Posted in Opera

Encore!

Anna Netrebko in the Met HD Telecast of “Il Trovatore”

When I was growing up, one of my mother’s constant lessons was “Get value for your money.” If you’re an opera lover, one of the best ways to do so is to subscribe to the Metropolitan Opera’s streaming service, Met Opera on Demand. The site has a tremendous library featuring HD and PBS telecasts dating back to the Scotto/Pavarotti “La Boheme” in 1977, and a slew of radio broadcasts from the 1930’s to the present, with performances being added to the site on a regular basis. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches.

While I haven’t really dipped into the video component yet (It’s baseball season after all. Go Mets!), I’ve been having a ball listening to the broadcasts. It’s been both educational and entertaining. For example, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” when I saw it in the house (a pity the Met doesn’t do it more often). Met Opera on Demand lets you hear both Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Peter Mattei sing Yeletsky’s big aria, and what a joy it is to savor two different approaches—the first, more dramatic, the second more lyrical.

I was present at the Met for a number of the broadcasts, and I get a particular charge out of revisiting these performances. I saw that featured “Giulio Cesare” in which David Daniels shone in his Met debut, and to hear him again, when I’m now a full-fledged baroque opera fan, is a treat. That unearthly mezzo-soprano/countertenor blend he and Stephanie Blythe produced in their duet remains a stunner. I was also pleased to discover my memory did not play tricks with respect to the length of the ovation Mirella Freni received at the conclusion of the Letter Scene in “Eugene Onegin.” This was one of the few times I ever saw an opera singer break character to acknowledge applause. Had she not smiled and nodded to the cheering audience, the performance wouldn’t have been able to continue. Speaking of Ms. Freni, while I was present for the videotaping of the excellent “Falstaff” in which she appears as Mistress Ford (available for streaming), there’s an even better radio broadcast of this opera that originally aired three years later. Barbara Daniels replaces Ms. Freni, but Paul Plishka is still Falstaff, the ensemble is tighter, Paul Groves is a better Fenton and Barbara Bonney tops her earlier performance as Nanetta by singing the final ascending line of her aria seemingly in one breath.

The earlier radio broadcasts that pre-date my opera-going, not to mention my birth, are particularly fascinating. Fortunately the quality of sound of those long ago performances does nothing to harm virtuosity—I’m currently in the middle of a 1940 “Die Walküre” with Kirsten Flagstad, Marjorie Lawrence and Lauritz Melchior that’s pure electricity. It’s a privilege to hear Leonard Warren’s distinctive baritone in the full range of his Verdi roles, and perhaps best of all, as Tonio in “I Pagliacci.” An extra-pleasant surprise is hearing what an astute vocal actor Richard Tucker was. His sarcastic bark of laughter during his confrontation with Eileen Farrell’s Santuzza in a 1960 “Cavalleria Rusticana” is chilling. And what a pleasure to experience Cesare Siepi’s gorgeous sound! On the other hand, I’ve listened to a few broadcasts that would have been better left on the shelf. They’re not necessarily terrible, but they do remind you that in addition to the stars who sang, the Met, like any other opera house, had to rely on its B and C list singers to fill out its long season.

The site is particularly instructive with respect to how performance values have changed over the decades. There’s a 1946 “Rosenkavalier” featuring the terrific Ochs of Emmanuel List, as well as the Octavian of Risë Stevens in her prime. While she’s in good form, it’s evident she was really a contralto stretched into mezzo territory. A young Eleanor Steber is a lively Sophie–I never knew she had been such a high flier. Unfortunately, their voices don’t reach that ideal blend that Strauss evidently wanted for the two characters they portray. Nor does this happen in a 1964 broadcast slackly led by Thomas Schippers. Lisa Della Casa, displaced from the Marschallin by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, is the Octavian, Judith Raskin the Sophie, and on first hearing two things are immediately apparent: sopranos have no business singing Octavian, and the rehearsal time for this performance was probably negligible. Fortunately there are two “Rosenkavalier” broadcasts currently available that make amends. A 1969 performance with Karl Böhm on the podium (speaking of greater care for musical values), featuring Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig and Reri Grist, is a stunner. The last two produce the magical vocal blend Strauss envisioned for Octavian and Sophie, and the beauty of their sound is matched, if not topped, in a 1983 broadcast in which Judith Blegen’s soprano is almost an overtone of Tatiana Troyanos’ mezzo in their duets. With the bonus of Kiri Te Kanawa’s Marschallin, it’s a wonderful performance.

I look forward to more Met broadcasts and delving into the video archive in the near future. I can’t recommend Met Opera on Demand enough.

