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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Warhorse Diaries 2016, part one: Aida and Nutcracker

Latonia Moore as Aida, photo by Cory Weaver
It's Nutcracker season again! Actually to be more precise it's warhorse season in NYC. Thanksgiving-Christmas is not the month for artistic institutions to take risks. It's tourist season, and so this means lots of Messiah's, Revelations, Rockettes, and Snowflakes. This is cash-cow time.

With that being said the quality that companies maintain these warhorses can be a good measure of the overall health of that company.  I hope to catch Alvin Ailey's Revelations and a Messiah before the season is done. And maybe another Nutcracker. Thanksgiving week I kicked off my tour of the warhoses at the Met for their reliable warhorse Aida and at NYCB for their money-tree, Nutcracker.

The energy of these two performances could not have been more different. On November 22, everything about Sonja Frisell's 1988 production of Aida looked and sounded tired. The production still has its old-fashioned picturesque charm but it's clear that the singers are left to their own devices without direction or guidance. Marco Armiliato led a sluggish and painfully out of tune Met orchestra. Dmitry Belosselskiy and Solomon Howard at least had sonorous bass voices. Marco Berti is a reliable belter and that's how he sang Radames: he walked to center stage, planted himself by the prompter and yelled the role from the very first notes of "Celeste Aida" to the end of the Tomb Scene. Mark Delavan (Amonasaro) sounds like the epitome of a provincial, rote baritone. Ekaterina Gubanova who was a wonderful Brangane a few months back has neither the voice or temperament for Amneris. Her smooth, medium-sized mezzo ran out of gas well before the Judgment Scene. She didn't bother acting this part which can be so much scenery-chewing fun. Just watch Fiorenza Cossotto eat the stage alive in this video and you'll get a sense of all that was missing from Gubanova's portrayal.

Latonia Moore was the reason I dragged myself to this performance. A year ago she was absolutely lovely in NYCO's otherwise middling Tosca. Moore, who is visibly pregnant, has one of the most beautiful soprano voices on the scene today. You can get drunk from the sound of her glowing, warm, soft-grained voice. And the evening started off strong with lovely floated notes at the end of "Ritorna vincitor" and a voice that soared rather than shrieked in the Triumphal Scene. Unfortunately she came to total grief in the Nile Scene -- that ascent to the famously exposed high C started off shakily and got no better as she reached for a note that simply wasn't there. The long ensuing duets with her father and Radames revealed that this role requires more stamina and body that Moore's delicate, lyrical voice can provide. I can't help but feel that she's being unfairly typecast for a role that's not really suited for her voice. I can only speculate about the reasons she's not being given Mimi or Desdemona. It was a depressing evening.

George Balanchine's Nutcracker was the huge blockbuster hit the New York City Ballet needed in 1954  and over 60 years later it's still an automatic sell-out. The quality of Nutcracker performances has ebbed and flowed along with the health of the company in the years following Balanchine's death. I remember a particularly dire performance over 10 years ago where the unfortunate Sugar Plum Fairy looked to be on the verge of tears the entire time.

This afternoon I went to a performance that was fresh as a daisy. The cast was well-stocked with a mix of adorable SAB kids, brand-new apprentice members and veteran principals who were all eager to show their best to the packed audience. Robert La Fosse reprised Drosselmeyer with the right amount of cape-waving eccentricity. The snowflakes and flowers were all together. The mice were as skittish and funny as ever, and touching: when their Mouse King (Alec Knight) died, they gathered around him with real heartbreak. Devin Alberda nailed the double-jump through the hoops in the Candy Cane variation. The eight Polichinelles who ran out of Mother Ginger were absolutely the best I've ever seen. They articulated the joyful pas de chats with the speed and precision of a true Balanchine dancer. They're little kids but dancing like pros. These details are so important in a successful Nutcracker performance.

There's really not more superlatives I can add to the Sugarplum Fairy/Dewdrop team of Sterling Hyltin and Ashley Bouder (pictured above). Both are veterans at their roles and their experience shows -- Hyltin knows exactly how to wave that wand and bourrée downstage as the beautiful Sugarplum Fairy. If you closed your eyes and imagined a Kingdom of the Sweets Sterling Hyltin is exactly the enchantress of your dreams. And, in a more technical way, her balances were rock-solid and her pique and chaine turns were lightning fast. In the celesta solo she had a way of bouncing her pointes in passé so that her feet twinkled with the music. Andrew Veyette as the Cavalier was an expert partner, knowing exactly when to let go to give Hyltin the illusion of total weightlessness or invincibility. Their pas de deux ended with a picture-perfect fish dive. Of course.

As for Bouder, she powered through the Dewdrop role with a fearsome determination. In that long diagonal where she "sprinkles" all the flowers all her jumps lingered in the air for a second before she charged forward. She prolonged every one of Dewdrop's exits with an extra-long-held balance in arabesque. Of course she chugged out a few fouettés along the way. It was as if she was showing the kids how it's done.

I actually love warhorse season. There's something comforting about the Rockettes kicking their legs for the umpteenth time or having an entire auditorium rock along to Revelations . But old horses need love and nourishment. One company (the Met) seems content to let its warhorses starve, while another company across the plaza treats its old faithful with the enthusiasm of a brand-new puppy. The results of this treatment are all too easy for the audience to see.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Anna Netrebko's Manon Lescaut Provides Huge Waves of Sound ... And Little More

Anna Netrebko, photo @ Ken Howard
Anna Netrebko's much-anticipated Met debut of Manon Lescaut was a dream if you're the type of opera lover who craves huge, unstinting waves of sound to flood the auditorium all evening. During "Sola, perduta abbandonata" she walked downstage, and simply released the flood-gates of her voice to the 4,000 person auditorium. It was glorious surround-sound. It was the high point of her portrayal. You just bathed in the aural experience. Netrebko is one of the few singers who can do this.  Her voice has even acquired a degree of flexibility it didn't have when she was younger -- she turned out a beautiful trill in "L'ora, o Tirsi." Netrebko has maybe THE finest vocal endowment on the opera scene, period. There's not much her voice can't do. The lushness of her voice, her effectiveness in projecting her instrument, along with her security at the very upper and lower ranges of her voice, are all amazing.

Considerably less amazing however was her interpretation and connection to the text. Netrebko's vocal instrument is definitely a Stradivarius but her portrayal of Manon was an awkward mix of coquette, femme fatale, and tragedienne that only scratched the surface of the character. In the first act she didn't even pretend to be young -- she was a knowing sexpot from the moment she stepped onstage. Her character didn't grow -- her situation became more desperate but I didn't feel her pain. Maybe the falsest note was when she makes her abortive escape effort with Des Grieux in Act Two -- Netrebko ran around the room with her fur coat clumsily stuffing and re-stuffing jewels into her pockets and purposefully dropping those jewels again for another re-stuffing. The audience laughed. If this were opera buffa it'd be cute.

There were little moments of carelessness that ruined the illusion -- for instance, she started singing "Tu, tu, amore, tu!" before she turned around to "see" that Des Griuex had snuck into her chambers. She sometimes snatched breaths in odd places, which took away from the bite and pungency of verismo phrasing. Also her emphasis on uninterrupted waves of beautiful sound meant she often dipthonged vowels to a ridiculous extent. "In quelle trine morbide" had gorgeous crescendos and diminuendos but also sudden snatched breaths that destroyed the legato of the music. I realize that there's not many active Manon Lescauts around right now, and Netrebko is certainly preferable to Kristine Opolais. But Netrebko's incredible vocal gifts make me wish that she could give up the rhythmic slackness, potato mouth diction and lackadaisical characterization. Imagine the Manon she'd be then!

Alvarez and Maltman, photo @ Ken Howard

Marcelo Alvarez (Des Grieux) gives the same sort of performance I've seen him give many times over many years -- serviceable, professional, unmemorable. His voice still has some sweetness, and despite a tendency to croon he also has fairly good control of his upper register. He's just so damned basic in his presentation and delivery. There's never an "a-ha" moment with him where you hear the music differently or see the character in a new light. "Tra voi belle" was jaunty, "Donna non vidi mai" was passionate, and from the second act onwards furrowed brows meant that the character was in constant sturm and drang. The chemistry between him and Netrebko was non-existent -- oddly, that sort of worked. This Manon Lescaut was so self-absorbed that to her, Des Grieux was just another jewel in her box. 

