Sunday, March 31, 2019

Die Walküre at the MET

Spring is the traditional time to present the works of Richard Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera. For many years, for instance, the option of Good Friday was to go to St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue to hear its incredible choir, or go uptown to the Met and enjoy the five hours plus of Wagner's Parsifal. This practice is not being honored with such rigidity any more these days, but the opera company is currently presenting its three Ring Cycles this Spring, and I ventured out yesterday morning for a noontime start to a matinee performance of Die Walküre, the second installment of the composer's famed tetralogy. This performance was also telecast to the entire world. It also meant the return of the widely debated and much maligned Robert Lepage production, which consists of a giant machine made up of planks, which move in all sorts of ways as beautiful projections are shined upon it. Its a staging that replaced the beloved 1986 Otto Schenk staging. When the Lepage staging premiered in the 2010-2011 season, it had a tendency to malfunction. I remember quite well opening night when the Rainbow Bridge in the last scene of Das Rheingold failed to work, and the gods had to walk offstage, finding a detour route to Valhalla.

The staging of Die Walküre back in its premiere season was also problematic. Bryn Terfel as Wotan seemed uneasy walking along the steep planks, and Deborah Voigt took a tumble on her "Hojotoho" entrance. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann fared better than his colleagues. In his entire performance as Siegmund he never had to step on the darn thing. The machine was a mess, but when it did work it showed scenes of great beauty and wonderful imagination. The descent to Nibelheim in Rheingold is one of the greatest effects I have seen on any stage.  It outdoes artist M.C. Escher in its preposterous and impossible construction.

The engineers and computer programmers at Ex Machina, Lepage's company responsible for the construction of this gigantic gizmo definitely heard the complaints of opera fans. Yesterday afternoon the production went off without a hitch. The machine is now much quieter than it was back when it made its first appearance. As it moved, I only heard mechanical sounds twice, and they were very subtle. The only alien sound one heard in Act II was that of Wotan's spear rolling down one of the planks, and landing with a thud.

When this production opened it featured the best Wagnerians 2011 could offer. Now in 2019, one can say that the MET has resorted to the road show cast. However, yesterday's performance was as solid and as good as anything that being offered in other major opera houses, including the Bayreuth Festival. Christine Goerke sang a beautiful Brünhilde, a major addition to her repertory. Eva-Marie Westbroek was a fine, powerful Sieglinde, Stuart Skelton proved that he can sing a better Siegmund than his awful Otello earlier on in the season, and Günther Groissböck was marvelous in the short role of Hunding. As Wotan, Greer Grimsley's voice is cavernous and comes from the back of his throat, and tends to stay there. As a result his legato phrasing and diction suffers. However, his last act farewell to his daughter brought a tear to my eye. The two artists sang it and acted it beautifully. Conductor Philippe Jordan led a clean, detailed reading of the score, never overwhelming his singers.

This is a very good performance of this opera, and if you like this work, you'd be crazy to miss it. It is not perfect, but it is excellent.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

US: the new Jordan Peele film

One is not sure what Jordan Peele wants to be: a social critic, or a scare meister? Thus far he has been able to blend the two with genuine success. In his first film, Get Out, a young black man witnesses first hand a monstrous side of bigoted white America. In Us, his second film, he tackles the theme of the doppelgänger in a terrifying story that begins during an equally terrifying time in America: Ronald Reagan's presidency and the "Hands Across America" benefit event. In 1986 young little Adelaide encounters a doppelgänger of herself at a funhouse in Santa Cruz beach. Years later, she's now a married adult, and along with her two children and her husband, she heads to Santa Cruz on vacation, even though the trip is making her apprehensive since she has not forgotten the traumatic event of her childhood that happened there.

One evening, the family is visited by doppelgängers of themselves: scary creatures dressed in red overalls, and wielding sharp golden scissors, their voices monstrous shrieks, and unintelligent grunts. These visitors might look like the family, but they are many rungs down the evolutionary and social scale. The trailer for this film seemed to suggest that the film was a condemnation of black versus black violence, but when an upper-class white family is savagely murdered by equally deranged doppelgängers, the film begins to suggest a social war rather than a racial one. The have-nots finally getting the upper-hand on the economically advantaged.

But Mr. Peele makes sure that there are more layers to the story than just an economic slasher nightmare. He conveys information that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of abandoned tunnels running through the United States. Obviously tunnels that hold great secrets, places that will eventually be revealed and shed light on the meaning of the rows of caged rabbits that we see during the film's credit sequence.

One thing's for sure: the cast, headed by the luminous Lupita Nyong'o shines. Playing their own doppelgängers both she and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) relish their dual roles. Likewise Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, who play their friends Kitty and Josh, pull all the stops playing their fiendish counterparts.

At the showing I attended, I heard a lady comment after the film concluded that she knew there was a message to the film, but she was not sure what it was. I fear this will be the opinion of one too many viewers of this film. These viewers will instead focus and enjoy the roller coaster ride the director offers. The film is more successful as a creature feature than as an economic satire.

Jeffrey Anderson in Common Sense Media summed it all up this way: "Jordan Peele's horror shocker can't compete with its sensational predecessor Get Out, but it doesn't have to."

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben) Starring Cruz and Bardem

Homecomings are dangerous. From ancient Greek tragedy we know that a return home after many years can stir dormant emotions and bring forth forgotten grudges to the surface that often culminate in dire events. So it is with Asghar Farhadi’s latest film Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben). Away from his native Iran, where his films have won the Oscar twice (A Separation and The Salesman), the writer/director has crafted an intricate story about a kidnapping in a Spanish town that seems to be an indictment of Old World values and deep resentments that are triggered by a visit from America.

Laura (Penélope Cruz) arrives home from Argentina with her two children sans her husband. The occasion for her return is a family wedding, where in the middle of the festivities her impetuous teenage daughter is kidnapped. The wedding sequence, crafted as carefully as that of The Godfather or The Deer Hunter, serves to introduce the relationships in this family. We learn that Paco (Javier Bardem) was in love with Laura, and that he now owns the vineyards that once belonged to her family, an important plot point.

The wedding sequence is a masterpiece of exposition, economic in its development and festive in its crafting. Perhaps the highlight of the film, and arguably its strongest section. Once the kidnapping occurs, sending the film to its second act, the narrative slows down, turning the plot into a ponderous whodunnit instead of speeding up the action and racing towards a completion. Farhadi relies too much on the emotional toll the kidnapping produces on the characters, when instead he should be offering the audience more clues and fewer red herrings. The eventual result is that the final resolution leaves us a bit cold.

Although the middle section of the film could have used an editor's firm hand, the final sequence shows a master filmmaker in complete control of his craft. As one of the characters prepares to reveal to another the identity of the kidnappers, the sanitation service is hosing down the main square of the village, the strong gush of water making the streets clean once again. Even the crucifix in the middle of the plaza gets a good scrubbing. Is the town now going to be cleansed of its past sins?  Of course not, this is the Old World. It'll just get dirty once more: everybody knows that!