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Posted in Opera

Così fan tutte

Act I Finale: Dr. Magnetico–er, Kelli O’Hara–to the Rescue

Mozart and da Ponte’s last collaboration, “Così fan tutte,” has got to be one of the most put-upon works in the standard opera repertoire. Its very title, usually translated as “Women Are Like That,” rings alarm bells of misogyny. For well over a century its plot, revolving around a cynical fiancée-swapping bet, was variously expurgated, hashed up and outright replaced. It wasn’t until well after the turn of the last century that the opera was recognized for both the musical masterpiece it is and the sharp take on human behavior it presents.

“Così” at its best requires certain ingredients. If “Falstaff” is a conductor’s opera, “Così” is most definitely a director’s opera. On its face the plot is broad comedy: Two soldiers (Ferrando and Guglielmo) engaged to two sisters (Dorabella and Fiordiligi) are suckered into a bet proposed by their cynical older friend (Don Alfonso) who maintains that the ladies, protestations by their lovers to the contrary, aren’t paragons but instead are just like all other women—they’ll stray, given the opportunity. At the cynical friend’s direction, the soldiers fake going off to war, and return in disguise to attempt to seduce each other’s fiancée. The cynical friend is aided and abetted by the ladies’ maid (Despina) who at various times masquerades as a quack doctor to bring the soldiers back to life after a mock suicide attempt, and as a notary to perform a marriage ceremony for the swapped couples. All is eventually revealed and reconciled, and the lovebirds return to their rightful partners.

But are they? The catch to “Così” is that da Ponte tells you one thing and Mozart seemingly tells you the opposite: Da Ponte’s take on the whole work is farcical, whereas Mozart provides a number of heart-stopping moments along the way. These include the lovers’ leave-taking quartet, the trio “Soave sia il vento” which seems suspended in time, Ferrando’s love-struck aria, “Un’ aura amorosa,” and most crucially, Fiordiligi’s “Per pietà.” Her aria is the opera’s big “Hey, wait a minute” moment, when things stop being funny—this is a woman in torment. It becomes even more complicated a bit later as Ferrando in disguise seduces Fiordiligi. On its surface this is payback for Guglielmo’s successful seduction of Dorabella, but is that all? We already know he’s a romantic, and the passionate music of the duet with Fiordiligi (“Fra gli amplessi”) logically leads you to think he may not just be acting. The ambiguity of “Così” and the cruelty of Don Alfonso’s mind games, set against some broad farce, demand a director who can handle a sensitive balancing act.

I’d like to say Phelim McDermott, director of the Metropolitan Opera’s new “Così” production, filled the bill entirely, but unfortunately he failed in certain details. Let’s get some controversy out of the way first: I loved his setting of the opera in 1950’s Coney Island, I think the side-show performers are a wonderful addition and I enjoyed the clever pantomime during the overture. All of this heightened the experience and in no way demeaned the opera as some critics have complained (What a bunch of stuffed shirts). However, where I thought he fell short was in not giving certain key moments the opportunity to land properly. This was most evident when Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi sang “Per pieta” while floating up and down on a balloon ride. The seriousness of that moment should never be undercut. Similarly, the staging of her Act I aria, the satirical “Come scoglio,” while funny, was too frenetic; give the woman a chance to breathe!

The performances were a mixed bag. Of the four lovers, honors go to the gentlemen, Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka, whose naval officers turned Danny Zuko lookalikes were well sung, as was Serena Malfi’s Dorabella. I was somewhat disappointed by Amanda Majeski who seemed overparted as Fiordiligi. In fairness, this is a killer role, both vocally and dramatically, and it takes a great deal of stage presence to get the character’s points across. One of the best opera performances I ever saw was “Così” at New York City Opera many years ago when the company’s Mozart operas were usually sung in English. The late Patricia Brooks, who began her career as an actress before switching to opera, was the Fiordiligi. I can still remember how she emoted during the recitative of “Per pieta” to set up the audience’s laughter, before her entire physical demeanor changed to signal the very real pain the character was experiencing. The audience instantly hushed, and she had them hanging on every note until she finished. I would have liked to have seen that kind of stage savvy at the Met last night, but it wasn’t to be.

Fortunately there was energy and presence to burn when Kelli O’Hara was on stage. There was a lot of interweb disparagement when she was announced as Despina last year, and I’m thrilled she’s proven the naysayers wrong. She projects well in the house, she rattled off Despina’s recitative like a pro and she seemed to be enjoying herself immensely (I particularly loved her dancing Texas justice of the peace at the end of Act II). She and Christopher Maltman, as Don Alfonso, played well together, and here’s hoping this isn’t the end of her performances at the Met.

