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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Manon Lescaut

Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna, photo by Ken Howard

What's that phrase? "Eighty percent of success is showing up"? The Met put that idiom sorely to the test last night when Manon Lescaut had its premiere in a sexless, charmless performance.  The new production had been heavily hyped as a vehicle for Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann, the Manon Lescaut dream team who had already sung successful performances of this opera together in Munich and London. (The Met brochure for this production has no less than three articles exalting the "chemistry of Opolais and Kaufmann" with both of them talking about how "special" it is). But as everyone now knows, Jonas cancelled the entire run (as he is wont to do as of late) and Roberto Alagna jumped into the production with about two weeks to learn both the role and the directions. Last night's program had an insert that called Alagna a "savior" and thanked Alagna "for his ongoing heroics on behalf of the company."

So two leads who proved their professionalism and commitment and showed up had a huge success right? Uh, well ... not exactly? I have no real issue with Alagna's portrayal. It wasn't vocally perfect -- he sounded unsteady in his act one double aria "Tra voi, belle" and "Donna von vidi mai" and he flew off pitch and struggled a couple times in the punishing tessitura of the Act Three finale, but otherwise his performance was idiomatic, sincere, and engaging. A NYTimes article revealed that the 52 year old tenor is about to become a grandfather but for the most part Alagna's voice has held up well beyond his years would suggest. Its forward, metallic sound projects over Puccini's heavy orchestration and he has enough joie de vivre to be believable as a naive young man. Alagna's voice has a way of being able to rise to the climaxes of the music. He not only shows up, he delivers.


A bigger disappointment was Kristine Opolais's Manon. I can see why directors flock to cast her as Manon -- she looks like a 1940's movie star. But Opolais's voice has many built-in limitations. It has a large range -- she can go up to high B or C without much apparent effort -- but it's a small, occasionally sour-sounding instrument that has no bloom, no ability to shape the long, almost Wagnerian lines of Puccini's music. Opolais's problem isn't that she doesn't have a beautiful voice -- many great singers don't. It's that with her clipped, staccato, just-the-notes way of singing, she can't bring out the beauty in Puccini's music. I don't know if this was an artistic choice or a limitation of her voice but she even sang the dramatic, declamatory "Sola, perduta, abbadonata" in a wispy, threadbare tone. Her voice goes to a note and can go no further. It's not a sexy sound, and that adds to the believability problems. F. Scott Fitzgerald described Daisy so memorably as having a "voice full of money." Opolais's Manon has a voice full of lemons.

This is a perfect example. With her particular style of singing, she actually can't express the wistful, tender feeling of "In quelle trine morbide":


Compare this with another active Manon Lescaut, Anna Netrebko. Netrebko's voice simply has more body, more color, more bloom, and this aria as a result becomes more of an expression of Manon's inner life:


Kristine Opolais's dramatic portrayal I also found un-engaging. Her portrayal in Richard Eyre's production differed little from her portrayal in Munich and London -- it seems to have calcified into a cold, transactional, femme fatale reading of Prévost's courtesan. That's certainly a valid interpretation -- Manon Lescaut is a woman so infatuated with luxury that even when warned she insists on looting her lover's jewels and it's that delay that causes her arrest, deportation and death. But I got tired of the sullen, Veronica-lake stares and the lack of passion in the extended duets Puccini wrote for the doomed couple. Des Grieux sings again and again about how passion for Manon makes him "insane," but despite the rolling around that Opolais and Alagna did there was little chemistry or sex appeal in Opolais's cold-fish portrayal. Opolais is a committed actress and obviously works very hard. She showed up. And the audience seems to have liked her, so it was a success. But personally I found her vocally and dramatically wanting. Maybe with Kaufmann (with whom she has a genuine chemistry) it would have been a more exciting show. Who knows.

Here's a peek of what might have been last night in New York:



Cavalletti as Lescaut
The supporting cast was an unexpected surprise. Geronte (Brindley Sherratt) and Lescaut (Massimo Cavalletti) were both vocally very fine and struck the right notes dramatically.  Sherratt was actually maybe the finest, most solid voice on stage last night. Lescaut in this production is a sleazeball but also a charmer who seems to have some love for his sister. Geronte is actually played somewhat sympathetically -- Manon is so cruel to him that his actions seem justified. 2015 Met National Council Audition winner Virginie Verrez made a promising debut in the brief role of the Musician. Conductor Fabio Luisi recently announced that he is departing his role as the Met's Principal Conductor -- New York's loss. Although there were times he seemed tentative with this new, very-thrown-together cast, he conducted Manon Lescaut with his usual sensitivity and care. The Intermezzo sounded beautiful. He will be missed.

Act Four, photo by Ken Howard

Richard Eyre's staging is basically unobjectionable -- he sets the opera in occupied France, where there was indeed a booming demand for women of easy virtue. The sets by Rob Howell were handsome enough -- they centered around a large stone amphi-theater type set that was manipulated to become a train station, Geronte's mansion, a sea port, and finally the ruins of Geronte's mansion. The costumes by Fotini Dumou created the time period well, and had a cinematic look -- minus the Nazi soldiers, you might have been in a Fred and Ginger movie. There were a few things that annoyed me -- Opolais in Act Two performs a little dance with dancer Martin Harvey. Except they seem to be dancing the flamenco. Why? A larger issue is Eyre never bothered resetting Act Three -- so all the prostitutes are still deported and hustled onto a big ship at the port, supposedly to America where they can be dumped off in the deserts of Louisiana.  But question #1: Uh, why would they be deporting prostitutes in occupied France? Question #2: In wartime, would people in exile have been deported on big ocean liners? And the big ship apparently sails them right back to Paris, where Manon expires in the ruins of Geronte's mansion. But the continuity problems actually didn't bother me that much, maybe because Manon Lescaut itself is a rather convoluted, incoherent take on Prévost's novel. The production was nice to look at and told the story. That's enough. It will serve as a solid production next year when Anna Netrebko is rumored to be singing a revival. I was surprised by the lusty boos the production team received.

The previous night I went to see the Julliard + Met Lindemann Program's presentation of La Sonnambula. I love the Peter Jay Sharp Theater -- small size, wooden panels with great acoustics. In this case, most of the voices were young and fresh and healthy. Special mention should go to Sava Vecic's Rodolfo, Clarissa Lyons' Lisa, and Thesele Kemane, all of whom displayed unusual, memorable timbres. But it was obvious that most of the singers had received very little coaching in terms of language, primo ottocento style and musicality. For instance, why did the Speranza Scappucci conduct so listlessly and lethargically that many singers were noticeably staring at her and trying to get her to pick up the baton again? Why did she conduct over singers during unaccompanied cadenzas, seemingly oblivious that they were, in fact, singing a cadenza? Why was Kang Wang (Elvino), a young tenor with a pleasant, beefy voice cast in a part that obviously was too high for him? Why did Hyesang Park (Amina) sing almost no ornamentations, not even the "traditional" ones, and given bare-bones cadenzas but allowed to end arias, ensembles, and finales in ear-splitting acuti? And why did many of the singers have such a phonetic, mechanical pronunciation? I certainly hope this concert is not reflective of the efforts of the Met's Lindemann program in coaching and preparing young singers.

