Saturday, September 30, 2017

NY FILM FESTIVAL: The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House might just be James Whale's masterpiece.  Eighty-five years after its original release the film continues to delight with its unique brand of chills mixed with a dry sense of loopy humor.  Only James Whale was able to combine the macabre with the humorously absurd.  Based on a work by J.B. Priestley, the story of travelers stranded in a remote mansion belonging to a deranged family has been imitated over and over again. But rarely have the results been as satisfyingly successful as in this pre-code film.  And to think that the movie was lost after Universal lost its rights to it.  We owe its existence to director Curtis Harrington who dug up the film in the 1960s.

Now, the Cohen Group has achieved a magnificent 4K restoration, and a screening of their work was shown this afternoon at the New York Film Festival. The results are magnificent.  It's as if the film had been liberated from the cocoon where it lay dormant for years, and was allowed to breathe and show all of its details.  And what a treasure of details it has!  The tie clip on Horace Femm's tie (Ernest Thesiger) and the cameo worn by Eva Moore, who portrays the batty Rebecca Femm, are just two of the visuals now easily seen.  The make-up on Boris Karloff, created by the great Jack Pierce, is now more frightening than ever.  It's not just an out of focus blur as in the past: it's now sharp, and with beautiful contrast and low grain.  I don't think one can ask for more.

Take a look at the new 4K trailer below, and it will give you an idea of the work that was put into this film.  The blu-ray disc will be available October 24.  You can pre-order it by clicking HERE.

NY FILM FESTIVAL: The Old Dark House -- a preview

The New York Film Festival opened on Thursday (likely as a result of Yom Kippur) instead of the usual Friday night with Richard Linklater's film Last Flag Flying, a road film about three aging Vietnam veterans reuniting to bury the only child of one of them who died in the early days of the Iraq invasion.

This afternoon I will be attending a screening of The Old Dark House, the 1932 gothic comic Universal film, directed by James Whale and starring Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton, and Boris Karloff in his first credited role.  His name was left out of the credits in the earlier Frankenstein.)

At the Lyon Lumière Film Festival it was announced by Cohen Media Group Vice President Tim Lanza that along with Universal they were working on a restoration of this film.  This is what will be shown this afternoon at Lincoln Center. The blue-ray will be released on October 24th right on time for Halloween.

Back in October, 2016 Variety reported that The Old Dark House was considered lost until director Curtis Harrington discovered material in the late 60s.  The Cohen Media Group will be using material stored in the Library of Congress.  It will be a 4K restoration.  I will be publishing a review of the screening tomorrow.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Playwright Albert Innaurato, dead at 70

Ask anyone who grew up in the late 1970s about the play Gemini, or its author Albert Innaurato, and they might not remember anything about them, but mention the TV commercial of the Broadway run of the play and the line "I'll just pick!" and instant smiles of recognition will certainly follow.  Of course, for Broadway lovers who came of age during the 1970's (I graduated from high school in 1977) Gemini was an important production.  Lured by the commercial, me and a few friends ventured into the city from Queens, and not only saw the play, with its original cast, but waited around afterwards to meet the cast and get their autograph.  I still have the original Playbill from this show, its cover signed by everyone in the cast.

Albert Innaurato died in New York City at the age of 70.  He was never able to repeat the incredible success of Gemini, a show that ran for four years.  A great opera lover, in his later years he turned to the Internet providing opera reviews for the website Parterre Box as well as magazine reviews and articles for Opera News, the official publication of the Metropolitan Opera.

Gemini was a landmark play from the pre-AIDS era.  It celebrates the sexual awakening of an opera-loving, Maria Callas-worshiping Italian young man in blue-collar Philadelphia.  Essentially, an autobiographical slice of life of Innaurato's own life.

The original Broadway cast featured Danny Aiello, Jessica James, and Jonathan Hadary.  Understudying the role of Francis Geminiani, played by Robert Picardo, was Jeff Daniels.

