Posted in Baseball, Music, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for a Cool November

Less than two months left in 2014, but the entertainment couldn’t be better.

Late to the party again, but I’ve been meaning to say a word or two about the season-ending episode of “Masters of Sex” which aired several weeks ago. That double twist was totally delicious. First, learning that Ethan Haas, Bill’s former rival, was the man behind Dr. Kaufman, Bill’s current competitor in the race to publish, only to be capped by the appearance of former Provost Barton as the man who caused the squelch at Bill’s request. Each plot turn was an unexpected pleasure.

These developments, plus Ginny’s losing custody of her kids (it’ll never last—her ex is a flake), should get “Masters of Sex” started on a dramatic Season Three when it returns. I can’t wait.

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World Series - San Francisco Giants v Kansas City Royals - Game SevenWhat a delightful end to October.

As a result of concentrated lobbying by her many fans, Joyce Di Donato, Kansas City’s own, was invited to sing the National Anthem prior to start of Game 7 of the World Series. She did it a cappella, tossing in a couple of blue notes and at least one simplified Handel progression. Her rendition was very much reflective of her personality—no muss, no fuss, but straightforward and straight from the heart. Brava. Too bad the Royals, this year’s Cinderella team, didn’t complete the dream by winning.

This is definitely Joyce’s New York year. She’s one of the artists featured in Carnegie Hall’s Perspectives Series, and thus far we’ve had her “Alcina” in concert version (I took a pass—after last season’s “Theodora,” I wasn’t ready for another four-hour baroque extravaganza sans stage action) and a lovely recital that was streamed live and which will remain on the Medici website until the beginning of February. The unifying subject is Venice; I found the second half of the program, featuring songs by Michael Hand and Reynaldo Hahn, to be more engaging than the first.

Joyce returns for two more Carnegie Hall performances in the Perspectives Series and of course (finally!), “La Donna del Lago” at the Met. Good times ahead.

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Yes, I saw it.

I attended the second performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Met, and to say it was quite an experience doesn’t exactly do it justice.

Security was even tighter than in the weeks post-9/11. Police cars lined the curb in front of Lincoln Center; parade barricades restricted foot traffic onto the plaza. Although the number of protesters across the street seemed minimal, several stood at the barricades speaking to the police while holding their signs that labelled Peter Gelb a Nazi, among other pleasantries. Uniformed police and Lincoln Center security seemed to be everywhere. In the opera house patrons were required to check all briefcases, totes and back packs; pocketbooks were thoroughly searched and detector wands were in use. A number of men in suits wearing security badges patrolled the lobbies as well as the auditorium during the performance.

Despite all this, the atmosphere was more subdued than tense. Once the performance started and the first of John Adams’ extraordinary choruses began, the focus became the music. The opera played somewhat differently than I had anticipated. That Bach’s Passions served as a model for Adams was quite evident; I was also reminded of Berlioz’s “secular oratorio,” “The Damnation of Faust,” in which the artists spend more time singing at each other rather than to each other. “Klinghoffer” is very contemplative; most of what you hear takes place in the characters’ heads. Only when Leon Klinghoffer confronts one of the terrorists who responds in diatribe, and at the very end, when the Captain tells Marilyn Klinghoffer that her husband has been murdered, do characters truly interact. Actually the chorus is the true leading character in “The Death of Klinghoffer.” By turns portraying Palestinians, Israelis and passengers on the Achille Lauro, it has the most extraordinary music in the opera, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus was perfection.

It speaks volumes about the state of the world that a mob of willfully ignorant morons, the majority of whom know nothing of the art form and in fact needed a map to find the opera house in front of which they protested, could halt an HD telecast intended for people who have loved opera for decades. I’m one of them, and my biggest regret over this entire controversy is that the national and indeed, the international, opera audience was deprived of the ability to experience this production of “The Death of Klinghoffer.” I can only hope that the Met management has learned that caving to bullies is not how an arts organization should be run.

