film Festival for over a decade. Four of his films have been selected for the official NYFF lineup: Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes and a Century (2006), the Palme d’Or–winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), and Cemetery of Splendor (2015). In 2002, Apichatpong’s debut narrative feature Blissfully Yours won the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Along with his features, Apichatpong is known for his short films and art installations. His work has been featured in exhibitions across the globe, including solo shows at the New Museum in New York, the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the Munich Film Museum, and many more. His art prizes include the Sharjah Biennial Prize (2013), the prestigious Yanghyun Prize (2014) in South Korea, and the Thai Ministry of Culture’s Silpatorn Award (2005)."

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Elektra at the MET

If Finnish conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen were eying the job of Music Director at the Metropolitan Opera, recently vacated by James Levine, the current production of Richard Strauss's Elektra would serve as a successful audition. Not that he would need one, mind you. These performances just serve as a reminder that he is one of today's great conductors; a superstar in the tradition of Leonard Bernstein, comfortable leading an orchestra, composing a concerto, as well as promoting Apple's iPad Air and thus providing a positive look at classical music, something that rarely happens in the mainstream media. The MET would be crazy not to hire him.

This production of Elektra will go down in the annals of the MET as one of the high points of Peter Gelb's tempestuous tenure at Lincoln Center. Directed by the late Patrice Chéreau, with a cast that includes Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis), Waltraud Meier (Klytämnestra), Eric Owens (Orest), and in the title role the great Nina Stemme. One can travel far and wide and not find this collection of talent on any operatic stage.

This staging started life at the Aix en Provence Festival in 2013 with Mr. Salonen conducting. Evelyn Herlitzius played the title role, and Ms. Pieczonka and Ms. Meier originated the roles that they are reprising currently at the MET. That performance was captured on film and is available on Blu-Ray/DVD.

Mr. Chéreau's concept updates the Sophocles play to the present, making it the story of a truly dysfunctional family, which in many ways is exactly what the original drama really is. Clytemnestra sore that her husband Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia so that his ships could sail to Troy, kills him upon his return from the Trojan War. Elektra now mad at her mother for having killed dad, dreams of the day when her brother Orestes will return home, kill their mom and her new lover and thus avenge her father's death. The Waltons it is not! But if you want to experience some powerful cathartic moments, this one has it in spades.

In the opera, the character of Elektra promises in her great opening monologue ("Allein! Weh ganz allein") that she will dance once her mother has been killed, and in this production Ms. Stemme attempts to kick up her heels, but she just can't.  It's as if the character had suffered for so long that her joints are stiff. Just one of the many innovative moments in Mr. Chéreau's wonderful re-imagining of this work.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra continues to be the well-oiled machine that James Levine created, and they played magnificently. This has always been one of my favorite scores which, like the earlier controversial Salome, can go from crashing dissonant chords to the sweetest most beautiful melodies. The stamp of the 20th century is definitely on this Strauss work, but scratch its surface and the Viennese waltz is there throughout the entire work.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Roberto Devereux at the MET

After missing my original date to go to see Roberto Devereux at the Metropolitan Opera as a result of being in the hospital, I finally attended another performance of this Donizetti opera on April 11.  The production by Sir David McVicar, utilizing a unit set and no curtain unfortunately gets old pretty soon. The Palace of Nonsuch, Sarah's apartments and the lower depths of the Tower of London all look the same, giving no specific feeling for different settings. It's a shame because the plot almost pleads for the scenic designer (also Sir David) to take flights of fancy with this Tudor story. Where the production truly excels is in the costume design, which in the hands of Moritz Junge brings to life the Elizabethan court. In particular, the women costumes are gorgeous, especially those designed for Sandra Radvanovsky, who in Act I is the embodiment of Gloriana, as pictured in the famous Ditchley Portrait at London's National Portrait Gallery.

But this production is not about the sets or the costumes, it is all about this season's MET third leg of the Sandra Radvanovsky royal trifecta that will surely earn her place in the operatic history books. The arc is now finished, and the performances that began early in the season with Anna Bolena, and this winter's great Maria Stuarda have come full circle. Ms Radvanovsky's performances have earned her the critical and audience accolades that she deserves. Roberto Devereux is the crowning glory. A tour-de-force that earned Beverly Sills her place in the pantheon when she attempted the three operas at the New York City Opera in the 1970s.

