Posted in Books, Music, Opera

Marnie

Marnie (Isabel Leonard) and her Shadows (Copyright Metropolitan Opera)

Luckily Alfred Hitchcock did not have the last word. In its new, operatic form, “Marnie” is an interesting work, not necessarily in spite of its flaws but perhaps because of them. Composed by Nico Muhly with a libretto by Nicholas Wright, the opera ended its run at the Metropolitan Opera last Saturday with a live HD transmission. Prior to that I was fortune to see it in the house.

For better or worse, what consistently drives “Marnie” is the drama. The problem? What works best on the page doesn’t necessarily work all that well on the stage. The basis of both the opera and the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title is a 1961 novel by Winston Graham, author of the “Poldark” series. Narrated by the title character, “Marnie” is the story of a thief who steals from her employers and continually changes her identity to conceal her crimes. She’s caught in the act by Mark Rutland, head of his family’s publishing firm who’s obsessed with her. He essentially blackmails her into marriage though she has an absolute horror of sex. Her refusal to sleep with him culminates in what is now legally known as marital rape. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Mark continually protects Marnie as her past begins to catch up with her.

To say this is not your usual operatic subject is an understatement.

In resetting the work to 1958, the opera’s creative team made some alterations to the story, both major and minor. I think it was a mistake to make Mark’s mother something of a villain—I missed the cordial relationship Marnie has with her in the book, as well as her friendship with several of Mark’s tenants, all of which serve to present a warmer side of the character. Further, the original Terry is Mark’s cousin, not his brother as he is in the opera, and the corporate in-fighting between them plays a far larger and more bitter role in the novel. It’s Mark, not his mother, who’s behind a buy-out and later a sale of the company, thus triggering Terry, who knows full well of Mark’s obsession with Marnie, to retaliate by reporting her to the police. Most importantly, though, in a nod to more enlightened sensibilities, the creative team has turned Mark’s rape of Marnie into an attempt rather than a completed act, which is immediately followed by a stunning visual (in silhouette) of her suicide attempt. While this change was certainly welcome, I thought the operatic team should have picked up on Graham’s strong hint that Marnie had been sexually abused as a child by at least one of her mother’s “customers” during the latter’s time as a prostitute.

“Marnie” proves that Nico Muhly has grown enormously as an opera composer since “Two Boys.” He’s writing more closely to character now, and the music becomes more lyrical as the opera unfolds, especially in the second act. Muhly is celebrated for his choral writing, but perhaps we have too much of a good thing here. The first act chorus of office workers commenting on the storm and stress of Marnie’s life is somewhat excessive, and goes beyond just covering one of her fifteen (!) costume changes. On the other hand, his writing for the chorus at the country club dinner, and particularly at the hunt and at Marnie’s mother’s graveside, is spot on. Best of all are the Shadow Marnies, the four singers who frequently accompany her and illustrate her state of mind. Muhly directs them to sing in vibrato-less fashion, which results in an eerie sound perfectly suited to a psychological thriller. It’s an updated version of the theremin soundtrack used so often in 1940’s movies to underscore disturbed characters (See “Spellbound” and “The Lost Weekend”). The Shadow Marnies’ list of her many aliases in the opera’s final scene is particularly chilling, and they provide a great visual, especially during Marnie’s sessions with a psychiatrist, as they literally take turns on the couch.

Even the critics who panned the opera have applauded the production, and rightly so. Designed by Julian Crouch and directed by Michael Meyer, creator of the Met’s Las Vegas “Rigoletto,” this is the best I’ve seen at the Met since Robert Carsen’s “Der Rosenkavalier” of two seasons ago. Some choices seemed odd at first, especially the appearance of several male dancers in gray suits and fedoras during Marnie’s first theft—I thought they were plainclothes detectives. However, they’re put to excellent use during the hunt scene as they embody the tumult that ends in Marnie’s destroying her injured horse, Forio. Speaking of gray suits, the 1950’s costumes, designed by Arianne Phillips, were classic, and stylishly worn by both principals and choristers. What a welcome sight to see such a unified vision on stage.