The supporting cast was excellent. Christopher Maltman (Lescaut) and Brindley Sherratt (Geronte) did fine work as the sleazeballs. Maltman really brought charm and joie de vivre to his role so one could fall for his hustler schemes. This revival however could have used the classy, controlled conducting of Fabio Luisi. This time it was Marco Armiliato at the pit and the difference was noticeable. The Intermezzo was marred by some poor timing with the strings, and Armiliatio simply can't push the music forward. He indulges his divas in their worst traits, and is really just a routinier. When he conducts the Met Orchestra also sounds routine.

Expiring in the comforts of Geronte's old home, photo @ Ken Howard

The production by Richard Eyre has been modified -- Netrebko as can be expected does her own thing and got a new set of costumes. The business with the whores in Act Three has been toned down considerably. Otherwise the production remains the same in that it's handsome to look at, but makes almost no sense. Why does the first act train station look like a recreation of the Roman Coliseum? Why would Manon be dancing a flamenco at the same time she's putting on a baroque parlor show? Why would wartime France be deporting women of leisure? And why would Manon and Des Grieux board an ocean liner only to go right back to Paris to die? 

But I don't think anyone in the audience last night was there for Eyre's production. Excitement level was high for Netrebko's Manon Lescaut. I wish I'd been able to be as spellbound and adoring as the rest of the audience was. Netrebko has said that she wants to move more into verismo repertoire. She certainly has the voice for it. But right now the phrasing and attention to the text is not there.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Company XIV's Paris

The adorable front-drop to Company XIV's Paris

This isn't a political blog, so I won't talk about the single most depressing night in American politics that I've ever experienced. Instead I'll just talk about Company XIV and their wildly entertaining Paris that I saw last night. Again, they take a familiar myth (in this case, the Judgement of Paris) and give it a burlesque twist that combines a little bit of everything -- ballet, ballroom dancing, pole dancing, classical music, pop music, cabaret-style comedy and the rest of the kitchen sink. Director Austin McCormick has a knack for: 1) finding talented singers and dancers; and 2) harnessing those eclectic talents into a coherent, focused, appealing show. They don't take themselves too seriously but they're always professional. The show is naughty but never for a moment trashy. These are extremely talented classically trained dancers and singers who are just putting on a fun show. I highly recommend seeing their upcoming Nutcracker Rouge.

The show was anchored by "Zeus/Fifi" (Charlotte Bydwell) who wore a clever costume that was half silk tails, half mermaid costume. She twisted her body both ways to show off her alter egos. Throughout the night she told cabaret-style jokes while loosely narrating the story. The show started with a drag can-can (of course!) then got to the heart of the story, which is the shepherd Paris and his apple. Paris was danced by the talented, handsome Jakob Karr.

The whole evening had so many memorable moments. I'm glad I was able to capture a few on camera (they encourage photography and videotaping).

Here are some videos I took of this evening:

The Paris-Mercury matador-style pas de deux performed by Jakob Karr and Todd Hanenbrink:

The core of the show was the display by Paris's three choices: Athena, Juno, and Venus. Each of the three goddesses put out their best moves in hopes of winning that apple from Paris.

"Athena" Marcy Richardson performs Adele's Skyfall while dancing on a pole. Marcy Richardson's acrobatics/singing has become a beloved staple of these Company XIV shows:

The amazing countertenor Randall Scotting as Juno. Scotting was hilarious as the goddess of home and hearth. He was outwardly masculine with a lovely pure countertenor voice.

Venus was the curvaceous Storm Marrero who sang up a storm and finally won Paris's apple.

Of course at the end Helen of Troy walks off with Paris and the rest is history.

This show is wonderful. This company is wonderful. Please support them in their future ventures -- you won't be disappointed! Company XIV is currently playing at the Irondale Theater in Brooklyn. It's about a five minute walk from BAM.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Mattila Returns to Met, Richard Tucker Gala

Mattila and Dyka, photo @ Ken Howard
Karita Mattila's return to the Met after a five year absence was basically everything a beloved diva (and the audience) could hope for -- a great role (Kostelnicka in Janácek's Jenufa), an adoring audience, and a voice that is intact and needs no apologies. No it's not a young voice and Kostelnicka is a role often associated with sopranos of a certain age but Mattila's voice actually seems to be undergoing an Indian summer. It's remarkably warm, steady, and full of volume and richness. There was no veristic screeching. And no one decided to sprinkle ashes during her curtain calls.

Mattila is one of those rare complete artists. Her voice was just a bigger part of her detailed, charismatic portrayal of this tormented woman. First of all, Mattila is still beautiful, so when Kostelnicka sang about how she was once the most desired woman in the village but frittered away her youth, you believed her. Second of all, the energy she put into her performance lifted the entire evening. She deserved her ovations, and I hope she returns to New York for many more evenings. She's wonderful.

Her colleagues were not on her level. Oksana Dyka (Jenufa) has a large, penetrating voice with a fairly large range. Too bad she's one of those singers who sings completely through the nose, so what comes out is a shrill, unpleasant whine. She has a wobble too. Her portrayal of Jenufa was that of a mopey plain-Jane type, so different from Mattila's own portrayal in 2003 (which I saw, and remember). Mattila was vibrant and sensual -- no surprise that Jenufa got knocked up so quickly. Dyka looked like a sad sack even before Steva abandoned her. Daniel Brenna as Laca was even more unappealing. His voice was sturdy but his characterization almost non-existent. A menacing scowl was the beginning and end of his "acting." Laca honestly seemed more creepy when the curtain fell than at the beginning of the opera, which sort of belies the hopeful, even joyous finale.

The smaller roles in the little Moravian village were better cast. Veteran mezzo Hanna Schwarz made a strong impression as the Grandmother. Joseph Kaiser as the village playboy Steva had the kind of slick, cheap appeal you recognize (and hopefully avoid) at bars. Ying Fang was lovely as Jano, and Clarissa Lyons as Karolka was pretty and fresh-voiced. Conductor David Robertson seemed to be going for a Straussian shimmer in the orchestra. Great, except the folk rhythms of Jenufa were lost. The production by Olivier Tambosi is most remembered for the gigantic boulder that takes up almost the entire stage in Act Two. There's really not much else happening. No idea why this particular production has made the rounds in stages all over the world -- in London, San Francisco, Barcelona, Hamburg, Helsinki ...

Carnegie Hall on October 30 was crowded up to the vertigo-inducing nosebleed seats (where I was sitting) for the annual Richard Tucker Gala. The winner of the 2016 Richard Tucker Award is Tamara Wilson, who should satisfy the voice buffs that complain about how singers don't have big voices anymore. If you want a loud ringing voice with an amazing top, Wilson's your gal. Right now she needs some refinement in terms of presentation and interpretation. Her "Dich, teure Halle" had none of the radiance that's so important in this aria. The Act One trio from Norma was screamed -- no other word for it. Lucrezia's prayer from I due Foscari  showed more than pure muscle. There's a voice in there, just think the overall packaging has to be improved. Or maybe she needed more rehearsal time.

A photo posted by @anna_netrebko_yusi_tiago on

This year's gala had only one cancellation (Mr. Netrebko I mean sorry great spinto tenor of the future Yusif Eyvasov) and a pretty verismo resistant lineup. Javier Camarena, Lawrence Brownlee, Jamie Barton and Joyce DiDonato are fine singers but they can't and shouldn't sing Cilea. This meant that the singers got to sing their music instead of bawling out the usual Tucker Gala-type blood-and-guts arias. Maybe for this reason SuperDiva Anna Netrebko had a mid-performance encore of -- wait for it -- Cilea's "Io son l'umile ancella." Her earlier effort was that other verismo staple "La mamma morta." Anna Netrebko's virtues were all there -- the volume, the plush timbre, the instinctual ability to know what her audience wants and to give it to them. Anna is opera's version of comfort food. An over-eager fan ran up to the stage between numbers to give her an oversized bouquet, which Anna accepted with the hauteur of, well, Adriana Lecouvreur.

