Monday, July 29, 2019

THE IRISHMAN will open the 2019 NY Film Festival

The New York Film Festival will open on September 27th with the world premiere of Martin Scorsese's latest film The Irishman, a biopic of Jimmy Hoffa based on the book I Hear you Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. The film stars Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Joey Pesci, who came out of an unofficial retirement to do this project. It is the ninth collaboration between DeNiro and Scorsese, and their first since 1995's Casino.

With a budget reported to be $200 million dollars, the film is being distributed by Netflix, which hopes to outdo last year's Roma, a film by Alfonso Cuarón which won Oscars for Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography, and which was the centerpiece offering at the NY Film Festival last year. A passion project for Scorsese, the movie also stars Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale and Anna Paquin.

Following the NY Film Festival showing and a short theatrical release, the film is set to stream digitally late in 2019.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Spanish Singer Makes Debut at Bayreuth

Jorge Rodríguez Norton, the tenor from Asturias, Spain made his debut at Bayreuth on Thursday's opening night gala of the new production of Tannhäuser, directed by Tobias Kratzer and conducted by Valery Gergiev. Mr. Rodríguez Norton, who sings the role of Heinrich der Schrieber, becomes only the third Spaniard to sing at the Green Hill after Victoria de los Ángeles and Plácido Domingo. Festspielchef Katharina Wagner personally communicated with the singer through Facebook after she heard him sing in a performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. At first, the singer thought that somebody was playing a prank on him. but soon enough he realized that Ms. Wagner was offering him an opportunity to sing at the festival. Since the production will be repeated next year, the tenor from Avilés says that he has already signed for the 2020 festival, and has attended the rehearsals of the rest of the offerings for this year.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood: new Tarantino film

With a title that evokes two of director Sergio Leone’s great films, as well as the world of fairy tales, which imply make believe and wish fulfillment, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film Once Upon a Hollywood is a love letter to the film industry at a time when great sweeping changes were going on in cinema. A young generation had taken the reins, European new waves were challenging the very nature of film entertainment, the American studio system had crumbled, and dark foreboding clouds were gathering in the horizon. The summer of love was gone, and ahead, horrible events would occur behind the gated mansion of an up-and-coming movie star and her famous director husband. Or will they? The director riffs on the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Charles Manson family, an event triggered by the lyrics of an album from a British group that already was showing tears at its seams. Tarantino reinvents this era in a highly ambitious wide canvas that bears the gravitas of apocalyptic times.

Next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) lives Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who specializes in World War II B pictures and TV westerns, and who now is on the downward slope of his career. His buddy Cliff Booth (an excellent Brad Pitt) is his stunt double, chauffeur and confidant. Cliff's shady past poses an obstacle for him to get work, as a matter of fact, it is only because of Rick that he gets any film work at all. And it shows, while Rick lives in the Hollywood hills in a beautiful house with a pool, Cliff lives in a derelict trailer with his pit bull next to a drive-in.

The film is an engrossing and kaleidoscopic recreation of a time that Tarantino did not personally know or yearn for in any kind of nostalgic way; after all he was a six year old child when the events of this film take place. As always the decade is brought to life through the world of cinema, which Tarantino knows better than any other director working today. Therefore, the film is highly detailed with homages and illusions to the famous spots in L.A. and the theater marquees announcing the films of the time. Some of these are well-known, but in the great tradition of film geekdom, at whose throne Tarantino sits, the majority are rare and forgotten. As far as the director is concerned, though, they are treasures to be discovered by a new contemporary audience.

Aside from the performances of DiCaprio and Pitt, both surely destined for Oscar nominations, there are wonderful moments from Margot Robbie, whose Sharon Tate is a free spirit radiant beauty who visits a Hollywood theater so she can see her own performance in the film The Wrecking Crew, alongside Dean Martin. Powerful also is Bruce Dern in a tiny cameo playing the blind, aged owner of a Western Ranch being rented by the Manson family.