Ms. Radvanovsky was truly remarkable.  Her voice has been compared to that of Maria Callas, and it is true that, like that fabled artist, her instrument goes beyond just sheer beauty. In doing so, she is able to penetrate the inner soul of her character, a feat that is key to singing Elisabetta correctly. She is lucky to have as a co-star the brilliant Elīna Garanča, whose young, traditionally beautiful tone was the perfect foil to the aging queen. Add to that Matthew Polenzani, who has never sung better, in my opinion, and the evening was complete. Unfortunately baritone Mariusz Kwiecien was indisposed that night, his understudy sang with conviction and ringing tone, but regretfully I sensed that he was quite nervous, and he managed to bark most of his role. Conductor Maurizio Benini led an assured performance, making us realize that Donizetti's score contains not just beautiful music, traditional of his time, but also attempts to probe into the psyche of his characters.  After all, this score was written two tears after Maria Stuarda and Lucia di Lammermoor, and the composer was at the heights of his powers.

As Anthony Tommasini noted in his review in the New York Times: "Met audiences can rightly complain about a company that lavishes such attention on five Donizetti operas in a single season, during which the newest work on the boards is Alban Berg’s Lulu, first performed in 1937. Still, completing the Tudor trilogy is an achievement for the house, and a triumph for Ms. Radvanovsky."

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Arthur Miller's The Crucible on Broadway

The Crucible, Arthur Miller's powerful 1953 drama, about the hysteria that sent twenty people to their deaths accused of being witches, is a play that most of us read in high school, and very few of us understood. Although its setting is the historical 1692 Salem witch trials in Colonial Massachusetts, what the author wants us to consider is that a witch hunt is a phenomenon that can occur anywhere and at any time. It was happening in America once more in the post World War II period. HUAC was busy blacklisting famous Hollywood screenwriters and directors, the so-called "Hollywood Ten" for their participation in the communist party, a sign that these individuals were dangerous to the well-being of the nation during the Cold War. Meanwhile some notable actors and directors, such as Elia Kazan, Lucille Ball and Ronald Reagan accused some of their colleagues of being "reds," and won favor with the government and with the film industry. On the other hand, the careers of those who refused to cooperate with the committee were destroyed. The era of McCarthyism was an ugly eyesore in American history, and this seething cauldron was the inspiration for Miller to write this play. The communist hysteria that Joseph McCarthy fueled in the Cold War era was analogous to the theocracy that ruled seventeenth century New England, where the belief in the Devil and witchcraft was very much alive.

I've always wanted to see a production of this play done in the 1950s so that Arthur Miller's true intent in writing this work would shine through clearly for audiences. Now The Crucible comes to Broadway in a visionary production by the gifted Belgian director Ivo van Hove, who is no stranger to Arthur Miller's oeuvre having previously brought to the New York stage from London his Young Vic's production of A View from the Bridge. Once again, the director has removed the work from its historical setting and placed it, not just in the 1950s, but in seemingly modern times in a school room setting.  A chilling reminder that education can also become a breeding ground for intolerance. In this current election year, where presidential candidates are spewing anti-Islamic hatred, the cauldron is boiling once again, and Mr. Miller's play is more relevant than ever.

At first, you might think that Ben Whishaw is not your typical John Proctor (played in the original production by Arthur Kennedy), but his powerhouse performance assures us that the role is definitely his. He has a match in the incredible Sophie Okonedo, whose Elizabeth is a study of unrestrained emotions. The other two names above the title are Saoirse Ronan as Abigail (last seen on the big screen in the film Brooklyn) and Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (Governor Danforth), who was King Claudius in Benedict Cumberbatch's recent production of Hamlet. Is easy to criticize Mr. Hinds's performance as being stodgy, a bit stagy, even two-dimensional, but he leaves a lasting impression on the viewer getting the most he can out of the part. Ms. Ronan, with her pale face and those marvelous eyes in a fixed stare, is a powerhouse on stage. A star performer who nevertheless knows how to integrate herself to this ensemble cast.

The rest of the cast is particular strong, filled with many notable character actors. Chief among them is Irishman Jim Norton, whose Giles Corey is one of the most memorable creations in the ensemble. This is the fifth time that Mr. Norton and Mr. Hinds have been in a play together (they both appeared at the National Theatre with Mr. Cumberbatch in Hamlet), and it is great to have such talent available on both sides of the Atlantic.

Driving the drama forward is Philip Glass's minimalist, almost subliminal score, written especially for this production. Mr. Glass once again proves that less is more, and his music expertly accentuates the on-stage drama.

