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.

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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.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

The Opera House

There’s a special pleasure in seeing a film or taped footage of an event my younger self may have experienced several decades ago. “The Opera House,” director Susan Froemke’s new documentary of the conception, construction and finally the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 fits that bill to a T. It’s a fascinating saga of artistic, financial and civic cooperation, and definitely one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen recently. A particularly refreshing aspect is its lack of villains; instead we see a cast of heroes, among whom are Met General Manager Rudolph Bing, Philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III, Lincoln Center Architect Wallace Harrison, Civic Planner Robert Moses, and, most memorably, Soprano Leontyne Price.

As the film rightly points out, the construction of New York’s Lincoln Center, and especially a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, was a national and indeed, an international event. It came at a time when opera claimed a more significant place in the American cultural consciousness than it does today. The exposure of the art form to the general public was then considerable: opera singers had frequently appeared in Hollywood films in the 1930’s and 40’s, and many had had their own radio programs. Later, when television entered the scene, opera singers were a staple on the numerous variety shows that aired; they regularly appeared on “The Tonight Show,” and Beverly Sills even filled in for host Johnny Carson when he was on vacation. The Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, sponsored by Texaco for many years, were an institution. So even if you weren’t a fan, you were at least familiar with the name “Verdi,” and could probably hum the “Toreador Song” from “Carmen.”

I never attended a performance at the old Met at Broadway and 39th Street, but the footage of its auditorium, as Ms. Froemke shows, is breathtaking in its ornate red and gold. However, the house’s shortcomings as a theater were enormous: no room for modern stage equipment, the forced storage of scenery outdoors on Seventh Avenue due to lack of indoor space, few if any rehearsal areas (To further illustrate the point I would have liked Ms. Froemke to have contrasted the physical plant of the old Met by showing the state of the art facilities of a European opera house). As a result plans to build a new opera house were in the wind as early as 1908. A series of problems and crises, not to mention the Depression, intervened in the following decades, so it wasn’t until Robert Moses’ proposal of the cultural enclave that became Lincoln Center that a new opera house began to morph from dream to reality. However, Ms. Froemke doesn’t sugarcoat the human cost of this urban renewal; several former residents of the West Side neighborhood that was condemned and cleared for Lincoln Center express their opinions of their forced move.

A major highlight of “The Opera House” is footage of the groundbreaking ceremony at Lincoln Center in May, 1959, where a very dapper Leonard Bernstein opens the proceedings by leading the New York Philharmonic in Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The event was deemed of such import that President Eisenhower attended; as he does the honors by sinking that first shovel in the earth, we hear the Julliard Choir sing out with the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah.” Leading Met singers Risë Stevens and Leonard Warren also performed, and it’s shocking to remember that the latter would be gone in less than a year, dying of a massive heart attack on stage in the midst of a performance of “La Forza del Destino” at the old house.

Met General Manager Rudolph Bing is of course a major presence in “The Opera House.” At first he appears as almost impossibly imperious and formal, and stubbornly opposed to accommodating the “Save the Met” sentimentalists (Ms. Froemke should have provided some context for this controversy by referencing the public outcry at the significant loss of historic structures in New York City, especially Pennsylvania Station, during the late 50’s and early 60’s, and the fact that only a few years before, a public campaign had indeed saved Carnegie Hall from demolition). But in preparing to open the new house while still saying goodbye to the old, Bing emerges as a hero. What a difficult job this man had–mounting a new opera to inaugurate the Met’s new home (Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra”), apprehensively eyeing Director Franco Zeffirelli’s creation of a massive extravaganza of a production that eventually broke the stage turntable and famously trapped Leontyne Price inside Cleopatra’s pyramid, overseeing nine new productions scheduled for that first season (four in the first week alone), and dealing with a looming strike by the orchestra musicians (though not mentioned in the film, Bing announced from the stage on Opening Night that a settlement had been reached). The tension as we see Bing deal with all of this is palpable, yet somehow he manages. Few could have handled all these crises as well.