Without a doubt, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is Tarantino's most accomplished film, and one of the best movies of the year. Gone are the jerky rhythms of many of his past films, here replaced by a deliberately smooth glide when it comes to camera movement as well as story development. A new Tarantino? Not exactly. There's still a whole lot of the old Quentin that we all love, but this film shows signs of artist maturity, which is definitely not a bad thing.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Bayreuth: New Staging of Tannhäuser

The Bayreuth Festival began today with a new production of Richard Wagner's romantic opera Tannhäuser, directed by Tobias Kratzer and under the musical leadership of Valery Gergiev, both men making their Bayreuth debuts this year. For the director this opera goes beyond the conflict of profane versus pure love; he sees it as a clash between high and lowbrow art. Mr. Kratzer noticed that the composition of this work took place at a time when Wagner himself did not know whether he was going to go down in history as an anarchist or as a composer, or even if he was going to be remembered at all. Given this background to the work Mr. Kratzer states that "Wagner is writing about two models of life ... two conflicting love models." He goes on to explain that this approach to the story "makes it more contemporary than if you restrict the whole thing to the whore versus saint conflict of Romanticism."
Thus we are presented with a van with a green rabbit on top, and outside speakers, driving through the Romantic pine forests of Germany, and a biogas plant (an in-joke to the last Bayreuth production of this work by Sebastian Baumgarten). Driving the van are Venus in a skintight suit (Elena Zhidkova), and her lover Tannhäuser (Stephen Gould), a clown (shades of Josef von Sternberg's 1930 film The Blue Angel where a distinguish English professor marries a lusty cabaret performer only to find himself degraded to the role of clown -- literally). Riding with them, in silent roles, are Oskar the midget (Manni Laudenbach) and famed black cabaret drag queen Le Gateau Chocolat. The Venusberg is a simple German cottage complete with human-sized garden gnomes, a perfect reason for Le Gateau to don her Snow White outfit straight out of the Walt Disney film. As the relationship between Venus and Tannhäuser deteriorates during the Venusberg scene we discover that only one item makes any sense for him: a duffel bag with a vocal score that says "Wagner" on the front cover, presumably the score to this opera itself. When he invokes the name of the Virgin Mary, Tannhäuser is transported to Bayreuth itself, and we find out that he was a singer who went rogue. He is welcomed back to the Green Hill, but not by Elisabeth (Lise Davidsen) who usually is absent from the first act. In this staging she makes an appearance and formally welcomes her former lover with a slap on the face.

The concept of using Bayreuth as the background for a production is reminiscent of Stefan Herheim's great staging of Parsifal in 2008 where Wahnfried became the point of departure for a production that chronicled the story of Germany through the World Wars and reconstruction. As Act II begins we realize that Mr. Kratzer will stage this act as if it were a performance of the act itself, even with video from backstage showing stage managers. The production in this ersatz staging is nothing like Bayreuth has seen since 1951. The costumes look like a pre-Wieland Wagner staging from the 1930's. The conflict between high and low art comes to a head during the song contest. Eventually, the characters from the first act infiltrate the Festspielhaus, and rush the stage at the mention of Venus and Tannhäuser's praise for carnal love. In a video cameo Katharina Wagner herself calls the police to arrest the intruders, and when they drive up the Green Hill they handcuff Tannhäuser and take him away as he sings the words "Nach Rom!"
As the opera continues into the concluding act the production becomes less Wagner's story, and begins to be overpowered by Mr. Kratzer's conceit. The third act takes place in a junkyard invaded by pilgrims who look more like refugees. Wolfram dresses up in the clown outfit and wig that Tannhäuser wore in Act I and, at the urging of Elisabeth herself, has sex with her in the van. Tannhäuser eventually returns only to find that Elisabeth has committed suicide.
There was amazing singing from all the principals, especially Stephen Gould, who is no stranger to the role of Tannhäuser. Lise Davidsen sang with a smooth, powerful voice that beautifully exemplifies this character. Markus Eiche has the perfect voice for Wolfram, and his song to the Evening Star was a highlight of the concluding act, pity that so much of the staging made very little sense. Valery Gergiev lead a competent reading of the score, but a personal vision of the work was missing. His appearance on stage during the curtain calls drew a smattering of boos.

Needless to say the production team was greeted by ferocious boos by about half of the audience, although applause seemed to have won out in the end due to the great quality of singing and acting by all. Not a bad start for this year's festival. Let's hope that the critics do not totally kill this production, since there are many good ideas, especially in the first act. I'm sure Mr. Kratzer will be refining the production as it makes a comeback in years to come.

