This past week I had the happy experience of seeing a performance from each of my current arts subscriptions, one every other day. The result? Two near misses, but ending with one smashing hit.
First up on Friday night was Jerry Herman’s “Mack and Mabel,” as presented by the Encores! series, which revisits musicals that initially flopped (rightly or wrongly) or which haven’t been revived in quite some time. Originally Encores! presented these shows in concert form, but now they’re given fully staged productions with the actors down front and the orchestra at the back of the stage.
Although “Mack and Mabel” ran for only 66 performances in 1974, it’s been kept alive in the years since via a very fine original cast album featuring Robert Preston as Mack Sennett and Bernadette Peters as Mabel Normand. The show’s flop status has been primarily blamed on the book, which in truth is unavoidably depressing, given that Mabel, reputedly a drug user (though not proven), died of tuberculosis at the age of 38. There are other problems, too, namely major departures from reality, such as showing Fatty Arbuckle making movies with Sennett at a time when he was in actuality standing trial for murder, and fingering William Desmond Taylor as Mabel Normand’s drug supplier, which is patently false.
But to me the biggest problem with the show is that Mack Sennett is a very unpleasant character, “I Won’t Send Roses” notwithstanding. It’s obvious that in its original production, the creators, including Michael Stewart who wrote the book, and Gower Champion, who directed it (the same team that brought “Hello, Dolly” to life), relied heavily on Robert Preston’s natural warmth and charm to fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, Douglas Sills, who played Mack in the Encores! presentation, failed to exhibit these traits. He alternately blustered and threw away his lines to the extent that if I caught 40% of what he was saying, it was a lot (and based on what I’ve read online, I wasn’t the only one with this complaint). Mabel’s role is better written, and she gets three terrific numbers: “Look What Happened to Mabel,” “Wherever He Ain’t,” and “Time Heals Everything,” which is even more devastating in the context of the show than I had imagined.
In order for “Mack and Mabel” to succeed, we need to be able to see what she sees in him, and unfortunately the view was of a bully who took her for granted until it was too late. It was eye-opening to see the cast perform “When Mabel Comes in the Room,” and to realize what had been missing from the show up until this point—charm and plain old love. It was a treat to see Mabel do a ballroom turn with each of the crew welcoming her back to the studio, and I wish there had been more of it.
Alexandra Socha was an excellent Mabel, but Lilli Cooper, as Lottie Ames, Sennett’s other leading lady in the role originated by Lisa Kirk, was an absolute knockout. Director/Choreographer Josh Rhodes did a terrific job recreating Sennett’s Bathing Beauties and Keystone Kops, but top marks have to go to Music Director Rob Berman and the Encores! Orchestra for their fabulous performance of the restored orchestrations. Their artistry makes me look forward to the next musical in the series, a true rarity, Kurt Weill’s “Love Life.”
On Sunday I attended a performance of Beethoven’s Symphonies 6 and 7 by John Eliot Gardiner and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, part of Carnegie Hall’s celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. This orchestra performs on original instruments, which presented both pluses and minuses. On the one hand, hearing the strings play with taut bows made for a lovely sonority. Woodwinds were brighter sounding than their modern counterparts, if occasionally hooty, and it was amusing to see a contrabassoon, tall as a chimney, unwound to its full sixteen feet, as well as the length of the uncoiled trumpets.
While the first two movements of each of the symphonies were beautifully rendered, expecially the second movement of the Seventh, Gardiner’s tempos for the scherzos and final movements were far too fast, despite his claim of historical accuracy. Quite honestly I felt sorry for the principal horn who simply could not get her lip around the runs of the third movement of the Pastoral at the speed set by Gardiner (If I’m not mistaken, the principal clarinet also missed a couple of notes). As a former violinist and bassoonist, I have to ask: If the tempo is so fast that the musicians can’t articulate the notes, what good is it?
The absolute winner in this sequence was Tuesday night’s performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Agrippina,” which the Met notes is the oldest work (1709) this house has ever performed, though you’d never know it from David McVicar’s incredibly clever production. Handel wrote it when he was 24, and while he’s far from the mature composer of “Ariodante” and “Alcina,” there are fascinating glimpses of what’s to come: Agrippina’s first big aria with its dizzying runs and oboe duet, Ottone’s lament, which closes the first half of this new production, in a string setting that seems to suspend time, and an “at the end of my tether” string-accompanied recitative for Agrippina in the second half that points the way to so many future developments in opera.
Despite the libretto, this is a modern dress production that seems to take its cue from the political skullduggery of “House of Cards,” British and American versions both. The opera covers Agrippina’s machinations resulting in her son Nero’s succeeding Claudius as Emperor (and we all know how well that turned out). Although it’s the same ground covered by the book and TV show “I Claudius,” the scheming is never boring, considering that mezzo Joyce DiDonato is onstage as Agrippina, having the time of her life. I can’t remember when I last saw an opera where all the singers were so consistently excellent, all the way down to baritone Duncan Rock and countertenor Nicholas Tamagna, who play Agrippina’s unfortunate pawns.
Although countertenor Iestyn Davies as the put-upon Ottone and bass Matthew Rose as the not-too-bright Claudius are wonderful, this production is definitely Ladies’ Day. There’s not one moment of boredom, whether it’s Joyce DiDonato, shimmying across the stage while thinking up her latest scheme, or soprano Brenda Rae as Poppea, who proves smarter than Agrippina but who’s funniest when drunk in the bar scene that begins the second half, or Kate Lindsey, mistress of physical comedy, as that bad boy Nero, who’s probably the most fun to watch. She’s got that spoiled teenager thing down so well you half expect Joyce DiDonato to bring her stage son up short with “Ya rotten kid, ya.” In addition to the pouts, Ms. Lindsey illustrates Nero’s whiny petulance by singing certain phrases in straight tone, and it’s a marvel to hear her alternate between this and her normally rich mezzo.
Conductor Harry Bicket does his usual fine work with baroque opera here. There’s also a special guest appearance by the superb Bradley Brookshire who serves as the cocktail
pianist harpsichordist during the bar scene. And while we’re on that subject, kudos to choreographer Andrew George for his clever work, not only with the dancing bar patrons, but also with the soldiers, whether marching or gyrating to the strains of Handel.
“Agrippina” will be shown in movie theaters on Saturday, February 29, as part of the Met’s Live in HD series. Don’t miss it.