Sunday, December 30, 2018


The new production of Verdi's La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera tries really hard to please New York's Old Guard: the ones who missed Franco Zeffirelli's production when it was replaced by Willy Decker's bare-bones, surrealistic and symbolic rethinking of the work. Currently on display at the MET we have Michael Mayer's new look at the composer's 1853 masterpiece, featuring a solid, but gaudy fin-de-siècle unit set by Christine Jones, costumes by Susan Hilferty and lighting by Kevin Adams. The days when different acts and locales demanded different sets are over. Ms. Jones provides us with a unit set which with the help of Mr. Adam's Bollywood style lighting creates Violetta's salon, her country house and Flora's ball. If you are a newcomer to opera, study your libretto before you go, and you'll know where you are.

The MET has put together what it thinks is an ideal cast for this production, featuring the coloratura of Diana Damrau, who seems to have a hold on Verdi's middle period heroines at the house. Her Alfredo is Juan Diego Flórez who serves the production admirably with his young looks and handsome dashing acting, even if vocally he is hopelessly miscast: a Rossini specialist pushed into a Verdi opera. The results are a small voice competing with the big-boys. It throws off kilter the vocal balance. Add to that the Giorgio Germont of Quinn Kelsey, a cavernous baritone with a loud, and at times unfocused tone, and you have a Traviata that has clearly been cast on looks, with a sharp eye on the HD screen, rather than vocal integrity.
The surprise of the evening was Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his admirable handling of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra.  While this score is often handed to pedestrian conductors who do little else than beat metronome-like phrases, or to a tenor currently moonlighting as a baritone/conductor, Mr. Nézet-Séguin proved why he has been chosen to be the MET's new Music Director. In his able hands the score came to life, as he brought out the inner voices of the orchestration, and found beautiful phrasing in places often glossed over by others. As expected, the orchestra responded to his direction without fault. And even if at times the pacing seemed slow, and the dynamic level reached Wagnerian proportions, it's been a long time since this score has been heard with such detail.

Reason enough to go to this production and hear this often-played work as if it was the first time.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Wildlife: Fire and Water

Primal elements, fire and water, are the catalysts that erupt into primal desires in Wildlife, Paul Dano's brilliant directorial debut adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jerry, a golf pro who gets fired as a result of getting too chummy with the club’s members. It seems that Jerry has trouble keeping down a job, and as a result he’s had to move his family around much too often. His wife Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) and their fourteen year old son Joe (newcomer Ed Oxenbould) have come to accept the necessity to be uprooted multiple times. However, when the club calls Jerry to offer him his old job back he refuses their offer, and instead leaves the family to take a low paying job fighting forest fires. His departure sends the family into a downward spiral that emotionally tears them apart. Jeanette and Joe are forced to get jobs to make ends meet. Joe becomes a photographer's assistant, and Jeannette takes a job as a swimming instructor. Soon enough she begins a relation with Warren Miller (Bill Camp) one of her students, a wealthy war veteran. Joe gets dragged into the affair, his mother allowing him to witness the kind of marital infidelity no young person should be allowed to see. When Jake comes back from fighting fires things get even worse.

Carey Mulligan is destined for glory at awards time. With her perfect American accent, her nuanced, meticulous Jeannette contains many layers. Somehow she is able to reveal all of them, and this is the brilliant aspect of her performance. Likewise, Jake Gyllenhaal is perfect as the wide-eyed dreamer, always searching for the best for his family, although most of the time he fails to recognize the many personal flaws that keep him from getting ahead. Their marital problems, already there before the narrative begins, take on classic routes. The man leaves the nest in order to prove to his family and to himself that he can do it, while the wife seeks comfort in another man she does not love just to prove to herself that she remains a desirable person with urges that must be satisfied.
Ed Oxenbould as Joe is a revelation. An Australian teenage actor with a unique young face that already shows signs of maturity beyond his years, and a pair of baby-blue eyes a la Paul Newman to die for. You won't be able to take your own eyes off him! Mr. Oxenbould joins Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges in that prestigious group of young actors with recent, memorable performances that signal a new generation with a bright future.

Wildlife is one of the finest films of the year. Great performances, outstanding actor-driven direction, and a haunting story about three real people. A film not be missed.