Bayreuth: New Ring for 2020

On the eve of the start of the 2019 Bayreuth Festival, festspielchief Katharina Wagner has announced in a press conference that a new Ring will be staged at the Green Hill in 2020. The new production will replace the Frank Castorf staging, a mish-mash that was universally hated since its premiere back in 2013. According to Ms. Wagner the young, Austrian director Valentin Schwarz will stage the new production. Mr. Schwarz made a mark in the opera world when he staged Maurizio Kagel's opera Mare Nostrum at Cologne. The musical direction will be in the hands of Pietari Inkinen, the young Finnish violinist and conductor of the Japan Philharmonic and the Prague Symphony Orchestra.

Ms. Wagner has always championed young talent, so it is no surprise that Mr. Schwarz and Mr. Inkinen will both be making their debuts at Bayreuth with this new production. In addition, Ms. Wagner has never shied away from importing talent that often brings controversy to the yearly summer festival. Back in 2004, when her father Wolfgang Wagner was still running the Festspielhaus, she championed the new Parsifal by Christoph Schlingensief and Pierre Boulez, one of the most controversial productions in the recent history of the festival.
The press conference also revealed some of the singers who will grace this new staging. Günther Groisböck is scheduled to sing the role of Wotan, Klaus Florian Vogt, who has become the "house tenor" will be Sigmund, while Andreas Schager and Stephen Gould will share the role of Siegfried. The role of Brünnhilde will also be shared by Petra Lang in Die Walküre, Daniel Köhler in Siegfried, and American soprano Christine Goerke, fresh off her triumph in the Metropolitan Opera Ring staging from last season, will perform in Götterdämmerung.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Roadmap for Impeachment?

We are hours away from a day that has been awaited by many on the democratic side of the aisle in Washington D.C. Robert Mueller will testify today in congress for the American people. Could it be the beginning of the end of the Donald Trump presidency? According to the many pundits who have chimed in about this Wednesday morning, the hearing might not reveal any earth shattering facts, especially if the former special counsel adheres to his 448 page report. Mueller will appear before the House Judiciary Committee at 8:30 a.m., a hearing that is expected to run for three hours. After a break, Mueller will testify before the House Intelligence Committee at noon. Although the hearing has the possibility of being explosive, Mr. Mueller is a reluctant witness, and if he is questioned about something in the report, he might just ask the various committee members to re-read the report that he already wrote in order to get the answer they are looking for. That would be the biggest disappointment for anyone who feels that Trump's days in the White House are numbered. A do or die moment for democrats, and a chance for republicans to close the book on this part of Trump's presidency.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Bayreuth 2019: All Systems are GO!

In the spirit of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, all systems are go for the opening of the 2019 Bayreuth Festival, which will take place on August 25 with a new production of Tannhäuser, directed by Tobias Kratzer and conducted by Valery Gergiev. Mr. Kratzer being famous as an avant-garde director, together with the recent  track-record at Bayreuth during the last 10 years or so, it is safe to say that it will be an experimental look at Richard Wagner's romantic opera. Mr. Kratzer has already directed this work during the 2010-2011season in Bremen. The following video, a promo for that production, might give you an example of what the director has in mind for the Green Hill this summer.

But then again, I'm sure Mr. Kratzer has had time to rethink the opera, and most likely will offer a production with new ideas, and with a deeper understanding of the work. One thing is certain: I doubt very much that, despite being being an anniversary year for the moon landing, Mr. Kratzer will stage Tannhäuser in space as in the unconventional staging of La Bohème, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, which debuted at the Opéra National de Paris in 2017. A production which produced a storm of boos during its run.

Something tells me that the boos will still be heard at Bayreuth no matter what. It has been a tradition lately to boo the creative team on opening night, especially if the concept is new and controversial. Even last year, at a performance of Die Meistersinger I attended, which had already played the year before, I experienced an audience which booed Barrie Kosky's production with its references to the post-war Nuremberg trials, and its highlight of Wagner's anti-Semitic approach to his character Sixtus Beckmesser.