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yannick

I recently attended an incredible performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 by the Phildaelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Yannick Nézut-Seguin was a man with a plan, shaping the work as few conductors do. I don’t always agree with his vision of a work, but I always respect his choices—the man is frequently amazing.

In this case I was glad we were promised a resurrection, because the first movement was fierce, unrelenting, and in fact quite scary to hear on Halloween night. There was total commitment from the orchestra throughout the performance; the brass, especially the trombone section, was extraordinary. Nézut-Seguin has the pulse of this work—I especially enjoyed his reading of the “Knaben Wunderhorn” movements. The soloists were Angela Meade, whose soprano really did fill the auditorium, and Sarah Connolly, who performed a lovely “Urlicht.” The bravos and curtain calls were well-earned indeed.

Next up: Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtstensk” at the Met. Looking forward to seeing that bad girl do her stuff.

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Posted in Television

Layers

"Masters of Sex": Prelude
“Masters of Sex”: Prelude

We seem to be in a golden age of drama, whether cable or streamed. There may be more water cooler shows than water coolers these days, as “Breaking Bad,” “Orange is the New Black,” “House of Cards” and a number of others can easily attest. What marks each, regardless of subject, is the complexity of the writing and the astonishing ability of the actors to play the intricate levels of emotion demanded by their roles. It’s a welcome feast.

Case in point: A scene in an early episode of the recently concluded season of “Last Tango in Halifax.” You’ll recall that Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Kate (Nina Sosanya) have finally, sort of, gotten together, though they’re not out at work (Caroline is the headmistress of the rather tony school at which Kate teaches). On this occasion, as they walk to school assembly, Caroline flapping in her academic robe, they discuss Caroline’s suggestion that Kate sell her house, move in with her and help finance Caroline’s buy-out of her soon-to-be ex-husband’s interest. Kate’s not sure Caroline is making this offer for the right reasons until Caroline blurts out “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

"Last Tango in Halifax": Negotiations Await
“Last Tango in Halifax”: Negotiations Await

Talk about a game changer. From that point on, as the characters discuss property appraisals, they wear the dippiest smiles—both realize Caroline has in essence proposed. But then Kate, pressured by that chapel of students waiting on the headmistress, as well as a desire to put her own cards on the table, comes out with “I want to have a baby.” In the stress of the moment Caroline bursts out laughing—at the incongruous setting of the discussion, at her own audacity in moving things along with Kate, at Kate’s desire to have a first child at the age of 42. Fortunately Sarah Lancashire has the talent to make us see all of this in an instant, which is why this scene is one of my “Tango” favorites.

The second season of “Masters of Sex,” though at the darker end of the spectrum, plays at the same level. It began with a bang (no pun intended), when Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) was forced to fend off a series of passes from the leering doctors who thought hers was the orgasmic body in William Masters’ lecture film. While there have been other fireworks along the way, the best scenes this season have been those exploring the relationship between her and Bill (Michael Sheen). In Season 1 we saw them become subjects in their own study, as they practically swore an oath they were only doing it for the good of science. But despite their best efforts, things became complicated.

Their scenes together are a fascinating study of emotional layers, both as they accrete and as they’re peeled away. We see their hotel room trysts and watch as they fantasize for each other, revealing more about their lives than they’re otherwise capable of doing. A romantic relationship it’s not–at one point Ginny prevents Bill from kissing her, reminding him “That’s not what we do”—but they’re certainly obsessed with each other, both sexually and in terms of who has the power in their relationship. Bill is a physician, so his credentials outshine Ginny’s, the college dropout. Ah, but she’s divorced and free to embark on any relationship she wants, despite his protests, while he’s in a marriage that clearly isn’t fulfilling for him. At this point his need is greater, and she’s not as available as he would want.

All of this is beautifully played by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. The nuances they bring to their roles are astonishing—I especially enjoy her self-conscious “educated” accent. In a recent episode they repaired to their usual hotel suite and the methods of their sexuality study easily morphed into foreplay (She ordered him to strip and, stopwatch in hand, monitored his physical responses as he masturbated). Every moment was charged with about six different emotions, and these actors made it feel as if we were eavesdropping, as well we were.

