Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Top Ten Best Films of 2017

I didn't see them all.  I even missed some of the best, but out of the ones I got a chance to see, these are the top ten best films of the year, in no particular order.

1, Get Out

2. The Florida Project

3. Lady Bird

4. Call Me by your Name

5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

6. The Shape of Water

7. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

8. mother!

9. Coco

10. Blade Runner 2049

Farinelli and the King on Broadway

All hail Mark Rylance!  Four years after his star turn in repertory performances of Olivia in Twelfth Night and the title character in Richard III, he is back at the Belasco theatre in Farinelli and the King, a new play written by his wife, Claire Van Kampen, which first played to critical and audience praises in London at the Globe theatre.

Mr. Rylance plays Philippe V, an 18th century Spanish monarch who has descended into madness. Farinelli is, of course, he famed singer who was castrated at the age of ten becoming the leading "primo uomo" of 18th century operatic London.  Once he became the king's favorite, however, he never returned to Covent Garden, or any other operatic stage, much to the chagrin of his manager and audiences of the time.  The play explores the relationship between the king and his castrato, delving into issues of favoritism and politics, as well as themes of madness, and the way that music can result to be the magic antidote that cures the ills of a politically damaged world.
Every time that Mr. Rylance has stepped on a Broadway stage he has received critical and audience acclaim which has led to multiple Tony award wins.  Here he is poised to repeat this feat.  His performance is deep, multifaceted, hilarious and heartbreaking at times.  You simply cannot take his eyes off him!  And even though there is a familiarity in his voice from performances past, his skill at shaping a character with a simplicity of movement and a turn of the phrase catapults him into one of the greats of our time.

Surrounding him are great actors giving memorable performances.  Melody Grove, as his wife Isabella, and Sam Crane as Farinelli are simply marvelous.  Edward Peel is also quite memorable as Don Sebastian de la Cuadra, the King's chief minister.

One of the chief pleasures of attending this play is the clever set design by Jonathan Fensom, who has transformed the Belasco into a courtly theater with onstage seating for the audience.  This together with Paul Russell's lighting design, which include real candles, makes a welcoming, warm setting.

Throughout the play, and even before the non-curtain goes up, live music by baroque instruments lead us into the world of the baroque.  When Farinelli is asked to sing, Mr. Crane steps aside, and a countertenor steps into the role to deliver some of the great Georg Frideric Handel arias.  During the matinee performance yesterday afternoon, countertenor James Hall filled the Belasco theater with his unique voice.

Once again, New York is lucky to be hosting one of the great actors of our time, in a very interesting, charming play.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

A new TOSCA at the MET: who's in, who's out?

In about 24 hours the Metropolitan Opera will unveil the new production of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, a new staging New York opera fans have been waiting for years.  There was a time in the MET's history when Tosca was a perennial work in its repertory.  That all changed when General Manager Peter Gelb decided to scrap the sumptuous 1985  Franco Zeffirelli production, much beloved by the New York public, and replace it with a new setting by Luc Bondy.  This new staging, which many found outrageous, was furiously booed at the 2009 opening night.  I was there, and I had never heard such a fierce reaction from a New York audience.  Clearly, New York wanted the old Zeffirelli production back!  Since that was not going to happen, Gelb announced, a few years later,  that a new production by David McVicar would replace the Bondy fiasco.  He also promised that the new production would bring back the glory of the Zeffirelli production.  In a recent interview Mr. Gelb added “I have learned my lesson from the Bondy production.  When it comes to a classic piece of repertoire, beauty counts — and that’s what the audience wants.”
 The 1985 Franco Zeffirelli production
The 2009 re-staging by Luc Bondy

And that's when the troubles began...

