Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Don Quixote has long been considered the Bolshoi Ballet's house special and touring warhorse. Wherever they go, audiences go crazy over the Bolshoi's boisterous, happy, busy depiction of a Spanish fairyland. The curtain rose tonight at the Koch Theater and the effect was the same -- the audience was bombarded with sashaying skirts, rustling maracas, banging tambourines, swaying fans, swinging capes, and the happy reaction said "Ah, so fun."
But there's a method to this choreographed joy -- the Bolshoi has over 200 dancers, and many of them specialize in character dancing. That's why they can have rows and rows of dancers who don't even look like ballet dancers, but rather like folk dancers, with the emphasis on lower body strength, back flexibility, and dancing on the downbeat. These dancers will never get to dance Aurora or Odette/Odile. So Don Quixote is their chance to shine, and they grab the spotlight and never let it go. You can see the hunger in their eyes. It's exhilarating. Equally exhilarating are the character dance soloists -- the Spanish dancer (Maria Zharkova), the Bolero couple (Anna Antropova, Vitaly Biktimirov), the Gypsy dancer (Kristina Karasyova). Their solos are short, but do they know how to sell it! The women seem to have jelly spines, and their long skirts become almost like musical instruments as they sashay and shimmy and dance their hearts out.
It takes super-strong soloists in the lead roles to not get over-shadowed by the wonderful character dancers. The Bolshoi has been famous for its Kitris -- Maya Plisetskaya, Ekaterina Maximova, Nina Ananiashvilli, Natalia Osipova are just a few of legendary names. Tonight's Kitri, Maria Alexandrova, is coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon and as much as I'd like to report that she's rebounded from her injury completely, there were a lot of moments when her Kitri seemed weak. For one, her once buoyant jump is gone -- the grand jetes are now low to the ground and heavy. In the famous Kitri Act One variation, she didn't even attempt the famous Plisetskaya head kick, and also had trouble traveling on the diagonal. Her Italian fouettes in the Vision scene were also effortful. In the final grand pas de deux her balances were shorter, and her variation with its rapid passé and relevé sequence seemed again heavy and leaden. She did finish her fouetté sequence with some very fast singles. Alexandrova's still a solid, likable dancer, but she's no longer the whiz-bang that this role requires. I also wish her upper body weren't so stiff -- she now dances with a tenseness around her arms, neck, and shoulders that is distracting.
Thankfully, her Basilio, Vladislav Lanatrov, added the sparkle and joy to Alexandrova's Kitri. She might not be able to do all the tricks that other Kitris can pull off, but her rapport with Lanatrov was wonderful. If she couldn't wow the audience herself, as a couple they could wow the audience. Lanatrov picked her up in two thrilling one-handed lifts, the second prolonged as the corps banged their tambourines longer and longer. Lanatrov's solos were also very fine, if occasionally sloppy in form. I've seen cleaner double assembles and split leaps, but Lanatrov had a real charming personality. The only time his partnering failed him was in the wedding pas de deux, there were a few pirouette/lunges that looked shaky.
The rest of the soloists showed that the Bolshoi, despite its quirks, is a company with real depth. The variations were cast from strength. Kitri's friends at the wedding danced two splashy variations -- Maria Vinogradova was notably stronger than Ana Turazshvili, but both showed great promise. Denis Rodkin (Espada) didn't do as much with his back I would have hoped but Anna Tikhomirova was thrilling as the Street Dancer. She looked like a Kitri in waiting. Yulia Lunkina wasn't that memorable as Cupid. Oxana Sharova sizzled as Mercedes.
Olga Smirnova (Queen of the Dryads) is the big It Girl of the tour. I missed her Swan Lakes last week, but I did see her Nikya when she guested with the ABT. It's easy to understand why Smirnova has a following -- she's one of the most physically exquisite dancers I've ever seen. She looks like the ideal ballerina, with her raven hair, china doll face, and beautifully tapered legs and feet. So I hate to sound sour but I think she's one of those ballerinas who might be too aware of her own beauty. Her Dryad solo was beautiful and pristine, but also contained a lot of mannered "now you may admire the exquisite tilt of my neck" posing. It's impressive, but too calculated by half. I just want her to really dance. The only thing I don't like about the Bolshoi's Don Q is the Dryad variation -- I prefer the developpe/Italian fouette variation that the Mariinsky/ABT does. The Vision Scene corps were beautiful.