The lights will dim on Broadway's theaters to honor the passing of a singularly talented voice in the American Theater.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Bellini's NORMA opens MET Season

Norma, Vincenzo Bellini’s great bel canto opera has opened the Metropolitan Opera season only three times. I was there at the 1981 opening night, a battlefield of an evening featuring soprano Renata Scotto fighting a claque hell-bent on ruining the night for the popular soprano, supposedly because she made random comments comparing herself to Maria Callas, one of the great interpreters of this role.  The Callas army would not take Scotto's so-called insult sitting down. When the soprano made her entrance the boos and catcalls poured down, protesters were ejected from the auditorium, and the gorgeous aria "Casta Diva," and pretty much the rest of the evening was ruined.

This time, to interpret the role of the Druid priestess, the MET chose Sondra Radvanovsky, a singer who specializes in the bel canto repertory, (in 2016 she sang the three Donizetti queens Triathlon at the MET), and who has the kind of voice that at times reminds you of Callas.  The voice is not pretty, but it is agile, flexible, and can ably handle the coloratura that makes this role according to Wagnerian specialist Lilli Lehmann, who first sang Norma at the MET in 1890 (in German!), even more difficult than the three Brünnhilde roles in Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung,

The role of Adalgisa, Norma's confidant and rival, went to Joyce DiDonato, another bel canto specialist whose warm, clean tones contrasted beautifully with Radvanovsky's somewhat blurry sounds.

Ms. Radvanovsky started poorly.  Her "Casta Diva" was filled with audible gear changes, and some flat notes that did not impress.  However, she grew more and more assured in her interpretation, eventually rising to the level we all expected of her.  Conductor Carlo Rizzi led a beautiful reading of the score with intelligent tempi and clean sound, oftentimes coming to the rescue of the singers: exactly what a good conductor should do. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra has rarely sounded this good in this type of repertory.  At times, Mr. Rizzi had to bring up the dynamics of the orchestra to compete with the MET chorus which sounded way too robust too many times.

Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja sounded nervous in his opening aria, going flat on his top notes.  By the time Act II hit, his voice had turned nasal.  Bass Matthew Rose's dark tone was ample and assured.

The new production by Sir David McVicar was a conservative gift to New York opera lovers who prefer their new productions meat-and-potatoes.  The huge MET set elevator was used to portray the two scenes where the opera takes place.  A clearing in the forest, featuring a scary looking tree reminiscent of the one in Guillermo Del Toro's great film Pan's Labyrinth, and Norma's hut, which looked as huge as the Pantheon in Rome, and shared with that Roman landmark a hole in its roof.

This production will run for about three months, with a change of cast in December.  By all means, if you like this opera do not miss it.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Judith Cabaud at Barnes & Noble

Author Judith Cabaud will be at Barnes & Noble (33 East 17th Street, New York City) to sign her new book Mathilde Wesendonck, Isolde's Dream.  Here is a blurb about the book from the B&N website:

"Truly great compositions spring, like Athena from Zeus' skull, at the juncture of genius and passion. In Mathilde Wesendonck: Isolde's Dream, author Judith Cabaud calls on a host of heretofore undiscovered resources to tell the story of Mathilde Wesendonck, muse and paramour to Richard Wagner and, later, Johannes Brahms. Alma Mahler, eat your heart out. In or about August 1857, Richard Wagner's character changed. He abandoned Der Ring des Nibelungen, the Gesamtkunstwerk he'd begun work on nearly a decade earlier, tore through a short set of songs now known as the "Wesendonck Lieder," and dove headlong into Tristan und Isolde, "eine Handlung" whose seminal influence would ricochet down the ensuing century of Western romantic music. Why the dramatic shift? Wagner had been struck by lightning twice. The first bolt was sighted across Europe; his name was Arthur Schopenhauer. The second was restricted to a insular social world centered at the estate of Otto Wesendonck, one of Wagner's patrons. Her name was Mathilde Wesendonck, and this is her story."