The cast couldn’t have been better. Muhly wrote the opera with Isabel Leonard in mind, and the role suits her to a T, both vocally and dramatically—plus she looked fantastic in her ’50’s wardrobe (all fifteen outfits). Christopher Maltman brought some gravitas to the obsessed Mark; his besotted gaze at Ms. Leonard when she tied his black tie but continually turned his head away from her, spoke volumes. His diction was superb, to the extent that I didn’t need the titles when he sang. Iestyn Davies was perfect casting for the slippery Terry; Muhly rightly illustrated the character’s observation to Marnie in the novel that “We’re two of a kind” by scoring Terry for countertenor, thus having him share a good portion of her mezzo-soprano vocal range. The supporting cast was likewise excellent, including Janis Kelly as Mark’s mother, and Anthony Dean Griffey (Mr. Strutt) and Denyce Graves, still in terrific voice as Marnie’s mother, both back at the Met after many years.

While I think “Marnie” is a good work, as opposed to a great one, it makes me want to hear more from Nico Muhly. He’s only 37. I’m eager to see what he does next.

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Posted in Television

Bodyguard

Richard Madden and Keely Hawes: “Bodyguard”

If ever there was a series for which to avoid spoilers, “Bodyguard,” Netflix’s latest entry, is it.

“Rollercoaster” doesn’t even begin to characterize it. This is the most curious blend of shock and ambiguity I’ve seen in quite a while. Created and written by Jed Mercurio, who fills the same roles for “Line of Duty,” perhaps the best cop show ever, “Bodyguard” is difficult to discuss without giving plot twists away. So I’ll just leave it at this: The protagonist is David Budd (Richard Madden, truly late of “Game of Thrones”), an Afghanistan war veteran turned police sergeant, who, after thwarting a terrorist attack, is assigned as protection officer for the controversial Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keely Hawes). Unlike “Line of Duty,” which is a classic police procedural, “Bodyguard” is a thriller that never stops. So many shocking  developments occur that sneaking around the internet for spoilers will absolutely wreck your viewing experience.

It’s not hard to see why this show was a huge BBC hit. First and foremost, it features taut storytelling—there’s not an ounce of filler or flab in its six episodes. Which raises an important point: some recent Netflix series (I’m looking at you, “The Five”) are stretched beyond endurance. Ten episodes for a mystery or thriller? That’s definitely four too many. Brevity is not only the soul of wit—it’s frequently the hallmark of good writing for this genre.

In addition to Robb Stark—er, David Budd—there are some powerful women at work here. Aside from the Home Secretary, there’s Lorraine Craddock (Pippa Haywood), his immediate superior, and Anne Sampson (Gina McKee), Head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command—all played by terrific actresses. Once again, Keely Hawes, so memorable in Seasons Two and Three of “Line of Duty”, turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance as Julia Montague. Ambitious and hard-nosed, she’s not afraid to tangle with the big boys in government. She’s matched, if not exceeded by Gina McKee, who plays her character’s ambiguity to the hilt. There’s not one second you’re sure of her. Is she working against the Home Secretary or is she loyal? Ms. McKee keeps you guessing for all six episodes. And she’s not the only one—you’re not even certain of David Budd. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Anjli Mohindra as Nadia, a woman forced by her husband to don a suicide vest.

One word of advice: “Bodyguard” is definitely bingeable, but you may want to take a breath or two along the way. You’re going to need it.

Bravo, Jed Mercurio!

Posted in Movie Reviews

Paranoia in Red, White and Blue

Parallax_View_movie_posterWe go through periods of time when American movies excel in looking nervously over their shoulder. The film noir era is a definite example, but is it any wonder that 1970’s films seemed to feature so many shades of paranoia? With the assassinations of the previous decade, and especially the byzantine twists of Watergate, it wasn’t surprising. What an overwhelming sense of ideals betrayed, with the Nixon administration as the prime agent of cover-up when not itself acting as the perpetrator of misdeeds.

“The Parallax View” (1974), based on the 1970 novel of the same title by Loren Singer, was clearly inspired by the coincidental deaths (or deliberate if you have a conspiracy bent) of witnesses to the JFK assassination and its surrounding events. However, while maintaining the book’s device of a shadowy organization masterminding these incidents, the film omits the novel’s hints as to the “why.” The audience is left with an overwhelming sense of isolation. Threats seem to be in the very air we breathe.

This is quite a turn from an earlier film which also culminates in an assassination at a political rally, 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate.” There the threat was specific, not diffuse, and the Cold War message was loud and clear: “The Commies are everywhere.” Nevertheless you knew the villains would be thwarted and the government of the United States would be preserved. However, “The Parallax View,” far from offering such reassurance, says there are forces far larger than you and me and they’ll always, but always, win—it’s foolish to even try to do battle.