Michael Sheen is a fascinating Bill Masters—I still can’t believe he wasn’t nominated for an Emmy. Masters’ confrontation with the black newspaper editor who intends to publish a profile detailing his troubled employment history is a showcase of great acting. To stop publication, Masters threatens to reveal that his study can confirm every conceivable stereotype of African-American sexuality (false). He blusters, he pounds the table, yet Sheen simultaneously makes us sense his uneasiness and self-disgust. He has the talent to distinguish this scene from the one we saw last season when Masters blackmailed Provost Barton in order to have his study reinstated at the hospital. During that conversation Sheen made us see Masters’ confidence, since Barton had something to hide; in contrast, despite the noise he makes to the newspaper editor, Masters is mentally cowering. It’s quite a performance.

We’ve seen the same level of complexity in other relationships on the show, especially Ginny’s friendship with Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), her one-time boss who’s now dying of ovarian cancer. Lillian is fighting the good fight, undergoing debilitating radiation treatments to combat the metastases in her brain, but she’s reached a point where she just wants some peace. Yet Ginny refuses to conceive of someone’s wanting to stop; giving up is not in her lexicon. In the “Blackbird” episode, Lillian finally had her own way and in doing so, taught Ginny how to let go. On a different note, Betty, a former prostitute and early subject of Masters’ study, sees her marriage end when her lesbian relationship comes to light. But she’s a survivor, above all, and goes on to become a real estate broker, a CPA and evidently the manager of Bill Masters’ practice. The fact that he’s now taking orders from her is a delightful twist.

If you’re not watching “Masters of Sex,” you should. It’s some of the best TV around.

Posted in Opera, Television

Brain Bits for a Busy October

Duty Hurts
Duty Hurts

Halloween is just around the corner, the days are getting shorter—and colder—and much is percolating on the tube and in the opera house. I was going to lead off by chewing over Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” which premiered at the Met on Monday, but Showtime’s “Homeland” has absolutely pushed itself to the head of the line.

We’ve just been paid back tenfold for the long wait for Season Three to take flight. In the immortal words of Ira Gershwin, “How long has this been going on?” Was the whole “Carrie’s off her meds, Saul rats her out to Congress” progression part of this? Or was it her call to her father, promising to do whatever Saul wanted, that led to setting up the con? In either case, the reveal was like a big tasty meal. I fell for it almost, but not quite, hook, line and sinker—I found it hard to believe Carrie would sell out. During her conversation with the law firm emissary, I had a strong feeling she’d play the other side for all she could get, then use that cultivated relationship to get back in Saul’s good graces. The show runners did a masterful job with their reveal—the sound of gasps across the country last week had to have registered on the Richter scale.

Sunday night’s TV logjam has eased somewhat now that “Last Tango in Halifax” has (regrettably) ended its first season on PBS. I especially enjoyed Gillian’s scenes in the season-ender—she’s been somewhat of “the other daughter” in comparison to the more complicated Caroline—but her love and affection for her father had never been more apparent. And she scored mightily in what was perhaps the funniest scene in the series: her morning-after with John. She’s got her head under the hood of her Land Rover, fixing that “pigging clutch,” when he comes strolling out, all lovey-dovey. She’s all “I had an itch last night. I scratched it. Tea’s on the stove” and John is dumbstruck that she isn’t all a-swoon. Not to mention that Paul’s sitting right there with his nose in an auto repair book, trying not to laugh like hell. A great job by Nicola Walker as Gillian.

“Boardwalk Empire” continues its impressive comeback. I especially enjoyed the surprise meeting between Arnold Rothstein and Margaret (mutual blackmail is a marvelous thing), and I’m looking forward to when Gaston Means sells out young Mr. Knox, which he most assuredly will when the time with Nucky is ripe. I’m delighted to see “Boardwalk Empire” expand its horizons into Wall Street (so important in the 1920’s, both historically and culturally), as well as maintaining its excellent continuity by bringing back some key supporting characters like Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (James Cromwell) and U.S. Attorney Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson), no matter how briefly. It’s been an exceptionally rich and absorbing season.

