Monday, July 25, 2022

NOPE - Don't Look Up!

 On the 19th of June, 1877 British pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge made a series of photographs of the race horse Sallie Gardner, owned by the former governor of California Leland Stanford. The result is well-known to every student of film. When the photographs are shown in sequential succession the horse is seen at full gallop, at one point all four legs off the ground.

 
Arguably the beginning of motion pictures, or at least an intermediate stage towards true cinematography. This, and the fact that the jockey riding the horse is an African-American man is the genesis of Jordan Peele's latest film NOPE. But that's just the beginning. The writer/producer/director starts there and his imagination propels him towards not just a rumination of motion pictures, but also its link to the American West, or better yet: the myth of the American West as created by Hollywood, and how this myth continues to survive in our collective unconsciousness. And, oh yeah the film also explores the afterlife of child actors once the limelight has either faded away, or in this case, ripped apart. And, oh yeah, it's also about aliens. Not the ones that cross our American border everyday, but the ones that they say come from many light years away, from another galaxy, and who reach us via flying saucers.
 
In the last few months, the various trailers have revealed some of the cryptic images of the film: a veiled lady with no lips and a horrific smile (shades of Conrad Veidt's character in the silent film The Man Who Laughs), a chimp with bloody hands and mouth, and most mysterious of all those colorful dancing man ballons that dot the western valley prairie, and rise up to the sky. Also we can't ignore the fanboy Internet chatter that the title of the film is an acronym for Not Of Planet Earth. Guess what? All of those images are tied together in what has to be Mr. Peele's most audacious and bewildering reflection on modern American culture. And the meaning of the title? Yeah, there's something to that as well.

And of course there are the stars of the film: OJ, played memorably by Daniel Kaluuya, and his sister Emerald, the incredible Keke Palmer. These siblings own a ranch where they breed and train horses for the Hollywood and TV industry, a business started by their father who early on in the film dies a rather mysterious death. To further make ends meet, OJ sells horses to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Stephen Yeun), a former child star who now runs a Western-themed amusement park called Jupiter’s Claim, and who is haunted by a terrible event that happened on the set of his TV show. When strange occurrences begin happening at the ranch they seek the help of an IT guy (Brandon Perea), and later on when things really start getting weird, they bring on an even weirder cinematographer (Michael Wincott) to photograph the event and get "the Oprah shot." Angel, the IT guy installs surveillance cameras at their house, but Antlers, the cinematographer, comes in with a hand-cranked IMAX camera. Even though this is a contemporary story, you'd think all of this this was happening forty years ago: the film is filled with turntables, VHS recorders and all kinds of obsolete technology.

NOPE is an entertaining movie that will produce interesting conversations. It is certainly one of the most thought-provoking films this summer by a filmmaker that specializes in making sure you think. And at the risk of further spoiling the film, let me just say that you will be doing a lot of unpacking when you go to see this movie.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

FUNNY GIRL back on Broadway

For Sarah Bernhardt, the great actress of the turn of the century, playwright Victorien Sardou wrote the melodrama La Tosca in 1887.  From then on Bernhardt owned this role until Giacomo Puccini turned Sardou's work into one of the seminal operas of the Verismo period, and Maria Callas came along to usurp the role, albeit in its musical form. As time erased the collective memory of audiences who actually saw Bernhardt on stage, and as video of the second act of the opera surfaced, La Callas became the soprano against who all subsequent performers must measure themselves against. Is it the same with Barbra Streisand and her portrayal of comedienne Fanny Brice in the musical Funny Girl?

The musical is back on Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre, starring Beanie Feldstein as Ziegfeld's funny girl. Sarah Bernhardt not only created some of the great stage roles of the 19th and early 20th century, but she was also a film pioneer, and a number of her performances were filmed. Of course, when we watch these early films the first thing we notice is how artificial stage acting of the turn of the century feels to modern audiences. Since Bernhardt's time acting has passed through Stanislavsky and the Method, and Maria Callas on stage, although operatic acting of her time maintained more than an ounce of the histrionics of the past century, feels very modern when compared to Bernhardt's technique. And the camera does not lie. Most people today know Ms. Streisand's girl not through her 1964 breakthrough role in the original Broadway production of Funny Girl, but through the 1968 William Wyler film that earned Ms. Streisand her first Academy Award as Best Actress -- "Hello Gorgeous!" 

