Posted in Opera

Opera Bound

My, Peter Gelb shot himself in the foot this week, didn’t he? First he leans on the editor of “Opera News” to declare that no further reviews of Met productions would appear on its pages. Not coincidentally, this immediately followed an issue of the magazine that featured both a critical write-up of the Met’s new “Götterdammerung” and an opinion piece by Brian Kellow panning the Met’s approach to the entire Ring cycle. Truth be told: (a) not that many people liked the Machine or Robert Lepage’s conception of the work, and (b) what appeared in “Opera News” barely holds a candle to Alex Ross’s review in “The New Yorker,” in which, among other things, he called the new “Götterdammerung”, “the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”  Ouch. The Gelb Ban lasted a day, during which much blasting occurred on the ‘net, and the Great One was forced to reverse himself.

Questions of hissy fits and censorship aside, I saw “Das Rheingold” and “Götterdammerung” in the house, and I loved them. I’d never seen either opera live before, and “Götterdammerung” in particular blew my mental circuits. Wagner has grown on me over the years—prior to this season I’d seen “Die Meistersinger,” “Lohengrin” and “Die Fliegende Hollander” (loved the first, was amazed by the second, but had a tough time sitting through the intermission-less third). I’ve been an opera-goer since the age of 13, but my Wagner love didn’t really come to the fore until I saw “Tristan und Isolde” several seasons ago, with Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner. In a word, transcendent.

Despite recently joining the “I Heart Richard” Club, I can’t say that my Wagner collection, which alas is presently limited, contains my favorite opera recordings. For me there are two separate lists: “My Favorite Operas,” into which, for example, the Ring is clearly headed, and “My Favorite Opera Recordings” which are those I find myself listening to most frequently. The two lists can’t and don’t always intersect. “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Cosi fan Tutte” and “Der Rosenkavalier” are among my favorite operas, but I’ve got all three presently in dry dock due to listening fatigue. “Lulu” and “Peter Grimes” are fabulous, but I need to see as well as hear these for the fullest enjoyment.

“The New Yorker” recently published Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s list of her favorite recordings, and there was some snarking along the lines of “How can she call herself an opera lover and not list any Wagner?” Evidently I’m pretty much on the same page as the good Justice, because my list, with the opera recordings I’m relaxing with most often these days, looks like this:

Handel: “Ariodante”; Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Sabina Puertolas, Topi Lehtipuu, Matthew Brook, Alan Curtis conducting Il Complesso Barocco (Virgin Classics). Simply superb musicianship.

Handel, “Julius Caesar”; Norman Treigle, Beverly Sills, Maureen Forrester, Beverly Wolff, Julius Rudel conducting the New York City Opera Orchestra (RCA). Yeah, yeah, I hear the purists screaming over Julius Rudel’s hash-up of the score, but what Beverly Sills does as Cleopatra is super-human.

Barber, “Vanessa”; Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, Regina Resnik, Nicolai Gedda, Giorgio Tozzi, Dmitri Mitropoulos conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (RCA). I’m a diehard Samuel Barber fan and always will be. While the live Met broadcast recording of this opera from its premiere season is dramatically preferable, this studio version with the same cast is cleaner in execution.

Puccini, “Tosca”; Maria Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Tito Gobbi, Victor de Sabata conducting the La Scala Orchestra (EMI), and/or Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, Cornell MacNeill, Kurt Adler conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (Sony). They’re both live and they’re both fabulous. On any given day I’ll flip a coin.

Verdi, “Il Trovatore”;  Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, Ettore Bastianini, Giulietta Simionato, Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (DGG). The famed Salzburg recording, and even in mono it lives up to the hype.

Verdi, “La Traviata”; Maria Callas, Alfredo Kraus, Mario Sereni, Franco Ghione conducting the Lisbon National Theatre Orchestra (EMI). Nobody ever broke my heart like Maria Callas singing “Addio del passato”.

Verdi, “Falstaff”; Giuseppe Valdengo, Herva Nelli, Teresa Stich-Randall, Cloe Elmo, Frank Guarrero, Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony (RCA). I love the von Karajan recording with Tito Gobbi, but nothing matches Toscanini’s take on “Tutto nel mondo.”

Strauss, “Ariadne auf Naxos”; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Irmgard Seefried, Rita Streich, Rudolf Schock, Hermann Prey, Herbert von Karajan conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI). It’s tough to argue with perfection.

There are other opera recordings I’ve heard recently that intrigue me, especially Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” with Ian Bostridge, and various Ring CDs which may make the list. And I’m right in the middle of watching the new DVD of the Covent Garden production of Massenet’s “Cendrillon” with Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote, conducted by Bertrand de Billy, that’s charming beyond belief.  Not to mention the fact that the list of my favorite non-opera recordings goes on forever. We’ll just save these for later.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Astaire Begins the Beguine

I’ve been a Fred Astaire fanatic since the age of 13 when I saw “Top Hat” for the first time on “Million Dollar Movie.” One of my favorite Astaire duets consists of two perfect halves that form an even more perfect whole—the “Begin the Beguine” number from “Broadway Melody of 1940.” While the second portion is famous as a candidate for “Best Tap Number Ever Filmed,” the first half is perhaps even better, in both choreography and execution. It’s a shame it doesn’t enjoy the renown of the showier tap section, because it’s one of Astaire’s best, even though he and Eleanor Powell were something of a mismatch—she was too tall for him, they had zero romantic chemistry and their styles were, to put it mildly, quite dissimilar. Nevertheless, Astaire, who choreographed his own numbers (with the assistance of Hermes Pan and other dance directors), played to her strengths, producing an unforgettable result.