But it’s Soprano Leontyne Price, whose career straddled the old and the new houses, who walks away with the film. At the age of 91 she’s sharply informative as well as a total hoot. I particularly enjoyed her account of what it was like to sing with Tenor Franco Corelli, with whom she made a joint debut at the Met (“We sang insane!!!,” as attested to by the recording of the “Il Trovatore” broadcast from that season), and her stories of the trials, tribulations and triumph of opening the new house as Cleopatra are terrific. As she proudly—and rightly—states, “Sometimes you sing so well you just want to kiss yourself, and I did that night.” When she breaks into the opening phrases of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (“It has become the time of evening/When people sit on their porches/Rocking gently and talking gently…”) while reminiscing about their friendship, don’t be surprised if you find yourself tearing up as I did. As the possessor of the most beautiful soprano voice of my time, she remains a treasure.

“The Opera House’ will be screened once more as a Fathom event on January 17. Here’s hoping for a quick release of the DVD and a showing on PBS. It’s a marvelous film.

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.

Posted in Music, Opera, Theater

All in a Weekend

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Bill Irwin and David Shiner in “Old Hats”

There are ups and downs to the freelancing life, and one of the latter is sometimes having to work on holidays. While I did so on Presidents’ Day, I still enjoyed fine theater and music throughout the weekend. Unfortunately, though, I ended with the Metropolitan Opera’s latest dead-on-arrival new production, “Manon Lescaut.” In the immortal words of every baseball manager who ever lived, “You can’t win ’em all.”

Fortunately my weekend kickoff was “Old Hats,” a return engagement of the 2013 show starring Bill Irwin and David Shiner. Although I wasn’t previously familiar with David Shiner’s work, I feel like Bill Irwin and I go way back. I remember him as the mime Enrico Ballati on “Northern Exposure,” and was fortunate to see his Tony-winning performance as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opposite Kathleen Turner (the corrosive look those two exchanged after his “get the guests” game will remain with me forever).

“Old Hats” predictably begins with Irwin and Shiner one-upping each other in a hat routine; what follows is one cleverly outlandish sequence after another. What is most striking about the evening’s entertainment is how fresh and spontaneous they made everything seem, even after working together for twenty years. You’d think a routine featuring two politicians engaged in debate would be a yawner, but aside from the timeliness during this election year, how quickly they responded to each other became its own source of delight.

My favorite sequence in “Old Hats” consisted of an act featuring an over-the-hill magician (Shiner) and his blowsy blonde assistant (Irwin in drag). He goes into a disco move every time something goes wrong (which is frequently); she looks daggers at the young female “volunteer” from the audience who’s about to be sawed in half. In short this is a compilation of every bad act that ever appeared on the old Ed Sullivan show, and I could not stop laughing. Equally good is Shiner’s take on silent cowboy movies, featuring a cast recruited from the audience. Whether some or all of these people were plants is immaterial—Shiner’s inventiveness was amazing. I can’t remember the last time I laughed like that.

While Irwin and Shiner are for the most part silent throughout, Shaina Taub and her band who supply the music, songs and occasional sound effects fortunately are not. This is clowning at its finest, and I can’t recommend “Old Hats” highly enough.

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Love in Occupied France: “Manon Lescaut”

Had Jonas Kaufmann not cancelled his appearance in the Met’s new production of “Manon Lescaut,” the approach taken by director Richard Eyre might have worked, at least in part. Instead we were left with an ill-conceived staging that did few favors for the spirit of the work. By the end of the opera it seemed apparent that the only heroes of the night were Puccini and conductor Fabio Luisi.

Eyre set this production in Occupied France, ostensibly because he feels “Manon Lescaut” has a noirish tone. Certainly he can’t get this from the music—Act I just pops with youth and springtime. To say it killed the joy to see the stage populated with German soldiers is an understatement. Their presence begged so many questions: How could the crowd at the outdoor cafe get away with taunting them en masse? Why would the Wehrmacht, not the gendarmerie, come to arrest Manon for common theft? Any deportations during World War II would have been to the death camps, not to the swamps of Louisiana envisioned by Puccini, Massenet (composer of the earlier Manon) or even Abbé Prévost, author of the 1731 novel on which both operas are based. While I usually enjoy updated opera—I particularly liked Eyre’s own “Le Nozze di Figaro” set during the “Regle du jeu” 1930’s—the setting has to serve the work and the intentions of the composer and librettist. It did not do so here.