One more video: by the time Scotto sang Manon Lescaut at the Met she was no spring chicken. Critics and audiences were increasingly hostile to her seeming monopoly on the Met's choice parts. An opening night review mentioned "screamy high notes" and a "tired and wiry" voice. But this video shows exactly what was missing from Kristine Opolais's portrayal last night. Scotto did not have had a plush, conventionally beautiful voice either, but she understands the role, she understands Puccini, she understands Manon Lescaut.


Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Most Incredible (???) Thing

Justin Peck's The Most Incredible Thing was by far the most hyped premiere for the New York City Ballet in recent memory. Peck is only 28, but he's already had a documentary made about him and critical consensus about his ballets has generally been very positive. The buildup to The Most Incredible Thing merited a huge NYTimes profile and endless mailings by the NYCB. NYCB obviously spent money on this project -- when I attended tonight's performance (the second -- premiere was on February 2) I was handed a beautifully illustrated book of Hans Cristian Andersen's fairy tale along with design and costume sketches from artist Marcel Dzarma. Inside the booklet was a large poster. In the age of Amazon kindles and digital photography this kind of old-school lavishness is almost unheard of.

I wish I could say the ballet lived up to the hype. It certainly had some "incredible things" -- for one, Dzarma's costumes were incredible. They were creative and visually pleasing without being undanceable. Bryce Dessner's score wasn't incredible, but it was always listenable and mostly pleasing to the ears. Reminds me of Phillip Glass mixed with 1940's Soviet dram-ballet type music. And Peck utilized a cast of 56 dancers (including some SAB students) and as expected, the talent at NYCB is so deep that he was bound to get some incredible performances. Tiler Peck was fantastic as the cuckoo clock. The choreography was full of flying leaps and off-balance pirouettes and Peck's energy set the stage on fire. She looked like she was auditioning for Firebird (and please let that happen!).

Tiler Peck as Cuckoo Clock, photo by Paul Kolnik

The story itself was a good story. And the 12 divertissements (representing the twelve hours of the Creator's Most Incredible Clock) should have been amazing. But the ballet was dragged down by a very rote, by the numbers (pun intended) narrative structure. The chief weakness was that Peck never bothered to characterize either the Creator or the Princess. Tonight they were danced by Tyler Angle and Sara Mearns but it could have been anyone in those roles. We have no sense of who they are, and why we should care about the Creator's artistic vision. And without this emotional investment in the protagonists, the ballet had no emotional resonance.

Five Senses, photo by Andrea Mohin

The story of the Creator's wooing of the Princess is barely developed before we move to the 12 hours of the clock, which in reality meant 12 divertissements. The bulk of the ballet is devoted to those 12 divertissements, and while some of them were very nicely choreographed (The Four Seasons), others were really head-scratching. For instance the Seven Deadly Sins/Seven Days of the Week were 7 women dressed alike in unitards who rolled around the floor for a few minutes. There was no attempt to convey that they are seven different sins. Peck also didn't bother to differentiate the Five Senses. Let's read the Hans Christian Andersen original: "Sight was represented by a man who made spectacles. Hearing was a noisy coppersmith. Smell was a girl with a violets for sale. Taste came dressed as a cook. Feeling was a mourner, with cape down to his heels." How much better does that sound as dance than what we got, which was five female corps girls in a uniform divertissement?

Another thing about Peck utilizes his large cast exactly the way one expects them to be utilized, which is the problem. Was it a surprise that Daniel Ulbricht (The Gambler) exploded onstage with big jumps and turns? Or that Adrian Danchig-Waring and Rebecca Krohn (Adam and Eve) had a sinewy duet that showed off the fact that they're well, sexy? Great choreographers will often push the boundaries of what their dancers can do. Peck didn't really think outside the box when he fielded the talents of his company.

Things only pick up when The Destroyer (Andrew Veyette) arrives on the scene. Veyette is cast against type as the villain and (as is often the case) the villain was the only interesting character in the ballet. The choreography for the Destroyer is sharp and menacing. I loved the use of the sword as a phallic symbol and Mearns is a good enough dance actress that she could convey a sense of lust at this dangerous bad boy. The resolution of the ballet is a bit trite but does include some of Dessner's best music.

Reviews of Peck's ballet have ranged from dismissive to harsh. I don't think these reviews are entirely fair -- this is not a bad ballet. It just didn't live up to the hype. And the audience suffered through some bad ballets in this very long evening. Christopher Wheeldon's Estancia is a bad ballet. It's a shameless ripoff of Agnes de Mille's Rodeo but without any of Rodeo's charm. Not even Adrian Danchig-Waring's sexy City Boy and Ana Sophia Scheller's charming Country Girl could save a ballet where we're treated to the sight of horses galloping onstage for much of the 30 minutes. And I love Amar Ramasar but I don't ever need to see him hump Ana Sophia Scheller from behind in some Horse-on-Girl action ever again. 

Common Ground's costumes, photo by Paul Kolnik

The three "starter" ballets weren't bad, they were just generic. The best of the lot was probably Robert Binet's The Blue of Distance, as that had a beautiful score by Ravel, and a nicely romantic ambience. Troy Schumacher's Common Ground was hampered by hideously tatty, tacky costumes by Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida. Think of the worn leg-warmers and loose t-shirts dancers are wont to wear when warming up, add some weird strings hanging off the sides of things, and combine them in the most garish colors, and that's what the costumes looked like. How was the choreography? Beats me, as I could barely discern what the ballet was like underneath all that flapping fabric. Polaris by Miles Thatcher is one of those ballets that's pleasant enough to watch, but instantly forgettable as soon as the curtain drops.

In the meantime, classic Balanchine rep is in as good shape as ever. I caught two all-Balanchine performances this week and some highlights: Megan Fairchild breezing through Ballo della Regina (she completed those circular hops on pointe like nothing), Megan Fairchild and Gonzalo Garcia's lovely, romantic Sonatine (less showy but more touching than the Peck/deLuz combo), Sara Mearns in Mozartiana (she was radiant and authoritative in Preghiera, and thrilling in the Theme and Variations -- her pirouettes just seemed to devour space), Joseph Gordon's high-flying whiz bang third movement of Symphony in C and Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette's security and serenity even while dancing the most difficult choreography in Theme and Variations

With this level of talent, Justin Peck is bound to make a story ballet that will really utilize all the dancers to the maximum potential and tell a great story. And that will really be The Most Incredible Thing.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof "To Life" photo by Joan Marcus
Last night while I was watching Bartlett Sher's revival of Fiddler on the Roof, I wondered if some shows are so strong that they simply do the work for the director, set designers, costume designers, actors, and dancers. I could name about 100 things I could have nit-picked about this particular production of Fiddler, but in the middle of the second act when Hodel said goodbye to Tevye at the train station I started crying, and I basically cried for the rest of the show. I can't remember the last time a Broadway show actually made me cry.

Sher's direction of Fiddler is mostly non-intrusive, except for a few minor points. He uses a framing device that doesn't quite work, and in fact seems like a cheap Schindler's List-inspired gimmick. He also emphasizes the more serious side of the story as opposed to the humor. Whether you like this is a personal preference. For example the usually lighthearted "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" starts with Tzeitel crying hysterically, and is sung as a sad, wistful song. This kind of negates the coming-of-age story that each of Tevye's daughters go through. And obviously no one came to any kind of agreement about accents. Danny Burstein (Tevye) is rocking a generic Brooklyn/Yiddish accent, while Jessica Hecht (Golde) uses a weird faux-Russian accent, and the daughters talk in "show business American."