“Così” will be this Saturday’s “Live in HD” telecast. It’s worth the excursion to Coney Island.

Posted in Television

Great Expectations

Nanette (Cristin Milloti) Getting the Last Laugh in Black Mirror’s “USS Callister”

CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD

Is there any doubt that one of the highest bars in American popular culture was set by that television gem, “The Twilight Zone”? Lasting only five seasons in its initial run, its long shadow has been felt ever since. There’s hardly been a sci-fi or speculative television series in subsequent decades that has not escaped comparison with Rod Serling’s creation. Its hallmarks made it iconic: Serling’s clenched-jaw introductions, the terseness of its storytelling and above all, its final twists. It was and is a tough act to follow, yet we still hope, with the premiere of each new show of that genre, that the original will be matched, if not surpassed.

“Black Mirror,” the brainchild of Charlie Brooker, was both inspired by and measured against TZ from the start. Now in its fourth season, “Black Mirror” seems not only in competition with the older show but with itself. Gaining steam over time, “Black Mirror’s” previous episodes culminated in an unforgettable Season 3, which brought “Nosedive,” “Playtest,” “Shut Up and Dance,” and, most memorably, the Emmy-winning “San Junipero.” Where would Charlie Brooker go from here?

The answer, at least for me, was not entirely welcome. While I have no quibble with Brooker’s promise that Season 4 of “Black Mirror” would be much darker than before, I found it markedly inconsistent, both in writing and in execution. It begins with “USS Callister,” featuring a “Star Trek”-like fantasy created by an exceptionally mean character. I was never a Trekkie, but the end of the episode, both in real and fantasy time, is most satisfying (the above photo is only half the story). Two of the episodes, “Crocodile” and “Metalhead,” are the darkest of Season 4, and both fail for different reasons. I’m not into torture porn, which features in the former, and the latter consists entirely of a chase with little if any information as to “Who,” “What,” “Where” and “Why?,” leaving you not to care. And I found “Black Museum,” the last episode, to be quite predictable.

The two stand-out episodes are “Arkangel” and “Hang the DJ,” which in retrospect are also the most plausible. “Arkangel” rests on the age-old push/ pull between mothers and daughters, updated with technology that’s just around the corner. Featuring Rosemarie DeWitt as the over-protective (to say the least) mom and Brenna Harding as her shielded daughter, the episode is directed by Jodie Foster to a heartbreaking conclusion. However, my favorite, and one of “Black Mirror’s” best, is “Hang the DJ,” the ingredients of which somewhat resemble those of “San Junipero:” two characters with mad chemistry who belong together. In place of Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis, we’ve got Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole (who is especially adorable) in a world where Higher Powers pair people in serial relationships of dictated duration. “Hang the DJ” resonates on several levels, not least in its references to mythic stories. The Forbidden Question looms large in this episode: as Elsa can not ask Lohengrin his name, as Orpheus may not glance back at Eurydice, Amy and Frank agree not to ask the length of their predetermined relationship. Naturally one of them blinks. In addition to the sweetness of its actors, “Hang the DJ” features a number of laugh-out-loud moments and an ending worthy of “The Twilight Zone.” It’s a shame the rest of this season’s episodes didn’t match this one in quality.

The availability of Amazon Prime’s “Philip K. Dick’s ‘Electric Dreams'” followed closely on the heels of the current round of “Black Mirror.” This 10-episode show is based on Dick’s futuristic short stories which were initially published in the early 50’s. Although Dick’s work has been updated and expanded, there’s a strong feeling of “Been there, done that.” So many ground-breaking sci-fi concepts of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s wound up in film and television that the imitations are stronger in memory than the originals. But this show suffers from another problem: so many sci-fi concepts originally deemed beyond imagination have in fact become reality. As Yogi Berra is supposed to have said (and is quoted in one of the “Electric Dream” episodes), “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Like “The Twilight Zone,” “Electric Dreams” is an anthology in which each episode has a different writer, director and cast (“Black Mirror” also features independent episodes, but all with the exception of Season 3’s “Nosedive,” were scripted by Charlie Brooker, who still managed to devise its story). When “Electric Dreams” works, it’s more because of the actors’ performances than the material which by now has been worked and reworked so many times: The boy who thinks his father has been taken over by an alien (“The Father Thing”). The man with a psychotic son being tempted to join a perfect world in which the son never existed (“The Commuter”). The existence of a fantasy world which may be more real than the original (“Real Life”). Greg Kinnear, Mireille Enos and Jack Gore, Timothy Spall, and Anna Paquin, respectively, enrich these episodes to a considerable degree, as does Richard Madden (hello, Robb Stark!) for “The Hood Maker.”