Jonas Kaufmann’s participation would have wall-papered over some of the shortcomings of Eyre’s approach. At least he and Kristine Opalais (Manon) would have had chemistry. Unfortunately with Roberto Alagna as des Grieux, we were stuck with two hard-working professionals who simply didn’t relate to each other. In fact despite the bedroom scene in the second act, there was no discernible heat on stage until Act III, when the lovers’ plight became desperate. I was also bothered by Eyre’s view of Manon. Simply putting Opalais in a Veronica Lake wig and silk negligee does not supply motivation for the character. Mirella Freni was the first Manon Lescaut I ever saw onstage, and though she probably wouldn’t have seen 60 again at that point, she had a firm view of the character that was expressed from within. She let you know in Act II that Manon had her bitchy side, but more than that, the character enjoyed showing it. Opalais could reach that watermark, but in a different production of “Manon Lescaut” that doesn’t saddle her with such a wrong directorial concept.

My advice is to stay home and listen to the radio broadcast on March 5. Fabio Luisi leads a sympathetic reading of the score, the singers tend to the musical side of things in good form and you won’t be distracted by all the nonsense that transpires on stage.

Preludios

 

Every so often it’s refreshing to leave the standard Italian/French/German vocal repertoire for works from other cultural traditions. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s recent album “Preludios” presents some wonderfully ear-catching Spanish song, including de Falla’s “Siete canciones populares españolas” and Montsalvatge’s “Cinco canciónes negras”; her performance of the latter is worth the price of the CD alone.

The Catalonian Xavier Montsalvage composed this cycle in 1946, and its reliance on both Spanish and Cuban styles resulted in the composer’s best-known work. I’ve loved this from first hearing via a Victoria de los Angeles song anthology. Her version had symphonic accompaniment; Miss Leonard is partnered by the talented pianist Brian Zeger. The high point of both song cycle and CD is without question her performance of “Canción de cuña para dormir a un negrito.” Leonard takes this work with its unusual sliding chromaticism at a markedly slower tempo than de los Angeles—it’s a lullaby after all. This, in addition to the progressively softer dynamic, serves to underscore the beauty of the alluring melody and the lovely sound of Leonard’s voice. The result is absolutely stunning. The exuberant “Canto negro” follows to end this expressive song cycle.

Brava Isabel!

Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

Whose Opinion?

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Groucho on “Il Trovatore”: “Boogie, Boogie, Boogie”

Ever feel out of step, critic-wise? How frequently have you seen an acclaimed movie or play that makes you regret the time lost as you suffered through it? And what about that film the critics universally slammed which has you talking about for days?

Yeah, me too. The most recent works at issue? “Il Trovatore,” the first Metropolitan Opera “Live in HD” telecast of the season, and the movie “Freeheld,” starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. The New York Times loved the first and hated the second; I, on the other hand, was disappointed at a certain level by the former but found a great deal to admire in the latter despite its flaws.

“Il Trovatore” starred Anna Netrebko, Yonghoon Lee, Dolora Zajick and, in his triumphal return in the midst of treatment for a brain tumor, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Vocal riches galore to be sure, and especially amazing since Mr. Hvorostovsky never sounded better as Count di Luna, or in any other role for that matter. But here’s the thing: I’ll sometimes take fewer vocal fireworks if a singer can really act the role. I don’t wish to sound ungrateful, but there’s more to “Il Trovatore” than its voices, despite Enrico Caruso’s oft-quoted view that all you need for a successful performance is the four greatest singers in the world. Actually that should be five anyway, because without a dynamic bass as Ferrando, the opera stalls getting off the blocks (Štefan Kocán, who also plays the amusingly sinister Sparafucile in the company’s production of “Rigoletto,” filled the bill quite nicely).