In such an avant-garde production it is somewhat comforting to find the proverbial kitchen sink upstage (is this a joke?), as well as a surprising cameo from an "actor" who I'm sure has a stage name, but whose real identity is Canis lupus. His appearance will startle and chill you to the bone. I was happy to see that a current production of a play still utilizes a curtain, but even that traditional standby of the theater in Mr. van Hove's hands is used in a very special way. The final curtain call is handled in a manner that speaks volumes about how the events in the play do not just cease, they go on. The director has crafted a Crucible for our time, and the play itself continues to serve as a warning of what can happen when intolerance gets the best of us. This production aims to show us where America might be heading once again.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Wagner's Tristan und Isolde will open the 2016-2017 MET Season

The Metropolitan Opera will open next year's 2016-2017 season, celebrating the company’s fiftieth anniversary at Lincoln Center, with a new production of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and will go on to present the premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s 2000 opera L’Amour de Loin, as well as new stagings of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Gounod's Roméo et JulietteDvořák’s Rusalka and Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier

The season will open on September 26, 2016 with a production of Tristan und Isolde conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and directed by Mariusz Treliński.  Soprano Nina Stemme, who in a few weeks will sing the title role in the new Patrice Chéreau production of Elektra, will join Stuart Skelton as Tristan; Ekaterina Gubanova as Brangäne, and René Pape will sing the role of King Marke.

Here is Mariusz Treliński on his new production of Tristan und Isolde.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Antonin Scalia dies while a child murderer is on the prowl!

I learned of the death of Antonin Scalia while sitting in theater 2 at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) waiting for a showing of the film El Vampiro Negro (The Black Vampire) to begin. The 1953 Argentinian film, recently restored by UCLA, was inspired by Fritz Lang's seminal film M, the story of a deranged serial killer on the prowl, murdering the hope of the future: the children of a claustrophobic, Expressionistic metropolis. The South American film, directed by Román Viñoly Barreto, and starring a very creepy Nathán Pinzón, forgoes Lang's often detached approach and gets down to a very typical, and very melodramatic take on the tale of the Vampire of Dusseldorf. It is a gritty film, complete with wondrous film noir cinematography by Aníbal González Paz, which takes us from dirty sewers (perhaps a homage to Carol Reed's The Third Man) to seedy nightclubs to the stately steps of a criminal courthouse and right inside an ornate court room where this child murderer is being tried by a group of judges. I could not stop thinking of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Nathán Pinzón is no Peter Lorre, the star of Lang's film, but he is excellent at portraying a deranged mind, perhaps once brilliant, but now unable to control himself. Director Viñoly Barreto and screenwriter Alberto Etchebehere supply the character with a fully-rounded back story worthy of the German film. Teodoro Ulber, is just as deranged as Hans Beckert but he can also be as gentle as a lamb; in particular when he is teaching English in front of his students who call him "El Profesor." He is quite fond of classical music as well. His whistling of Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" however is melodic, on-pitch, and lacking the breathy off-key obstinacy heard in the German film (Lang himself whistled the famous tune when he found out that Lorre did not know how to put his lips together and blow). Ulber's take on Grieg's tune even has a melodious tango lilt. What is remarkable about the Argentinian film is that it adds up to be a portrait of an exceptional mind gone terribly wrong.
Justice Antonin Scalia was valedictorian at Xavier High School, graduated first in his class at Georgetown University, and was magna cum laude at The Harvard Law School. Although educated by the Jesuits, in a recent 60 minutes interview on CBS he denied that his logical mind was molded and shaped by the religious order which provided his high school and college education. His association with his high school Alma Mater, a military academy when he graduated in 1953, was severely affected when, during the height of the Vietnam War, the school decided to make the once mandatory JROTC military program optional. Thereafter, he often refused to attend alumni gatherings, although the school honored him by naming him to its Hall of Fame. In 2011 a group of JROTC students at Xavier invited him back to his school, and he accepted the invitation, speaking at a JROTC award ceremony. He was clearly unhappy that his old school had abandoned the military program, but he chose to remain faithful to those students that had chosen to be part of the program with which he had been involved during his four years at the school.