Other highlights: Lawrence Brownlee and Javier Camarena trading high notes in "Ah, vieni, nel tuo sangue" from Rossini's Otello, Joyce DiDonato singing a piece that actually had been written for her (an aria from Jake Heggie's The Great Scott), Larry Brownlee's aria from Dom Sébastien, Jamie Barton and Joyce DiDonato in the very un-gala like duet from Giulio Cesare, Renée Fleming (about to make her stage farewell to opera in Der Rosenkavalier) bidding farewell to Manon's little table. All of them displayed a vocal refinement that's rarely on display in this gala. Jamie Barton also sang "Mon coeur." She's got talent in spades. Oh yeah, Kristine Opolais, Nadine Sierra, and Joshua Guerrero also sang. Opolais's selections (Song to the Moon, Un bel di) she could probably sing in her sleep. She looked great in her gowns, that's all I'll say.

So that's a wrap. And to think ... I really might not hear any Cilea until next year's gala.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

ABT Fall Season

Blaine Hoven, Calvin Royal, Gabe Stone Shayer in Serenade After Plato's Symposium, @Andrea Mohin

The ABT's fall season is  so different from their overstuffed, predictable spring season. Their brief, eclectic fall season is always interesting, often amazing, sometimes frustrating. You can admire the diversity of their fall repertoire compared to their spring season and still wish that they mastered one style instead of tackling so many. I caught two performances this season. Wanted to catch more, but oh well.

Good news: Ratmansky's Serenade After Plato's Symposium is a keeper, one of the best things he's done for ABT. The ballet has structure, it has a a theme, and most importantly, it has charm and musicality. The score (Bernstein's 1954 violin concerto) is a beautiful piece of music. Ratmansky captured the spirit and camaraderie of this philosophical society perfectly. The male-male partnering was playfully homoerotic without ever crossing the line from (forgive the pun) platonic into erotic. Ratmansky did cater too much to the trickster tendencies of the ABT dancers by putting a bunch of virtuosic steps for each of the men, but even that had a purpose -- it brought a sense of competition to this otherwise utopian community. When the lone female (Devon Teuscher) appeared onstage it felt like a complete disruption of the harmony of this group. She danced briefly with Marcelo Gomes and left as soon as she arrived. The other men seemed to resent her presence -- bros before ho's.

The finale of Symposium is a joyful celebration of this little society. The men each take turns with mini-variations. One guy (Danil Simkin the first night I saw this, Jeffrey Cirio the second night) wowed the crowd with super-fast barrel and chaine turns. The seven guys lined up downstage center, shrugged their shoulders, the girl reappeared at the side, and curtain. These boys will be okay. Ratmansky is always great at drawing out performances from dancers -- Calvin Royal in particular stood out for his regal, imposing stature, and Gabe Stone Shayer had maybe the most impish goofy part. But really, the whole cast of boys was great. Devon Teuscher didn't have much to do except look hot in a toga.

Cast of Monotones II, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Other welcome returns to the repertory: Ashton's Monotones I and II. These two brief ballets are set to the haunting music of Erik Satie and have none of the trademark Ashton quaint charm. They demand total muscular control and a willingness to dance in a spacesuit. It's about shapes, poses, geometry. ABT's performance wasn't perfect. ABT's dancers aren't trained for the exposed adagio dancing of these mini-masterpieces. I saw some wobbly legs from both the Monotones II trio (Isabella Boylston, Stella Abrera, Joseph Gorak) and the Monotones I trio (Veronika Part, Thomas Forster, Cory Stearns), but the dancers treated this ballet with respect and were able to transmit the beautiful, mysterious otherworldliness of the ballet.

Moira Shearer, Margot Fonteyn and Pamela May
I wish I could say the same about their revival of another Ashton masterpiece, Symphonic Variations. The sextet of dancers, good as they were, just weren't able to capture the lean, taut severity of Ashton's choreography. Here is a picture of the original cast. Look at Moira Shearer, Margot Fonteyn and Pamela Mays' posture. They could be dancing a Balanchine B&W leotard ballet. Fonteyn in particular has the stern, implacable look of a Greek goddess. ABT's dancers got through this ballet but treated it like they'd treat Fille mal gardee: they smiled throughout, their arms were held daintily as if this were Les Sylphides. I was surprised that Wendy Ellis Somes was the stager -- you'd think she would have coached the dancers to harden their look. The girls (Luciana Paris, Christine Schevchenko, Cassandra Trenary) were worse in this regard than the boys (Cameron McCune, Calvin Royal, Alban Lendorf). The steps were there, but the minimalist flavor of the ballet was gone.

Balanchine's Prodigal Son also returned to ABT's repertory. This early masterpiece on paper looks to be a good fit with ABT -- unlike so much of Balanchine's canon it's an overtly theatrical work. Some acting details that tend to get lost at NYCB were so vivid here. For instance, the shenanigans of the Son's buddies were more individualized and striking. But ABT and Balanchine are still an odd fit. Even though Prodigal is story and character-driven, it's still Balanchine, which means it demands a kind of on-the-note musicality that ABT's dancers simply don't have. Danil Simkin wowed with his jumps and acted the role well. His crawl back to his father was as debasing and humiliating as it's supposed to be. And Veronika Part's long legs and movie star looks were definitely sexy to watch. But both of them were occasionally rhythmically slack and also didn't have the taut musculature that's so important in Balanchine. I admired Part for the way she used her arms in the Siren's signature coiling motion and she obviously rehearsed a long time with that cape. However her phrasing is too slow and deliberate -- the slicing through the air of the Siren's legs failed to make their full effect as a result. They get an A for effort.

I didn't get to see as much as I wanted this fall. I missed Jessica Lang's Her Notes and Benjamin Millepied's Daphnis and Chloe. ABT is a company best taken in small doses though. When asked to dance choreography designed on other company styles you realize they really are a jack of all trades, master of none.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Tell That Doesn't Tell the Tale

Tell's final tableau, photo @Marty Sohl

So last night I went to the Met's new production of Guillaume Tell and it was glorious, fantastic, everything I'd ever want in a staging of Rossini's masterpiece ... eh, who am I kidding? It sucked. Rossini's opera has some of the greatest (if vocally demanding) music ever written, but it needs a production that respects and advocates for the opera as a viable stage vehicle. Pierre Audi's production is terrible in every way. It's a total disaster.

Audi apparently decided that this opera about how We're Starting a Revolution (!!!) needed the black and white minimalist treatment. Costumes by Andrea-Schmidt-Futterer are mixed and matched across a variety of eras but the long skirts on the women mean "in the distant past." White for the peasants, black for the conquerers. Mathilde is wearing a black Victorian bustle gown in the beginning because she's a Hapsburg! When she joins the revolution she changes to a white gown! Surprise surprise! Set designer George Tsypsin populated the stage with some styrofoamy fake rocks, an upside down cow, a big suspended ship/crossbow (???), and several tubes that light up during the finale (see above picture). Current fashion dictates that it's absolutely unacceptable to have painted backdrops so we had a mirror that reflected an ice blue. I guess it's Lake Lucerne?

The suspended boat and mirror lake, photo @ Marty Sohl
There wasn't any aesthetic sense in the sets and costumes, but all of this might have worked had their been any direction of the large cast and chorus. Alas, there was none. The large cast and chorus shuffled on and offstage with no discernible reason -- onstage bars and bars before they had to actually sing, and often they lingered onstage with absolutely nothing to do. The first scene is supposed to be a village festival. The chorus shuffled to center stage and stood mirthlessly. There was a complete disconnect between the rousing music and the unrelenting dullness onstage. The opera is long but it's not exactly action-packed, and somehow Audi didn't even make those "big moments" register. For instance blink and you might have missed when Tell has to shoot an arrow through an apple instead of his son Jemmy. Oh by the way there's no attempt to make Jemmy look like a boy here. Not sure whether that was a choice or it was because the Jemmy (Janai Brugger) simply was too curvaceous to attempt the in travesti look.

Okay, so the production wants to be boring and inoffensive. I don't have a problem with that. Alas, Audi wants to be "edgy" as well. In the third act choreographer Kim Brandstrup's ballet is some Hapsburg women in black leather S&M'ish tutus forcing the poor peasants to dance. The Hapsburgs have whips, y'all. It was more ridiculous and repetitive than anything else but it triggered a few audience members to boo. They might have been letting off steam about the awfulness of the production. I would have too had I cared more.