So, this is what Ms. Feldstein is up against: the collective memory of a great performance forever preserved in celluloid. In 2016 The Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. It's an uphill battle that requires all the help she can get. And many come to the rescue with varying degrees of success. First, there's Harvey Fierstein, whose name alone (and his reworking of the original book) helps box office receipts. Ms. Feldstein is also aided by Ramin Karimloo, as her lover Nick Arnstein. He has the charms and good looks that Sydney Chaplin (the original Nick) and Omar Shariff (The film's Nick) both had. Add to this a pleasant singing voice, and you have a memorable performance. The idea of putting Jane Lynch in the role of Mama Brice might have looked great on paper, but unfortunately she is horribly miscast, possessing little of the proper "Yiddishkeit" needed to bring this character to life. Help or no help, when it comes to Ms. Feldstein, I can't help but think that a star is born with this role. She is a trooper: loads of charm, huge energy, good comic timing, and a beautiful, smooth soprano that makes those Jules Stein/Bob Merrill songs come to life. (and no, you won't find the song "My Man" in this revival, oddly enough.) For a musical that tries to please an audience weened on the film this was a brave directorial decision by Michael Mayer, who otherwise has overproduced most aspects of this musical. A true standout are the beautiful costumes by Susan Hilferty: truly inspired creations that bring to life the period in which this musical takes place.

Is it a good revival? Should you go to see it?  I say yes, go see Ms. Feldstein, it's always exciting to see a star in the making. But be aware that the show tries way too hard to please you. The orchestra at times is a tad sloppy, and it is really loud. I don't remember such a loud, miked show. Performers address the audience directly, throw money in the direction of the first few rows near the stage for no reason at all, and confetti falls upon the orchestra section. Great theater tricks to get the Big Black Giant on your side. Most of the time it works, when the strings don't show. This time they do. But what bothered me most were the lights around the proscenium of the stage. They light up time and time again to give those songs that extra oomph they really don't need. Some of the time in rhythm to the music. Tacky! Already the creative team of this production feels that every song in the score deserves a loud, crescendo fortissimo style. It brings them out of their seats during the curtain-calls, but then again what show these days does not end with a standing ovation? Broadway audiences pay a lot for those seats, and they want to be entertained or talked into the illusion that they are being entertained. If a show doesn't get a standing ovation, it's in trouble.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

ELEKTRA at the MET

 

When the 2021-2022 MET season was announced, this revival of Patrice Chéreau's production of Richard Strauss's Elektra immediately became the one to see. And yet, last night there were two empty seats right next to me in the center of the Orchestra section, row K. Was it the persistent April showers that dominated Saturdays weather that caused some people to stay home, or did they have advanced word that Nina Stemme, in the title role, was suffering from seasonal allergies? This was announced to the audience last night, together with the news that she would go on and sing. The announcement was greeted by thunderous applause. I've been noticing this year that pre-curtain announcements have become the norm at the Metropolitan Opera. While the appearance of a MET staff member's appearance before a performance usually brings jitters to an audience, this season is being used more as a friendly reminder to keep those masks covering one's mouth and nose. 

As expected, the pollen that's floating around everywhere did have an effect on Ms. Stemme. She is onstage from beginning to end, and most of the time trying to rise above one of Strauss's wildest, most savage music played by an ensemble of over one hundred musicians. It is one of the composer's largest orchestrations. It mostly affected her lower notes, although during her opening monologue some of the notes leading to the high notes suffered as well. It might not have been one of Ms. Stemme's greatest performances, but it was great that she attempted it and was able to achieve such high standards. I always marvel at how professional singers can sing over a cold or an allergy and still manage to sing such a poignant performance as Ms. Stemme was able to do last night.

Lise Davidsen as Elektra's sister Chrysothemis continues her New York love fest tour with these performances. What a season it has been for her! Also how well calculated it has been, starting slowly with the role of Eva in Die Meistersinger, then increasing the odds with Ariadne aux Naxos. Her Chrysothemis is the culmination of an incredible season of singing. I have been critical of her that she overpowers all the other singers with her enormous voice. Last night was different. She seems to have been holding back (perhaps because she knew that her co-star was not in good voice), and this was good for the entire production. What a contrast in voices we have in these two women. Ms. Stemme's lush but powerful soprano against Ms. Davidsen's loud, strident, bottom heavy voice (she started her career as a mezzo!). This is what we come to see in opera: two amazing singers approaching those notes from different camps and offering a delicious contrast that also speaks volumes about the characters they are playing.