Speaking of Julianne Nicholson, I honestly didn’t recognize her when she showed up as the stern Dr. Lillian Paul on “Masters of Sex,” a show that finally clicked in its third episode, “Standard Deviation.” This was an hour when the men were front and center, featuring tremendous performances by Beau Bridges and especially Michael Sheen. After we witnessed their early mentor/student relationship develop and grow, we were forced to watch it crumble as Masters, with his professional back to the wall, blackmails the man who did so much for him into funding his study on sexuality. When Masters arrives home, exhausted and full of self-disgust at what he’s just done, even his wife’s announcement that she’s pregnant is not enough to produce a smile. “Masters of Sex” will hopefully continue to impress.

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Alice Coote and Paul Appleby: “Two Boys”

Having attended the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” on Monday night, I can appreciate the mixed reviews the work has received.

Based a true story, the opera, set in 2001, focuses on the how and why 16-year-old Brian stabbed a 13-year-old boy he met on the internet (Plotwise this should be taking place a decade earlier, when the internet was still a new frontier). As you can imagine, the production features every technological bell and whistle around, what with projections of chat room dialogue and a terrific light show representing the ethereal nature of cyberspace. But the wow factor wears off sooner than you’d think. Opera demands character as well as story, and this is where “Two Boys” is somewhat lacking.

Muhly is well-known for his choral writing; his talent in this regard is on ample display here. He produces a textured wall of sound to represent the millions of dialogues on the internet, the faces of the chorus illuminated by their open lap tops. But, as Detective Inspector Strawson (Alice Coote) notes, this universe is almost without soul, lacking the richness of human contact. In fact it isn’t until Strawson returns home, after her first interview with Brian, and muses about this very topic, drink in hand, that “Two Boys” does what opera does best: it illuminates thought and emotion. There are only two other points at which the work came alive for me—Brian’s raw encounter with Peter, the internet figure who challenges him to masturbate in front of a webcam, and the summing-up at the opera’s conclusion, again voiced by Strawson. Unfortunately, “Two Boys” shows a great deal of surface but too little else.

Alice Coote was excellent in what can only be described as the Jane Tennison role; regardless of the opera’s title, she was awarded the last bow and rightly so. Paul Appleby is a very talented Mozart tenor, but his appearance as Brian demonstrates why trouser roles exist. In build and posture there’s no hiding he’s a grown man; matters became creepy when he played scenes with the impressive boy soprano Andrew Pulver, as his victim, Jake, with whom his character has (off-stage) sex. Keith Miller, as the malevolent Peter, was riveting both vocally and dramatically—I would love to hear him sing Claggart.

“Two Boys” is Nico Muhly’s first opera. At the ripe old age of 32, he should go on to produce a significant body of work. I look forward to what he says next.

Posted in Television

Embarassment of Riches

Forget about football and Sunday afternoon TV (as a New York Giants fan I plan to have season-long amnesia). The best stuff on the tube these days starts at 8:00 pm with (drum roll, please): “Last Tango in Halifax,” followed by the “Boardwalk Empire” and “Homeland” collision at 9:00, and rounding out the evening at 10, “Masters of Sex” (I was tempted to say “bringing up the rear,” but more about that later). The last time I watched so much back-to-back TV was in the hey day of “All in the Family,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and Mary Tyler Moore, when staying in on Saturday nights was a must.