Finley as Tell, photo @ Marty Sohl
This is a shame because the cast of Tell mostly did justice to this demanding work. Gerald Finley was magnificent in the title role. His baritone is warm, smooth, and he sang his music with a real sense of legato. "Sois immobile" was a vocal highlight. He was also the only singer to attempt any kind of "characterization" -- his Tell is the quietly charismatic type of leader. They start a revolution by reassuring that it's going to be okay. Think Obama, not Trump.

In the demanding role of Arnold Bryan Hymel certainly had the stamina and the upper register to get through the opera. He's of a very strong constitution and is specializing in these heroic French grand opera parts. He sailed through the big double aria "Asile héréditaire" and "Amis, amis" without any obvious strain. Unfortunately Hymel's actual voice is ... ugly. No other way to put it. Yes it has an extremely secure upper register with a lot of ping on those high C's, but the rest of the voice is pinched, bleaty, and without any beauty or warmth. It's as if the Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music and the goats started to sing.

You could say "Well who else can sing this better?" Except the cover for this run (who sings November 2) is John Osborn,  who in my opinion sings with way more beauty, if not security in the upper register.

Compare and contrast Hymel with Osborn:

Rebeka and Hymel, photo @ Marty Sohl
Marina Rebeka is an old hat at the role of Mathilde. She's sung this role in Pesaro, Amsterdam, and Munich. Her bright, shimmery soprano can float over the large choruses and has enough flexibility for the role. "Sombre forêt" sounded more hard-pressed than lyrical and some of her coloratura has a mechanical, machine-gun feel. But this is a quality lyric soprano, and compared to Hymel her voice is pleasing to the ear. Janai Brugger as Jemmy also had a bright, shimmery kind of voice. I wish she'd made more of an attempt to actually portray a boy but that might have been the director's choice.

The rest of the cast was a mixed bag. Maria Zifchak is a veteran mezzo and performed the part of Hedwige admirably if without a hint of engagement in her role. Kwangchul Youn has a big beefy bass and a nice patrician air. John Relyea also did some fine work as the villain Gesler. Michele Angelini's Ruodi started off the evening with an aria that was long on high notes but (like Bryan Hymel) short on vocal beauty.

The stars of the evening were the chorus, who despite being given almost no stage direction were musically always alert, sensitive, and really carried this opera through from the opening festivities to the radiant finale. "Go sing in the chorus" is often used as a put-down to aspiring singers but in this case, the chorus deserved as many flowers and bravos as anyone else onstage. The other star was the Met orchestra, led by the soon-to-be-departed Fabio Luisi. They were fantastic, and Luisi's conducting is always classy. Some of the newer "hot" conductors at the Met have conducted this sort of music without a hint of elegance. It's push push push towards the cabaletta. Not Luisi. It's New York's loss.

Energy and enthusiasm was low the entire evening. There were a depressing number of empty seats in all sections of the house, polite golf-clap applause after numbers, and, as I mentioned, even some booing during the ballet. This goes back to my original point about this opera needing a strong advocate. It hasn't been presented at the Met since 1931, and even though the music is great it's not an easy opera. It's long, it's demanding on the audience's stamina. Pierre Audi's production makes the worst case for this opera. Productions like these need the Lone Ranger to run them out of town.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

NYCB's Fall Season Wrap Up

Veyette and Bouder in Stars and Stripes
And so it's a wrap: NYCB ended their fall season with a dispiriting amount of collateral damage: Adrian Danchig-Waring, Tyler Angle, Taylor Stanley, Lauren Lovette, and Brittany Pollack are all out with injuries. In a company with less depth these injuries would be devastating --however, NYCB currently has such talent in all levels of its roster that the flow of the season and the quality of the performances continued uninterrupted.

I saw several remarkable performances this season: both casts of Jewels featured awesome performances by Tess Reichlen. As Tall Girl in Rubies her technical security was an aphrodisiac. Her control of her deep, squatting pliés and unsupported arabesque penchées was in itself sexy. She was so remarkable as Tall Girl that one never wanted her to dance anything else in Jewels. But the next day she proved her worth as bar none the finest Diamonds girl I've ever seen -- beautiful, elegant, restrained, remote, but with an aura of strength and determination. Russell Janzen was right behind her, assisting her, showing her off. It was a beautiful partnership. Ashley Laracey was lovely in the "walking" role in Emeralds -- she's another soloist who's dancing like a principal now.

Ashley Bouder returned to the stage after what might be the world's shortest maternity leave. And wow! Welcome back! Bouder is one of those dancers who adds so much vigor to performances. She and Andrew Veyette brought the edge back to Rubies -- these were two tough birds. No cutesiness there. These two were also delightful as Liberty Bell and El Capitan in Stars and Stripes. They have such a fun partnership -- you can tell that there's 100% trust between them and they bring out the best in each other. Veyette wowed the crowd with his high leapfrog jumps and Ashley Bouder reclaimed a role that's been associated with her for years. For good reason. She still has all her jumps and spirit and a triple fouetté to top things off in the coda. Unfortunately getting to Stars and Stripes also meant enduring the execrably dull Thou Swell, one ballet that really needs to find a retirement home, along with most of Peter Martins' other choreographic efforts.

Megan Fairchild's irresistible Apricot, photo @Paul Kolnik
The end of the season was anchored by two superlative (if wildly different) casts of the double bill Dances at a Gathering/Firebird. Same ballets, but with the different casts, you might as well have watched two different ballets.

Cast 1: Joaquin de Luz (brown boy), Amar Ramasar (green boy), Jared Angle (purple boy), Chase Finlay (blue boy), Joseph Gordon (brick boy), Tiler Peck (pink girl), Sara Mearns (mauve girl), Megan Fairchild (apricot girl), Lauren King (blue girl), Ashley Bouder (green girl)

Cast 2: Gonzalo Garcia (brown boy), Chase Finlay (green boy), Robert Fairchild (purple boy), Zachary Catazaro (blue boy), Harrison Ball (brick boy), Sterling Hyltin (pink girl), Rebecca Krohn (mauve girl), Megan Fairchild (apricot girl), Lauren King (blue girl), Sara Mearns (green girl)

DAAG is such a deceptively delicate ballet. One moment of self-conscious mugging or awkward "folk-dance" and the spell is ruined. Although Cast 1 had their wonderful performances (Ashley Bouder's Green Girl, Megan's Apricot Girl, Joseph's Brick Boy) I thought Cast 2 was better able to maintain that mood as a whole. This is mostly due to the Brown Boy of Gonzalo Garcia. The Brown Boy anchors the ballet, and many of his iconic moves (flicking his forehead at the end of his first solo, or touching the stage near the end of the ballet) can seem affected and unconvincing in the wrong hands. Garcia's sincerity set the tone for the entire performance. Joaquin de Luz's Brown Boy is all shiny slickness. He dances the steps with more panache but the hard sell grates after an hour.

NYCB now has two equally fine Pink Girls. Tiler Peck and Sterling Hyltin are as different as chalk and cheese -- Peck is stoic, Hyltin is more the flirt. Peck has such a strong core that she's mastered those difficult lifts and you never see her maneuvering or adjusting -- her technique is that secure. Hyltin is better at the smaller, simpler moments of the ballet --for instance, her beautiful bourrées look like tiny heartbeats. She's also a more responsive partner -- she makes so much of the hand-holding/rainbow-in-the-sky moment with the Purple Boy.

Other shout-outs: Chase Finlay continues to grow in this ballet (as both Green and Blue).  He was always handsome. Now his dancing has weight and real presence. Megan Fairchild's Apricot might be her finest role, period. The role shows off her two best traits -- her sense of humor and her fastidiousness. She's funny, she's cute without being cutesy, and most of all, her sense of timing mean that all the jumps, throws, and catches, bring down the house. Jospeh Gordon and Harrison Ball continue to be the most promising corps members. Their brick boys were both stellar. Ashley Bouder's debut as the quirky, partner-less Green Girl was had masterful timing with the music and enough irony to make this brief role count.