“Human Is”: Silas (Bryan Cranston) and Vera (Essie Davis)

Once again, though, mad chemistry wins out, this time in “Human Is,” the episode which may be closest to Philip Dick’s original concept. The beginning is hard to take—Bryan Cranston may be a space hero, but his emotional distance from his wife, played by Essie Davis, borders on abuse. The change in the man, following a harrowing ambush by aliens, the suspicion of his co-workers, the loyalty of his wife and the wonderful ending are all foreseeable, yet the journey is a particularly enjoyable one. Cranston has never been more intriguing, and he and Davis are terrific together. The final lines of the episode are taken directly from Dick’s short story, and Cranston’s delivery sticks the landing of the final twist. Bravo!

Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

The Opera House

There’s a special pleasure in seeing a film or taped footage of an event my younger self may have experienced several decades ago. “The Opera House,” director Susan Froemke’s new documentary of the conception, construction and finally the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 fits that bill to a T. It’s a fascinating saga of artistic, financial and civic cooperation, and definitely one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen recently. A particularly refreshing aspect is its lack of villains; instead we see a cast of heroes, among whom are Met General Manager Rudolph Bing, Philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III, Lincoln Center Architect Wallace Harrison, Civic Planner Robert Moses, and, most memorably, Soprano Leontyne Price.

As the film rightly points out, the construction of New York’s Lincoln Center, and especially a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, was a national and indeed, an international event. It came at a time when opera claimed a more significant place in the American cultural consciousness than it does today. The exposure of the art form to the general public was then considerable: opera singers had frequently appeared in Hollywood films in the 1930’s and 40’s, and many had had their own radio programs. Later, when television entered the scene, opera singers were a staple on the numerous variety shows that aired; they regularly appeared on “The Tonight Show,” and Beverly Sills even filled in for host Johnny Carson when he was on vacation. The Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, sponsored by Texaco for many years, were an institution. So even if you weren’t a fan, you were at least familiar with the name “Verdi,” and could probably hum the “Toreador Song” from “Carmen.”

I never attended a performance at the old Met at Broadway and 39th Street, but the footage of its auditorium, as Ms. Froemke shows, is breathtaking in its ornate red and gold. However, the house’s shortcomings as a theater were enormous: no room for modern stage equipment, the forced storage of scenery outdoors on Seventh Avenue due to lack of indoor space, few if any rehearsal areas (To further illustrate the point I would have liked Ms. Froemke to have contrasted the physical plant of the old Met by showing the state of the art facilities of a European opera house). As a result plans to build a new opera house were in the wind as early as 1908. A series of problems and crises, not to mention the Depression, intervened in the following decades, so it wasn’t until Robert Moses’ proposal of the cultural enclave that became Lincoln Center that a new opera house began to morph from dream to reality. However, Ms. Froemke doesn’t sugarcoat the human cost of this urban renewal; several former residents of the West Side neighborhood that was condemned and cleared for Lincoln Center express their opinions of their forced move.

A major highlight of “The Opera House” is footage of the groundbreaking ceremony at Lincoln Center in May, 1959, where a very dapper Leonard Bernstein opens the proceedings by leading the New York Philharmonic in Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The event was deemed of such import that President Eisenhower attended; as he does the honors by sinking that first shovel in the earth, we hear the Julliard Choir sing out with the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah.” Leading Met singers Risë Stevens and Leonard Warren also performed, and it’s shocking to remember that the latter would be gone in less than a year, dying of a massive heart attack on stage in the midst of a performance of “La Forza del Destino” at the old house.

Met General Manager Rudolph Bing is of course a major presence in “The Opera House.” At first he appears as almost impossibly imperious and formal, and stubbornly opposed to accommodating the “Save the Met” sentimentalists (Ms. Froemke should have provided some context for this controversy by referencing the public outcry at the significant loss of historic structures in New York City, especially Pennsylvania Station, during the late 50’s and early 60’s, and the fact that only a few years before, a public campaign had indeed saved Carnegie Hall from demolition). But in preparing to open the new house while still saying goodbye to the old, Bing emerges as a hero. What a difficult job this man had–mounting a new opera to inaugurate the Met’s new home (Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra”), apprehensively eyeing Director Franco Zeffirelli’s creation of a massive extravaganza of a production that eventually broke the stage turntable and famously trapped Leontyne Price inside Cleopatra’s pyramid, overseeing nine new productions scheduled for that first season (four in the first week alone), and dealing with a looming strike by the orchestra musicians (though not mentioned in the film, Bing announced from the stage on Opening Night that a settlement had been reached). The tension as we see Bing deal with all of this is palpable, yet somehow he manages. Few could have handled all these crises as well.

