Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for the Shortest Day of the Year

Countess Almaviva (Susanna Phillips), Susanna (Nadine Sierra) and Figaro (Luca Pisaroni) Working on Yet Another Plot

Last weekend I had the pleasure of revisiting “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the Metropolitan Opera. As originally presented in 2014, the production, set in the late 1930’s, had major echoes of Jean Renoir’s classic film, “Rules of the Game.” This was enhanced by the casting, which featured Peter Mattei as a very suave and authoritative Count Almaviva, and the excellent performance of Marlis Peterson, the definitive Lulu of her generation, who portrayed an older and far more sophisticated Susanna than usually seen in the role. The result was a dark comedy, tempered somewhat by the sweetness of Isabel Leonard’s Cherubino. But a change of singers and a bit of tweaking has now resulted in perhaps a more traditional “Figaro”—funnier, but fortunately without the slapstick that can mar a production. In the final analysis, both views of the opera work equally well.

The current run of “Figaro” that just ended (it’s due to return with a different cast in February) had two key elements: the Figaro of Luca Pisaroni and Susanna Phillips’ Countess. After several runs as the Count, it was a pleasure to see Pisaroni in what I think is his more natural role. He’s Figaro to the life–the face, the expressions and the physicality all serve the essence of the character. Ms. Phillips, though with a lighter voice than I expected, was dramatically perfect. Her beautifully sung “Dove sono” limned the character’s emotions in all their complexity, which she describes in detail in an Aria Code podcast that may be the best in that series (What? You’re not listening? Tune in for some great insights). It seemed only Adam Plachetka’s Count fell short of the dramatic mark. There was unrelenting bluster, to the extent that I just didn’t believe him when he sang “Contessa perdono.”

In case you can’t guess, “Le Nozze di Figaro” is one of the my favorite operas, and it was a special treat to see this with such a good audience. They enjoyed themselves immensely, aided in no small measure by some wonderfully contemporary titles. A “Figaro” performance should at its end make you glad to be alive, and this one certainly did. “Corriam tutti!”

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“The Irishman,” now available on Netflix, is the summation of Martin Scorsese’s career. In short (as opposed to its length), I liked it. In its most basic sense, it’s an absorbing account of how to lose one’s soul by increments, though I doubt Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) would put it that way. In this regard, perhaps the most illuminating scene in the film is Frank’s conversation with Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), during which they discuss Frank’s experiences in World War II. He registers virtually no emotion as he describes how he followed (unspoken) orders to massacre captured Italian soldiers rather than take them prisoner. Although Buffalino doesn’t even flinch, it’s Frank’s lack of affect that’s the most chilling aspect of the story.

It goes without saying that the casting of this film is superb. Award nominations have been raining down on De Niro as well as Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, but it’s Joe Pesci’s incredibly subtle performance that stayed with me the longest. I also enjoyed how Scorsese, a former executive producer of “Boardwalk Empire,” sprinkled “The Irishman” with actors from that show: Bobby Cannavale (Skinny Razor), Jack Huston (Bobby Kennedy), Aleksa Palladino (Mary Sheeran), among others, not to mention a spectacular turn by Stephen Graham as Tony Provenzano. Mr. Graham, who was a magnetic Al Capone in “Boardwalk Empire,” seems to have inherited the chameleon-like manner of the late Bob Hoskins.

Much as I enjoyed “The Irishman,” I do have one quibble: I wasn’t sold on the de-aging effects used on De Niro, Pacino and Pesci at the start of the film. De Niro, in particular, looked positively glacéed as the younger Frank Sheeran. As difficult as the casting might have been, younger actors playing these roles would have been more effective.