“Broadway Melody of 1940” has one of those idiotic, forgettable  musical plots (and they make fun of opera?) which hinges on the wrong hoofer (George Murphy) mistakenly getting the job that rightfully belongs to his vaudeville partner (Fred Astaire). Eleanor Powell is the dancing star of the Big Show Murphy gets hired for. It’s a waste of time to even discuss this, because what matters is the score by Cole Porter which in addition to “Begin the Beguine,” includes “I Concentrate on You.”

“Beguine” is unusual in several respects. Originally introduced in Porter’s 1935 Broadway show, “Jubilee” (book by Moss Hart), it disappeared when the musical closed after lasting the season (For fans of theatrical trivia, Montgomery Clift, then age 15, played a prince in this production, which was designed to capitalize on King George V’s silver jubilee). Aside from its introduction in a not-immortal show, “Begin the Beguine” was thought to be too long for comfort—108 bars at a time when 64 bars was the norm—which may have discouraged recording in the age of 78’s. But Artie Shaw, ever the innovator, rescued it in 1938, resulting in both a hit record and the creation of a standard.

The “Broadway Melody” version opens with a sultry singer (Carmen D’Antonio dubbed by Lois Hodnott) performing against a tropical background (love the dress, hate the scenic pea pods). We’re in glorious black and white with mirrors, stars and a glass floor (which required excessive air conditioning on the set to prevent cracking caused by heat-generating lights). If the song sounds somewhat odd, it’s because the creative team dropped the B phrase of “Begin the Beguine”‘s A-A-B-A-C1-C2 structure. A troop of female dancers appears, presumably swaying like palm trees, and then Eleanor makes her entrance. Since I haven’t the faintest idea what she’s doing—leg kicks and arm-chopping seem to be the very antithesis of any beguine, but that’s just my opinion–we’ll simply forge ahead.

Fortunately we don’t have to wait too long for Fred’s entrance at 2:23 in the clip above, and there’s an immediate –gasp!–moment. Because of the mirrors, he seems to enter from the rear of the stage, so his appearance from stage right is wonderfully disorienting. The duet really begins at 2:52, and from this point on, it’s as important to listen as it is to watch. Astaire loved to play with music, and the audible steps and taps he and Powell produce are consistent as either complement or counterpoint to the rhythm of the song. This technique goes to the essence of his talent—the best example of his artistry as a dancing percussionist is the ending of “Bojangles of Harlem” in the film “Swingtime,” when he taps, slaps his clapper-filled gloves together and then slaps his hands against his heels in rhythms that change from bar to bar, ultimately trippling the tap pattern (It’s a mindblowing performance.)

This section of “Begin the Beguine” is wonderfully controlled. Like the flamenco it invokes, it’s tightly held—not constrained, but rather imparting a sense that the dancers could break free if they wanted, but choose not to. I particularly like the incredibly graceful hands and arms both Astaire and Powell display, the syncopated, accented steps at 3:44 and that killer stall of the music on the phrase “When they begin…” at 4:53 (hold that thought, because we’ll be coming back to it in a bit). The ending of this half of the number, beginning at 5:24, is a marvel. It’s still tightly controlled, but watch the counterpoint as it builds to a climax—they completely circle the stage, she spinning, he matching her move by turning at half her speed. Wheels within wheels. If you look closely you can see Eleanor Powell bust a big grin, and it’s fun to see her delight in the result.

Unfortunately you immediately have to brace yourself for a chorus sung by “The Music Maids,” four pseudo-Andrews Sisters clad in the most hideous plaid outfits ever sewn. Their hats don’t match their dresses, their dresses don’t match the tropical theme, and since we really have no use for them, they can’t exit soon enough, following a hopping line of female dancers.

Even if you’ve never seen “That’s Entertainment” (and why are you reading this blog if you haven’t?), you’ll probably recognize the tap portion of the number that follows, starting at 6:48–it’s been as anthologized as Saki’s “The Open Window.” Don’t get me wrong—it’s a great number. Swing suited Astaire, and Powell is obviously having a ball, as she should have. The big band arrangement is not quite as edgy as Artie Shaw’s, which it imitates shamelessly, but it’s still a perfect accompaniment (Hollywood homogenized more products than your local dairy). The dancers dazzle with their conversation in tap, but for me the highlight of this section is how it mirrors the first part of the number: the off-the-beat stomp at 7:47, and best of all, the stalling of the music once again at the words “When they begin…” at 8:00. Oh, by the way, they end by circling each other as well as the stage, just as they did in the first half of the number. Parallel structure!