Reichlen as Firebird, photo @ Paul Kolnik
NYCB this season paired DAAG with Firebird.  Balanchine's abridged version of the famous Stravinsky score is not Mr. B's finest hour. This version lacks the richness of Fokine's work. I enjoy the Chagall designs and Robbins' choreography for the monsters more than Balanchine's contributions. It nevertheless remains a good star vehicle for many ballerinas, from Maria Tallchief to Gelsey Kirkland. Teresa Reichlen and Ashley Bouder took turns with Firebird. I saw them both -- they're both remarkable. Huge jumps, commanding presence, great energy. But Reichlen was more majestic, more exotic, did more with her long arms, was just more the mythical creature that a prince would want to follow. Both amazing ballerinas though.

Things to look forward to for the rest of the season: new debuts in Nutcracker. Corps members Joseph Gordon, Harrison Ball, Indiana Woodward and Unity Phelan continuing to grow in soloist roles. Ashley Bouder reclaiming even more of her repertory. A new work by Alexei Ratmansky in the spring -- his works for NYCB have become modern classics, and there's reason to believe he'll continue his excellence.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Tristan Hits the Right Chords

Stemme and Skelton, photo @ Ken Howard

There is nothing, I repeat, NOTHING, that compares to the feeling that washes over the audience when the famous Tristan chord from the very first note five hours ago (!!!) finds its harmonic resolution. For me it's a mixture of relief that it's finally over with euphoria at the beauty of the moment. This is what they mean when they talk about Wagner being a musical genius.

But in between those five hours is an opera that can be challenging to even the most loyal Wagnerian acolyte. The action-packed, fairly condense first act and romantic glow of the second act turn into a long, repetitive dirge in the final act. I'm sick blahblahblah I'm dying blahblahblah loyalty blahblahblah for at least an hour. I don't know how long Tristan actually blathers on about his anguish before he finally expires, but to me it's always an endless wait for Marke and Isolde to arrive and wrap up the show. (In the bad old days, they used to snip large portions of the third act. Legendary heldentenor Lauritz Melchior reportedly never sang an uncut Tristan.)

Tristan und Isolde needs excellent singers who can carry the opera through both its climaxes and frustrating longueurs. The Met's new production of this opera had the singers and musicians to do this opera justice. Nina Stemme, Stuart Skelton, René Pape, Ekaterina Gubanova, and Evgeny Nikitin and conductor Simon Rattle were not perfect, but they all had strong voices that could really sing their roles. There was no shrieking for the moon.

Nina Stemme's Elektra last year was occasionally (to these ears) shrill and hard-pressed. Isolde seems to lie in a sweet spot in her current voice. There is some occasionally unsteadiness in sustained notes (to be expected of a dramatic soprano her age) but the warmth of her middle register and her lyrical approach to the role were much appreciated. She was a musically sensitive singer, especially in the second act love duet -- she's one of the few Isoldes I've heard either live or on record to wait for her Tristan to sing before she sings her lines. (The second act duet tends to bring out simultaneous screaming "YOU! ME! YOU! ME!" in both tenor and soprano.) Stemme is a somewhat cool actress, but in this production by Mariusz Trelinski is rather clinical, so it fits. She received a rapturous ovation from the audience after the Liebestod.

Stuart Skelton (Tristan) had a handsome, rather sweet (?!?!) baritenor sound. It wasn't a cavernous heldentenor but Skelton also managed to make it through this killer role without resorting to ugly yelps. His voice had a stentorian ring in the climactic potion drinking scene in Act One, blended beautifully with Stemme's in "O sinke herneider" and in the third act his voice held up remarkably well. Skelton is a rather stolid stage presence, but I don't think they really choose Tristans based on acting ability.

Gubanova brewing up the love potion, photo @ Ken Howard
René Pape's King Marke was hands down the best VOICE onstage last night. He burst onstage and the sheer richness and volume of his voice as he sang Marke monologue (another place where my interest often drifts) was like a shot of Red Bull. Pape's King Marke is a known quantity, a classic portrayal, and the audience went nuts for him. Welcome back René!  Brangäne sings probably the most beautiful music of the evening (or actually, maybe the most beautiful music Wagner ever wrote for the female voice). Her warning is angelic and dreamy and casts a total spell. Ekaterina Gubanova's mezzo has both the lyricism to soar and the sharp cut to cleave over the heavy orchestra. Evgeny Nikitin (Kurwenal) does not have such a rich, sonorous voice but his sensitively acted and sung portrayal gave some humanity to Trelinski's rather clinical final act.

As for the Met orchestra, BRAVO X 1000. They were amazing. Sir Simon Ratttle led the band in an occasionally hard-charging account of the score (those looking for Karajan-like hypnosis would be disappointed) but the Met orchestra sounded like a world class symphony ensemble. The winds, the horns, the brass, the strings, all sounded gorgeous.

First act ship set, photo @ Ken Howard
Now, to the production. And I'm going to be honest and say that I actually didn't pay that much attention to Trelinski's production. I was sitting in the balcony and this is one of those productions that's recessed upstage and with a dark scrim the entire evening. That plus the dim lighting made it hard for some in the balcony to really see the details. I paid attention in the first act -- there was a scrim that indicated the sinking of a naval ship during the prelude. The first act was straightforward -- it was in that naval ship, and Boris Kudlicka designed a set that cleverly allowed for navigation from Isolde's cabin to Tristan's cabin to the ship deck. The love potion is made in test tubes. Isolde is a cool customer in Trelinski's vision. Her longing for Tristan seems more like a power trip than actual lust. I could get behind it.

I sort of tuned out of the production by the end of Act Two. The setting was again the ship, and there were various set rotations and what not, but the darkness of the lighting and my own fatigue (September has been nightmarishly busy professionally) and plus, the dominance of the voices of Stemme, Skelton, Gubanova and Pape meant I was listening more than watching. The third act took place in a hospital room and Trelinski tried to offset the stasis and repetitiveness of Tristan's hallucinations by making Kurwenal a vision that disappears and re-appears and having a childhood flashback with a boy-Tristan-double-mime. Somewhere I could see that Trelinski had a sci-fi time travel concept going on, and that little boy Tristan might or might not have been a pyromaniac? Or his father was? It was confusing, but I really was just waiting for the Liebestod. I don't think it's a bad production, but I just wasn't in a frame of mind to really pay detailed attention to it. Sorry folks. Will try better next time.

I did think that Trelinski ended the opera beautifully. There had been some frantic stage business upon Isolde's arrival (won't give away what it is) but as the final chords descended on the audience, Stemme and Skelton sat together on a bench, and she leaned her head against his shoulder. The lovers were finally in rapturous, post-orgasmic bliss. Curtain falls to the final B major chord. If a regular orgasm is "le petite mort", then the B major climax of Tristan is "Le Grand Mort."

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Fall NYCB: New Works, Old Classics

Sterling Hyltin and Adrian Danchig-Waring in Lopez-Ochoa's Unframed
Fall Season for the NYCB has coincided with one of the busiest, most frantic times I've ever experienced professionally. Too bad, because the fall season has by far the strongest programs compared to the somewhat repetitive Winter Season and the Spring Season which has the potential to be a lot of misses. I did make it to three programs -- two all-Balanchine, and the evening of new works that premiered at the fall gala.

Lauren Lovette and Peter Walker are both dancers within the company making their choreographic debuts. Peck and Lopez-Ochoa are more well-known quantities. I saw the program on 9/27. My impressions: The four new works mixed the forgettable (Lauren Lovette's For Clara), with the mediocre (Justin Peck's The Dreamers) with the excellent (Peter Walker's ten in seven and Annabel Lopez-Ochoa's Unframed).


Not much to say about Peck's The Dreamers -- it's a pas de deux between Mearns and Ramasar where a good minute or so is spent with Mearns and Ramasar lying on the floor. Not a bad idea right? Except the ballet is only seven minutes. Anyway it's a rather frantic, aggressive piece set to Martinu's Quintet No. 2. The pas de deux had no intimacy or feeling. It just sort of exuded the athletic enthusiasm that Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar bring to every ballet they dance. It was generic. I didn't hate it but I don't need to see it again.