Bottle Dance, photo by Joan Marcus

The choreography by Hofesh Schechtler was "inspired by the work of Jerome Robbins" but in the NY Times interview he said that except for the famous Wedding bottle dance "for my taste it was not energetic enough." Schechtler's choreography however to my taste was too frantic. I'm glad that he tried to capture the life-affirming energy of traditional Jewish dancing but sometimes it was busy to the point of being sloppy, and other times (the opening number "Tradition") it was sort of sluggish. But enough Robbins DNA exists for the dances to still be one of the most thrilling parts of the show.

Michael Yeargan's sets are simple but effective -- there's a white brick wall that is the unit set, while flying drops indicate Teyve's house, the village, and other scene changes.  For those looking for lavish sets this isn't it but I didn't have a problem and thought the sets told the story well. I do wish that a rather odd-looking drop that was really a few blades of grass had been larger, so there could have been more of a sense of a rural Jewish town. Catherine Zuber's costumes were traditional and inoffensive. 

Tevye's Dream, photo by Joan Marcus
 Danny Burstein plays Tevye in a rather subdued way. The good part -- his interactions with his wife, daughters, and villagers had a natural feel, as if he really were simply the Milkman Next Door. On the other hand (as Tevye would say) the vaudeville style  jokes and numbers are also muted. For example, look at Zero Mostel's "If I Were a Rich Man." It's an absolute explosion of energy. Burstein's "If I Were a Rich Man" was sung almost like a daydreaming monologue and had none of the traditional sound effects (like the squawking chickens) and many of the song's punchlines ("one long staircase just going up, and one even longer coming down, and one more leading nowhere just for show") were oddly rushed. This is usually a show-stopper but it only received polite applause.

Here is the masterful Zero Mostel performance:


Burstein's value came in the second act, when he had to make truly difficult decisions about his family, faith, and future. I know I wasn't the only one sobbing during "Chava's Dream," especially the moment when he pulls a curtain past her. But I do wish Burstein had been allowed to be more larger than life because the one time he hammed it up, he stopped the show. Teyve's Dream (above) was by far the biggest audience hit of the night. It was surreal, funny, and Burstein was obviously having fun playing to the audience.

Jessica Hecht as Golde tried this odd Russian accent that didn't really work, but otherwise she was an excellent Golde. Not the most pleasant voice, but she's exactly what you'd expect Golde to be like -- stern, careworn, loving. Her brief reunion with Chava at the end of the show caused another crying jag. An understudy sang for Tzeitel but in general Tevye's daughters and their suitors were all well-cast, with special plaudits for Samantha Massell's spirited Hodel, Adam Kantor's Motel and Ben Rappaport's Perchik. Alix Korney (Yente) and Adam Dannheiser (Lazar) the butcher were the only ones who really embraced the larger than life vaudeville schtick, and the audience response to their punchlines was consistent.

Sabbath Prayer, photo by Joan Marcus

This show really does write itself though. The humor, warmth, and heartbreak of Joseph Stein/Sheldon Harnick's books/lyric and the score by Jerry Bock make Fiddler make it almost impossible to ruin. Audience participation is also part of it -- there were people in front of me who had the entire show memorized and it was a joy to see such active participation. There's so many wonderful moments in the show that it's impossible to list all of them, which is why the ending of the show is so emotional. As the fiddler plays one final time and the curtain drops on the whole village of Anatevka dispersed into uncertain futures, it really is like saying goodbye to a whole community. Many Broadway shows have dated themselves. For instance The King and I for all its wonderful music and choreography also has a naive, Western exceptionalism zeitgeist that instantly dates itself. Fiddler's stories about family, faith, community, and being forced to leave your homeland seem as fresh as ever. Fiddler is a musical theater "Tradition" that lives on. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Maria Stuarda -- Sarah Palin vs. Hillary?

Elsa van den Heever and Sondra Radvanovsky, photo by Ken Howard

Sondra Radvanovsky's plans to tackle all three Tudor Queens in one season just got one more box checked: she's now sung both Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda and only has Roberto Devereux left. Roberto Devereux is the opera she's sung the most, and it's probably one of the most hotly anticipated events in the season. Her Anna Bolena earlier this season was ... well, I'd say it was an interesting failure. I attended the second performance of her Maria Stuarda last night.

Of all three queens, her portrayal of Mary Stuart probably got the least buzz -- the house was depressingly empty. And Sondra's large, occasionally unwieldy role on the surface seems an awkward fit for the most lyrical of Donizetti's three Queens. But oddly, while I thought her Bolena was an interesting failure, I thought her Maria Stuarda was a qualified success.

Why was it a success? Well, for one, Sondra's voice is an unusual one. The negatives to her performance: she has a very weak to non-existent lower register, and relies on glottal attacks and declamation in those areas of the score. The famous curse "Figlia umpura di Bolena ... vil bastarda!" was not really sung but spit out, verismo-style. It was actually a rather ugly and unmusical way of handling one of the opera's most exciting moments. Her voice is also at its most comfortable and free in extreme dynamics -- very soft pianissimo and very loud fortissimo. When she's just singing "regularly" her voice has an intrusive vibrato and pitch can be suspect. I'm not even an Italian speaker but I could hear some funny vowels: she pronounced "sempre" and "simp-reee." Also: very weak trill.

But the thing about Sondra is that Maria Stuarda is a role where except for a few moments, the weak lower register and the over-reliance on extreme dynamics works. Many of the big "money" moments -- the opening cavatina "O nube", the confession and preghiera, the final aria before the execution -- she sang in that wispy pianissimo, where, as I said, all of a sudden her voice becomes flexible, free, and even beautiful. She also has a fantastic upper register which she used to her advantage, whether it was floating that extended high G in the prayer (she did take a breath midway, but it was still impressive), or ending ensembles with loud and sustained acuti. Maria's music has an extreme upward arc -- the melody usually rises and rises. It's very celestial sounding. So the comparative weakness of Sondra's lower and middle register are forgotten when the music rises to the high climax. I remember Joyce DiDonato doing this role and no matter how musical and scrupulous she was, she couldn't quite make her voice rise to the climaxes. Sondra's voice could (mostly) match the music's demands.



Dramatically Sondra is often an awkward actress. She has a tendency to overact and add veristic sound effects to her singing. The first act had some of the sobs and exaggerated facial expressions that set my teeth on edge but in the long second act scena she surprisingly kept it simple and direct. The tremors that Joyce DiDonato worked into her portrayal of pre-execution Mary are mercifully gone -- Sondra's Mary walked to her execution as a proud and stoic monarch. David McVicar's production is rather efficient if unimaginative. The one big coup de theatre is Mary taking off her wig and dress in the last moments of the opera to reveal a red petticoat, Catholic martyr to the end.

Elsa van den Heever, photo by Ken Howard

So Sondra's Maria Stuarda was flawed but impressive. However, the structure of the opera demands not just one but two strong female voices and personalities. The fascination of Mary Stuart vs. Elizabeth I was the fact that these were two formidable, indomitable women in a battle of wills. Donizetti's opera plays fast and loose with historical accuracy but he did capture the power struggle between the two stubborn, implacable queens. But Elsa van den Heever's voice last night was shrill and colorless, and her musical values approximate -- there was no sense of character or bel canto legato. She played up the Bette Davis caricature even more -- the hobbling on a cane, sneering and cackling, just acting a fool. It was like a Carol Burnett sketch. This imbalance undercuts the dramatic structure of the opera. Mary vs. Elizabeth should have been like a hypothetical clash had, say, Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher ever lived in the same era and ran for the same office. Two intelligent, iron-willed women on the opposite ends of the political spectrum duking it out. Instead it was more like Hillary Clinton vs. Sarah Palin.