But all the little complaints that one could have for this performance pale with all the strengths the Bolshoi displays in this ballet. Simply put, there's no company that dances with such raw energy and power. Don Quixote and Sancho may be only walk-on characters in this ballet, but the Bolshoi does capture the fiery spirit and earthiness of Cervantes' Spain. It's a joy to watch.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
There's a saying in ballet that says "Put Swan Lake on the billboard, and they will come." This certainly seemed the case tonight as the Bolshoi Ballet has kicked off its two week stay at the Koch Theater with a week a Swan Lakes. Well ... I think many of the audience were shocked, to say the least, that in the Bolshoi/Grigorovich version, there's no swan and no lake. In fact, audience reaction was muted, and it made for some awkward moments when the audience was dead silent and the dancers decided to come out for another bow.
The usual "vanilla" Swan Lake story goes something like this: Prince Siegfried for his birthday received a bow and arrow and a dictum to marry from his mother. He goes hunting with his friends and is about to shoot at a swan, until he is mesmerized by the swan's beauty. The swan Odette tells Siegfried of her sad tale: she was once human, but turned into a swan thanks to the evil magician Rothbart, and can only regain human form at night. Siegfried pledges his love. But at his birthday party, he's tempted by an Odette lookalike named Odile. She looks exactly like Odette but she's dressed in black. He breaks his pledge to Odette before realizing his mistake. He runs back to the lake, and depending on the version, either the spell is broken by him fighting Rothbart, or Odette and Siegfried break the spell by jumping into the lake and are reunited in heaven.
Grigorovich decided instead to make the whole ballet a vision conjured up by the "Evil Genius." The Evil Genius mirrors Siegfried in all his dancing and actions, and swans appear from behind a curtain. In the third act a sextet of black swans and Odile are also conjured up by the Evil Genius from behind this curtain. This robs the ballet of any meaningful romantic connection between Odette and Siegfried. It's all a vision of the Evil Genius, remember? And in the final act, there's no reconciliation or forgiveness between Odette and Siegfried. The Evil Genius again whisks his swans behind the curtain. The end.
Many iconic moments are gone: Odette doesn't make the flying entrance. Instead, she's already behind the curtain, and has to exit the stage before re-entering. The entrance of the swans is also gone: they're already onstage behind that stupid curtain, then a few minutes later they re-enter with the familiar flying arabesque sequence. This production spends so much time getting people offstage for no reason only to haul them onstage a few seconds later. The only things left marginally intact are the White Swan pas de deux and Odette's variation. The character dances in Act Three are also gone: all the princesses dance on pointe, and so the Spanish/Russian/Polish/Neapolitan dances look exactly the same. Oh, the score is cut and rearranged beyond recognition from the usual Petipa/Ivanov arrangements. Even Tchaikovsky's beautiful apotheosis music is gone -- the ballet instead ends with a replay of the overture. What a mess.
All of this would be more tolerable if the production weren't so darned ugly. The whole thing has a cheesy 1970's decor. The guys at court are in pageboy wigs, and the girls are sporting puke-yellow dresses. The sets have lost whatever sheen they might have once had and just look old and tatty. They even get the swan tutus wrong -- they're in flat pancake tutus without the usual feathers to line the tutu. But I guess in this version it's not even clear they're swans -- they're just random girls the Evil Genius whiffed up behind the magic curtain.
The Bolshoi corps, that can look like balls of manic energy in Don Quixote, were sluggish and often uncoordinated with the orchestra. They might have been cramped by the small Koch theater stage, as I noticed many of them making small adjustments to avoid dancing too close to the edge of the stage or near the wings.
It's a shame, because the dancing by the leads was on a very high level. Anna Nikulina doesn't fit with the current O/O aesthetic (very tall, long-limbed, majestic). She's petite and frail. But her dancing had a wonderful delicacy and lightness. She doesn't go for the big flashy extensions that Svetlana Zakharova would display, but Nikulina's portrayal was warm and human. Her arms were soft and supple. I would love to see what she could do in a more traditional production. I also would love to see her in Giselle.