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Wieland Wagner

Whether or not you read German, the book to get this year if you are a fan of the works of Richard Wagner is Wieland Wagner, Revolutionär und Visionär des Musiktheaters by Till Haberfeld and Oswald Georg Bauer, a beautiful coffee-table volume published by Deutscher Kunstverlag on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner's grandson.

Wieland Wagner, a trained artist, the son of Siegfried Wagner, the composer's only son, was the person on whose shoulders fell the responsibility for the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951 after Germany's defeat in World War II.  His mother Winifred, who ran the festival from 1930, became a staunch supporter of Adolf Hitler, and she was forbidden to run the festival after the war.  It was up to her children, Wieland and his brother Wolfgang, to get the festival up and running again. Wolfgang would attend to the business side of the corporation, while Wieland became its artistic director.  His dark, stark productions brought about a new style to the works of his grandfather.  "Neue Bayreuth," the critics called it.  "Light is for me the new magician," Wieland would say to describe his stagings, and this new light served to rid Wagner's works of the Nazi associations that had accumulated during the years of German National Socialism.

The cover of this book tells it all.  That wonderful photograph of Wolfgang Windgassen and Martha Mödl in the third act of Siegfried from Wieland's rapturous 1956 staging of the Ring of the Nibelung is a portent of what you will find inside the covers of this new publication.  Here are beautiful color and black-and-white photographs of all the productions that Wieland designed at Bayreuth and elsewhere.  It is a treasure trove for all of us who were too young to be part of the Wieland Wagner years, and who only know his work from inferior photographs on the Internet.

To commemorate the anniversary of Wieland's birth, I made a video podcast which you can see by going here.

You can buy this book by going to this link.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Listening to Bellini's NORMA

On Monday night the Metropolitan Opera opens with a new production of Norma, by Vincenzo Bellini.  The new production will be staged by Sir David McVicar, and it will star Sondra Radvanovsky as the Druid high priestess, Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa, and Joseph Calleja as Norma's unfaithful lover Pollione.  The opera will be conducted by Carlo Rizzi.  It promises to be a great opening night for the MET, and the house will no doubt fill with applause and bravos as long as the new sets and costumes by Robert Jones and Moritz Junge appeal to the New York crowd, which we all know is largely a conservative bunch who like their opera stagings meat-and-potatoes. Over the years the New York public have rejected the experimentation that Peter Gelb has brought to New York since he took over as General Director.  Who can forget the booing that occurred during opening night at the unveiling of Luc Bondi's staging of Tosca.

In preparation for Monday evening (I will be there, of course) I have been listening to a few recordings of the opera, and I have taken out my trusty orchestra score, and followed along.  Of course, I already went through the 1953 Maria Callas recording which is a magnificent rendition of the opera.  Callas in her prime, accompanied by tenor Mario Filippeschi, the great Ebe Stignani as a memorable Adalgisa, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, one of the most important Italian basses of the post war years.  The great Tullio Serafin, who basically steered Callas into the bel canto repertory, conducts the orchestra.  The sound is basic 1950's, and though it probably sounds better today than when it was originally issued, the recording quality cannot compare to the great Decca/London vinyls.  Those old London ffrr (full frequency range recording) pressings, many of us collected as LP's, have been beautifully remastered into CDs.  It is incredibly satisfying to hear the Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballé and Samuel Ramey Norma recording from 1987.  The orchestra of the Welsh National Opera was conducted by Richard Bonynge.

Sutherland first sang Norma in Vancouver in 1963, and she recorded the role in 1965 for RCA (now issued by Decca).  Twenty years later she went back to the studio and made this recording.  Obviously, the sound is superior, as it always was for the Sutherland/Bonynge projects.  I love listening to these albums from this era with their deep, ample soundscape. These are the opera recordings I grew up listening to, and back in the 1970's they were the best sounding on the market.  Back then it was RCA versus London, and the latter always won out when it came to audio quality.  For this recording, the drawing card was the participation of Montserrat Caballé, herself a great Norma, and Samuel Ramey who had just graduated from the New York City Opera to the MET.