The men varied. An unexpected surprise was Celso Albelo as Leicester. His timbre is not very striking, but he sang with a fairly elegant style. Patrick Carfizzi was maybe having an off night as Cecil? Because I can barely remember really hearing him sing. It was as if he marked most of the performance. Kwangchul Youn was a gravelly, unsteady Talbot. There was also no sense of spiritual authority in his portrayal -- he disappeared in the long confession scene with Maria. Maria Zifchak as Maria's servant has gone into the unlistenable comprimario stage of her career. Ricardo Frizza's performance had more energy and discipline than Marco Armiliato's performance of Bolena in the fall, and noticeably less egregious drop-out-to-hit-a-high-note showboating.

Sondra Radvanovsky is a singer I often find extremely frustrating, as she combines an instrument of great volume, range, and even flexibility with distracting vocal flaws. But Maria Stuarda was actually a role where she worked around her vocal quirks and gave an impressive performance. I look forward to her Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Winter Season Diaries

de Luz, Angle, Ramasar and Pazgocuin in Fancy Free, photo by Michael P. Farrell

The first two weeks of the NYCB's Winter Season are usually favorites for hardcore fans. After a month of Nutcrackers and Alvin Ailey's Revelations New Yorkers are eager for the "real ballet" to start again. I usually find myself snatching up tickets right and left in the first two weeks of the season. This year the blizzard on the annual "Saturdays at the Afternoon with George" canceled two planned shows. Even so, I attended four performances in their first two weeks.

1/19/16 and 1/30/16 - I caught two casts of the same program: Barber Violin Concerto, Fancy Free and Who Cares? The opening night Barber Violin Concerto (a Peter Martins "classic," if any of his works can really be labeled classics) got its experienced, tried-and-true cast of Sara Mearns as the classical girl, Megan Fairchild as the "modern Paul Taylor" girl, Jared Angle as the "modern" guy, and Russell Janzen (subbing for Ask La Cour) as the classical guy. The whole point of this ballet is that modern meets classical ballet, to beautiful and sometimes comical results. Mearns and Fairchild are probably unsurpassed in these roles -- this ballet allows Mearns to show off her extravagant style, and Fairchild her quirky sense of humor.

The 1/30/16 cast had Teresa Reichlen as the "classical" girl and Gina Pazcoguin as the "modern" girl. They were terribly miscast. Reichlen couldn't loosen up to become "modern." In the second movement even with her hair loose she remained the ice princess ballerina. When Jared Angle carried her offstage in a shooting duck position Reichlen's feet were perfectly pointed and her neck rigid. No fusion of ballet with modern dance, at all. Pazcoguin as the modern dance girl certainly could dance the steps, but she lacked Fairchild's humor and sass. In the third movement Megan made the pestering of Janzen funny and almost a parody of modern dance. Pazcoguin was just flat out irritating.

Fancy Free had the same cast both performances. The first night the trio of sailors (Joaquin de Luz, Amar Ramasar, Tyler Angle) lacked charm, and without the charm their actions towards the girls (Gina Pazgocuin as the purse girl, Sterling Hyltin as the glamour girl, Stephanie Chrosniak as the end-of-ballet walk on girl) came across as overly aggressive and even menacing. The purse incident almost comes across as a mugging. For a ballet that's supposed to be frothy and fun, it's not helpful for the three sailors to give off a rapist/robber vibe. By the Saturday matinee it seems as if they'd been re-coached -- they were much more playful throughout. I don't think the NYCB really "gets" this ballet though -- I think the ABT currently does this better.

The opening night Who Cares? fielded an experienced cast. Robert Fairchild took a night off his Broadway gig at American in Paris to reprise his familiar role with his wife Tiler Peck in the Patty McBride role. Peck was brilliant in the "Fascinatin' Rhythm" solo (her fast pirouettes seem to devour the entire stage). These are two pros who know exactly what they want to do with this ballet. Their timing was impeccable, from the gorgeous upside down split lifts to those leaps onto Fairchild's back. One caveat: Fairchild's build has gotten thicker and less balletic since he joined American in Paris and his form slightly sloppier. I have seen Savannah Lowery ("I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise") and Ana Sophia Scheller ("My One and Only") dance their respective soloist roles for years and while Lowery's performance has flatlined, Scheller has grown a lot. She used to have such a stiff upper body that looked completely wrong dancing this kind of jazzy music, but now she looks so much more natural. Great fouettes too.

Pollack, Gordon, Fairchid and Phelan in Who Cares?

The 1/30/16 performance was a brand-new cast. Gordon, Phelan, and Pollack were all making their debuts. Megan Fairchild (who's danced this role before, but infrequently) was making a last minute substitution for Tiler Peck, who herself was a replacement for the injured Lauren Lovette. The performance had the hiccups that were to be expected of a brand-new cast. Gordon and Fairchild had some shaky moments in "Man I Love" -- those leaps to Gordon's back were wobbly and I saw Gordon adjust his hands twice. Fairchild was technically flawless but there wasn't much sensuality to her portrayal, and she didn't do much with her shoulders and neck (so important in this role -- watch Patty McBride in that Live From Lincoln Center telecast). Gordon was technically very strong -- squeaky clean pirouettes in the "Liza" solo, but his face looked nervous and he wasn't able to convey the easy going jazzy persona. Pollack similarly had a frozen mask face. In the "My One and Only" solo and she didn't attempt the double fouettes that Scheller breezed through. Only Unity Phelan in both her "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" solo and "Who Cares?" duet with Gordon had the confidence and sass of someone who was totally prepared to dance the role. Very often her part is muscled through without much grace -- I remember Sara Mearns literally stomping through that solo, but Phelan danced with elegance and ease. Phelan is a stunner -- she looks a lot like Suzanne Farrell. During the finale when Balanchine cleverly echoes Apollo by having the three ladies in simultaneous arabesque pencheés the length of Phelan's legs and the amplitude of her arabesque even reminded me of videos of Farrell. One to watch, for sure. Of the demi-soloists Alexa Maxwell and Preston Chamblee stood out in "Do Do Do." Actually all the corps and demis were wonderful in both performances.

Lauren Lovette and Jared Angle, photo by Paul Kolnik
January 22, 2016 - The decidedly oddball pairing of Liebeslieder Waltzer with Glass Pieces worked much better than I anticipated. Introversion vs. extroversion. Dark vs. light. Liebeslieder Waltzer is one of those Balanchine ballets you think will be swoony and romantic, and instead takes a "persistent note of melancholy and tragic remorse," to quote Arlene Croce. In the first half the four couples dance in a private ballroom. Their dances have the regal sweep of the classic Viennese waltz. Then the curtain drops and the four couples are now in long tulle skirts and pointe shoes. You'd think that the dances become more intimate right? Wrong. The four women become more elusive and unpredictable, often withdrawing their hands just as their partners reach out for it, or running off after an embrace. The ballet ends with the four couples dressed again as the Viennese waltzers. They applaud the singers onstage politely. The fantasy is over.