But it’s Soprano Leontyne Price, whose career straddled the old and the new houses, who walks away with the film. At the age of 91 she’s sharply informative as well as a total hoot. I particularly enjoyed her account of what it was like to sing with Tenor Franco Corelli, with whom she made a joint debut at the Met (“We sang insane!!!,” as attested to by the recording of the “Il Trovatore” broadcast from that season), and her stories of the trials, tribulations and triumph of opening the new house as Cleopatra are terrific. As she proudly—and rightly—states, “Sometimes you sing so well you just want to kiss yourself, and I did that night.” When she breaks into the opening phrases of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (“It has become the time of evening/When people sit on their porches/Rocking gently and talking gently…”) while reminiscing about their friendship, don’t be surprised if you find yourself tearing up as I did. As the possessor of the most beautiful soprano voice of my time, she remains a treasure.

“The Opera House’ will be screened once more as a Fathom event on January 17. Here’s hoping for a quick release of the DVD and a showing on PBS. It’s a marvelous film.

Posted in Television

The Crown

WARNING–SPOILERS FOLLOW

Rule Britannia!

Late to the party as usual, I didn’t expect to enjoy “The Crown” as much as I did when I finally tuned in last month. Needless to say I wound up eating my pre-viewing impression and was soundly hooked as I binged Season One. Season Two, recently available for streaming on Netflix, has only solidified my admiration for this show.

What makes “The Crown” so addictive? There’s the obvious: American fascination with royalty, American fascination with the very rich, American fascination with scandal (real or imagined)—you get the picture. However, there’s more in play. While the dates and events leading up to and during World War II are generally known, dramas centered on life in England’s post-war period haven’t received nearly as much exposure in America. Because Elizabeth has reigned for decades, most of us have no image of her other than the formerly middle-aged, now elderly woman she is. It comes as quite a shock to realize how very young she was—only 25—when she became Queen, so seeing her at this stage of her life is certainly a new and refreshing experience.

Ah, but many ask: Is what we see on Netflix true? Aside from the fact that we’ll never really know who said what to whom in so many situations dramatized in “The Crown,” some details tend to nag. Not to be nit-picky, but I find it very hard to believe that the subject of Elizabeth’s regnant name was not discussed prior to her father’s death; she had been heiress presumptive for years at a time when George VI was not exactly in the best of health. “Spontaneity” is simply not in the monarchy’s lexicon. In addition, certain aspects of Season Two’s “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” episode were especially troublesome (and Michael C. Hall was a surprisingly awful JFK). Why was there no mention of President Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, American Ambassador to the Court of St. James in the 1930’s? Given the senior Kennedy’s position, JFK would have been familiar with court protocol unlike the bumbler we see on the screen. And JFK’s being jealous of Jackie’s star power? By all accounts this was a marriage shrewdly made, designed to showcase her style and sophistication as essential political assets. He knew it, she knew it, and by all means the strategists knew it and deployed accordingly.

These quibbles are relatively minor considering how well “The Crown” works as drama. Season One is one long spellbinder featuring a very young woman acceding to a position of power while her country was still coping with the privations of World War II, all at a time when her assumption of the throne put unimaginable strain on her marriage. Season Two gets off to a slow start—as Elizabeth aptly observes, Philip’s whining and whingeing is indeed tedious, and unfortunately drags on for three episodes. But then “The Crown” hits its stride, with one fascinating story after another: Philip besmirched by the scandal of the divorce of his boon companion, Mike Parker, and later, his suspected involvement in the Profumo Affair; the Duke of Windsor’s attempt to obtain a position of influence in England as details regarding his (and the Duchess of Windsor’s) involvement with Hitler and the Nazi regime before the war sour his prospects; the back story of Philip’s unhappy childhood, the shocking loss of his favorite sister and her family and his seemingly blind eye to the emotional needs of his own son; and best of all, Elizabeth’s dance with Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana. I don’t think we see her enjoying any other moment in this show as much as his whirling her around the floor to “Begin the Beguine.”

Netflix really shot the works in the casting department for “The Crown.” John Lithgow deserves every accolade he’s received as Churchill. I enjoy Jared Harris in everything he’s done, even (and especially) as the scheming Lane Pryce in “Mad Men.” His George VI is a solid presence, and it’s rather interesting that both he and Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) played the character so memorably though neither resembles the frail man who actually reigned. Pip Torrens’ multi-layered performance as Royal Secretary Tommy Lascelles, the courtier you love to hate, is fun to watch, and Greg Wise makes an incredibly suave Lord Mountbatten. Perhaps best of all, Alex Jennings’ performance as the Duke of Windsor, a man eternally denied what he wanted most and blind to the ramifications of his actions, may be the stand-out of both seasons.

