Posted in Music, Opera

Lingering in the Glow

Party Like It’s 1911: Elina Garança (Octavian) and Renée Fleming (The Marschallin)

If you think the customer is always right, you might have believed the audience members who booed the production team of the new Robert Carsen “Der Rosenkavalier” that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera several weeks ago. But you would have been dead wrong. I saw it last Friday, and it’s a breath of fresh air.

Carsen has tossed aside the powdered wigs and knee breeches and set the opera in the year of its premiere, 1911. His take on this Richard Strauss-Hugo von Hofmannsthal masterpiece is a marvel of detail, so much so that I plan to attend the Live in HD telecast in two weeks just to catch some business I might have missed. It’s spot-on to see the egotistical Italian tenor (a terrific Matthew Polenzani) present the Marschallin with a 78 rpm recording of his latest hit, which he proceeds to autograph for her with a flourish. And in an uproarious Act III, how can anyone be surprised that the band showing up to serenade Ochs and Mariandel is clearly Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters from “Some Like It Hot,” complete with sax and bass. (I know that’s the 1920’s, but if Strauss can write an 18th century opera replete with three-quarter time though the waltz wouldn’t be invented until decades later, anachronism becomes the norm). I could go on, but I don’t want to give away all the incidentals that make this production such fun.

As sharply observed as this production is, it wouldn’t have the impact it enjoys without its cast. Much publicity has surrounded Renée Fleming’s final appearances as the Marschallin, and while I can’t say that her voice retains all the luster it once possessed, dramatically speaking she’s grown enormously in the role. Years ago I saw one of her first Marschallins at the Met, and she seemed somewhat intimidated by the part. In Carsen’s production she easily achieves what all good Marschallins must—she holds the audience throughout the levée, her monologue and the following scene with Octavian, and captures the bittersweet ending of Act I perfectly. Yet her final exit in Act III, on the arm of the Feldmarschall’s “brave orderly,” after a not-quite covert glance or two, reminds us that Octavian wasn’t her first lover, and certainly won’t be her last.

(A propos of absolutely nothing, what do Marschallins do when they’re off-stage during Act II and the first half of Act III? Play cards with the stage hands? Take a snooze? Maybe Ms. Fleming will spill the beans during the HD telecast intermission).

Elina Garança is a phenomenal Octavian. She certainly makes a gorgeous guy and her voice is lovely, but the uniqueness of her portrayal rests on her vivid embodiment of the 17 year-old boy he’s supposed to be. The petulance and impetuosity are there, but her Octavian is slightly more deferential to his lover than most, and his departure at the end of Act I is done not so much out of anger as of befuddled sorrow. Garança hints at his growing knowledge that his affair with a married woman really can’t go anywhere, yet she still manages to convince us that his love for Sophie is not just a matter of falling for the first pretty face he sees. She plays the comedy very well—her “Victor/Victoria” in Act III (the trick of a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman) is flawless.

Waltzing Away Act II: Ochs (Günther Groissböck) and Annina (Helene Schneiderman)

Because Baron Ochs is usually played as a fat fool, you tend to forget that Strauss and von Hoffmannsthal had something else in mind. Günther Groissböck portrays him as the 35-year old bachelor he was conceived to be, and it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a young, attractive bass in the role. This Ochs may be an idiot over Mariandel, but he’s no fool. His harping on “die Marschallin…Octavian…Mariandel” in Act III poses a real threat, and it’s only when the Marschallin doesn’t flinch that he gives in to her insistence that he depart the field.

Unfortunately the performance I saw was missing the excellent Sophie of Erin Morley, but she’s due to return shortly and will be on hand for the live telecast on May 13 that will also feature Ms. Fleming’s last ever Marschallin as well as Ms. Garança’s final Octavian (she’s headed for the more dramatic flair of Amneris, Santuzza and Dalila).

The score and libretto of “Der Rosenkavalier” are among the finest in the literature. But Robert Carsen’s production also reminds us what superb theater this work can (and should) always be. Bravo!