 

Mr. Chéreau's production updates the action to the present, and thus makes a firm statement of the universality of this story. His staging, however, comes close to robbing the work of the purpose of some of the music. For example, Klytemnestra's entrance is some of the most evocative music Strauss ever wrote. It is a wild depiction of an old lady whose guilt over the murder of her husband, Agamemnon, is plaguing her. I always pictured this character, weighed down by amulets, stomping in to this music. Perhaps this approach is way too stereotypical for today's audience. Perhaps it is too much like a silent movie villain entering to the tune of brutal, dissonant chords. Here she just walks in. It can be argued that now Strauss's music, meant to accompany a more melodramatic entrance, now sounds over the top. In the pit, Donald Runnicles offered an intelligent reading of this work in tune with this production. The orchestra sounded incredible under his baton.

If you want to see two of the great singers of our time together on the same stage, then do not miss this revival of Elektra.

Saturday, March 05, 2022

THE BATMAN - Robert Pattinson in the suit

In the new film The Batman, Gotham City is an amalgamation of 1970's urban blight New York City with surreal touches of London and Chicago. Add to that geographical stew that unnamed city where David Fincher's SE7EN takes place (where it never stops raining), and you got the makings of a brooding chapter in the Batman saga. In addition to the downbeat atmosphere already described, director Matt Reeves and his cinematographer, Australian Greig Fraser, turn down the lights to gloom level just to make things really "noir." It is three hours of a cinematic universe where lights rarely shine, and where most of the denizens seem to live only in the nighttime hours. 

The story begins on the night of October 31st, and half of Gotham City is masked and reveling in a Halloween night where the other half is engaged in various criminal activities. The Bat Signal is up, its weak light shining against the ominous clouds, and the Batman has heeded its call. This is a caped crusader full of doubts and misgivings about his choice to be a vigilante. He calls himself "vengeance," and he ably saves a subway passenger from the wrath of a gang in skull makeup. This is a world-weary crime fighter, worlds away from being a super hero.

 And when Batman's alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, shows up, Mr. Pattinson, lighted in the film's muted colors, looks more spectral than ever. Surrounding him are a cast of characters all played memorably by a great cast. Jeffrey Wright as Lieutenant James Gordon seems to be the only good cop in the whole city. Colin Farrell is a round, scarred mobster they call The Penguin, John Turturro is memorable as a mafia boss that likes to wear shades despite the gloom that surrounds him, and Andy Serkis is given very little screen time as Alfred, Bruce Wayne's butler and confidant. A sick-in-the-head masked serial killer, who likes to leave riddles inside greeting cards for the Batman after he murders important civic leaders, ends up being Paul Dano, who regretfully performs the worse rendition of Franz Shubert's "Ave Maria" I've ever heard. This well-known song is used as a leitmotif throughout the film, but I fail to see its connection with anything happening on the screen. Alongside the Batman we also have another costumed vigilante played by Zoë Kravitz. She likes to wear slin-tight leather outfits and loves cats.

To be honest, I usually don't run out the first weekend to see a film like this. But the other night I was at Lincoln Center for the premiere of Ariadne aux Naxos, the Richard Strauss opera starring superstar soprano Lise Davidsen. Little did I know it was also the New York premiere of this film. So, the entire Lincoln Center Plaza was mobbed: barriers everywhere and autograph seekers running around. Serkis and Pattinson passed by surrounded by a horde of bodyguards. Jeffrey Wright stopped by to sign a few autographs, and so did Paul Dano. He stopped next to me to sign a fan's poster, fast enough for me to snap a picture of him.

So, I said to myself, "maybe I should go see this movie." And I did, this afternoon, and I had a great time, even though we had to get moved to another screening room because they were having technical problems with the projector. In any case, it was an enjoyable afternoon at the movies, and I recommend this film. It's a very entertaining way to spend 176 minutes of your life.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Broadway is Back: THE MUSIC MAN

 Yes, Broadway has been back for a while, stumbling out of the COVID-19 nightmare in spurts. But this afternoon was MY first time back inside a Broadway theater since 2020. And if it wasn't for the masked crowds and a new job for ushers (see the picture below) the magic is back, and the audiences are more excited than ever.