But the heart of “The Crown” is its trio of core actors: Claire Foy (Elizabeth), Matt Smith (Philip) and especially Vanessa Kirby (Margaret). The gentleman goes first: Matt Smith does an excellent job with a difficult and at times impossible character. To say Philip is mercurial is an understatement, yet while Smith shows the recklessness and impatience of the man, he makes us understand his frustrations. Equally skilled at displaying Philip’s tender side, Smith delivers the character’s speech at his 10th anniversary party, in all in its complexity, to perfection.

Claire Foy’s portrayal of the young Elizabeth could not be better. Her range is a marvel–from being overwhelmed at the father’s untimely death and her assumption of the crown to issues with Philip and Margaret and the intricacies of dealing with a parade of prime ministers, competing courtiers and her own mother, she’s just about perfect. She’s perhaps at her best when an anvil falls and she can’t show emotion. Watch her gather herself in the blink of an eye and just go on. This is most evident in the “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” episode when she presses a friend to reveal the cutting things Jackie said about her at a dinner party–the merest flicker of hurt crosses her face as she struggles to shrug it off. Yet her best scene in Season Two, aside from dancing with Nkrumah, may be her discussion with Lord Altrincham (astutely played by John Heffernan), well-meaning yet vocal critic of Elizabeth’s performance and public image as monarch. While it was her choice to meet with him, she really doesn’t want to be there. Yet Ms. Foy makes it equally apparent that Elizabeth knows she must listen to this man’s suggestions in order to improve—she owes it to the country. The actor’s skill in this scene is only topped by the Queen’s delivery of her first Christmas address on television—her awkwardness and discomfort are palpable as she gamely pushes through.

But it’s the brilliantly nervy performance of Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret that keeps you glued to the tube for “Just one more episode!” as you binge. She delivers on a tremendous opportunity, playing a character whose existence threatens to become as empty as that of her uncle, the Duke of Windsor. What a showcase Ms. Kirby has: the Peter Townsend mess, her clashes with her sister (or, more accurately, the institutions of crown, church and government) and her involvement with and eventual marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode). Ms. Kirby and Mr. Goode manage to maintain an exquisitely slow burn during their characters’ courtship; their interactions during the episode “Beryl,” with her insinuations and his ambiguity (sexual and otherwise) are riveting. In a way you’re sorry to see them married. And so will they be.

The next season of “The Crown” will skip ahead to the early 1970’s, and the actors we’ve enjoyed so much will be replaced. Olivia Coleman, marvelous in “Broadchurch” among many other things, will inherit Claire Foy’s tiara. I have no doubt the show will retain its quality.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

The Artistry of Barbara Cook

She had the blessing of two phenomenal careers, both of which remain unparalleled.

I’ve collected Barbara Cook’s recordings for years, and started to delve into them more systematically a number of months ago after I read “Then & Now,” her almost painfully honest memoir. Following her recent passing, I returned to her catalog of work, and once again found myself astonished by her way with a song.

I was fortunate to see her live twice. The first time she performed many of the songs on her “It’s Better With a Band” album, but what remains indelible in my memory is the encore she sang—Jerome Kern’s “Long Ago and Far Away,” without a mike—just that silvery sound with no electronic enhancement whatsoever. The song just floated throughout the hall. I later heard her with the New Jersey Symphony, conducted by Wally Harper, her long-time music director, and most of the material came from her “Disney Album,” which had just been released. Was there ever a more perfect match of singer and song? The most refreshing aspect of her performance was her lack of pretense. I remember her putting on her glasses to read the sheet music during the “Disney” concert (for lyrics–she famously never learned to read music). This carried through in an interview she gave at one point on WQXR, New York’s classical music station. She was asked “How long do you warm up before a performance?” Ms. Cook replied “I don’t warm up. I just hum a few bars to see what I’ve got to work with that night.” And she was also a knowledgeable and opinionated opera fan (Is there any other kind?) whose interviews during Metropolitan Opera broadcast intermissions were a treat.

I have to think being Broadway’s favorite ingenue during the 1950’s and early ’60’s was excellent preparation for her second act as a solo performer. Among her many accomplishments, she created three indelible characters: Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” Marian Paroo in Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” and Amalia in Bock and Harnick’s “She Loves Me.” She also graced revivals of  “The King and I,” “Showboat” and “Carousel,” both as Carrie Pipperidge and later as Julie Jordan (she famously preferred the former). While her performances in all of the these shows have been captured on disk, the one I always return to is “The Music Man.” Is there a more evocative number than “Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You?,” Marian’s duet with the barbershop quartet? The real 1912 was, I’m sure, far removed from the theatrical River City, but listening to that number automatically transports you to a long ago summer night. It’s the way we always wished that era had been.