be season 4Of the three cable premium shows, “Boardwalk Empire” has surprised me the most this season. It’s come roaring back from the Bobby Cannavale craziness of last year, and each character arc seems more absorbing than the next. I especially like Nucky’s Florida venture, which gets us out of the darkness of liquor warehouses and gambling rooms and into a world of sunlight and straw boaters. Patricia Arquette as Sally is a welcome addition and the palm trees are lovely. Some characters are in flux—Rothstein is starting his downward slide (if “Boardwalk Empire” sticks to its timetable, he should be gunned down the season after next), Richard has lost the stomach to kill and Van Alden has been co-opted by the Capone gang, not entirely to his pleasure. Chalky White and Valentin Narcisse (wonderfully played by Jeffrey Wright) have already butted heads once, and I certainly don’t expect their next encounter to be a pleasant one. And there’s a truly worthy villain in the form of Special Agent Warren Knox of what will soon be known as the FBI. His ostensibly mild-mannered yet sadistic interrogation of Eddie Kessler, ultimately resulting in the latter’s suicide, will hopefully come back to haunt him.

However, two other plot lines are shaping up to be the best “Boardwalk Empire” has featured since Jimmy Darmody’s death. Gillian is now a junkie, and whether she knows it or not, is being played by Roy Phillips. But the who, why and how have yet to be revealed. Is he law enforcement, a private detective or yet another gangster? Is he investigating the disappearance of that Jimmy look-alike Gillian snuffed last season? What is his game? Of equal interest is Nucky’s bailing out his nephew Willie in the wake of his actions at college. I hope Nucky doesn’t look to this kid as a replacement for Jimmy who, while he had his weaknesses, was never weak like Willie (Jimmy would never have acquiesced to throwing a comrade under the bus the way Willie caved to laying the blame for the spiked liquor on his roommate). If, as Nucky says, blood is all, I suspect he’s going to wish for a transfusion before long. And if I were Mickey Doyle, I’d leave town now—Nucky will no doubt reciprocate for Mickey’s gift of booze to the kid to begin with.

It’s great to have the “Boardwalk Empire” pot percolating again. On the other hand, “Homeland” seems to be a bit slow off the blocks.  I’m not happy with the return of Crazy Carrie, even if her tipping point was reached when Saul offered her up as a sacrificial lamb. The first two episodes of the season suffered by Brody’s absence, though Peter Quinn’s additional screen time was tremendous. However, I’m so tired of Dana Brody I wish she’d be hit by a bus—why the show runners are so intrigued by her is absolutely beyond me (I like Morena Baccarin, but as far as I’m concerned the entire Brody family is over). I’m looking forward to better in the future.

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It’s All For Science

The jury is still out for me on “Masters of Sex.” When I first saw the previews on Showtime, I thought it would be a two-hour film; instead it’s a multi-episode series. Can a TV show really be built around all that viewing of screwing? There are some good things to be had: the wittiest opening titles I’ve ever seen; “Mad Men”-era decor and clothes; Beau Bridges as the predictably stuffy hospital chair; and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson, former nightclub singer, college drop-out and swinger. On the other hand, much of what’s aired so far was covered in “Kinsey,” the 2004 bio-pic starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney (Oddly enough, unless I missed it, the name “Kinsey” has yet to be uttered on “Masters of Sex”). The tone is inconsistent—when naughty things are going on, the show is fun; otherwise, it tends to be leaden. And Michael Sheen, as William Masters, really needs to complain to Michael Sheen, a producer on the show—some of the angles used to film him really make him look like Pinocchio.

Tonight sees the season-ender of “Last Tango in Halifax” on PBS. I’m going to miss it terribly until its return. Last week was a pleasure from start to finish—among his other talents, Derek Jacobi is one terrific dancer. And for the first time in five episodes, Gillian actually laughed when she caught Alan and Celia jitterbugging. Among other things, Judith when sober, surprisingly has her head on straight, though when drunk remains a disaster; William is one great kid; Caroline and Kate have turned up the burners; and if you look up “loose cannon” in the dictionary, you’re sure to find John’s picture (By the way, was I the only viewer who yelled “Gillian, for the love of God, don’t!” when she drunkenly inched her hand up John’s thigh? Robbie, newly human, is by far the better bet). I’m already looking forward to next year.