In the White Swan pas de deux Nikulina didn't slow the action to a crawl -- she actually seemed to move through the music. When Odette does the split jump in Siegfried's arms her spirit seemed to soar. Another highlight was her Odette variation. Her sissones really flew, and she ended the diagonal with a flawless set of piroettes. As Odile she was more kittenish than vampish. Her fouettes started off with an impressive series of doubles, before she sort of ran out of steam. Artem Ovcharenko had beautiful lines and elevation as Siegfried, and partnered Nikulina wonderfully. His cabrioles had wonderful soft landings. Grigorovich's choreography for Siegfried is fussy but Ovcharenko made the most of it. Denis Rodkin performed the "look at ME" Evil Genius choreography with the requisite campiness. In the act one pas de trois Chinara Alizade and Daria Khoklova were both excellent -- fast with the petit batterie. And the Russian companies always find great Jesters -- Denis Medvedev was no exception.
All this wonderful dancing is essentially wasted though. The Bolshoi's Swan Lake is DOA.
Sunday, July 13, 2014
The storyline is melodramatic -- it's loosely based on a rather dark little corner of Russian history when Ivan the Terrible decided he was going to roam the country for a bride, whittled his selection to 12 candidates, and the unfortunate final choice was a girl named Marfa Sobakina. The poor thing died under mysterious circumstances a few days later. Tsar's Bride gives Marfa a backstory -- a vapid tenor lover, a jealous baritone suitor, and an even more jealous mezzo rival. Is this starting to sound familiar?
However, it's not a cheesy bit of exotica, as in great to view once but once is enough. Sometimes you can understand why works resists exportation. Why Tsar's Bride has remained homebound is a mystery. It's one beautiful opera. The score is magnificent. The melodies are lush and instantly memorable, and the orchestration and chorus have enough Russian heaviness to lend some gravitas to this otherwise conventional love quadrangle. You realize you've heard these tunes before -- must have been in the background of some movie or documentary. The whole thing even ends with a magnificent mad scene for the soprano. But the thing about this opera is that you need great voices, and many of them -- in that sense, it's very much like a Verdi opera.
Here is Marfa's Mad Scene, sung by a very young Anna Netrebko:
Here is a youtube clip I found of this Diva:
On the other end of the world class spectrum was the very young soprano Olga Kulchinskaya (Marfa). She looks and sounds exactly like Marfa should sound: young and pretty and fresh. Her voice was bell-like, ethereal, and in the extended mad scene that ends the opera, truly celestial as it traveled through the cavernous orchestra hall. Since she is so young what she hasn't quite learned to do is to project her face to the audience -- she sometimes looked a bit blank and buried in the score. But quite a voice.
Vladimir Matorin (Vasily) and Elchin Azizov (Grigory) were also excellent lower voices. My friend Jan said that Matorin is one of those people who sounds exactly like he looks. So true. He has the scruffy gray beard that just says "Russian black bass." But it's a very warm sound. Elchin Azizov also has a fairly warm, rich baritone that lended a layer of humanity to the role of Grigory. Of the lead singers only the Ivan (Bogdan Volkov) was at a slightly lower level -- his tenor sounded occasionally tight and constricted. Ivan's kind of a vapid part, so no real loss there.
The supporting players were all solid to excellent. Marat Gali as Bornelius chewed the scenery as another villain and Elena Novak as Marfa's friend was more than good. The Bolshoi chorus and orchestra were remarkable. Conventional wisdom says that the Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra are the "world class" company and that the Bolshoi is meant to stay in Russia. But conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, at the age of 83, still had superb command of the orchestra and chorus. He was remarkable to watch, as he thundered his stick at certain sections of the orchestra and they thundered back at him. And he had such authority that the audience seemed afraid to clap until he gave the okay to clap. At the opera ended the old man turned around on his seat and nodded at the audience. The audience burst into a thunderous happy ovation. The singers milked their ovations like true Russians, but it was absolutely deserved.
In fact, the whole event was unexpectedly classy. I say this only because sometimes Lincoln Center Festival events tend to be midsummer tourist traps, with the actual quality of art being variable. The Bolshoi Ballet (the more well-known, flamboyant cousin to the Bolshoi Opera) is set to begin a two-week stay at the Koch Theater performing the overstuffed and overdone staples of Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and Spartacus. But the audience for tonight's performance were real opera enthusiasts. The presentation was completely thorough and professional -- David Shengold's liner notes were excellent reading. You didn't get a sense that anyone was there just to be seen. And the Bolshoi Opera gifted us with an amazing performance of an opera that, as I said, as of now remains thoroughly Russian and not to be exported.