Lauren Lovette's For Clara was more ambitious -- corps of six men and women who weave in and out during this 12 minute ballet (set, predictably, to Schumann). I know this is Lovette's first choreographic effort but I couldn't discern much structure to the piece, and I also thought there was a disconnect between the music (a romantic chamber piece) and the rather aggressive partnering that was the choreography. Unity Phelan was dragged, dropped from the air into a leg straddling lift, had her arms and shoulders twisted (by Zach Catazaro), all to prove that she's, well, Unity Phelan, the toughest most athletic chick in the company. Indiana Woodward flitted about like the bubbly sprite she always is and Chase Finlay and Emilie Gerrity were the more generic lovers. But at the end of the ballet, what was the point? As I said, no structure. And why were the men bare-chested? It added nothing.

ten in seven, photo @ Paul Kolnik

Corps de ballet member Peter Walker's ten in seven (set to a jazzy score by Thomas Kikta, father of corps member Emily Kikta) had none of the ambitions of the other works on the program and that was the charm. The onstage band played and these kids just started dancing. If you wanted to nitpick you could say that some of the choreography seemed derivative of Jerome Robbins' West Side Story and Glass Pieces (down to the iconic opening crouches of WSS with the Philip Glass-lite last movement), but overall the ballet had a unity of purpose (have fun, boys and girls), a clean aesthetic (loved the costumes, especially the colorful dresses on the girls), a jaunty score, and crowd-pleasing choreography. The energy on the stage was strong and that transmitted across the footlights. Emily Kikta and Russell Janzen sizzled in their pas de deux. This one's a keeper.

Chamblee, Lauren King, Jared Angle, photo @Paul Kolnik
Unframed was the most large-scale piece of the night. It's in six sections, with several different composers -- Boccherini first section, then Vasks second section, then Boccherini again, then Elgar, and the finale is set to Vivaldi. There are ten soloist parts. Unframed is one of those ballets where the pretensions (like having the dancers strip more and more of their costumes until they are finally in underwear) distract from the actual steps. But once I trained my eye to ignore the costumes I saw corps formations and soloist choreography that was well-constructed and visually pleasing. Highlights: the all-male baroque dance, the quiet pas de deux between Sterling Hyltin and Adrian Danchig-Waring and the exuberant finale. I don't think Lopez-Ochoa really mined the talents of her incredible cast -- for instance, blink and you might miss Tiler Peck in there dancing somewhere. But this ballet I also think is a keeper. At times it reminded me of many of the wonderful baroque works of Paul Taylor.

Checking in on the old works: the all-Stravinsky program (9/21) showed the company in fine shape. Teresa Reichlen was particularly impressive in Monumentum pro Gesualdo and the corps was wonderful at capturing the courtliness of the ballet. That sequence where the woman has to be half thrown and half caught by several men looked so smooth and effortless.  Tiler Peck, Taylor Stanley and Danny Ulbricht also charged through Symphony in Three Movements with great energy.

The program of Divertimento #15/Episodes/Vienna Waltzes (9/23) was also at a very high standard. First of all, plaudits to the cast of Divertimento for doing justice to this sublime work. The trio of men (Harrison Ball, Joseph Gordon and Chase Finlay) danced with a one-ness and unison that made them seem almost like brothers. The women (Megan Fairchild, Ashley Laracey, Indiana Woodward as a last minute sub, Erica Pereria, Ashly Isaacs) varied in height and appearance but also managed to perform all the petit batterie with a similarity of motion and style that is so important for this work. Ball and Laracey in particular performed with Apollonian grace. The overall harmony and geometric cleanness of the performance was really Mozartean. In Vienna Waltzes Ashley Bouder made a very welcome return after maternity leave by turning and jumping her way through "Voices of Spring." Gonzalo Garcia was her classy partner. Tess Reichlen doesn't have the ideal back flexibility for the Suzanne Farrell role in VW but her unforced beauty and elegance nevertheless made an impact.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Color Purple

The radiant Cynthia Erivo as Celie, photo @ Matthew Murphy

I saw The Color Purple last night on a total whim. I had heard wonderful things about this revival but I had been resistant because as a rule I dislike musicals that are based on beloved novels. Alice Walker's novel was/is so perfect that I thought any musical adaptation would seem shallow by comparison. I also didn't have any points of comparison -- I hadn't seen the original Broadway production.

For this revival director John Doyle made the conscious choice not to age the actors in any way even though the story spans almost 40 years. Aging was indicated by body language, vocal inflection, facial expression. There were also no real scene changes -- a large unit set (a back panel of wood and a bunch of chairs) suggested the stark surroundings of Celie's life: her home, her church, her community. Celie's birth of her second child was depicted as Celie pulling a large sheet from under her dress, then folding the sheet to resemble the shape of a baby bundle.

The net effect was that the focus was squarely on the actors. When the house lights dimmed I was skeptical of the direction. Could the actors really carry the entire musical? Well forget the doubts. Believe the hype. Cynthia Erivo (Celie) is every bit as astonishing as everyone says she is. She has the pipes, she has the charisma, and most importantly, she has that inner radiance and light. She walks onstage and without saying a word her body emanates "I'm Here." (Later when she sings the 11 o'clock number she gets a standing ovation.) In addition to her incredible pipes, Erivo is an amazing actress. Her Celie is tough, practical, of a very strong constitution. Erivo takes the audience on Celie's journey and at the end of the evening most of the audience was in tears but it didn't feel cheap or manipulated. We were actually crying for Celie. Erivo earned her Tony.

Johnson as Mister, photo @ Matthew Murphy
The entire cast is remarkable. They all have strong handsome voices, and they also are all wonderful actors. No one phones it in -- they make every moment and every line count. Heather Headley as Shug Avery was sultry, seductive, with just enough of a careworn look and manner to suggest that Shug's swagger is equal parts genuine and a show. Danielle Brooks and Kyle Scatliffe were nice comic relief as Sofia and Harpo, whose relationship differs so much from Celie's relationship to the brutal Mister (a wonderful Isaiah Johnson, whose suave man-next-door persona made Mister someone you know and recognize).  Joaquina Kulakango was lovely as Nettie, Celie's long-lost sister. Smaller characters like Squeak (Patrice Covington) and the ever-present chorus were all cast from strength.

The three amazing ladies, photo @ Matthew Murphy
The Color Purple is not perfect -- for one, the book by Marsha Norman doesn't capture the voice of Celie as well as the book does. Norman is more sentimental, and the second act has a slightly pat, mawkish feel. The music and lyrics are by Brenda Russell, Steven Bray, and Allee Willis. There's certainly moments in the score that are beautiful -- the anthem "I'm Here," the title song "The Color Purple," and Celie's tender lullaby to her son "Somebody's Gonna Love You." But unfortunately a lot of the music sounds too similar -- a sort of generic faux-gospel/soul sound. It's a great story, but not necessarily a great score or book.

Thus it takes an incredible cast that's full of energy and conviction to pull this off and this cast certainly did. Erivo's radiant voice and expression were so full of uplift that I can only say: Like a blade of corn, like a honeybee, like a waterfall, all part of me. Like the color purple, where did it all come from?" Beautiful beautiful evening. Catch Erivo while you can (I believe she leaves the show in January).

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Sarasota Ballet's Sir Fred Steps

Facade from Sarasota Ballet
Sarasota Ballet made their debut at the Joyce Theater on August 8 with an All-Ashton program that was given an extremely twee name: A Knight at the British Ballet. Artistic Director Iain Webb was a former dancer with the Royal Ballet and has decided to take Sarasota Ballet down a different path than the usual one for regional ballet companies. Instead of the mix of contemporary ballet mixed with some Balanchine (with an annual Nutcracker thrown in) Sarasota Ballet has made a commitment to presenting the works of Sir Frederick Ashton, and not just his warhorses like La Fille mal Gardee or Monotones or The Dream but the lesser-known works in his canon.The performance I caught at the Joyce seemed like this endeavor has yielded admirable but mixed results.

Valses sentimentales, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The program was an eclectic one -- only Facade was anywhere near "well-known". The others were all ballets that for whatever reason have fallen out of the general repertory. First up was Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. Curtain goes up, music starts playing, and balletomanes are thinking this looks very familiar. That's because it's set to the same music as Balanchine's La Valse (Ravel's famous waltz). Costumes and decor are strikingly similar too -- same ballroom setting, same long maroon dresses for the women. But look closer and the ballet is the exact opposite of Balanchine's -- strange how two different choreographers set the exact same music to ballet at roughly the same time (Ashton's premiered in 1947 and Balanchine's in 1951) but "heard" the music so differently. Balanchine heard darkness, decadence and death in Ravel's waltz. Ashton presents the music as a backdrop for a rather elegant ballroom event. Couples waltz and waltz and it's all very impersonal.