Richard Wagner loved this opera.  He was a great admirer of Vincenzo Bellini's amazing talent for melodic writing.  He wrote "of all Bellini's creations Norma is that which unites the richest flow of melody with the deepest glow of truth." Wagner even went on to write an insertion aria for a bass of his time during his stay in Paris in September, 1939.  The aria is called "Norma, il predisse, O Druidi."  You can experience it in this video below:

A New Look

And with the new name comes a new look for the old blog.  I hope you like it.  Do let me know.  I don't think I'm going back to the old look, however.  This one has a more modern feel, and it comes complete with several bells and whistles not available in the old traditional themes.  I hope it makes for better reading.

The Vargas Blog

In a total fit of narcissism, I have changed the name of my blog from the "Wagner Blog" to "The Vargas Blog." Why?  Originally, I started this blog as an appendage to, and I soon realized that I was blogging just as much about movies as I was about classical music and the works of Richard Wagner.  I was leaving behind my original website Vincent's CASABLANCA HomePage, a homage to that great Warner Brothers film Casablanca which I thought also deserved a blog of its own.

Rather than start a whole new blog for the Casablanca page, I thought it best to join my one blog to the two websites since my typical blogging topics are usually of interest to those people who would be navigating to these two websites.

The blog that you have read for years will not change much.  I will post to it when I can, and it will continue to adhere to the worlds of cinema and opera with some forays into art and culture.

The URL will continue to be so you will not have to change anything if you are already subscribe to it.   And if you are not, please subscribe.  I'm sure you will enjoy the articles that I post here, and if you are already here, I know that you will enjoy the postings that will pop up here in the future.

Happy reading, and thanks for your support.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Mother! by Darren Aronofsky

Mother! (With an exclamation point, no less!) What can one say about a movie called Mother! that starts off with the word “baby” and goes on a roundabout cyclical arc to eat it’s tail ending with the same word?  The answer is a lot. This will be, without a doubt, the most discussed film of the early fall season. A cryptic allegory where Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him, her husband played by Javier Bardem, live in a huge fixer-upper of a house in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sunlight and trees, and where the word Paradise is used to describe their Adam and Eve existence.

So, God rested on the seventh day, and that’s where Darren Aronofsky took over. As a dress rehearsal for the plagues that he will send down later on in the film, the director, who also wrote the script, sends them their first test in the shape of a dying, chain smoking Ed Harris and his she-devil of a wife Michelle Pfeiffer.  The two of them invade Mother and Him’s domestic dwelling in the same way that unseen creatures begin taking a couple’s house in author Julio Cortázar’s masterful short-story “Casa tomada.” In the Argentinian writer’s fable, the house is overtaken by some kind of grotesque animal (the short story, after all, is part of a collection called Bestiary), a veiled reference to the Fascist government of Juan and Eva Perón. In Aronofsky’s film the domestic assaults take place in order to fulfill the Old Testament narrative the director is adapting. Soon after, Harris and Pfeiffer’s kids arrive already in Cain and Abel mode, and they play their parts as you would expect them to: just like you learned about them in Sunday Bible school.

It's definitely the kind of film that we can't just watch.  It forces us to delve into it because clearly the film hides more meaning that it outwardly explains.  The conversations viewers can have about it are best reserved for comparisons between it and the Good Book. The film is an obvious retelling of selected portions of the Bible, the more dramatic the passages the better.  Beyond this obvious aspect, one can argue that it is also a cautionary tale about celebrity culture. Bardem's character is a poet with some incredibly over-the-top mass appeal.  Hordes of his fans invade their very private home and trash the house.  The fact that a poet in 2017 can have such mass appeal is a tough one to swallow, but this is the conceit that Mr. Aronofsky needs us to accept.

In 2014, Mr. Aronofsky brought us Noah.  Next time he might as well just film the Bible's Apocalypse and be done with it.  No sense hiding it in thinly veiled layers of domesticity gone amuck.