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the genius of Astaire—simply one of a kind.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Music, Television

That Hollywood Sound: Bernard Herrmann

I was geared up to continue with my discussion of the wonderful Charles Gerhardt series of classic Hollywood film scores, but I confess I hit a major bump. Next on tap would have been Erich Korngold, Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner, but then it seemed Max belonged with the Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn albums, since all four were on Warner Brothers’ payroll for so long. My next thought was to shoehorn Alfred Newman in there instead, but as I started to assemble the material, I realized I needed to come clean once and for all:

Bernard Herrmann is my favorite film composer. He more than deserves a solo bow.

Herrmann is justly famous for his scores for Alfred Hitchcock movies, from “The Trouble With Harry” (featuring that quirky scherzo) through “Marnie,” and along the way composing the iconic soundtrack for “Vertigo,” the wild opening fandango for “North by Northwest” and the unforgettable musical horror show of “Psycho” (No. 4 on the American Film Institute’s list of Best American Film Scores). While director and composer severed their relationship over Herrmann’s rejected score for “Torn Curtain,” the length and quality of their collaboration is unmatched. There is so much to admire, but my favorite Herrmann selection from his Hitchcock years is the opening to “The Wrong Man”—that bouncy samba with the unexpected accents, flavored by a worried solo flute so emblematic of the looming fate of Henry Fonda’s Stork Club musician:

Herrmann’s range is enormous. Classically trained at Julliard with a solid background in orchestration and conducting, his music spans the eternal romanticism of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” through the futuristic theremin-laced “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Like Korngold (whom I swear I’ll be discussing soon), he composed a number of classical works—his Symphony No. 1, the opera “Wuthering Heights” and a cantata based on “Moby Dick.” Herrmann was a staff conductor at CBS radio when he came to the attention of Orson Welles, who tapped him to write the score for his infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Herrmann then went on to begin his Hollywood career alongside Welles with his score to “Citizen Kane.”

The centerpiece of Gerhardt’s Bernard Herrmann album is a suite from that film, introduced by a morbid bassoon/trombone combination depicting ghostly Xanadu. A host of flutes (including four bass) and vibraphone come to the fore—Herrmann did love his electronics—and after Kane’s death we get that marvelously scored transition to young Charlie in the snow. The “breakfast scene” montage is justly famous for Welles’s artistry in so economically depicting a decaying marriage, but Herrmann’s accompaniment, ranging from a lovely turn-of-the-century waltz to bickering woodwinds to hushed strings as the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Kane vanishes in thin air, geometrically increases the effect. Perhaps the highlight of this section is Herrmann’s take on grand opera, the exotic “Aria from ‘Salambo'”, sung by a young Kiri Te Kanawa. Dame Kiri, possessor of one of the most beautiful voices of the last hundred years, does her damnedest to sound Susan Alexander-awful, but fortunately doesn’t always succeed (though that last note can truly peel paint off the wall).  The final segment of the suite accompanies the ending of the film, and I have to confess I’ve always hated the sight and sound of Rosebud’s incineration, even though Herrmann’s music is apt.

Fortunately Gerhardt does a 180 with his next selection, a suite from “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef” which has enough swash and panache to last for days. Herrmann’s talent is so extensive that he has no need to borrow from “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” to depict the ocean, but if my ear is correct, the sea motifs from the two films are in the same key and share the same note values and rhythm—quite Wagnerian of him. I also like the “Concerto Macabre” from “Hangover Square,” but for me the real ear-catcher is the suite from “White Witch Doctor” with its exotic talking drums and Big Bwana sound. Herrmann’s skill as an orchestrator is nowhere more apparent than in his music depicting a deadly tarantula, scored for an ancient woodwind called a serpent, which is an utter bear to play in tune. Its swollen, menacing blatt is so utterly perfect you’ll laugh out loud.

In addition to his work with Hitchcock, Herrmann wrote extensively for sci-fi and fantasy films and TV shows. He did a great deal of work on the original “Twilight Zone” series, including an opening theme that unfortunately got bumped after a few episodes by the now-iconic Marius Constant music. Fans like myself can tell you that his achingly nostalgic score for the episode “Walking Distance” resulted in a perfect accompaniment to a perfect episode. Equally as famous were Herrmann’s scores for “Fahrenheit 451” and the series of Ray Harryhausen fantasy films. Of these my favorite by far is “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” which I’m old enough to have seen in its first release (when evil Torin Thatcher turned the Princess’s waiting woman into a four-armed, green-faced serpent, I nearly dove under the movie seat). I can’t get enough of Herrmann’s Arabian Nights mode, and it’s a tribute to his talent that while he comesthisclose to ripping off “Scheherazade,” he never really does:

Herrmann died at the still-young age of 64, only hours after completing the recording of his score for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” By all accounts he suffered no fools gladly, but did have the great fortune to work with those who appreciated his gifts. American film was never better served.