“The Parallax View” begins with a Fourth of July parade which leads to perhaps the most evocative assassination scene on film, as Senator Charles Carroll, an independent evidently exploring a Presidential run, works a fundraiser held at the top of Seattle’s Space Needle. Maybe it’s because I have a problem with heights that I found this particularly unsettling, but seeing the attendees trapped when the shooting starts is a nightmare—if you lived through the ’60’s, this may bring it all back for you. Key players are rendered powerless, including Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a TV news reporter, and Austin Tucker (William Daniels), the senator’s political advisor, as they’re separated from the scene by a wall of blood-splattered glass. We see the senator’s fixed stare as he lies dying, so reminiscent of the famous photo of Bobby Kennedy sprawled on the hotel kitchen floor while a busboy leans over him to offer comfort.

Although a faceless investigation committee declares this the act of a lone disturbed man who sought recognition, we’ve been shown otherwise (Take that, Warren Commission). But when Lee Carter later shows up on the doorstep of reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) with “They’re going to kill me, six other witnesses have already died,” we’re off and running.

You may feel as I did that every plot hole in “The Parallax View” feels wide enough to drive a Mack truck through. At first I thought it was simply a bad editing job, but the novel shares the same problem of too much left unexplained. Perhaps it’s director Alan J. Pakula’s effort to make the audience work by forcing them to fill in the blanks themselves. It’s not always successful: Joe Frady remains an unlikely and unlikeable investigator. In Warren Beatty’s absent-minded performance, he seems rather dim and incompetent (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively, in “All the Presidents’ Men,” would have solved the mystery in less than half the time). When he survives the bombing that kills another assassination witness, you just don’t believe he had the capability to do so.

Beatty could have taken lessons from several actors who make the most out of minimal screen time. In fact Paula Prentiss’s big scene, Lee Carter’s insistence to Frady that the people present at the Space Needle are being murdered one by one, is something of a cult favorite. William Daniels as Austin Tucker does a wonderful job, initially as a dapper, in-control political operative, and later as a haunted and hunted man who trusts no one. The performances of several others are equally vivid: Kelly Thordsen as that staple of films of this genre, a corrupt local sheriff, Walter McGinn as the shadowy Parallax operative, and Hume Cronyn, not chewing the scenery this time, as Frady’s editor. But the climactic scene does what movies are best at—telling a story visually, as we watch Candidate George Hammond ride a golf cart through the large arena in which a campaign fundraiser is to take place. Shots ring out, he slumps in his seat, and the runaway cart crashes into banquet table after banquet table, all variously covered by red, white and blue tablecloths.

To a certain extent you wonder why it’s worth taking out Hammond when he orates only the same nondescript all-purpose political blather lampooned a year later in Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” A portrait of America on the eve of the bicentennial, “Nashville” culminates in an assassination not of that film’s Presidential candidate, the invisible Hal Philip Walker, but of a celebrity—the film’s most fragile character, the singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakly). Interestingly enough, this was not in Joan Tewksbury’s original script; Altman, clearly of the view that assassination had by this time been woven into the fabric of America, insisted on its inclusion.

nashville-gunshot
Nashville: Assassination by Loner

There’s no inkling during the film that we’re headed in this direction. But the running thread of Hal Philip Walker’s campaign and particularly, Lady Pearl’s (Barbara Baxley) teary speech about working for JFK and Bobby Kennedy, ring a faint alarm. At the rally at Nashville’s Centennial Park in front of the Parthenon, we follow the moves of both a Barbara Jean-obsessed soldier (Scott Glenn) and Kenny (David Hayward), a seemingly sympathetic young man who’s been toting a guitar case (it’s Nashville after all). Following a series of images—Barbara Jean performing in a long white dress, not coincidentally resembling Lady Liberty, with a huge billowing American flag on display behind the stage—we see to our shock that it’s the “nice boy,” Kenny, who whips out a gun from that guitar case and fires away. The phoenix-like emergence of the wannabee Albuqueque (the late great Barbara Harris) who rises from the chaos to calm the crowd with chorus after chorus of “It Don’t Worry Me” reassures us that we’re survivors, though it doesn’t erase the fear of what came before.