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It was a double-header weekend for me. Yesterday I attended a concert performance of Handel’s “Ariodante” at Carnegie Hall that was simulcast on Medici TV. The entire opera will be viewable on the Carnegie Hall website for the next 90 days, and if you’d like to hear what perfection sounds like, cue the webcast at 1:10:30 for Joyce DiDonato’s “Scherza infida,” accompanied by Harry Bicket and The English Concert. Time stands still.

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Posted in Television

Line of Duty Revisited

The Backbone of AC-12: Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compson) and DS Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure)

In answer to the question, “What’s the best cop show on TV today?” the only possible response for me is the British series “Line of Duty.” If you haven’t done so already, head over to Acorn TV, where you can stream the first two seasons; the third is available on DVD and the fourth just started airing in the U.K. (And if you come here to spoil, I will rain curses upon your head).

The primary focus of “Line of Duty” is the work of a police anti-corruption unit. Each season features a different investigatory target, a so-called “bent cop.” While I’ve previously written about Keeley Hawes’ tremendous performance as Lindsay Denton in the show’s second season, it was only recently that I had the opportunity to binge on what I had missed. Watching Seasons One and Three back to back, I was amazed yet again at the quality of what I was viewing.

Jed Mercurio, the creator and author of the show, is a master of both plot and character development. As an example, take the introduction of Steve Arnott (Martin Compson), soon to become a key player in AC-12. At our first encounter he’s the head of a counter-terrorist squad, about to lead a raid on a suspected nest. To his shock he finds the wrong house invaded and an innocent man shot dead with his baby in his arms. Though his superior literally dictates to all officers involved the cover story they must follow, Arnott refuses to toe the party line and is cut from the squad. Impressed by his resolve in the face of pending career suicide, Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) recruits him for AC-12, where he joins undercover specialist Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure).

Mr. Mercutio not only writes well, he writes smart. Not one of his characters is without ambiguity, not the least of whom are the suspected bent cops. Season One’s DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James) seems at first blush to be a perfect role model with a phenomenally high clearance rate; he’s the recipient of an Officer of the Year award. (The fact that two other awarded cops later come to less than desirable ends makes you wonder about the future of Kate Fleming, who will similarly be honored at the end of Season 3). We soon learn that this great leader and the epitome of professionalism is sinking into a pit of moral quicksand not entirely of his own making.

Conversely, your first encounter in Season 3 with Sgt. Daniel Waldron (Daniel Mays), an Authorised Firearms Officer, is certain to raise your hackles from the start. Our introduction consists of seeing him cold-bloodedly kill a suspect who’s already surrendered, and pressure his squad to fabricate evidence to corroborate his cover story. His arrogance and self-righteousness during a subsequent interview with AC-12 are difficult to take, and this is only a warm-up for what’s to come. While it may be hard to believe, you’ll later come to have a certain measure of sympathy for this man, despite the despicable acts he commits. The same level of detail features in the depiction of the show’s regulars. Our upstanding men and women of AC-12 are not without flaw. Steve’s behavior toward Lindsay in Season Two, playing on her loneliness and insecurity in an effort to discover whether she’s crooked or not, makes for uncomfortable viewing (and indeed blows up in his face in Season Three). And Kate’s relationship with DS “Dot” Cotton? Is her flirting with him part of the job (and if so–yikes!)? If not, where are your brains, girl?

“Line of Duty” is unique in its lengthy interrogation scenes as AC-12 confronts a suspect. This is not just a plot “gotcha”—it’s a superb showcase for the actors, especially Adrian Dunbar, who as Hastings leads the interrogations. He’s the master of minimalism: a slightly lifted eyebrow or that small quirk at the corner of his mouth is all it takes to signal that he’s just not buying what the suspect is attempting to sell. Equally impressive are the plot twists and turns, which for some reason you can’t always see coming yet never seem far-fetched. Everything seems to grow organically out of the action we see in the first episode of each season.

To be sure “Line of Duty” has some lapses. I doubt an AC unit would be permitted to interrogate a member of its own squad. And you’d think by now the police grapevine would be buzzing about Kate’s undercover activity. But who cares when a show is this good?