The cast I saw was an almost brand new cast. The couples were: Rebecca Krohn/Russell Janzen, Megan Fairchild/Chase Finlay, Lauren Lovette/Jared Angle, Tiler Peck/Amar Ramasar. Janzen, Krohn, Lovette, and Ramasar were all making their debuts. This role fits Russell Janzen like a glove -- he's tall, dashing, ardent. Actually all the men were good. Of the women both Lovette and Krohn were too introverted and subdued and didn't suggest the inner fire in the second half of the ballet. Fairchild doesn't really have the body line for these kinds of tulle skirt ballets, and her persona is more perky than mysterious. Tiler Peck was wonderful, the only one with the right mix of passion and mystery. The singers were pretty awful.

I never get tired of repeating my favorite ever ballet anecdote: I was once sitting outside Lincoln Center with a daughter and her frail, elderly father. "It's a good program, you'll enjoy it," daughter said. "But does it have my favorite?" Daughter paused. "Which one?" "The ballet with all the men jumping around." "Glass Pieces?" "Yes, Glass Pieces. Does it have Glass Pieces?" Which might be the first and last time anyone ever said Glass Pieces was his favorite ballet.

Glass Pieces is very enjoyable though, another one of Jerome Robbins' "New York" ballets. The first movement (Rubric) is the best, with the stunning sight of a New York City metropolis. Pedestrians walk quickly and implacably towards their destination -- go to any Manhattan cross section during rush hour and you will see the same mix of pedestrians and vehicles all marching with the same urgency. Ashley Hod and Daniel Applebaum stood out as the Yellow Couple -- Hod's long lines and regal stature immediately caught my attention. She was also wonderful in Dewdrop -- I look forward to following her career. The central pas de deux between Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring was considerably less compelling. I last saw this pas de deux with Wendy Whelan and her angular lines and uniquely severe way of moving were very memorable. Sara Mearns is a very different dancer. Her body line couldn't make those same geometrical shapes. With Mearns it just became a generic pas de deux. And the finale to Akhenaten is a bit redundant -- it always feels like a recycling of Rubric.

Sterling Hyltin in Mozartiana, photo Paul Kolnik

January 26, 2016 - A ticket I had exchanged because of the blizzard. It was maybe the best combination of ballets New York City Ballet has ever lumped together in one evening -- you had the fun and fluffy (Walpurgisnacht), the light and lovely (Sonatine) and the masterpieces (Mozartiana and Symphony in C).

It was a long evening but some standouts: Sara Mearns was at her unrestrained, hair shaking best in Walpurgisnacht -- this is a ballet that demands her abandon and attack. Tiler Peck really articulated the steps and musicality and brought life to Sonatine. The last time I saw her do it I remember her being a little blank. This time, she had all the right accents to make this short ballet a jewel. Symphony in C is always worth watching even though it wasn't a perfect performance. Nobody was bad, but there was a spill by one of the demi-soloists in the first movement and other bobbles here and there. Teresa Reichlen was regal and beautiful in the great adagio and yes, her nose touched her knee. But she is a strangely limited dancer whose movements are geometrical rather than space devouring, and the adagio is all about grandeur of movement, Whatever hiccups there were however, the entire company pulled it together for the thrilling finale, spearheaded by the energetic performances of Brittany Pollack and Taylor Stanley.

The highlight of the night was Mozartiana. Sterling Hyltin was divine -- she's about as different from Suzanne Farrell (the originator of the role) as humanly possible, but that's why it works. She's not trying to copy Farrell, or anybody else. She brings a lightness and ease that is, well, Mozartean. Her bourreés were silky smooth, her sissones feather light. Anthony Huxley was making his debut as Hyltin's partner. Although I'm more used to seeing taller partners in this role Huxley's squeaky clean technique was a joy to watch -- he might have the most purely classical technique of any of the men in the company. His pirouettes always end in perfect fifth, his toes are always pointed during cabrioles, he keeps his arms still during entrechats, his carriage is impeccable. I love the final Theme and Variations section -- it's a competition between the man and the woman. They show off in increasingly difficult variations, until finally they dance together. Hyltin and Huxley really captured the friendly competitive spirit of this section. Ulbricht was a bit sloppy in the Gigue. But I really believe Hyltin's Mozartiana will become another classic portrayal. She's succeeding Suzanne Farrell and Kyra Nichols by being absolutely nothing like them. 

The repetitiveness of the programming during the first few weeks was probably due to the massive preparations taking place for Justin Peck's upcoming premiere of The Most Incredible Thing -- that fields a cast of 56 dancers and is hotly anticipated because it's Peck's first "story" ballet. But the four performances I attended proved that the NYCB can take care of its classics too. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Company XIV's Snow White - The Fairest Show of Them All

Who is the fairest of them all?

Warning: This review has spoiler alerts

The original Grimm fairy tales were as grim as their namesake. They featured a stern, unforgiving morality in which evil was mercilessly punished. For instance, in Snow White the Queen Mother as punishment is forced to dance in hot burning shoes until she dies. Over the years ballets, Disney movies, Broadway shows, have all shaved the edges off these stories. People only think of "happily ever after" now.

Well, one company has brought back the "Grimm"ness of these original Germanic tales. Company XIV's production of Snow White opened last night at Minetta Lane Theatre and it manages to be a great entertaining show AND a dark, perverse interpretation of this oft-told fairy tale. I already reviewed their wonderfully entertaining Nutcracker Rouge in this blog. I made a return trip to see their version of Snow White. As entertaining as Nutcracker Rouge was, Snow White is simply on another level artistically.

It takes a lot of balls to combine baroque music with Schubert's Ständchen with Britney Spears with golden oldies in one show, but director Austin McCormick makes it work. The company is a remarkable collection of singers, dancers and acrobats. His choreography seamlessly transitions between drag queen burlesque, classical ballet, puppetry, ballroom dancing, and aerialist manipulations. This show has camp, but it is not campy and unlike Nutcracker Rouge it isn't just "fun."

At the center of the story is Laura Careless's terrifying, demented Queen Mother. Careless is onstage almost the entire evening and really carries the entire show. I saw her as "Marie Claire" in Nutcracker Rouge and it's amazing how she's transformed herself into this horrifying beauty. The show ingeniously uses projections and voice-overs as she implores the mirror about who is the "fairest of them all" -- it could be an internal nightmare in one beautiful but insecure woman's mind. The show follows the Grimm outline of the fairytale to the letter -- yes she does "eat" Snow White's heart, then she tracks Snow White and tries to kill her with a corset, then a comb, then a poisoned apple, and when Snow White is rescued by the Prince, the Queen Mother is forced to dance to her death on hot coals. The way the show dramatizes each of these events was consistently creative and engaging -- I particularly loved the way Snow White steps into some pretty pink ribbons that gradually becomes a tangled corset trap.

Snow White (Hilly Bodin) eating apple
Snow White also challenges traditional beliefs about gender and beauty. Snow White (Hilly Bodin) herself is a punk rock type with extremely close-cropped, even bald hair, whereas Careless conforms more to the conventional standards of beauty. Snow White does indeed have "skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony" but in the form of a k.d. lang lookalike. And the Prince is a fabulous female aerialist named Courtney Giannone who does a show-stopping dance with a wooden hula hoop that brought the house down. Here's a grainy video I took of her incredible number:


Despite the crowd-pleasing numbers (and there are plenty) the most memorable images of the show are the ones that highlight the dark undertones of these fairy tales before they were Disneyfied. The numbers for the Queen Mother are the most haunting: when she finally hears from the mirror that she's the "fairest of them all" she breaks into an ecstatic, orgasmic celebratory dance. It's absolutely awesome:


When Snow White is rescued the Queen Mother is forced to dance to death in burning shoes. That dance is hair-curling: Loveless's knees buckle, she collapses over and over again but is still forced to dance. She's become trapped in her own body, trapped in her own beauty, trapped by her own love of dance. I only caught the final moments of this number but it was great theater.