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Midge and Susie Toasting the Shy Baldwin Tour

The third season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” premiered on Amazon Prime like gangbusters, complete with a USO show and a (backstage) string of dick jokes. It was especially gratifying to see Midge tour with Shy Baldwin, adapting to new types of audiences and coping with the stress of being on the road (By the way, it was no surprise that Shy turned out to be gay, since the character was so obviously modeled on Johnny Mathis). I particularly enjoyed the episode in which Midge and Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) spend an evening together, first on-camera for the pseudo-Playboy Mansion TV show, then dancing at a jazz club. The end of their Las Vegas encounter, when “Will they or won’t they?” infused the air, was beautifully played by Rachel Brosnahan and Mr. Kirby (I think she made the right decision to decline his unspoken invitation).

Nevertheless there were ups and downs. The best part of “Mrs. Maisel,” at least this season, was any scene with Susie Myerson (a terrific Alex Borstein), who always seems to get the best writing on the show. I had to hit my remote’s “Pause” so I could howl for two minutes straight at her line to the potential producers about their Donner Party musical; ditto for her reaction to the vocal effects via telephone of Sophie and Gavin Hawk’s coupling. Susie also had the more interesting plots—the Sophie Lennon debacle, her gambling issues and those intriguing exchanges with Reggie, Shy Baldwin’s manager (an excellent Sterling K. Brown), keeper of secrets and bad cop to his boss’ good cop. That was an exceptionally heavy anvil he dropped at the end of the last episode, when, after he fired Midge, to his own distaste, he turned to Susie with “Someday you’ll have to do this.” Given the dynamic between Midge and Susie (tits up!), you really hope not.

On the down side, much as I love Tony Shalhoub, I could have easily seen less of Midge’s parents as well as her former in-laws. Nevertheless, there were still a few rewards: Joel and his father betting on who would faint at the bris; Midge’s conversation with Moishe about buying back her apartment, in which they approach each other for the first time on equal terms as he reveals Joel was an idiot to dump her; and most of all, her confrontation with her mother over the latter’s meddling. Their shouting match revealed they may have more in common than they think, despite mama’s distaste for Midge’s comedy.

Given the time frame of the show, I would expect to see Midge on The Ed Sullivan Show next season (“Mrs. Maisel” has already been renewed). And I really hope we haven’t seen the last of Benjamin (a terrific Zachary Levi). His scene with Midge in the last episode, when they finally discuss her dumping him, was a highlight of the season. Somehow the writers have to find a way to keep him around—he’s a necessary counterbalance to the craziness.

Santa just rode by on a fire truck as I was finishing this post. May all of you enjoy whatever holiday you celebrate, and best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

Posted in Opera

Le Nozze di Figaro

"Aprite un po' quegli occhi!"
“Aprite un po’ quegli occhi!”

There are many operatic comedies, but if there’s a work that ends on a more joyous note than “Le Nozze di Figaro,” I’ve yet to see it. Indeed, Saturday’s finale to Mozart’s opera, courtesy of the Met’s Live in HD telecast, was cause for elation.

There’s just so much in “Figaro”: servant vs. master, long-lost parents, assignations in the garden, a randy pageboy who enjoys dressing as a girl, and most of all, that incredible Act Two, with its musically intricate and plot-twisting finale. Not to mention the funniest moment in opera—when Susanna, not Cherubino, steps out of the closet, to the Count’s complete stupification. (For the record my other favorites are Mistresses Ford and Page discovering Falstaff has sent them both the same love letter, the ménage à trois of “Le Comte D’Ory” and Almaviva and Rosina singing of how they’ll make their getaway instead of making their getaway while Figaro is “andiam”–ing them onward).

Richard Eyre’s production, which opened the current Met season, sets “Figaro” in 1930’s Spain. In my experience putting the singers in contemporary dress often frees them, not only from the literal constraints of corsets and powdered wigs, but from a type of formality that can be distancing. In short a modern dress production seems to enable them (and the audience) to relate to their characters and each other more easily than in a traditional staging. Such was the case here—the singers seemed to be enjoying themselves to the hilt.