The Marx Brothers’ shenanigans in “A Night at the Opera” notwithstanding (and for years after seeing it I couldn’t hear any phrase from “Il Trovatore” without bursting into uncontrollable laughter), there’s a lot of great drama to be mined here. Yes, the plot is famously absurd and there’s more action taking place off-stage than on, but performers committed to acting the roles as well singing them will make all the difference. The last time I saw “Il Trovatore” at the Met, Patricia Racette was an incredibly nuanced, vulnerable Leonora. Although the role was not a great fit for her in vocal terms, I couldn’t have asked for a better dramatic performance. In the HD telecast only Yonghoon Lee’s “Ah, sì ben mio” rose to that level of sensitivity. This was a rare event indeed—usually you can see the wheels turning in the tenor’s head while he sings this aria because he’s already gearing up for “Di quella pira.” But Mr. Lee delivered both his best singing and acting of the afternoon in that moment.

I love Anna Netrebko. Her dark sound is amazing and though this isn’t apparent in an HD telecast which tends to homogenize singers’ volume, her voice is enormous. She’s a terrific actor—a tremendous Lady MacBeth and a helplessly vulnerable Antonia in “Les Contes d’Hoffman,” among other roles— but in “Il Trovatore” she gave a diva performance. Vocally she was thrilling. Dramatically she was so “take charge” you wondered why she needed Manrico—she could have disposed of di Luna with one hand tied behind her back. Much has been made of her desperately climbing the jail gate during the “Miserere.” To me this seemed a stunt on par with her ripping open des Grieux’s cassock during the seduction scene in “Manon” several seasons ago (the audience tittered at this maneuver during the performance I saw). While I would have liked more dramatic awareness from her Leonora, her singing was extraordinary—it made me long to hear her as Tosca. She’d burn the house down.

There are still some issues with the Met HD telecasts in general. The (lack of) sound quality really grated on me this time, no doubt because the level of vocal quality in this performance was so high. And there’s still too much emphasis on close-ups, to the extent I felt very claustrophobic while watching. The set for this opera is no disaster, so why rely so heavily on the “nostril shot” camera that rides the lip of the stage?

“Il Trovatore” in HD? It left me wanting something a bit more. Maybe it’s too much to ask for perfection?

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Julianne Moore and Ellen Page: “Freeheld”

As a New Jersey resident I clearly remember following the real events behind the film “Freeheld.” To summarize: Laurel Hester, a 23-year veteran police officer in the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. As legally required in 2005, she formally requested the county’s governing body, the Board of Freeholders, to grant her registered domestic partner, Stacee Andree, survivor benefits via a transfer of her pension, as her heterosexual married colleagues were entitled to without question. The Board, which by law had the discretion to grant her application, said no. And subsequently said it several times. It wasn’t until a boatload of bad publicity, centered on the freeholders’ sheer mean-spiritedness, especially in view of the quality and length of Ms. Hester’s service, was brought to bear that they finally reversed their position and granted her request. She died soon after, but her pension financially enabled her partner to remain in the house they had bought together and shared for several years, thus fulfilling the ultimate purpose of her fight.

Manohla Dargis, chief movie critic of the New York Times, called “Freeheld” a “television movie of the week gone uninterestingly wrong” and went on to slam it six ways to Sunday. Surprise, surprise—I liked it. While it certainly has its faults, they’re more than compensated for.

“Freeheld,” based on the Oscar-winning documentary of the same title, features excellent performances all around, though dramatically speaking it’s really Ellen Page’s movie. As the much younger partner of the dying Laurel Hester (a very moving Julianne Moore), she’s likely to get an Oscar nomination out of this—she’s beautifully subtle in how she conveys Stacee’s emotions. Fortunately the supporting actors are on a par with the two leading ladies. Michael Shannon is simply terrific as Dane Wells, Laurel’s police partner; one of the best scenes in the film is his unexpected drop-in on the closeted Laurel, finally learning after many years of working together that she’s a lesbian. He does a tremendous job depicting Wells’ anger and disappointment—not that she’s gay, but because she didn’t trust him enough to tell him about her life. As he did on “Boardwalk Empire,” he gets maximum mileage out of that unusual face of his. Steve Carell as Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, who becomes Laurel’s chief advocate, is a welcome presence–he’s like the dash of paprika that makes a dish interesting. And Josh Charles is excellent as the freeholder who questions the resounding “no” of his fellows on the board.