We will see what this summer brings.  It is my understanding that the production will once again be broadcast live by BR-KLASSIK.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

W.A. Mozart's THE MAGIC FLUTE at the Mostly Mozart Festival

What a sheer delight is the Barrie Kosky, Suzanne Andrade production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, with incredible animations by Paul Barritt and his company 1927. This whimsical staging which gets its inspiration from silent film, the cabaret world of the German Weimar Republic, and German Expressionism has gone round the world, being presented in the Komische Oper Berlin, The Los Angeles Opera, as well as in the Teatro Real, Madrid. Now this staging comes to New York for the first time under the banner of the Mostly Mozart Festival, with the orchestra conducted by Louis Langrée.

Here is a promotion video that was made for the L.A. Opera premiere of this staging.

The opera is being performed in the original German, and you might remember that Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder came up with a "singspiel" rather than a work with formal recitatives. Between the musical numbers there is dialogue. Here the words of the dialogue are shone on the screen "silent movie style," while an 18th century fortepiano accompanies it with music from Mozart's two fantasias for piano K. 475 in C minor and K. 397 in D minor. As a result, the singers never speak the dialogue, and the illusion of a silent movie is maintained.

In this production Tamino is a silent movie matinee idol; he could be Valentino, or Fairbanks, or Ramón Novarro. Papageno is Buster Keaton, Tamina is Louise Brooks, and Monostatos is Count Orlok from Nosferatu. But aside from casting the characters as recognizable figures from the silent cinema, what makes this production one of the best things I have seen on an operatic stage in a while is the marriage between live action and animation. The stage is a screen where Mr. Barritt's imagination shines and is allowed to go wild. The Queen of the Night as a gigantic black widow spider, and a pack of wild hell-hounds firmly held by Count Orlok's leash are two of the effects that really captivated me and the rest of the audience. But if you experience this production, I am sure you will have your favorite moments as well. Also outstanding in its planning is the fact that the visual effects don't just work for an audience sitting stage center. I was a bit off to the side, and none of the magic was lost.

In this video, Australian director Barrie Kosky (and friend) introduces the production, while allowing you to take a peek at some of the segments of the work.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Leonardo's ST. JEROME at the MET

One of the great paintings of the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci's St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness, an unfinished portrait that the artist began in 1483, and continued to work on until his death in 1519, is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The canvas is on loan from the Vatican Museums, its permanent home, and it will be on display here in New York City until October 6. The exhibition is in honor of the five hundredth observance of the death of the Florentine master.

As a member of the museum, I saw the painting yesterday, and stayed around for a 15 minute lecture by Carmen Bambach, PhD, the Yale educated, Chilean-born curator of the museum, and a specialist on the Renaissance, and Leonardo in particular. She has authored many exhibition catalogues for the museum, including The Drawings of Bronzino, which is part of my personal library. Dr. Bambach is the author of the soon-to-be-released Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered, a four volume modern rethinking of the career and unique vision of the artist. Her book is published by Yale University Press, and available from Amazon by following the link below.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

ABT: Beauty returns

On the very last day, and the very last performance of this season's American Ballet Theatre, I decided to catch their swan song, a revival of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. My knowledge of the ballet is still below neophyte level, I have only seen ABT's production once before. I grew up watching Walt Disney's brilliant widescreen animated retelling of the fairy tale which uses many musical themes from the work. It's music that I have grown up with, but while in my mind a certain mysterious musical segment will always belong to Maleficent's creepy raven, it is fun to hear this same music accompanying a pas-de-deux between the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots.

It was the last performance of ABT, and apparently they were not leaving anything behind. Going to my seat for the first time, When I showed one usher my ticket, and she pointed in the general direction of my seat, she did not perform the action that always follows that brief encounter. They ran out of playbills! Now, I have been attending the Metropolitan Opera House since the late 1970's, and never has the MET ran out of playbills. How disconcerting. I asked the usher who was dancing, and she had trouble remembering the names of the principals. I spent the first act without a playbill, not recognizing who was on stage, and surrounded by an audience who also spent the performance with empty hands.  As soon as the first intermission began I went up to the Parterre Boxes. If anybody is going to have a playbill is going to be the Parterre Boxes level, I told myself. Those are the expensive seats. When I inquired, the usher there smile, and asked me "how many do you want?" I should have asked for two, but for some reason one was enough for that evening.