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Theater

Still Rolling Along

Then and Now: Lonny Price (Charley), Ann Morrison (Mary) and Jim Walton (Frank)

What do you do after you’ve achieved your life’s dream at age 20?

“Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” a wonderful documentary available on Netflix, asks and answers this question, among many other classic queries. Although the ostensible subject of the film is the legendary Stephen Sondheim-Hal Prince musical, “Merrily We Roll Along,” equally known for being a legendary flop at its 1981 premiere, it rewards us as much by its insights into life’s paths as it does by its examination of the creative process.

Based on a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same title, “Merrily” famously mirrors its source material by telling its story in reverse. Each succeeding scene takes place earlier in time so that we can see where and how Franklin Shepard, a successful songwriter turned movie producer, hashed up his life—more precisely, how he left the path of personal fulfillment and promise and lost the love and goodwill of his wife and two closest friends along the way. It should come as no surprise that adultery, divorce, cynicism and chasing the almighty dollar, not to mention the sacrifice of youthful ideals, factor heavily into the equation. By now this plot may seem old hat, but Sondheim blessed it with one of his finest scores, which includes “Good Thing Going,” “Not a Day Goes By” and “Old Friends.” Although the original production lasted only 16 performances, the show has grown enormously in reputation through numerous revisions and revivals. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a “Merrily” junkie—I own three different cast albums of the show, and wouldn’t part with any of them.

How could a Sondheim-Prince musical flop after a string of shows like “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” and “Sweeney Todd”?”Best Worst Thing” tells us why through footage shot during the rehearsal process by ABC, which began but later abandoned its documentary of the creation of this Broadway show. Ultimately two directorial choices proved problematic. Hal Prince opted to present “Merrily” on a more or less bare stage with costuming consisting of t-shirts and sweatshirts bearing character names and designations (“Mary,” “Best Friend,” “Unemployed Actor”). The effect was to make the setting of the show look like a high school gymnasium, which amplified Prince’s even worse decision: casting very young actors (late teens into early 20’s) to play the characters throughout the piece, even as their middle-aged selves (Remember, we’re going backwards). With very few exceptions, they just didn’t have the acting chops to bring it off, which “Best Worst Thing” makes painfully obvious. At one point in the film we see Sondheim telling Prince he needs more time to write and revise a number of songs, that because kids are telling the story, he needs to “write simpler.” Yet he never completely succeeded in “writing backwards” by toning down the sophistication of his lyrics or modifying the very adult point of view of his work. This is totally evident when we see the original leads, now in their 40’s, playing these roles in footage from a 2002 reunion concert. What appears as a tremendous disconnect in 1981, to hear Sondheim’s razor-sharp, adult-insightful lyrics coming out of kids’ mouths, seems tailor-made as sung by the same people 20 years later. Life’s mileage will do that.

Being cast in a Sondheim-Prince musical in 1981 was a dream come true for all of the young actors in the “Merrily” company. All of those interviewed in the documentary had grown up on original cast albums, and for years had harbored visions of appearing on Broadway. It’s obvious that to a certain degree these people still feel the devastation that ensued when the show took a critical beating and abruptly closed.

We see to what extent their lives came to deviate from their youthful plans. Lonny Price, the original Charley, eventually turned to theatrical directing, and in fact directed “Best Worst Thing.” Others stayed in the business, though several supporting players, like Tonya Pinkens, Liz Callaway and, most prominently, Jason Alexander, eventually enjoyed the greatest post-“Merrily” success. Several, like Abby Pogrebin, later a “60 Minutes” producer and author, went on to entirely different careers. Suffering a monumental setback at age 20 was horrendous, but at least they all had youth and resilience on their side.

“Poignant” is the word most frequently encountered in reviews of “The Best Worst Thing,” and there’s no better reason for the usage of that word than the sight of Lonny Price watching the ABC documentary footage of his 22 year-old self. Referring to his imminent Broadway debut, young Lonny says “Even if I never do anything else, I will have had this,” which reduces older Lonny to tears. It’s not hard to read the adult’s thoughts: how little the young man knew, how much more Price went on to accomplish, what more there is in store in life and career.

Age will do that.