Company XIV is a fantastic ensemble -- McCormick maximizes everyone's talents. Marcy Richardson has a beautiful, versatile singer who can sing anything from Britney Spears to Schubert lieder. The drag queens are all amazing dancers. This is a company that tries to do it all, and does. Last night was the first preview. Snow White runs until March 12. If you like dance, if you like music, if you like fairy tales, then run, don't walk, to pick up a ticket. This is truly the fairest show of them all.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

NYCO Renaissance Tosca

Cast of Tosca takes a bow
The NYCO Renaissance kick-start got the most awful divine intervention: a 28" blizzard that cancelled two of its performances. But maybe it was a blessing it disguise,  because this afternoon's final matinee performance of Tosca found all the singers vocally fresh, and with a large enthusiastic audience (many of whom had switched their Saturday tickets).

There's been a healthy dose of skepticism of the NYCO Renaissance project, and certainly its inaugural project was the definition of "playing it safe" -- does NYC really need yet another Tosca? But you know what? This afternoon's performance had an energy and enthusiasm that many tired revivals of Tosca at the Met in recent years have sorely lacked. Was it a great production? No. Were the singers perfect? No. But it was a thoroughly enjoyable, well-sung performance, and many recent Met performances have failed to live up to even that low standard.

Much of the performance's success was due to the Tosca of Latonia Moore. This soprano has a voice of remarkable beauty and purity. She's one of those singers where she just opens her mouth, and a large, creamy sound comes out. She's mostly known for her Aida, which probably suits her voice better -- she's not very comfortable with the verismo-style declamations and her temperament is a bit too placid for the Roman diva. But I'd be hard-pressed to remember a Tosca that was as beautifully sung. "Visse d'arte" was oddly not her best moment --she made some weird breathing choices which made the last phrases a bit choppy. It was in her duets with Cavaradossi (particularly "O dolci mani") where the inherent plushness and sweetness of her voice made Puccini's music sound ... well, better than it actually is. Her high C's in Act Two and Three were pitch-perfect. This is an A-list singer who for some reason doesn't have an A-list career, and I really hope that changes.

Her dramatic portrayal is a work in progress. She's not a stage animal and blood-and-guts verismo acting is probably not her thing. Her attempt at "rage" at the Lady Madonna was rather comical. Her stabbing of Scarpia was way too ginger, as if she were checking if the turkey was ready rather than actually killing someone. And she's one of those Toscas who takes that brief but oh-so-distracting pause before "falling" to her death. On the other hand there's a natural warmth and innocence to her Tosca that's very winning. Brava Latonia.

She had a great partner in Carlo Guelfi. The two of them sort of complemented each other -- Latonia has the Great Voice, Guelfi has the Great Acting. Guelfi's voice is like the opposite of Latonia's -- hard and gruff, and obviously aged. But Guelfi really knows what to do with the character of Scarpia. He knows exactly when to smirk, exactly when to feign a courtliness, exactly when to turn on the sleazy pervert act. I do wish his voice had more body and tone in Te Deum.

Raffaele Abete (Cavaradossi) oddly sounded exactly like a traditional "NYCO tenor" of yore -- he was cute, with a light, lyrical, and slightly generic voice. He's very young and I don't know if his voice will develop. As of now it's smallish and probably not ready for the larger houses. He kind of came to grief in the long-breathed phrases of "E lucevan le stelle." But thoroughly competent, pleasing, professional performance, and very natural acting too.

All the supporting roles were very professional, as were the children's chorus and orchestra. The only sore spot -- a shepherd boy who forgot to make his entrance and only sang the last few lines of his little song. Pacien Mazzagatti was actually outstanding in the pit -- I assume he was working with a reduced orchestra, but his conducting was lively and also sensitive to each singer.

Act Two Hohenstein designs

The production by Lev Pugliese claims to recreate the original sets/costumes of Adolf Hohenstein in the 1900 premiere. How well this concept was executed is anyone's guess -- Hohenstein isn't around to critique. The small stage of the Rose Theater however limited this concept -- the painted drops were rather flimsy looking. Scarpia's apartment in Act Two was maybe the weakest set -- the drops flapped visibly and it was way too pastel, like something Marie Antoinette would have designed for herself at Le Petit Trianon. Hohenstein designs (seen above) do seem to show a lot of blue and gold, but I doubt the actual sets were nursery-yellow and baby-blue, which is how the NYCO recreations looked. Some of the costumes looked rather cheap -- they could have used more velvet, less polyester.

The direction was adequate -- I mentioned how Latonia needs stabbing lessons, but someone also should have given the directors a forensics lesson. They decided to execute Cavaradossi from behind at close range -- there would have been exploding skulls and much more splatter. Instead Cavaradossi fell bloodlessly to the floor. It's not a production for the ages, but compared to the ugly, industrial, massive Luc Bondy production at the Met, there was a simplicity and directness about this production that I liked.

The future of new-NYCO remains unclear, and certainly they have an upward battle ahead -- right now they're being heavily funded by the Neiderhoffer Family Foundation. It's unclear if this project is financially or artistically viable. I'd say they're off to a good start though -- I was only at one performance, but was already impressed with their attention to musical values. The painted drops might have flapped like shower curtains, but the singing was solid.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Lion King - Taking Mom to a Momsical

Photo by Joan Marcus
Recently my mom decided she wanted to see a Broadway musical. She hadn't seen one since Applause, which she says she saw with Anne Baxter*. (I googled -- Anne Baxter did indeed take over Lauren Bacall's part. Mom has a good memory.) I know my mom -- she only wants to go to "momsicals" -- classic tuneful scores with good singing and dancing. I knew anything raunchy or avante garde would be a no-no. I went over several options with her: Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, Phantom of the Opera, and Lion King. My mom rejected Phantom: she had seen the movie and didn't like the "stalker" storyline. She rejected Fiddler as well: she didn't like the music. King and I she said "only should be done with Yul Brynner." But Lion King she was very interested in, so Lion King it was.

On a snowy Sunday afternoon I found myself packed like sardines in the Minskoff Theatre, where Lion King has been ensconced since 2006. I guess I'm finally seeing it nearly 20 years after it opened but hey, better late than never. (It opened in 1997 at another theater). I can't say this is a deeply artistic show but I definitely saw the enduring appeal of Julie Taymor's adaptation of the Disney cartoon. The tunes by Elton John ("Circle of Life," "Hakuna Matata") can be hummed by kids. The puppetry is creative and visually appealing. Richard Hudson's designs evoke the African jungles and Safaris without a hint of fussiness. The opening tableau with all the jungle animals marching down the aisle and onto the stage was stunning -- the show finds a way to grab the audience's attention from the very beginning and has no real down-time.

As with any long-standing musical every moment and effect now runs with the efficiency of a Foxconn iPhone assembly line. There's been some additions in dialogue: at one point Zazu launches into a few bars of the ubiquitous Frozen anthem "Let it Go" and Scar groans "Anything but that!" which got exactly the kind of applause it was designed to get. I looked at the cast bios and saw that many of the cast members have been with the show for a few years, and their experience shows. This is a well-oiled spectacle.