 
So, it really does not matter that New York Times critic Jesse Green panned the new production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man. Audiences are hungry for live theater, especially when it features superstars like Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster whose names appeared on the marquee of the Winter Garden Theatre months before the virus hit, only to be silenced until the end of 2021. And just as the production got going, Mr. Jackman tested positive and had to quarantine, shutting down the show once again. It's been tough going for this production, and just about any other production currently on the boards.  All Mr. Jackman and Ms. Sutton had to do this afternoon was show up on stage. Before they uttered one word or sang one note the audience roared. Live theater is indeed back!

Mr. Green feels that this Music Man lacks the necessary fire to ignite this piece into relevancy. He cites a Stratford Festival production that comments on race and social relations by casting an African American actor as Professor Harold Hill. No doubt Mr. Green would have been pleased with a Broadway production that places concept over star power. But, is that the job of a musical comedy? If it is, then the genre is in danger of falling into the same conundrum we face in the opera house, where director's ideas trump casting. These days the need for true opera superstars has been eliminated -- after all it's the concept that matters. At Broadway prices, it's hard to experiment. Not even Bartlett Sher at Lincoln Center, responsible for some of the most memorable revivals in recent years, has avoided any real experimentation with the works he has chosen to stage: (South Pacific, The King and I, My Fair Lady) I'm happy that Jerry Zaks, the director of this revival, still believes in old fashioned theater, and this time he has assembled a talented cast that raises the roof off the Winter Garden with a traditional staging of this classic.  It doesn't go flat as the Times headlines stated, not with the chemistry that ignites in the pairing of Jackman and Foster and in the spark that is present in the work itself.
 
 
Hugh Jackman is having a lot of fun playing Professor Harold Hill. You can tell. There is a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step that humanizes this traveling flim-flam man. But in his swindle talk he oozes charm and warmth, especially effective is his relationship to Winthrop, Marian the librarian's little brother who has a lisp and prefers not to talk. Mr. Jackman is no Robert Preston, who originated this role on Broadway in 1957, and who starred in the 1962 film that shows the perfection of his characterization.  As a matter of fact, I was disappointed with Mr. Jackman's version of "Trouble." He had the verbal patter down flat, but his musical intonation in his Sprechstimme left me cold. Is it that Robert Preston just owns this role perpetually as Maria Callas made Tosca her own? In 2000, in Susan Stroman's production of this musical, actor Craig Bierko fared better with this song. The timbre of his voice was closer to that of Preston, and the song worked. It was clear that Ms. Stroman's goal was to provide a Robert Preston sound-alike, although the relatively unknown Mr. Bierko made a true splash earning a Tony Award nomination for his fine performance next to Broadway superstar Rebecca Luker. The present production is a vehicle for Mr. Jackman, and one which is generally suited to his many talents. His co-star Sutton Foster is wonderful as Marian. Her comedy gifts and beautiful soprano are great assets to this production, and her entrance received a great ovation. I also want to mention the participation of Jefferson Mays who is quite funny as Mayor George Shinn. Mr. Mays is having a good year: he is also featured in the film The Tragedy of Macbeth where he plays the Doctor.

 
The set by Santo Loquasto is inspired by the art of Grant Wood (born in Anamosa, Iowa), a town which may not be too different from River City. There is even a backdrop inspired by Wood's "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." Interestingly enough, from my seat in the house (Orchestra, Row J seat 2) I couldn't see Paul Revere. Why was he eliminated?  

In general, this show was a very entertaining; a very fun afternoon at the Winter Garden Theatre. It is a production that you will thoroughly enjoy whether you are a Jackman or a Foster fan -- or both. I only have one little caveat with this production, and it comes from my knowledge of the aforementioned Stroman production. The post curtain call in that 2000 staging involved the entire cast, dressed in bright red band costumes actually playing their instruments. It was so unexpected to suddenly hear that sound from the stage from actors who had memorized and learned to play these band instruments just for that closing moment. Imperfections and all, it was a remarkable moment, a true coup de théâtre. In the current production the entire cast is once again dressed in Professor Hill's imaginary, colorful band costumes, but their instruments remain conspicuously silent.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

A new RIGOLETTO at the MET

The problem with Bartlett Sher is that he is a gifted theater director, but those same creative gifts don't materialize when he dons his opera hat. Those memorable musical productions at Lincoln Center, both originals and revivals (The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific, The King and I, and My Fair Lady) have made him a household name for Broadway fans. I wish we could say the same for his operatic output at the Metropolitan Opera, which at best can be classified as uneven.