When I left the screening of El Vampiro Negro and ventured out into a New York night pounded with below zero wind chills, I thought of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had lost her major adversary on the bench, but also her best friend and classical music buddy: they often attended operas and concerts together after the day was done, and they had hung up their justice robes. How many times did they listen to "In the Hall of the Mountain King" together, I wondered? And then, as my face was slowly getting numbed  by the cold weather, my mind slowly turned to Henri Becque's almost forgotten 1882 realist play The Vultures (Les Corbeaux), where the family of a deceased man hover around his decaying body in a bitter struggle for his inheritance. At that point, I knew the winter months would last for a long, long time.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

South Pole - At the Bavarian State Opera

Tonight was the premiere of South Pole at the Bayerische Staatsoper. This new opera is by composer Miroslav Srnka with a libretto by playwright Tim Holloway. The work recounts British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian adventurer Roald Amundsen’s parallel quests to become the first to reach the South Pole. Rolando Villazón stars as the ill-fated Scott opposite Thomas Hampson as Amundsen. Hans Neuenfels, who directed the controversial Lohengrin (rats!) at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus  directs this production, which is conducted by Kirill Petrenko and also stars Tara Erraught and Mojca Erdmann. The premiere was broadcast live on the ARTE network. The production runs at the Bavarian State Opera through February 11. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Welcome Jaap van Zweden

 Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden has been named the new music director of the New York Philharmonic. He will start his full-time tenure in New York City during the 2018-2019 season.

Check out this video of Jaap van Zweden in action as he leads Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

The Hateful Eight: 70mm Roadshow Edition

According to the program of the roadshow edition of Quentin Tarantino's latest film, The Hateful Eight, the last time a film was shot in Ultra Panavision 70mm was in 1966 ... Wait a minute... Program? Panavision? What the hell is a Roadshow? That's right! Tarantino has ensnared us in a "Back to the Future" situation using his considerable Hollywood clout to present his latest film in the same format that he loved as a kid when he was discovering the great epics of the 1960s. Over 90 cinemas in the US, able to project 70mm, will treat audiences to a nostalgic throwback. There will even be a free program that goes along with the presentation (and modern sticker shock at the $22 ticket price to remind us that in 2016 we have to pay extra to run actual film in a movie house). Still, It might be years before a major release in the US will be projected in any kind of film format again.

This is Tarantino's second attempt at a western.  His previous film, Django Unchained riffed on one of the lesser-known works of the "spaghetti western" canon, but he derailed his own tribute by fusing the western story to a racial (and some will argue racist) homage to an even lesser-known film: 1975's Mandingo -- a blaxploitation movie that should have remained forgotten, except for its brilliant tagline which I remember from my own youth: "He's more than man, he is mandingo."

With The Hateful Eight, Tarantino returns to a West devoid of the legacy of John Ford, Howard Hawks or Anthony Mann. He's back inside the spaghetti western, but this time he goes straight to the main source, the director that best exemplifies all things spaghetti: Sergio Leone. His The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West revealed an elliptical, operatic Old West that forever changed the look, feel, and sounds of the genre. Tarantino has even used Leone's favorite composer, Ennio Morricone to score this film. And of course, he's used the widescreen and the length of the film (the roadshow version clocks in at 187 minutes) to resurrect the spirit of the Italian westerns of the maestro. But at the same time, Tarantino has admitted that the true inspiration for the film lies in the many westerns that played on TV during the 1960s.

Ironically, even though 70mm lends itself so well to outdoor vistas, 80% of the film is confined to Minnie's Haberdashery, a rugged, frontier stagecoach lodge that is a stopover before reaching the town of Red Rock. Cinematographer Robert Richardson does wonderful work whenever he has the opportunity to use antique Panavision lenses in order to capture fleeting but beautiful panoramic shots in wonderful snowstorms. But the heart of the film takes place indoors in a claustrophobic setting that thanks to the 2.76:1 aspect ratio never manages to feel claustrophobic.

It's the performances, driven by Tarantino's customary strong script, that drive this violent tale, and there are so many excellent stand-outs in this film. Samuel L. Jackson offers his customary Tarantino performance, which is to say that he nearly steals the show. Kurt Russell (it's nice to see him back on the screen) is no slouch either, at times reading his lines with a John Wayne cadence to his voice. And Jennifer Jason Leigh is a trooper, starting the movie with a black eye, and ending it with a face full with so much blood and gore that she reminded me of Linda Blair in the last reels of The Exorcist.  Other great performers in the cast include Demián Bichir as a laconic Mexican, Tim Roth as a derby-wearing Englishman, and Bruce Dern as a grizzled confederate general. Quentin Tarantino wisely stays put behind the camera, but offers his talents as a cynical narrator.

It's a western, it's a homage to a forgotten genre, it's an attempt to revive careers, it's even an Agatha Christie mystery. But truth be told, it is a Quentin Tarantino film, and that's all you need to know. Attending the roadshow version will allow you to see more of the film, and to enjoy it (if that's the right word) in a format that, like the western itself, is destined to become a dinosaur.