I did miss a lot of the tenderness of the Disney film. Julie Taymor's puppet designs are more awe-inspiring than lovable -- I was thinking she could have used some of Jim Henson's talent in making puppets seem like warm, cuddly little things. The only characters who approached their film lovability were Timon and Pumbaa and Zazu. Scar (Gareth Saxe) was delightfully evil. I was happy to hear the same snarky "Oh goody" line from him. (That's my favorite line in the movie.) Simba, Mustafa, and Nala were somewhat colorless compared to the movie although Julian Silva as Young Simba was cute. But those are small complaints. My mom loved it. She particularly loved the fact that there wasn't much dialogue, just a lot of singing and dancing. This was her type of musical. When we went home and described the musical to my dad he said, "You say it's an 8, but it sounds so bland and inoffensive that it's more like a 6."

Fred Berman and Ben Jeffrey as Timon and Pumbaa
Jeffrey Kuhn as Zazu

It's kind of interesting to observe the Darwinian nature of Broadway. A few weeks ago I saw the final performance of Dames at Sea, a perfectly charming, small-scaled vehicle that just never gained any box office traction. Meanwhile, tickets to Hamilton are over $500 a pop. What's the difference between a blockbuster and a bust? In the coming months I'm embarking on a project of trying to see as many long-standing Broadway musicals as possible to get an answer about why some musicals play to closed off balconies and heavily papered theaters and others (like Lion King) still play to full houses 19 years after its opening. So Lion King is my first stop. Next stop: Phantom of the Opera (I think).

*I tried to mine my mom for memories of what Anne Baxter might have been like playing the "Margo Channing" to no avail. She said she didn't speak much English at the time. "Was the musical good?" "No." Well that settles that.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Pearlfishers - Too Many Fish, Not Enough Pearls

Pearlfishers, photo by Ken Howard

The last time the Metropolitan Opera performed Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles it was in 1916 and it had a cast of nonentities like Enrico Caruso, Frieda Hempel and Giuseppe de Luca. Audiences apparently loved the Oriental love triangle fantasy -- one review said that the famous duet "Au fond du temple saint" "brought down the house"and the often ornery W.H. Henderson reported that the equally renowned aria "Je crois entendre encore" "set the house wild with joy."

Nevertheless the opera only received two more performances at the Met until it revived was nearly 100 years later on December 31, 2015. The new production (director Penny Woolcock) was borrowed from the English National Opera and starred three of General Manager Peter Gelb's favorites: soprano Diana Damrau, tenor Matthew Polenzani and baritone Mariusz Kweicien. Reviews for the production and singers have generally been very positive. I went to see the January 8 performance and the house was packed.

I hate to be that person that hates something everyone else loves, but I thought that while Woolcock's production (updated to a modern South Asian fishing village, but with storyline unchanged) was generally very pretty and gave the opera its necessary dose of Oriental charm, there was one missing ingredient in this revival of Bizet's lovely opera: great voices that would "set the house wild with joy."

Polenzani (Nadir) sang everything with scrupulous taste and managed "Je crois entendre encore" without the common transposition, floated high C and all. But this opera is all about lush, beautiful melodies and it demands voices that are as beautiful as the music. There is no real dramatic tension to speak of -- it's not like Elektra or, well, uh, Carmen, where the strength of a singer's personality can negate vocal flaws. If you're going to set the house wild with joy, you better sound like this:


Polenzani gave the best possible performance he could probably give -- his voice is simply not one I personally find beautiful, and he's not a dynamic actor. But in terms of style, musicality, it's there. Damrau and Kwiecien gave their typical A-for-effort performances, but with the flaws that have crept into their voices over time.

Damrau's voice has lost almost all its youthful sheen, and the tone is rather husky, blowsy and colorless. She has a habit of snatching a big, audible breath before she sings forte -- it sounds like she's hiccuping. In her arias "O Dieu Brahma" and "J'étais encore enfant" she checked the boxes of what to do, but without much grace. An extended trill at the end of Act One wavered and went off pitch. Attempts at soft singing were intermittently successful. Dramatically she's lost a lot of the pep and vigor that characterized her early performances. Leila is basically a colonialist fantasy of the Oriental enchantress, but Damrau made no attempt at conveying this sort of exotic glamor, other than relentlessly shedding layers of her thick sarong. Damrau's husband Nicolas Testé (Nouriband) was actually pretty lovely and lyrical and made the most out of his rather small part.


Kwieicien and Damrau, photo by Ken Howard
Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga) has pushed his essentially lyric baritone into sounding like the generic "loud baritone." As a result he can sing a large array of baritone roles (Onegin, Don Giovanni, Posa), but all without any distinction or vocal beauty. "Au fond du temple saint" has been a big favorite for baritones and tenors over the years, but with Kwieicien and Polenzani the duet came and went. Kwieien does look cute in black jeans and a t-shirt. (By the way, I find Zurga by far the most sympathetic character of the opera. To face a certain death so your bro and the woman you love can run off together, and singing your melody -- that's noble.)

Gianandrea Noseda can be a relentlessly hard-charging conductor (I remember him storming through La Traviata like Napoleon's army) but his conducting of Pearlfishers was surprisingly toothless and even indifferent. He didn't have a feel for the distinctive rhythms and exotic melodies of Bizet's score -- you were decidedly not transported to the Orient. 

No, just no to the pants. Photo by Ken Howard

Props must go to the always amazing Met chorus, who were onstage singing for much of the evening, 59 Productions and set designer Dick Bird, who created a colorful depiction of a vaguely South Asian port,and Penny Woolcock for treating the opera with respect and affection. There was no attempt to flesh out the thin storyline with "deeper" meanings and thank God -- this is not an opera that calls for much cerebral deconstruction. The two "swimming" aerialists were a nice touch. Costume designer Kevin Pollard however was responsible for Matthew Polenzani's fake tattoo sleeves and dumpy pants, so no cheers for him.

Don't get me wrong. The Met has done New York a great favor by reviving this gem, and it's definitely worth seeing. Damrau, Polenzani, and Kwiecien are all very professional and gave credible performances. They're like the "fish" of "Pearlfishers" -- solid, healthy, full of protein and omega-3. Their voices however are not pearls.

Now, for some contemporary vocal pearls, I found this: (Javier Camarena):


And for contemporary sopranos, I found this: (Sonya Yoncheva):


And forget the fact that they're no longer with us, and that it's in German. This is absolutely fucking gorgeous: (Wunderlich and Prey)


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Dames at Sea Sails Off

Dames at Sea cast, photo by Jeremy Daniel
From a financial standpoint the revival of Dames at Sea at the Helen Hayes Theater was an unmitigated disaster. The show opened in October to lukewarm reviews and sold poorly even in the 597-seat theater. This 1968 musical originally gained fame when a certain Bernadette Peters played Ruby and then shot to stardom herself, which echoed Ruby's storyline. But in the current revival it was unable to gain any traction, and today it played its final show, which I attended. At least the show got a good send-off -- the theater cheered loudly after every number.

