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.