Originally, the cast for this new production included Jonas Kaufmann, arguably the most sought-after tenor in the opera world today.  Mr. Kaufmann, who is known for often cancelling, did so early on, citing that he did not want to be away from his family during the holidays.  Soprano Kristine Opolais bowed out in the summer, and so did her husband Andris Nelsons, who was to conduct the piece.  Metropolitan Opera Conductor Emeritus James Levine took over, but he was recently dropped by the MET when allegations of sexual abuse shook the company.  Superstar baritone Bryn Terfel, the last of the original slated singers, dropped out this month citing vocal problems.  In the history of the Metropolitan Opera there has never been a messier production.  

Currently, conductor Emmanuel Villaume, from the Dallas Opera Company, will lead a cast led by soprano Sonya Yoncheva, tenor Vittorio Grigolo, and baritone Željko Lučić when the production premieres tomorrow, at a New Year's Eve gala.  Amazingly, the MET has been able to put together a world-class cast, even though the current cast is a mere ghost of the original plans.  Perhaps the production will re-gain true star status in April when Anna Netrebko joins the cast.  Unless she cancels, and then the mess will continue all over again.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Stars Wars: The Last Jedi

It took me a few days to get to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest installment of a cinematic saga that despite its endmost title, is proving to be immortal.  My plan was for the testosterone-fueled fan-boys to have first dibs at it.  In other words, I wanted to attend a showing that was, at least, half crowded.  But nothing doing, today, on a wintry day when the thermometer struggled to reach 25 degrees F. people came out to see Rian Johnson's rewiring of the franchise's mythological elements.  My afternoon showing came close to selling out, thus my plan of watching the film in a solitary screening room did not turn out the way I planned it.  Then again, neither did Luke Skywalker's plan of ending his days alone on a rock in the middle of an ocean work out the way he envisioned it.  I felt I was in good company.

It's almost incredible to realize that Star Wars started back in the second half of the 1970's, a post-Vietnam decade filled with new hope, and fueled by the Bicentennial craze.  The past was very much alive in America in those days, so the prelude moniker of "a long time ago..." that so far has begun every installment of the franchise seemed more than apt in the summer of 1977.  The country was ready to dream again and believe in something, even if the subject of its reverie was a space opera, adapted from Japanese films and World War II combat serials, and filled with mumbo-jumbo dialogue, populated by a bevy of new up-and-coming performers sharing the screen with British character actors royalty.
Star Wars acquired a new lease in life after 2015's The Force Awakens, the first film in the franchise where George Lucas was not directly involved. The Walt Disney Company bought Lucasfilm in 2012, and it was up to producer director J.J. Abrams to revive the story, using some of the characters originally created by Mr. Lucas, while shaping an original story line with a new cast of young performers playing the next generation of heroes and villains.  Thus Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) found themselves surrounded by fighter pilot Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), reformed stormtrooper John Boyega (Finn), and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) and Daisy Ridley (Rey) who, as the new principal villain and hero, are shaped by their knowledge of the Force.

Mr. Driver's Kylo Ren started as a mask-wearing second generation Darth Vader, but soon enough director Abrams realize that keeping Mr. Driver's unusual angular features right out of a Modigliani painting, hidden was a mistake.  In this new film he destroys his mask exposing the scar on his face that marks him with a Biblical sign of patricide.  Thus far, Kylo Ren is the saga's most charismatic villain.
To compliment him Ms. Ridley's Rey is the driving force behind the new film.  She sets out to the desolate planet Ahch-To, a mountainous rock in the middle of an ocean, where Luke Skywalker has retired, living a solitary monastic existence, waiting for the endgame, thus assuring that the Jedi cult dies with him.  Her quest is to convince Luke to return to Leia, his twin sister, and join once again the good rebel fight.  Along the way, Rey learns that the Force is indeed strong with her, and she asks Luke to become her Jedi mentor.

What I just described is the bare bones of the new film's arc. At a running time of 152 minutes (the franchise's longest film to date) writer director Johnson weaves a number of subplots and characters, some of whom are only seen momentarily (such as an interplanetary codebreaker named DJ played memorably by Benicio del Toro with a sly wink), but who are key to the film's plot, and who might take on greater importance in the upcoming films.