As great as her Broadway career was, she set an even higher bar as a solo/cabaret artist. What I most liked about her was the emotional level she brought to a song. Nothing drives me up the wall faster than a singer who goes dramatically over the top, pedal to the metal, when the song is not intended to carry such heavy baggage. Singers who consistently resort to that approach don’t trust the material they’re performing, which makes me not trust them. Ms. Cook, on the other hand, knew what a song was saying, and within that context illuminated the composer and lyricist’s intent. Musically she sang what fit her voice, whether it was traditionally a “man’s song” or a “woman’s song;” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her His Face,” “This Nearly Was Mine” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” were standards in her repertoire, and on “Marianne,” a lovely Jerry Herman number which surprisingly fit her voice like a glove, she didn’t bother to change pronouns, letting the music carry the emotion of the song. Few singers possess the art of illuminating both music and words simultaneously, but Ms. Cook certainly did. Listen to “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy” from her “Barbara Cook at the Met” album. She so obviously loved singing it–she relishes the phrase “corny as Kansas as August,” and leans on certain words to build to the eventual climax of the song: “fearlessly,” “loudly,” “flatly” finally, of course, “love.” Her musicianship was superb. I had no idea that Stephen Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” had such lovely music until I heard her sing it.

She never remained static in her approach, instead revisiting a song to find more within. Case in point: Jerry Herman’s “Time Heals Everything” from his show “Mack and Mabel.” Her first recording of this number, on “Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall,” presents an almost objective approach, as if she’s trying to give herself a pep talk to overcome the present grief of loss.  A number of years later, on her “Barbara Cook’s Broadway” album, she’s sadder but just as determined to survive the pain. On this recording the song is paired in a medley with a beautiful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” in which her ability to sing legato—the smooth transition from note to note—is on full display. She could go the dramatic route—she makes her voice break twice in an even later, more pain-driven version of “Time Heals Everything” on her live “The Champion Season” recording—but it really doesn’t suit her. Nevertheless she manages to save that performance with a floated final note so ravishing that a “Lovely!” from a man in the audience is audible.

Fortunately she left a considerable body of work covering the best of the American Song Book. It’s so hard to pick my favorite Barbara Cook recordings, but I’ll try. All of these are currently available:

“Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall.” Her return to performing after many years away. Although the lady tells the audience “I’m not as nervous as I thought I’d be,” you can tell she is at the start, though two songs in, she’s totally relaxed. “Carolina in the Morning,” with its peach of an arrangement, and “Wait Till You See Him” are tremendous.

“It’s Better With a Band.” Here she’s in full command of her resources, with excellent material, and her confidence as an artist is off the charts. “Them There Eyes,” her vocal/kazoo duet with tuba, the medley of Leonard Bernstein songs, especially “I Can Cook Too,”and the aforementioned “Marianne” are highlights. You can see her perform a number of songs from this album in “An Evening With Barbara Cook,” on YouTube.

“Follies.” With all due respect to Dorothy Collins, who originated the role of Sally Plummer, Ms. Cook delivers what may be the definitive version of “Losing My Mind.”

“Oscar Winners,” consisting entirely of songs with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, on which Ms. Cook sings a stunning “All the Things You Are” and “The Gentleman is a Dope.”

“The Disney Album.” “Lavender Blue” alone is worth the price of the CD, though hearing Barbara Cook in triplicate, courtesy of over-dubbing, on “When I See an Elephant Fly” is an absolute treat. I love songs from the older Disney films, and I only wish she had recorded “Never Smile at a Crocodile.”

“No One is Alone,””Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and “Loverman.” These four recordings date from 2007 to 2012, and though she was pushing 80, she could still sustain a phrase. Her voice maintained its quality, and in fact only became warmer when she lowered the keys in which she sang. If your only acquaintance with “I’m Through With Love,” is hearing Alfalfa sing it in an old “Our Gang” short, you need to hear Ms. Cook’s version on “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” as well as her superlative rendition of Sondheim’s “I Wish I Could Forget You.” That last song also appears on “No One is Alone,” which features a lovely medley of “Long Before I knew You”/”I Fall in Love Too Easily,” as well as Sondheim’s “One More Kiss.””You Make Me Feel So Young,” from a live 2011 performance, has some great up-tempo numbers on which she clearly has a ball—“Frim Fram Sauce” and “Love is Good For Anything That Ails You,” plus her discourse on how difficult it is to find a good kazoo. “Loverman” contains an arresting a capella version of “House of the Rising Sun.” While her voice by then was not what it once was, what she did have was far more than most singers, and she makes it work.