There’s been a great deal of debate as to what that ’30’s setting signifies in view of Franco and the looming Civil War. I see it in a different light. Let me give you a hint: think Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game,” not politics. In fact if memory serves, Renoir precedes the action of his film with a quote from the source of the opera, Beaumarchais’ “Le marriage de Figaro.” Like the world of that film, the regime Eyre portrays is corrupt and dying; what’s left is love, the chase and other divertissements.

Eyre begins the production with a prequel that accompanies the overture. I didn’t care for his use of this device in his production of “Werther” last season, but I very much enjoyed it here. The scenes on the revolving set featured a maid running to work from the Count’s chambers while hastily dressing en route; the knowing looks of her fellow servants when she finally reports to her post; the gardener Antonio, already tippling in the a.m.; and the Countess, restlessly tossing in her bed—alone.

This was the 75th performance of “Le Nozze di Figaro” conducted by James Levine at the Met, and musical matters were as crisp as ever. The cast was excellent. Ildar Abdrazakov, shorn of his beard and Prince Igor’s long locks, is an engaging and enormously attractive Figaro. He and Marlis Petersen made an interesting team. Somewhat cast against type (she was a sinuous, dangerous Lulu at the Met several seasons ago), she proved a slightly older and definitely wiser Susanna than usual. Susanna is no ingenue, and variations on the role are most welcome. Years ago I saw Catherine Malfitano (pre-Salome and Tosca) perform a lovely, vulnerable Susanna, while Judith Blegen brought her sharp intelligence to the role. During the second act jousting with the Count, her expression wasn’t just “How did a nice girl like me end up in a mess like this?” it was “How did a nice smart girl like me” etc. In the current production the modern era works to Petersen’s advantage—she could have given Carole Lombard a run for her money in any 30’s screwball comedy.

I have to admit one of my main reasons for buying a ticket to this performance was to hear Peter Mattei sing “Contessa, perdono.” For sheer beauty of sound, there are few currently active baritones who can touch him. His Count Almaviva possessed the most important attribute necessary to putting the role across—authority, which he never lost despite the many times he was outfoxed by Figaro, Susanna and nearly everyone else on stage. I would have liked to have seen a Countess who could truly match him, but Amanda Majeski isn’t quite there yet, though she may well be in the future. I thought her performance a bit one-note—this Countess should have been on Prozac, though she eagerly joined in the many twists and turns of Act Two. I tend to think the overdone depression was more Eyre’s take on the character than hers, so there may be some tweaking in the future.

Isabel Leonard is a beautiful woman with a lovely voice, but I wasn’t really impressed until seeing her performance as Cherubino. She’s inside his skin, and looked quite dashing in that white suit. However, I was somewhat disappointed by “Voi che sapete.” She acted the lyrics to the aria, which resulted in some abruptly terminated phrases. But the aria is really a performance piece, and I would have preferred to have heard it as pure music rather than a vehicle by which Cherubino too obviously shows his befuddlement and anxiety to the Countess. Since it’s such a calling card for lyric mezzos, I can’t imagine this was Ms. Leonard’s idea, but it needs to be thrown overboard forthwith.

The rest of the cast was exemplary: Greg Fedderly’s Don Basilio seemed like Paul Lynde revisited, Susanne Mentzer, a former Cherubino of distinction, was a wonderfully arch Marcellina and John Del Carlo blustered becomingly as Bartolo. There was also a star in the making—Ying Fang, whose Barbarina had far more voice that you usually hear in this role. She’s got the limpid sound and the charm to be a wonderful Mimi, and I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.

What a lovely way to start a season of opera.

Some food for thought: Here’s a snapshot of what’s wrong with opera in America today. At my local multiplex there were only about 40 people in attendance for the “Figaro” HD telecast. I spotted one couple in their early 30’s, another in their 40’s, and a young woman in her 20’s who arrived with her mother. No one else in the theater would see 55 again, and in fact, the majority of attendees appeared to be in their late 60’s and far beyond. And, sad to say, the situation is no different at the university where I usually attend HD telecasts. So the marketing folks better get cracking pronto, before there’s no audience remaining to appreciate some of the greatest works ever created.