On a deeper level, the film is about the often troubled relationships between master and pupil, associations that run very deep in this mythic story, and which serve as character connections, some going as far back to the original established master/pupil attachment  between Luke and legendary Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness).
Visually, The Last Jedi works best when it returns to the original Lucas sources of inspiration, especially the "Jidaigeki" period dramas of director Akira Kurosawa.  For instance, the stylized throne room lair of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) seems to come right out of the super saturated red set of Kurosawa's Kagemusha: the Shadow Warrior, a samurai epic that was partly financed by George Lucas.  Also, Kurosawa's re-telling of Shakespeare's King Lear, Ran, his last samurai film, looms large in the referential color palette that inspires this film.

The Last Jedi is not to be missed.  An excellent addition to cinema's most lucrative franchise.  Who knows where we'll go from here, but the important thing for the filmmakers to remember is to stay true to the original concept that George Lucas set down decades ago.  As long as future filmmakers do this, we will have plenty of Star Wars fun to last us for a very long time.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

La Bohème: Paris, We Have a Problem

The new production of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème at the Opéra National de Paris takes place one hundred years from now, in a spaceship, and on the surface of the moon.  Claus Guth's take on this beloved classic stems from the work's libretto itself.  Colline, the bohemian philosopher mentions the Apocalypse, and I'm sure this set the German director's mind into imagining the opera as being set during a doomed space voyage, where the majority of the action is a remembrance of things past.

If you are going to set La Bohème in space, then this is the only way to proceed given the fact that Puccini's story does not really lend itself for abstraction easily.  So, four astronauts are running out of air on a doomed spaceship, how do you explain the landlord Benoit's visit asking for their rent?  That's easy, Benoit is a member of the crew who has already died.  One of the bohemians, er...astronauts play with his limp body like a marionette, as if he were alive, and they sing his lines.  What about Mimì?  Where does she come from?  She is in the mind of Rodolfo.  She appears in a beautiful red dress, revealing that Rodolfo must be in dire need of feminine companionship after being cooped up in space.   All this, plus a few stolen ideas from Stanley Kubrick (2001, A Space Odyssey), Andrei Tarkovski (Solaris), and even a mime who looks as if he just stepped out of Federico Fellini's fills out the evening.

What a mess!  At Bayreuth, at least they wait until the end of the act to boo, but at the Opéra a storm of loud ferocious catcalls greeted Act III, where instead of the familiar Parisian Gate of Hell, we found ourselves in the middle of the lunar surface.  

I'll say this in defense of Herr Guth's vision: it looks really beautiful!  The spaceship set has all the melancholy of 2001's Jupiter Mission sequence, but unfortunately there's no HAL to make things more interesting.  

Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel led a beautiful reading of the score, never overwhelming his talented singers.  Led by the Rodolfo of Atalla Ayan, and the Mimì of Nicole Car, the cast seemed surprisingly comfortable with the staging.

Maybe some operas should never be updated.  And if they are, there's has to be a better idea than this half-baked disaster. 

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Maestro James Levine accused of sexual molestation

James Levine, Conductor Emeritus of the Metropolitan Opera is heading for trouble.  The opera company announced that it would look into claims that Levine molested a boy in the 1980s, starting when the child was 15.

Many Metropolitan Opera insiders have said that Levine's alleged behavior was an open secret for years, some dating as far back as 40 years ago.  In the book "Molto Agitato," author Johanna Fiedler detailed some of the salacious rumors surrounding the maestro.  In her book she writes: “One rumor, however, was particularly persistent. Levine, it was said, had had a relationship with a boy whose parents had gone to the Met board, threatening to expose the situation. Supposedly the board then authorized a major payoff to the family,”

The MET's General Manager Peter Gelb said that “we are deeply disturbed by the news articles that are being published online today about James Levine. We are working on an investigation with outside resources to determine whether charges of sexual misconduct in the 1980s are true, so that we can take appropriate action.”