One last compelling example of Barbara Cook’s way with a song: “For All We Know,” on the “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” album (I had always thought of this as the quintessential World War II song, and was surprised to learn it had been composed in 1934). Accompanied on piano by her then-music director, Lee Musiker, Ms. Cook delivers an indelible performance. It’s easy to go over the top with this number, but she underscores the sentiment with just a touch of sorrow. She tells you volumes, not only about the woman who’s able to face such a parting while keeping it together, but also about the man she’s singing it to, who inspired such emotion.

Two minutes of heaven.

Posted in Television

Beginning of the End

Shock and awe, particularly the former, have been the hallmark of “Game of Thrones” from the very beginning. Ned Stark’s execution, Tyrion’s regaining consciousness on the slanted perch of the Eyrie’s Sky Room, the Red Wedding, the sacrifice of Shareen…all these and so many more. And the warfare—with or without dragons. What bothered me about this season was the absence of a “Wow!” element of surprise, even with last week’s Battle With the Wights. Instead there’s been a pervasive feeling of fulfillment, as if the show runners were simply ticking items off a “To Do” list. That is, until this season’s final episode, “The Dragon and the Wolf.”

Few events have been as satisfying as Littlefinger’s demise, not even Ramsey Bolton’s metamorphosis into doggie dinner. I literally applauded the confrontational sleight of hand Sansa managed to pull off. While I suspected Stark blood would prove thicker than water, I must admit the show runners had me second-guessing their intentions with their ambiguous build-up in the last couple of episodes. I thought Arya’s twirling the dagger and handing it off to Sansa last week was nothing short of “Kill me if you dare.” The tip-off in the final confrontation should have been the sight of Bran the Three-Eyed Raven at Sansa’s side, but Arya is such a commanding figure that all eyes were on her. Kudos to the show runners for such a delightful payoff.

It’s hard to pick Littlefinger’s worst crime: The attempt on Bran’s life? Lying about it to create eternal warfare between Starks and Lannisters? Betraying Ned Stark? Selling Sansa to the Boltons? For my money the most pathetic was dropping poor addled Lysa Arryn through the Moon Door. The one swift slash by Arya that ended his life was too good for him.

This episode also proved to be Old Home Week in the reunions leading up to the Big Confab: Tyrion and Bronn, Bronn and Podrick, Brienne and Jamie of course, but Brienne and the Hound was one for the ages. I half expected Brienne to sing that wonderful line from the Leonard Bernstein musical, “Candide”: “You were dead you know.” It was wonderful to see the Hound smile like a proud papa over Brienne’s testimony to Arya’s duelling prowess. I only hope his threatened fight to the death with Brother Mountain, sure to be a highlight of next season, finds him the victor.

If nothing else, “The Dragon and the Wolf” proved how many events in this saga were the result of lies and evasions. Littlefinger’s plotting put so much in motion, but on it goes: Jon needs to know that his real name is Aegon Targaeryan (normally I’d say “Too late, he’s already bedded his aunt,” but incest is coin of the realm on GoT), Sam needs to be told he’s really Lord Tarly and should be in a command position. By the way, it seems to me that Bran’s Three-Eyed Raven radar needs fine-tuning if he didn’t see that Rhaegar Targaryan and Lianna Stark were secretly married. Is it possible that the maester’s diary Sam read was just a fantastical allegory? Maester-time could get pretty dull, I would imagine, and spicing things up with tall tales could be great entertainment. And speaking of wrong-number prophecies, I fully expect the first big “Wow!” of next season to be the reveal that Danaerys is pregnant. The show runners love to bookend, and this twist would be the perfect companion to both Cersei/Jamie and Rhaegar/Lianna. Though I have to say the moral might be a little odd: “See, incest can be good”?

Two other developments did surprise me (no, not Jon and Danaerys—if you didn’t sense bedtime was on the horizon, you need a new show). I never expected Jamie to leave Cersei under any circumstances, particularly now that she’s pregnant. It’s true that he’s always tried to uphold honor, but still, given all he’s done on her behalf in the past, his riding North to presumably join up with his brother was a huge surprise.

As was the destruction of the Wall, which proved to be a fitting end to this season. How is it the dragon Viserion can still spew fire after he’s been frozen? And what’s the Night King’s secret command to get him to do so? It sure isn’t “Dracarys!” I only hope Tormund survived the debacle, just so we can see him with Brienne once more.

Another long lonely winter without “Game of Thrones” awaits. Only six more episodes to savor.