All the President's Men:
All the President’s Men: “In my day we called it a double-cross”

When “All the President’s Men” (1976) finally rolls around, the government has betrayed us all. What with CIA operatives, slush funds, hush money, campaign dirty tricks—all perpetrated by CREEP, that marvelous acronym for the Committee to Re-elect the President—you can never be sure of anything. By the time Bob Woodward has his last late night meeting with Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) in his favorite underground parking garage, you too may want to pull up your collar and scurry away.

Enjoy the fear.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Second Time Around

Last-Picture-Show-The-09
Timothy Bottoms and Cloris Leachman: “The Last Picture Show”

Do the films we love in our youth still resonate for us years later?

I clearly remember how “The Last Picture Show” bowled me over when I first saw it as a college student. Based upon the novel by Larry McMurtry, the film covers one year in the life of small town Anarene, Texas, during the early 1950’s. The windblown locale (Archer City, McMurtry’s real-life home town) is itself a character in the narrative and serves as one of the film’s strongest assets. It’s hard to shake the sense of desolation produced by that short strip of worn storefronts lining Main Street across from an equally dilapidated Texaco station. This stark image is accentuated by director Peter Bogdanovich’s choice to film the story in black and white—unusual at the time of its 1971 release, but absolutely fitting.

Viewing the movie so many years later, I was struck by how well Bogdanovich captures the claustrophobia and sheer boredom of small town life. The only entertainment spots in Anarene are the town movie theater, a tattered pool hall and Friday night high school football games in which the local boys always seem to be trounced. Everybody knows everybody else’s business—there really are no secrets.

Enter Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), two contrasting high school seniors, the latter a not-necessarily-very-nice guy, the former, a far deeper individual who sometimes doesn’t understand his own emotions. The casting of this film couldn’t be better, and it’s even more of a treat now to watch these young men at the outset of their careers to see how they were able to grow into mature actors. Jeff Bridges is terrific, and Timothy Bottoms is so heartfelt as Sonny that I was shocked to learn John Ritter was almost cast in the part (Nobody does suffering better than Timothy Bottoms). Ben Johnson’s performance as Sam the Lion, Anarene’s anchor and resident role model, has lost little over the years—that Best Supporting Actor Oscar he won for this role was well-deserved, though his long monologue at the reservoir may seem a bit stagey today (fault of the script, not the actor). And Clu Gulager, playing Abilene, the local heel, may have the fewest lines in the movie but nevertheless leaves a strong impression.

Sadly, there’s one aspect of “The Last Picture Show” that’s become more grating over the years. This was model Cybill Shepherd’s first acting job, and unfortunately it shows. Chosen by Peter Bogdanovich to play Jacy, the prettiest girl in town, she fills the bill visually but it’s a shame that so many of her line readings go clank (One is reminded of Pauline Kael’s appraisal of an acting performance of Cyd Charisse: “She reads her lines as if she learned them phonetically.”) Of course she improved tremendously after this film, but there’s a difference between acting insincerely as Jacy does and insincerely acting which Ms. Shepherd does. However, she plays the comedy well—Jacy’s reaction to Duane’s non-performance in the motel room and later, her snappishness at Duane’s preening following his success, is classic. Nevertheless, it would have made for a more interesting dynamic had a more skilled actress with a greater understanding of Jacy’s duplicity played the role (In a parallel universe equipped with time travel, Alexis Bledel would have been ideal).

But what’s particularly striking when watching “The Last Picture Show” now is that it provided such strong roles for three mature actresses: Ellen Burstyn as Jacy’s mother, Lois; Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper, the football coach’s wife; and Eileen Brennan as Genevieve, who runs the town’s cafe owned by Sam the Lion. While few actors could play comedy as well as Ms. Brennan (check out “Private Benjamin”), it’s great to see her thrive in a more dramatic role. Both Ms. Leachman and Ms. Burstyn were nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars, and while Ms. Leachman won, Ms. Burstyn is a lot more fun to watch. Although she’s bored to death by her husband, Lois still enjoys life. She’s accumulated more than her share of mileage, while Ruth has seemingly stayed in her shell. Nevertheless, both of these characters connect with the recessive Sonny in two of the best scenes in the film. Ellen Burstyn’s roguish, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” look at Sonny after she rescues him from his runaway marriage to Jacy, and Cloris Leachman’s explosion at the unfaithful young man when he seeks her out after Billy’s death, the scene which cinched her the Oscar, retain their power after all this time.

It’s a gift that “The Last Picture Show,” is the type of quiet movie that nevertheless still speaks to those who return to it after so many years. Seeing it again is certainly time well spent.

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.

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.