Friday, December 01, 2017

Et, tu Leporello

These days we are not in the habit of editing operas. Go to any performance of Richard  Wagner's works and more than likely you will hear every note he wrote in that score. Not like in the 1940’s when the Metropolitan Opera presented edited versions of not just the Master of Bayreuth's works, but also many others. The few Bel Canto operas that were active in the repertory back then went on the stage heavily edited, with missing cabalettas and shorten scene endings (a practice still happening these days, I'm afraid).  When was the last time you heard all of the music of the end of a Vincenzo Bellini "scena" with all the notes intact, as written by the composer?  These so-called standard cuts are everywhere, but thankfully we are pretty much past the point when an entire aria would be replaced by another, serving the wishes of the singer, as when Wagner wrote an aria for a French bass, replacing the one Bellini wrote in Norma.

An accomplished opera company these days pretty much follows the dictum made famous by autocratic conductor Arturo Toscanini: “as written!” He would demand of his orchestra and singers. And his penchant for adhering to the letter of the score, especially when it came to such composers as Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini (both of whom he knew personally, and conducted premieres of their work) led the way to today’s practice to faithfulness to a composer’s work.

Now that the media has transformed sexual harassment into the number one flavor-of-the-month crime, will the lyric stage re-start its old practice of purging librettos, especially those that involve ideas celebrating male potency and female subservience? The opera world is filled with moments like these, some possessing the world’s best known music.

Take, for example, Leporello’s catalogue aria in Act I of W.A. Mozart’s amazing Don Giovanni. A masterpiece-of-a-song where the Don’s servant recounts to a young female victim the many amorous conquests brought about by his master’s lust. Numbering over 2000 and counting, the aria tells of an insatiable sexual appetite by a callous aristocrat. The young listener, Donna Elvira, is shocked by the sheer number of women who, like herself, have fallen, tricked by a sexual predator. The aria reveals that she is just another number in the Don’s catalogue.  The sheer joy of Mozart’s music, however, masks a darker, more sinister message. Leporello clearly longs to be like his master, to go through women in a shameless display of male potency, and to catalogue his escapades in a book, just like he is forced to record his master’s debaucheries.  

How does an opera director, or for that matter, how does a singer approach such an aria in these times when powerful men are going down for the same crimes about which this character is joyously singing?  Is the answer to cut out one of the great arias because it exults reprehensible actions?  Certainly not.  Mozart’s work is essentially a comedy, albeit a dark one, a "dramma giocoso" as librettist Lorenzo da Ponte called it.  Should serious events be dealt with in a comic manner?  Of course!  Mozart did it all the time, and mostly with a great deal of success.  In modern times, film director Stanley Kubrick pondered the possibility of nuclear holocaust, the greatest threat ever to face mankind, with the farcical, hilarious comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

In Don Giovanni, the Don is clearly portrayed as a villain. He has always been a villain from his first appearance in Spanish literature in Tirso de Molina's play "El burlador de Sevilla."  His actions are punished at the end of Mozart's opera when he is dragged down to Hell by the statue of Donna Anna's father, one of his conquests. The epilogue that follows the Don's doom assures us all sinners like him will get their comeuppance. We can look back and say that his servant is just mixed up about things, clearly praising wrong choices when he lauds his master’s conquests. 

Obviously, let’s not throw out one of Mozart’s musical jewels.  Come on, would anybody in his right mind throw out one of opera's greatest songs?  One might as well not perform the opera at all!  Instead, let’s be more attentive than ever to the awful, and not funny, story that it tells. Despite its jaunty, happy music, let’s think of it as a homage to hundreds in Germany, Italy, Turkey, and, of course 1,003 victims in Spain.  Perhaps we will hear the aria in a new light from now on.  Perhaps the way that Mozart’s and da Ponte actually wanted us to hear it.