Posted in Broadway Musicals, Opera, Theater

Corona Interlude

Bottom (Hammed Animashaun), Oberon (Oliver Chris) and Titania (Gwendoline Christie) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Production image: Manuel Harlan for the Bridge Theatre).

God bless the internet.

Weathering the lockdowns of COVID-19 may have robbed us of in-person live performance, but there is so much to see and hear online. The availability of free opera from a variety of sources has been amazing, from the Metropolitan Opera to Salzburg to the Vienna State Opera. I particularly enjoyed Vienna’s production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” featuring a very young Lise Davidsen as Ariadne and the wonderful Zerbinetta of Erin Morley. But what made it special was a particular feature that was so obvious, but which I had never seen done before. In this production which, judging by the costumes in the Prologue, appeared to be set in the early 1920’s, the Composer, sung by the excellent mezzo Rachel Frenkel, was on-stage throughout the opera proper. It makes a great deal of sense—it is the Composer’s opera after all, and while he had nothing to sing or speak, his attentiveness in “cueing” the singers was amusingly apt. The high point came when he “accompanied” Zerbinetta at the piano during her big aria. While the actual music came from the orchestra pit, Ms. Frenkel was so accurate in her keyboard locations throughout this long piece that I’d have to think she’s a pretty skilled pianist offstage. And the ending of the opera, which saw Zerbinetta and the Composer together as the earthly counterpart to Ariadne and Bacchus, was sweet indeed.

I had been thinking I wasn’t the Janacek fan I used to be until I recently saw the San Francisco Opera production of “The Makropoulos Affair.” When I last attended a Met performance a couple of years ago I longed for the opportunity to see the opera in HD. Since the springboard of the plot is a law suit involving an estate, it’s a very “talky” work that demands subtle acting that’s not always visible from the Family Circle. The SFO production certainly delivered with a uniformly excellent cast. While Karita Matilla, as the 337 year-old heroine, was a bit more Norma Desmond-ish than I would have liked, you couldn’t have asked for more musically. Bravi tutti!

Theater is thriving on the internet, and I have enough stockpiled links to performances to keep me busy for the next five decades. Some were especially enlightening—a regional production of “Fun Home” that proved this work loses its necessary intensity when performed on a proscenium stage instead of in the round as I saw it on Broadway, and a British production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” which I particularly enjoyed. I had never seen this musical before though I own three different cast recordings, and it was especially gratifying to finally experience the intended dramatic settings of the songs.

Of course the big event of this COVID-19 interlude was the premiere of the taped performance of “Hamilton” on Disney Plus featuring the show’s original cast. This was my second time around for “Hamilton”—I was fortunate to have seen it live on Broadway about 18 months ago by way of a win in the show’s perpetual ticket lottery. That performance’s strengths differed somewhat from the taped version—I had the benefit of a tall, handsome Hamilton who somewhat outshone the shorter, slighter, balding actor who played Burr, and while the electric give and take between audience and actors is a given in live theater, in “Hamilton” it was off the charts (Yes, the line “Immigrants, we get the job done” brought down the house). However, all bets were off at the juncture of “The Room Where It Happened” when Burr tore into that number like nobody’s business, making it the best performed part of the show. I missed that level of excitement in the taped version as well as a more consistent view of the full stage in order to see how inventively the chorus is used. Nevertheless this was more than compensated for by the superb performances of the original cast, especially that of Leslie Odom, Jr. as Burr. He had me with his melting version of “Dear Theodosia,” and it was easy to see why he, along with Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson won Tony Awards.

But without a doubt what I’ve most enjoyed during live performance exile was the National Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by Nicholas Hytner. This was an immersive, anything-goes presentation with aerial stunts, the former Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) as Titania and a quartet of lovers in which the girls seemed more interested in each other than in their interchangeable boyfriends. However, the neatest trick of this production was flipping Oberon’s and Titania’s lines so that he, not she, falls in love with the donkey-fied Bottom. It was so divinely silly, and Hammad Animashaun, braying nicely as Bottom, and especially Oliver Chris as the besotted Oberon, were simply superb. But above all, a special nod goes to whomever came up with the idea of using Beyoncé’s “Love On Top” as “their” song—he or she deserves both a bonus and a raise. Simply wonderful.

Stay safe everyone. Till next time.

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.