Personally I thought it was an absolutely lovely, charming little show that should have done much better at the box office. The fact that it closed almost as soon as it opened says more about the blockbuster-or-bust mentality on Broadway rather than the quality of the show. Director and choreographer Randy Skinner treats the show with obvious affection. The opening, which was played with a movie-style projector and black and white credits rolling, immediately set the mood for this deliberately nostalgic stroll into 1930's Hollywood. Yes the jokes are rather corny but this affectionate parody/tribute to golden age style musicals was always entertaining, and had absolutely great tap dancing by the six-person cast. Musical theater nerds can hear how many of the George Haimsohn's songs and Robin Miller lyrics are derivatives of some classics -- the opening number "Wall Street" sounds exactly like "42nd Street" and "That Mister Man of Mine" has more than a passing resemblance to Gershwin's "The Man I Love. Novices can just enjoy the upbeat song-and-tap routines including the wonderful production number "Star Tar" where Ruby finally gets to show off her tap-dancing chops.

One of the best parts of Dames at Sea is the gentle parody of the "exotic numbers" that used to be par for course in these musicals. "Singapore Sue" is a little cringe-worthy with all the Asian stereotypes but "The Echo Waltz" is an ingenious send-up of "The Shadow Waltz," that famous moment in The Gold Diggers when a group of showgirls does a Viennese waltz down the stairs, violins and all.

Echo Waltz, photo by Sara Krulwich



In fact, many of the song-and-dance numbers are so good on their own that you don't need to know anything about Busby Berkeley musicals to enjoy Dames at Sea. Most people will recognize the show-business tropes like Ruby (a spunky Eloise Kropp) who just got off the bus from Utah and voila! finds herself backstage at a musical, or sailors who magically are also great songwriters and tap dancers (Cary Tedder as Dick and Danny Gardner at Lucky were fabulous), or Joan, the tough-talking showgirl with a heart of gold (Mara Davi, probably the stand-out in the cast), or the aging prima diva Mona Kent (Lesli Margherita), or Hennesey (John Bolton, who also doubled as Captain Courageous), whose struggling Broadway theater has produced "twelve flops" and has to close.

I left the theater with the same irrepressible hope of Ruby/Hennesey/Dick/Joan/Lucky/Mona that Dames at Sea can eventually find an off-Broadway home, where it probably belongs and where it'd be more appreciated. Bon voyage!

Here's a brief video I took of the curtain calls:


Sunday, December 20, 2015

December Chestnuts - Rigoletto, Alvin Ailey, Nutcracker

Nadine Sierra as Gilda, photo as Jonathan Tichler
If last week was a whirlwind of Nutcracker adventures, this week I went to three tried and true warhorses: Alvin Ailey Dance Company on 12/15, Rigoletto on December 17, and one more look for the year at the NYCB Nutcracker on Sunday afternoon.

Usually mid-week revivals of the Met's "Las Vegas" Rigoletto can be dull affairs, but last night's performance had some fresh faces and voices (to New York at least). Jean François Borras first made his Met debut in a last minute substitute Werther almost two years ago. I was immediately bowled over by the beauty of his singing. Since then he's made a return to the Met last season for some Rodolfos and sung Werther and Des Grieux in Vienna.

Last night the things that impressed me so much the first time I heard him were there again -- he made the Duke of Mantua an exercise in stylish vocalism. His voice is not large but it almost casually floats through the air in a way that seems appropriate for the Duke's fickle nature. He doesn't go for squillo at the expense of musicality -- there were no extended dropouts to sing a high note (although "La donna è mobile" ended on a sustained, crowd-pleasing high B). Everything is sung in a very bel canto, with elegance. His finest moment was in "Bella figlia dell'amore" -- so seductive that you almost believed him, and what's more, almost understood Gilda's sacrifice. Let's hope New York gets to hear him many more years to come.

The Gilda was 27-year old Nadine Sierra, who has a bright, well-produced timbre, impressive coloratura technique, and most of all, a winning charm and naiveté that made her character and actions believable and understandable. Her opening duets with "Gualtier Malde" and her father bubbled over with curiosity and infatuation. "Caro nome" was sung as a daydreamy reverie (with the gentle rustling trills observed), and her final duet with her father had the feel of a young girl who still didn't understand why she was dying in the trunk of a Cadillac. Her highest notes have a slightly hard edge to them but this was a wonderful performance.



Dmitri Ivaschenko was a delightfully greasy Sparafucile with a rich bass. Robert Pomakov made the most out of the brief role of Monterone. Zeljko Lucic reprised his by-now very familiar Rigoletto. Maybe too familiar. Lucic's performance was the only one to feel formulaic, as if he were drawing the outlines of a Rigoletto rather than living the character. Roberto Abbado led the Met orchestra in a rather listless performance from the pit. Michael Mayer's production goes for flashy effects (strippers! Monterone as a shiek! Gilda carried out in a mummy coffin!) over drama, but with these sensitive performers you believed in the opera.

I got to go backstage for the first time! Here's a picture of me and Jean François. Horrible picture of me, great picture of him.



If the Rigoletto performance had an unexpected freshness and vitality, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the City Center had a slightly stale feeling. Company director Robert Battle has been adding more interesting repertoire to the company but the core of the company remains Revelations and ... everything else. Alvin Ailey was in many ways a one-hit wonder. Ailey's Night Creatures was charmingly danced by the always wonderful troupe, but the thinness of the choreography made the whole thing feel like empty calories. This piece looks exactly how you'd expect it to look -- a bunch of dancers shaking it to Duke Ellington. Even worse was Judith Jamison's insipid duet A Case of You, set to a syrupy Diana Krall cover of Joni Mitchell's famous love song. This was basically one of those "man meets woman, they embrace, they part, they embrace again, they part again, wash rinse repeat" dances. Jacqueline Green and Jamar Roberts did the best they could but couldn't save this fluff. No Longer Silent was Robert Battle's dance set to music by Erwin Schulhoff, a composer who died in the Holocaust. So, surprise! The ballet was set in a stark concentration camp and ended with the dancers clawing furiously at the showers. Bleh. It was meant to be a Very Serious Piece but the road to ballet hell is paved with Very Serious Pieces.

Thankfully, there's always Revelations to save the day. The 1960 classic (along with the obligatory encore) closes almost every program and I don't know how the Ailey dancers manage to make it look fresh every night, but they do. It's a warhorse for good reason -- it just works.

Ashley Hod as Dewdrop, photo by Paul Kolnik
I rounded out my frantic December schedule with one final matinee performance of the NYCB Nutcracker today. Overall the performance didn't match the perfection of the earlier Hyltin/Veyette/Peck Nutcracker but Mr. B's Nut is always worth seeing. Ashly Isaacs (Sugarplum Fairy) is a work in progress. She's very athletic, cheerful, and her ménage of pique turns was blindingly fast but had a slip during a supported pirouette in the final moments of the coda, and her timing was awkward in some moments in the grand pas de deux -- that piqué turn to arabesque penchée series in particular was too carefully prepared to make its full impact. Taylor Stanley was an elegant partner. A bit low-key but beautiful line. More intriguing was Ashley Hod (Dewdrop). She's a tall leggy looker and managed the dizzying allegro work of the Dewdrop with style. Other standouts: Harrison Ball exploded out of the box in Tea (often a variation that makes little impact) and Daniel Ulbricht's Candy Cane.

The woman sitting next to me was from London and it was her first time seeing this version. She was almost as fun as the performance itself. She clapped when the tree grew. She cried at the snowflakes. She ooh'ed and aah'ed at the angels. She cheered loudly after each successive Candy Cane hoop jump. When Mother Ginger left the stage waving to the audience she waved back. At the end of it all she sighed, "This was SO beautiful. Most beautiful thing I've ever seen." Amen.