Mr. Sher began his association with the MET at the start of Peter Gelb's tenure. His production of The Barber of Seville featured an extension of the stage in front of the orchestra pit -- the infamous passerelle that many critics pointed out was not made for the MET's acoustics. There were also cartloads of pumpkins, and a giant anvil that threatened to fall on the characters Wile E. Coyote style. Perhaps his most successful production at the MET is his staging of The Tales of Hoffman, with its René Magritte bowler hats and homages to different films from Federico Fellini to Ingmar Bergman.

This season Mr. Sher has staged a new production of Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi's masterpiece of 1851. As is the current trend in opera staging, God forbid the director set the scene according to the wishes of the original creators. So, instead of traveling to Mantua we get Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic. Now, I have to be careful here criticizing the change of locale. After all, this opera is based on a Victor Hugo play (Le Roi s'Amuse) which takes place in the depraved French court of François I. Verdi's lyricist Francesco Maria Piave thought it best to transfer the scene to Italy. So, the original setting of this work is the depraved court of the Duke of Mantua, a made-up person who was based on Vincenzo Gonzaga, a 1500's royal scoundrel whose family motto, according to the program notes on the playbill, was "Forse che si, forse che no" (Maybe yes, maybe no).

 As we come in the auditorium we are faced with a show curtain filled with nightmarish characters right out of the canvases of Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz. But again: why Germany's Weimar Republic? Certainly the unit set built on the MET's turntable (which spins around too much for my taste) by Michael Yeargan recreate a period of grandiose Fascist architecture that was already entrenched in Mussolini's Italy years before Hitler brought Fascism to Germany.

Why not set it in Fascist Italy, then? All the ingredients are there. There's the work of poet Gabriele D'Annunzio, whose writings serve as the precursor of the ideals of Italian Fascism. And of course, there's Pier Paolo Pasolini's film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a work very much entrenched in the work of D'Annunzio. If you want depravity don't look any further. Salò is the GOAT.

Piotr Beczała has returned to play the Duke, as he did in the last MET production of this work which took place in Las Vegas. He returns with a more mature voice. It is now deeper and his memorable ringing timbre of years past seems to be disappearing. Could it be that he has sung too many performances of  Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival, a role that many tenors stay away from because it tends to cloud the voice? I would recommend Mr. Beczała to stay away from the swan boat and concentrate more on the Italian and French repertory.

Quinn Kelsey is a huge, bruiser from Honolulu Hawaii with a voice to match. His instrument fills the house, and then some.  It is not a particularly beautiful sound, but then again if you are playing a hunchback jester you want a growl in your voice, and Mr. Kelsey can provide that in spades.

For me, if the Sparafucile stinks, then the opera doesn't work. What I mean is that he has to have a strong sustained low F that ends the Act II duet with Rigoletto. Thank goodness the MET has re-hired Italian basso Andrea Mastroni (he made his MET debut in this role in the previous production). Once again he made a vocally chilling assassin, and that outstanding low F is his bread and butter. He has sung this role everywhere from Covent Garden to Madrid.

Unfortunately, I did not get to hear Rosa Feola as Gilda. She could not sing because she had just gotten boosted and was suffering through the effects of the injection.  The understudy was announced from the stage. It was a late cancellation for Ms. Feola so there was no paper insert in the programs. So, I have no idea who I heard. She did have a pretty soprano voice, and her "Caro Nome" was greeted with a healthy ovation. MET audiences always treat understudies well, especially if they are able to deliver.

Daniele Rustioni, the new principal guest conductor of the Bavarian State Opera led an enthusiastic reading of the score. Under his direction, the orchestra brought out the transparent and sonorous beauty of Verdi's orchestration which many times is just taken for granted. Particularly fine was the backstage storm chorus, one of the great innovations of this score.

So, there's a new Rigoletto in town. Maybe not the most memorable of productions, but the New York crowd will continue to support this staging as long as the MET management fills it with fine international singers.