Are there problems with this film? Of course. In chronological order, I found the first few minutes covering Laurel’s involvement in a drug bust and subsequent cracking of a murder case somewhat confusing—I couldn’t tell the perps from the snitch, which had some bearing on a later scene when the filmmakers want to convey Laurel’s expertise at her job. More importantly, I wish scriptwriter Ron Nyswaner, who also authored the film “Philadelphia,” had given more context to how the state, in contrast to the intransigence of Ocean County, was beginning to recognize inequality in the treatment of its gay citizens. In 2005, as shown in the film, New Jersey had legally recognized domestic partnerships, but more than that, had seen the introduction of legislation that would afford more benefits via civil unions; the bill would be enacted a few months after Laurel Hester’s death. Same-sex marriage finally became law in New Jersey via court decision in 2013, following several years of failed legislation and a veto (you expected something different?) by Governor Christie.

Ultimately I was surprised that the film placed so much emphasis on the seeming secrecy that several freeholders were collecting two and perhaps three government pensions each while denying Laurel Hester’s request. Every newspaper in New Jersey has constantly been on the issue of double-dipping for as long as I can remember; a liberal paper like the Asbury Park Press, Ocean County’s home newspaper, would have featured this hypocrisy front and center. And if they didn’t, the film should have said so.

Unlike Ms. Dargis, I would have preferred more “didactic” context rather than less, particularly since people to tend to forget the early stages of social change. But “Freeheld” is definitely worth anyone’s time on the strength of its acting and the light it shines on what constitutes true equality. In this case “good intentions” do indeed carry the day.

Posted in Baseball, Books, Brain Bits, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for a Golden September

September always reminds me of that staple of old movies—pages falling from a calendar, dramatizing the passage of time. Today’s the first day I could really feel autumn in the air. It’s not just because the cooler temperature made me change from shorts to jeans, or because the rain from a passing shower no longer smelled like summer. The angle of the sun now turns the air golden in late afternoon, a sight you can only see in September.

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After slogging through Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” I can only say Tay Hohoff, her editor on “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Go_Set_a_Watchmanwas a genius. It was Ms. Hohoff of J.B. Lippincott Company who evidently convinced the young Ms. Lee to refocus her story on the few passages in “Watchman” that come alive, all of which consist of Jean Louise (we know her as Scout) reminiscing about her childhood. Even more impressive is how two throw-away references to Atticus Finch’s defense of an unnamed black man were fished out of the manuscript, only to become the tragic story of Tom Robinson’s trial and its aftermath.

I was never a huge of fan of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I didn’t not like it—as a novel it just didn’t seem to deserve the reverence in which it was generally held (The movie didn’t impress me either, except when Boo Radley was finally revealed. The young Robert Duvall is so otherwordly in the role that he stayed with me far longer than any other character in the film). Yet “To Kill a Mockingbird” is so far beyond “Go Set a Watchman” that the former’s reputation can only be burnished by its origins.

“Go Set a Watchman” primarily consists of its characters lecturing each other about race, politics, compassion, understanding and other matters of import. As has been widely reported, the heroine is an adult version of Scout, the central character of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The only carryover, so to speak, is Atticus Finch, now a somewhat infirm 70-year-old; Dill makes a cameo appearance in flashback, but Jem, sadly, is absent, having died young of a heart attack. When Jean Louise recounts a story from her childhood or adolescence, the narrative finally becomes vibrant; otherwise, it’s truly D.O.A. And matters are not helped one iota by the sort-of engagement of Jean Louise and Hank Clinton, the attorney who works with her father. Their relationship never rings true for a moment; you have to believe this was the first plot point that Editor Hohoff made it her business to toss.

There is some historical value in “Go Set a Watchman” in its expression of various Southern viewpoints of race during the early 1950’s. To that extent it serves the same purpose as Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” and “Babbit,” the literary value of which have far been outshone by their documentary-style depiction of middle class values in the early 20th century. But “Go Set a Watchman” fails as a novel; it’s not even interesting as a blueprint in the way that “Trimalcchio,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s early version of “The Great Gatsby,” is.

This is one manuscript that should have remained buried.

