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.