Sleeping Beauty is Marius Petipa's most epic piece of choreography, with dozens of dancers, many in costumes that bring to life such fairy tale favorites as Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, the Ogre and his Ogress wife, as well as Bluebeard and Sheherezade. Buried in all of this is a rather simple story of how the evil fairy Carabosse (danced with tongue-in-cheek malevolence by Craig Salstein) curses Princess Aurora (Cassandra Trenary) until true love in the form of Prince Désiré (Joseph Gorak) breaks the spell.

Maybe that's why ABT ordered so few playbills. Everybody knows this story, and everybody knows how it will end.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

MIDSOMMAR: New Film by Ari Aster

After Midsommar, Ari Aster’s latest journey into modern horror, many critics will be calling the director's talent as visionary, despite the fact that this latest shows that his vision at times is clouded and his tastes easily given to excesses — a Dario Argento for our times, some might say. This is a mantle Mr. Aster might be proud to wear, but in reality he still has to prove himself. This is only his second feature. As a newcomer he was crowned an auteur after his first feature, Hereditary, a little gem of a horror film about grieving, hit the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and went on to conquer both critics and audiences. Grief, and our human reaction to devastating loss also happens to be a major theme in this latest feature.

After a terrible family tragedy, Dani, an incredible Florence Pugh, convinces herself that she wants to go with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) and his college pals to a remote village in Sweden, at the invitation of a Swedish exchange student friend of theirs, to witness a once-in-a-lifetime summer festival. Since the group features anthropology majors this is the perfect summer vacation for them to advance their thesis. For Dani it is a chance to get away and work on her strained relationship with Christian.

The village is an idyllic place bathed in the perpetual sunlight of the Scandinavian summer, and beautifully photographed by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, who captures the green earth, the white dresses, the rosy cheeks, and the welcoming smiles with such earnestness that you would never think there is anything wrong in this Arcadian paradise. But make no mistake about it: the villagers harbor a clear, twisted agenda here, subtly foreshadowed by the sight of buildings with odd, twisted Expressionistic roofs, and revealed with unspeakable horror when the village stages an "ättestupa," a ritual where an elderly village couple, after being celebrated for their old age, jump to their deaths in what has to be one of the most horrific suicides/senicides ever filmed. From the point of view of the tropes of horror film, the scene works perfectly because its setup has been so carefully calculated.

This ritualistic suicide sets into motion a series of events where the visitors become grossly embroiled in the grisly events of the village. Without giving anything away, allow me to divulge that you are in for a slow ride with a few calculated bumps along the way. At 147 minutes the film is way too long for its own good. The montage of the film is pristine, but actually shaving it down to a manageable size would have made it as close to ideal as possible.

Despite its many flaws, Midsommar is a feast for the eyes and ears, although it ends up feeling like a celebration that has gone on for too long. The film starts showing its faults, and Aster begins to run out of tricks. At times the mise-en-scène is quite inventive: the upside-down shot when the group first arrives by car to the village demonstrates the inverted, topsy-turvy world in which they have just entered. Another shot, early in the film, in which Dani is talking to Christian, she looking at the camera, while he is reflected in a mirror is not only cool, like Diego Velázquez's great painting Las Meninas, but visually shows how their relationship is clearly not on the same plane.

Finally, Ari Aster reveals how much of a film geek he can be, usually a good thing, yet here it works against him. Visually, Midsommar harks back to a number of movies I'm convinced the director loves. For starters, both the original version of The Wicker Man, featuring Christopher Lee, and its 2006 remake with Nicholas Cage play a huge part in the conception of the narrative, and its visual palette. Midsommar feels like a remake, and if you consider the fact that there is a film called Midsummer (2003) whose IMDB logline reads as follows:  "After ... friends graduate secondary school, they head off to a Swedish cabin for midsummer as previous years. Strange things happen" then the film is very much a remake. And like last year's reworking of another horror film, Luca Guadagnino's take on Dario Argento's Suspiria, this film also goes off its hinges when it leaves behind the world of verisimilitude, and enters into the plane of over-indulgence and its end result, which is always excessive length.