The Heart of
The Heart of “The Fosters”

A few words about a show I still watch: When “The Fosters” is good, it’s great. When it cranks up the teen angst, it’s time to head for the hills.

What I admire about “The Fosters” is its insistence on dealing with situations that other shows won’t touch. This past season featured a budding romance (kiss included) between Jude and his now-more-than-best-friend Connor, both of whom are 15, if memory serves. The show continues to explore the many problems of the foster care system and matters of race, heritage, homophobia and sexuality.

Yet the show loses so many points by continuing to dwell on the “Will they or won’t they?” of foster-brother and sister, Brandon and Callie (Well, they finally did, so now what?). He’s the dreariest wet blanket around and while she means well, the girl can’t stop screwing up. The twins Marianna and Jesus aren’t that much more interesting, but at least he’s been away on scholarship at an exclusive school for most of the season.

But fundamentally there’s a distinct imbalance in this show and it has to do with talent. Among the kids, Hayden Byerly as Jude is a standout; there’s honesty in his performance though the actors who play his brothers and sisters can be as mannered as Bette Davis (whom I love incidentally, but on her it looks good). And every time Teri Polo and Sheri Saum, as moms Stef and Lena, have a scene together, they make you want to yell “Zip it!” at the kids. The ladies have such great chemistry that you wish Stef and Lena would ditch that brood (except for Jude), desert ABC Family and just head on over to Showtime.

Written-on-Skin_2278230a
Barbara Hannigan and Bejun Mehta: “Written on Skin”

I finally found the time to watch the DVD of George Benjamin’s opera, “Written on Skin,” and I have to say it stands up to (almost) all of the hype it has received. On the one hand, there’s no denying that the work has benefitted enormously from two extraordinary performances, those of Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves, who originated the roles of Agnès and the Protector, and whose appearances in each subsequent production of the opera only increase its stature (While Bejun Mehta, who appears on the DVD, created the role of The Boy, other countertenors have succeeded him). But “Written on Skin” is more than sheer theatrical razzle-dazzle, even with its “Let’s put on a show” framing device (with angels, yet). After you watch the DVD, listen to the recording of the work. The score is intriguing in its reliance on unearthly sounds: the intertwining of soprano and countertenor voices, a countertenor aria accompanied by glass armonica and the prominence of contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet, all aided and abetted by a huge range of percussion instruments.

Is it the masterpiece some critics proclaim? Well, it’s definitely a great story. Though based on a 13th century tale, “Written on Skin” is timeless in its clash of a tyrannical husband, an unsatisfied wife and the artist hired to write an illustrated family history on “skin,” or parchment. It’s got a shocker of an ending that’s greatly enhanced by some terrific stagecraft. Above all, its music not only serves the story well, it makes you want to listen. Whether “Written on Skin” will live beyond the moment is yet to be determined, but I for one hope it does.

Same for Us, Captain!
Same for Us, Captain!

As a die-hard Mets fan, I can’t tell you how much I’m relishing their stretch run to a pennant. After an incredible April, only to be followed by David Wright’s spinal stenosis and a slew of injuries to Travis d’Arnaud and others, not to mention the ineptitude of the “not ready for prime time” minor leaguers the Mets were subsequently forced to play, we finally saw hope in July with the acquisition of Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, true pros who know how to play the game. Then, wonder of wonders, that Big Bat, which we’d been screaming for, finally arrived in the form of Yoenis Cespedes, aka Superman. With the return of David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud, the Mets took off like a rocket. As of this writing they’re 10 games up on the Washington Nationals, whose coming off-season I wouldn’t wish on a dog.

But much as I’m looking forward to the post-season, there’s something I want more. Even if they have to float a bond issue, the Mets have got to sign Yoenis Cespedes to a long-term contract. They haven’t had a big bopper since Mike Piazza, and it’s high time to end the lean years. They’ve got to support that young staff of pitching phenoms that’ll be working at CitiField for the next several years (Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Zach Wheeler and Steven Matz), but more than that, we fans need him. The past few years have been excruciating—it was bad enough to see things come to naught in 2006 and (ouch) 2007, not to mention what came after. We’ve waited long enough.

So Let’s Go Mets!