This is where the limitations of Sarasota Ballet were the most apparent. They seemed to suffer from opening night nerves -- legs were stiff and wobbly and the girls made several slips in the final waltz portion. That's all understandable. Less understandable was how all the dancers had these stiff, fixed, front facing smiles at all times. This was the weirdest with the central trio (Danielle Brown, Ricardo Graziano, Jacob Hughes). Even when Brown was being carried aloft in a menage by the two men, her face was squarely to the audience in an unchanging grin. Surely Iain Webb coached them about how much Ashton emphasized interactions between dancers? They all looked like they were gymnasts who were saluting to the judges after nailing a vault.

The other issue I saw throughout the night was partnering. The small Joyce stage and auditorium meant that you often could see the many adjustments partners made in the middle of a performance. But men often had issues with holding their partners without noticeable shifting and women on their end had trouble holding poses without their legs wobbling or form faltering. Not sure whether it was a case of nerves but I did notice that the men were on the whole rather slim and slight.

Tweedeldum and Tweedledee, photo by Andrea Mohin
Intermission and then it was an eclectic mix of pas de deux. All of them were made in the later phase of Ashton's career and showed him branching off into different directions. Tweedledum and Tweedledee (1978) is a brief cameo based on the Alice in Wonderland books. It's a little precious but harmless. A Walk to Paradise Garden (set to gorgeous music from Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet) had Ashton abandoning the prim Fred step and "walking" lift in favor of MacMillan and/or Soviet style acrobatic lifts -- the plank lifts, the torch lift, the upside down lift, you name it. The Soviet-style partnering was beyond the abilities of Ricardo Graziano and Danielle Brown couldn't hold the poses without wobbling.  Too bad because this was by far the most intriguing work in the second set and it had a haunting ending. Jazz Calender/Friday's Child was again marred by too much fixed, front-facing smiles (it's a sexy, sultry duet) and Sinfonietta seemed too derivative of both Monotones (white space suits? Check) and Balanchine's The Unanswered Question (woman being held aloft by six men with her feet never touching the ground? Check). It even had a blatant ripoff of the famous sunburst pose in Apollo for good measure.

Facade final tableau, photo by Frank Atura

It was good that Sarasota Ballet got all their performance nerves and jitters out of the way because the final number of the evening required the entire company and they were magnificent. Individual dancers finally started stealing the show -- Kate Honea as the milkmaid, Sam O'Brien and Patrick Ward deadpan and droll in the Popular Song, Danielle Brown and David Tlaiye in the Tango-Pasodoble. Facade is the oldest number on the program (premiered in 1931) but it's the most timeless. This parody of the English music hall/vaudeville works because it's tongue-in-cheek but also a tribute. The best bits are maybe the Swiss yodeling song with a milkmaid "milking" two cows (really male dancers' fingers), the two soft-shoe dancers in the Popular Song and the Tango-Pasodoble (a parody of the overwrought mannerisms in Latin ballroom dancing). And the entire Sarasota Ballet ensemble was finally on for this ballet. There were no more wobbly arabesques, no more shaky partnering, no more fixed smiles. They were having fun, and the audience was having fun along with them. This was Sir Fred's best step.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Winter's Tale in a Summer Festival

Dronina and McKie in A Winter's Tale, photo @ Karolina Kuras

The dog days of summer are often the worst time for balletomanes. The home companies' seasons are over, and the days of huge summer-long tours by the Bolshoi/Mariinsky/Royal Ballet are increasingly rare. It was thus that I found myself plunked down for a ballet (Christopher Wheeldon's A Winter's Tale as part of the Lincoln Center Festival) that I really had no desire to see. Hey, as I said, slim pickings.

I was already familiar with A Winter's Tale from the Royal Ballet video. I found the ballet slickly produced but unmoving, like so much of Wheeldon's work. But in that video I admired the demented, intense performance of Edward Watson as Leontes (sort of doing a Prince-Rudolf-in-Mayerling-lite) and also the matriarchal, authoritative Paulina of Yenaida Zenowsky. The National Ballet of Canada's 7/29 performance (it runs from 7/28-7/31 with multiple casts) had none of the excesses of the Royal Ballet performance. The performance suffered from a surfeit of good manners. Not necessarily a bad thing.

Evan McKie, photo @ Karolina Kuras
One performance really isn't enough to judge a company but I thought all the major principals were good, with some being very good. Evan McKie (Leontes) resisted the full-blown crazy eyes Edward Watson interpretation and took  a more dignified and regal approach. Jurgita Dronina (Hermiones) avoided the Poor Innocent Woman trap and instead was flirty and vivacious -- you could sort of see why her husband would be so jealous. Former Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Lunkina brought a quiet grace and dignity to Paulina. Young lovers Perdita (Elena Lobasnova) and Florizel (Francesco Gabriele Frola) were charming and cute. But it was the secondary parts that were for me the most memorable -- Jonathan Renna was kindly and grandfatherly as Antigonus, Brendon Saye being dark and dashing and a contrast to Evan McKie's Leontes.

Watching the ballet live did allow me to appreciate some things about Wheeldon's work. Wheeldon is an expert craftsman -- his long-standing collaborations with set and costume designer Bob Crowley and silk effects designer Basil Twist (who also worked with Wheeldon in his Cinderella) ensure that at the very least, A Winter's Tale will be visually appealing. And it was. The sets and costumes perfectly evoked a distant past but with a timeless, non-specific feel. The statues of Act One were a nice bit of foreshadowing. I particularly loved the huge tree that starts Act Two -- it symbolizes a new beginning for Perdita. As for the music, Joby Talbot also collaborated with Wheeldon in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Talbot's music is not going to enter the pantheon of great balletic scores but it's not offensive. Talbot's style mixes a sort of modern sound with traditional folk rhythms.

Wheeldon also knows how to tell a story in the sense that he distills the complicated plot of Winter's Tale into an easily understood, digestible 3 act narrative ballet. The first act is maybe the best -- Wheeldon in 50 minutes checks the boxes of Leontes and Polixenes' friendship, Leontes' marriage to Hermione, the birth of their little boy Mamillius, the visit of Polixenes, Hermione's second pregnancy, Leontes' doubts/jealousy about Hermione's faithfulness, Hermione's imprisonment, the death of Mamillius, Paulina secretly shuttling away Hermione's baby, Hermione's death, and yes, even poor Antigonus's "exit, pursued by a bear." It was action packed and never boring. Wheeldon injects some ambiguity by prolonging the dance sequences between Hermione and Polixenes and also by having Hermione's dancing with Polixenes be more flirtatious than her dancing with Leontes. The second act is a pure dance act that celebrates the pastoral romance between Perdita and Florizel. The loose ends of the story are wrapped up in the final act. In terms of pacing, structure, timing, Wheeldon meanders less than any other modern choreographer.

Second act pastoral festivities, photo @ Karolina Kuras

Where the ballet fails (and this is where most Wheeldon ballets fail, at least for me) is the actual choreography. He can organize a ballet so that it's a tight, well-constructed, visually appealing entertainment package but he can't actually come up with steps that do more than tell a story. Wheeldon remains a prosaic, repetitive choreographer who can't convey the themes of love and redemption that are at the heart of Shakespeare's play. The first act is an example: Hermiones wears a prosthetic pregnant belly but it's clear that Wheeldon never considered how a heavily pregnant woman might move, because she's tossed and lifted overhead and upside down like a rag doll  (with her legs in a split) repeatedly. Her "song of grief" is her doing spinning arabesques. It's typical modern ballet choreography (especially the overhead split leg lifts) but Wheeldon actually undercuts one of the play's most heart-rending themes, which is that the Hermione is being vilified and abused by her husband while she's in the final, least mobile stages of pregnancy.

