Posted in Television

Farewell Richard Harrow

richard and julia dancing

If ever there was a death foretold, it was Richard Harrow’s. The most charismatic character on “Boardwalk Empire” met his end last Sunday, an event foreshadowed from the start of this season, but in reality intimated from his very beginning.

Our first view of him—that grotesquely masked World War I veteran with the destroyed face—was startling. His appearance, complemented by that gravelly voice, made you snap to attention when he spoke. And his first darkly comic exchange with Jimmy Darmody at the Veterans Hospital was singular indeed: “I put a bullet in [the German sniper’s] face…one inch below his eye.” “Well….fuck him,” was in sharp contrast to Richard’s vulnerability. We saw a well-read, articulate man, but one no longer believing the myths he grew up with. A character who by the end of the first episode in which he appeared put his sniper skills to Jimmy’s use by shooting a rival thug to death by—yes— putting a bullet through his face one inch below his eye. Make no mistake about it: whatever Richard Harrow became on this show (via Jack Huston’s artistry), he could be one cold blooded killer. Go back to Season 1 and watch what he did to the D’Alessio brothers, joining Jimmy in his worst excesses.

Harrow-scrapbookBut we always knew there was a great deal more to the man than that coldly efficient enforcer, not to mention our own fascination with the mask. While we never had a flashback to Richard’s life before the war, we learned about him through his interactions with others. His posing for Angela Darmody and her kindness to him was a reawakening, though he despaired of achieving his dream. In one of the most poignant scenes in “Boardwalk Empire” we saw Richard examining his scrapbook of cut-out ads depicting the type of happy family he longed for (as well as a photograph of him as a dashing soldier, impossibly handsome before his disfigurement, juxtaposed with Angela’s sketch of him with his mask off, in which she saw another form of beauty entirely). When he went off to the Pinelands to kill himself, only to realize that he still had a life, we welcomed his return to the living.

However, the dark side remained. His blasting away Manny Horvitz on New Year’s Eve to avenge Angela’s murder closed one door, but his subservience to Gillian Darmody in order to keep watch over Tommy came at some cost. It must have been hell listening to her disparage Angela while pretending to be Tommy’s mother, and I still wonder if he had the slightest inkling of Gillian and Jimmy’s past. Most likely not, otherwise he would have killed her before he even got to Gyp Rosetti’s men.

But then there was Julia Sagorsky (beautifully played by Wrenn Schmidt). A woman who, like Angela, was able to see behind the mask. It was wonderful to watch him falling in love, and their dance at the American Legion Hall was pure pleasure (the final dip was icing on the cake). She pushed past his hesitancy (“Let’s give them something to remember” as she grabbed him for their first kiss before that surprised group of veterans), and ultimately proposed to him. His reaction—a blend of astonishment, love and shyness—was delightful. She knew what he had done to free Tommy from Gillian’s grasp but still wanted him. Julia was his match, but you had to sense there would never be a happy life ahead for them.

Richard was a changed man after that blood bath at the Artemis Club. The beginning of Season 4 saw him bereft of his willingness to kill, as he not only reneged on a contract hit; he needed sister Emma’s intervention when the man he stiffed came after him. Despite his desire to square accounts in Atlantic City and secure a future with Julia and Tommy, I dreaded what would come next for him. I knew immediately that his approach to Nucky for the information that would send Gillian to jail would come with a quid pro quo that would doom him.

And so it did. The Richard Harrow we came to know could not have lived with himself after his accidental killing of Maybelle White. Not only because he held Chalky in high regard, but because he ended the life of another man’s innocent child, something beyond his endurance. Richard had already made his amends and completed what he had set out to do: ensuring that Jimmy would finally rest in peace, Gillian would pay the price, Tommy would have the upbringing his mother would have wanted and Julia would have a husband who loved her. So it was fitting that he died at dawn, mask off, facing the sunrise and dreaming of a reunion with Julia at his true home, far away from Atlantic City.

Richard Harrow deserved no less.

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Posted in Opera

Britten’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Tytania (Kathleen Kim) and Bottom (Matthew Rose): Folie à deux to the max

The biggest downside to freelancing is that when you’re working, your time most definitely isn’t your own (hence the weeks between my blog posts). Fortunately these demands haven’t interfered with my opera-going: I recently had the pleasure of seeing the Met’s revival of Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” twice. And the exhilaration I felt when Puck, having the last word, flew like Peter Pan, lasted for several days.

Britten’s operas always surprise me. Not in the events of the drama, but in the sound his works produce. Think of “Billy Budd'”s aged Captain Vere fighting through brain fog in the opera’s Prologue, the crew’s mysterious shanty, their unearthly rumbling when Billy is executed. “Peter Grimes” is full of these moments. While you expect a duet from Peter and Ellen Orford, that searing unison vocal line, blending seamlessly into the first Sea Interlude, is electrifying. And despite all the foreshadowing, the chorus, calling Grimes out fortissimo, has to be one of the most chilling sounds to be heard in the opera house.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the comic side of this coin. What a stroke of genius to make Oberon a countertenor. Britten’s music for him is properly unearthly–this King of the Faeries has quite a dark side. Correspondingly his vocal line lies in the lower and middle countertenor range, an ambiguous place for this voice to be. He’s almost, but not quite, human—and almost, but not quite, androgynous. Iestyn Davies, whom I had only heard previously in a small role in Thomas Adès’ “The Tempest” gave a powerful performance—the role and the singer really made the case for this vocal category in the opera house.

At the other end of the spectrum are the so-called Mechanicals—the artisans who will present the story of Pyramus and Thisbe to honor the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Bass Matthew Rose was ridiculously right as the weaver, Nick Bottom. His physical agility and the fluency of a lovely voice made him incredibly endearing in his scene with the besotted Tytania (Britten’s spelling). His request to the faeries who tend him (“Scratch my face–I am such a tender ass”) brought the house down. No wonder Tytania (soprano Kathleen Kim) called him her “gentle joy.”

Every measure of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” seems incredibly right. Britten has a marvelous time incorporating so many musical influences: English folk song, Elizabethan dance, 19th century Italian opera for the quartet of lovers, and best of all, a bit of bel canto madness for Flute’s big lamentation as Thisbe. So many moments stand out: the string glissandi that signal we’re in Oberon’s world, the staccato solo trumpet and high drum that accompany Puck (a speaking role), and the comic setting of the word “moonlight,” which provides a consistent laugh every time the Mechanicals sing it. And most of all, that final faerie chorus supporting Tytania’s voice, seems to make time stop. This is such a magical work.

James Conlon, whom I wish would conduct more at the Met, led a superb performance. The artists were exceptionally well-matched, particularly the quartet of lovers: Erin Wall, Elizabeth DeShong (who will be singing Hermia again in the Met’s revival of “The Enchanted Island”), Joseph Kaiser and Michael Todd Simpson. And it goes without saying that the children’s chorus was phenomenal, easily producing the ethereal sound Britten’s score demands.

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth. What a way to honor his achievements.