Wheeldon's ballet choreography hasn't changed over time -- he loves pas de deux that are full of moves where the woman is draped over the man with her legs in some sort of split. His over-reliance on this step makes it lose all meaning -- women are draped over men when they're happy, sad, loving, hateful, lustful, and anything in between. He repeats other effects that upon repetition lose their power -- splayed arms/hands and flexed feet to indicate anger/grief is a particularly overused motif. His choreography for the corps de ballet remains weak to nonexistent. The charming second act (which covers the budding romance between Perdita and Florizel) has a beautiful tree as a backdrop and a pretty successful ambience of a pastoral romance. Wheeldon even uses an onstage shepherd to play a pastoral flute melody and an onstage musical quartet (including an accordion player) for the general festivities. But again the actual steps for the corps and the main lovers are lifts, lifts, and more lifts.  The finale of A Winter's Tale should be real tearjerker.  It's a reflection on Wheeldon's limitations tht Hermione's resurrection as a statue come back to life is strangely unmoving. The reunited husband and wife embrace. She moves away. She comes back. Wash rinse and repeat until she's reunited with Perdita. As I said, it tells the story. It doesn't touch the soul.

And that is the story of Wheeldon as a choreographer. Wheeldon is more in demand than ever -- on Broadway, in ballet stages around the world. You can see why -- he picks great stories, and usually has great music, and almost always has great production values. It seems he can do almost anything except make great choreography.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Stella's 20th Anniversary at ABT; Peter Wright Autobiography

Stella celebrates 20 years with company, photo @ Kent G. Becker

Last night Stella Abrera celebrated her 20 years with ABT with her company debut as Aurora in Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty. She wasn't technically perfect, but she was exemplary, as she is in anything she dances. Abrera is one of the rare Auroras who grows in each act. In her birthday party she's bubbly and excited, in the Vision Scene seemed ethereal and elusive, and finally in the Wedding Scene she was regal and even a bit aloof.

Abrera is now 38 -- one wishes ABT would have allowed her to dance Aurora years earlier. As it is there were some concessions to age and time -- her Rose Adagio balances were not the longest and most secure (although she didn't really wobble noticeably) , and she seemed to have a few issues negotiating the petit batterie right before the start of the Rose Adagio. What sets Abrera apart from the rest of the ABT ballerinas is her almost Russian carriage in her upper body -- her soft arms, supple back, beautiful neck and shoulders. When she balanced on the clam shell in the Vision Scene her upper body had a freedom and elegance that made her look almost lithographic. Her other special quality is her unaffected acting. Abrera is never acting the part of the Prima Ballerina. There's a modesty, humility and charm to all her performances that shines across the footlights. People used to say the same thing about Margot Fonteyn -- that part of her charm was that she never took on any grand diva mannerisms.

At the end of the evening confetti rained down on her and many principals past and present came onstage to bring her flowers. Her path to principal was long, protracted and painful, and it was wonderful to see her soaking in the admiration from her colleagues and audience. Here's a clip of the curtain calls. Watch for Emma Belosserkovsky, the daughter of former ABT principals Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Belosserkovsky!

Gomes and Abrera, photo @ Gene Schiavone
She had strong supporting partners. The company has settled into Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty -- the lower leg positions and demi-pointe work no longer look awkward and forced. Some compromises Ratmansky seems to have made for the sake of modern ballet technique -- the dancers no longer pirouette with their feet quite as low in passé, and the leg in developpés in the Rose Adagio seem to have crawled a few inches higher (although still no higher than the waist). Marcelo Gomes' Prince was of course a wonderful partner (fish dives in the Wedding pas de deux were amazing). He still struggles with his variation but I don't think anyone goes to Sleeping Beauty to see the Prince's variation. Skylar Brandt was charming as Florine, but what's better is that Gabe Stone Shayer seems noticeably more comfortable with the famous Bluebird diagonals than he was last year. His brisé volés were faster, entrechats more open and expansive, and overall he moved with greater speed. Veronika Part's Lilac Fairy was one sour spot -- it's okay that she chose to do the simpler Marie Petipa variation. It's not okay that this Lilac Fairy failed to even look at baby Aurora. Nancy Raffa was not the most exciting Carabosse.

One good thing about Ratmansky is his meticulous coaching/rehearsal methods and one can see the rewards in how well ABT now dances the Fairy Variations in the Prologue and the Precious Stones trio in the Wedding scene. They variations last night were given to long time and new corps members (Devon Teuscher as Candide, Luciana Paris as Wheat, Gemma Bond as Breadcrumb, Zhing-Yong Fang as Canary, Catherine Hurlin as Temperament) and all of them danced with a musicality and precision that was not always present in past ABT productions (and still isn't present in many ABT performances). As the Precious Stones Christine Shevchenko was a sparkling Diamond, and Stephanie Williams (Gold), Paulina Waski (Sapphire) and April Giangeruso (Silver) danced as if they were really sisters. Great unison. Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty may not be the BEST production around (although comparisons are hard) but there's no doubt that he brought out the best in ABT, and that is what is important.

And so that's my ABT season in a wrap. I only attended 6 performances in the 8 week season and in retrospect I'm glad I did. ABT I'm starting to think is a company best taken in small doses. But it says something that by far the two best performances I attended were with Stella Abrera. As great as her Aurora was, her Lise in Fille mal gardee was one of the best nights I've ever spent at the ballet in recent memory. I'm so glad this beautiful ballerina is finally getting the starring roles she deserves.

In other news I've finished Peter Wright's autobiography Wrights and Wrongs: My Life in Dance. Today Peter Wright is best known for his versions of Giselle and Nutcracker, which are both still in the Royal Ballet repertoire, and Sleeping Beauty, which is danced by some companies around the world. But in the early days he worked for Kurt Jooss, most famous for the anti-war ballet The Green Table, and then he worked for John Cranko at the Stuttgart Ballet and Sir Kenneth MacMillan at the Royal Ballet. He eventually became the director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Wright's autobiography (co-written with Paul Arrowsmith) is one of those books which reveals that the narrator is not someone you'd like or want to know. Wright is an inveterate name-dropper (he goes on about the charm of Imelda Marcos), prejudiced (he says that he didn't connect with Sir Frederick Ashton because he waved at him in a "homosexual" way), passive aggressive (he claims to have "adored" Svetlana Beriosova but then goes into more than necessary detail about an unfortunate incident with Beriosova performing Anastasia intoxicated), and monstrously egocentric. Wright was for so long a #2 to greater ballet lights (John Cranko, Sir Kenneth MacMillan), and the whole book bubbles over with barely hidden resentment that he was never given the worship and adulation he considered his due. He matter of factly says that the only stagings of the "classics" he likes are his own. Consider this passage about Wright's attempt to sue Natalia Makarova when she staged Giselle and he considered some of the details she added to be "theft" --

"Rather than face another protracted legal wrangle I chose the higher ground and had to content myself with pointing out that if Natasha did not wish to make further modifications I would let the matter drop. After all, neither she nor I owned the ballet but we shared the same desire for it to continue to live for audiences today. I am, however, comforted by the fact that Natasha's production only had a few performances before it was dropped ..."

But as you might have imagined this book is also sort of fun if you like behind the scenes gossip. You get good anecdotes of Sylvie Guillem (who does not come across well), Rudolf Nureyev, "Madam" Ninette de Valois Deborah MacMillan, and so on and so forth in a who's-who of British ballet history. There's also some rather candid opinions on many ballets and choreographers (Wright dislikes the Petipa classics La Bayadere and Raymonda, and also has no fondness for any version of Romeo and Juliet, be it Lavrovsky's, MacMillan's, or Cranko's. He doesn't like MacMillan's Manon or Mayerling either. And don't even get him started on Wayne McGregor). You get behind the scenes detail about those early BBC films of ballets made by Margaret Dale. There's nuggets of information I had no idea about -- I didn't know, for instance, that the Jerome Robbins Foundation pulled the rights for the Royal Ballet to perform Dances at a Gathering because of what they considered over-acting by the dancers. And of course there are the bitchy one-liners that get a laugh: "Nadia Nerina was the only person who ever thought she was musical." Zing!

But overall so much ego on someone who's contributions to ballet are middling at best is not a good look, and you don't trust Wright, as so much of what he has to say seems riddled with an agenda. Arlene Croce once called him "Mr. Wrong." So many years later, that label is still apt. The more you read about him the more you dislike him.