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Sunday, June 22, 2014
Friday, June 13, 2014
Sunday, June 8, 2014
Friday, June 6, 2014
Sunday, June 1, 2014
Friday, May 30, 2014
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Sunday, May 18, 2014
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Ah, spring season of dance in NY. It's a time when people often have to replicate King Solomon and split the baby. "Ok, I'll choose to see NYCB Tuesday and the ABT Wednesday," they say, shedding real tears in the process. First world problems, but it can be painful.
The NYCB often makes these choices even more painful by springing exciting last minute debuts with almost no advance notice. Or they will bring back a ballet into the repertory that's beloved by dance mavens but hardly ever done. Such was the case this week when they presented three different casts of their all-Balanchine program of Raymonda Variations, Steadfast Tin Soldier, Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Symphony in C. I attended the last two casts, the Sunday matinee (5/11) and tonight's performance (5/13).
Saturday, May 10, 2014
They play two very different Don Ramiros. Camarena had a lot of fun playing the valet, his eyes twinkling with mischief. He was little and sneaky, and he had wonderful chemistry with Pietro Spagnoli's Dandini. Florez was more the traditional leading man. More princely, if you will.
This Cenerentola is one of the strongest productions the Met has mounted this year -- true ensemble singing, with Pietro Spagnoli in particular making a wonderful impression as Dandini, and Alessandro Corbelli and Luca Pisaroni hamming it up in true opera buffa style. I know Joyce DiDonato is dropping the role of Angelina but it's not because she can't sing it anymore -- she can still sing the hell out of it. Lovely ornaments in "Non piu mesta." The chemistry between the cast was evident, as I saw three performances and each one had different ad-libbed comedy. And Fabio Luisi is my wtf-crush. I think he's adorable. I can't explain why. But just seeing him in the pit gives me a happy vibe.
I found this video from Pesaro, 1998. Horrible picture quality, but JDF's voice is instantly recognizable, and you have to respect him for keeping his voice in such a condition that he can still sing the same role 15 years later without any compromises.
Since January (first half of the season, don't ask, but let's just say I wasn't in any mood to see anything) I've seen just about everything. The only things I took a pass on were Die Fledermaus, Enchanted Island, Prince Igor (well I didn't take a pass on it, I just somehow never got the energy to go see it for one reason or another), and Andrea Chenier. Otherwise I'm looking at my programs and I saw:
Werther (three times, twice with Kaufmann, once with Borras!)
Boheme (three times, with three different casts!)
La Sonnambula -
Cosi fan tutte
La Cenerentola (twice in the house, and then the HD)
A running theme through all these shows is how great the tenors were. In fact, only two performances had what I'd consider to be sub-par tenors. In Arabella, Roberto Sacca bleated and shrieked his way through the punishing role of Matteo. But to be fair, I think he was sick, because he cancelled a good part of his run. And in Madama Butterfly, James Valenti did his usual D-list "why does he get hired" thing.
Otherwise, it's time to gush. Piotr Beczala - GREAT!!! Joseph Calleja - GREAT!!! Jonas Kaufmann - OH.MY.GOD. Jean Francois Borras (Kaufman's cover) - GREAT!!! (And he's being brought back next year for La Boheme). Vittorio Grigolo - GREAT!!! Lawrence Brownlee - GREAT!!! Matthew Polenzani - GREAT!!! Javier Camarena - BRAVO BRAVO BRAVO!!! Juan Diego Florez - GREAT!!!
This is getting tiresome. But it drives home the fact that great tenors are just everywhere nowadays. I mean, I didn't even count Aleksandrs Antonenko, Ramon Vargas, Michael Fabiano, Roberto Alagna, Bryan Hymel, tenors I didn't have a chance to hear this season. Or Klaus Florian Vogt, John Osborn and Michael Spyres, three tenors I haven't had a chance to hear in the U.S. but I've heard wonderful things about. And then there are tenors who really aren't my cup of tea but I can't deny that they have talent (Johan Botha, Stephen Costello).
I mean, it's just a sign of the times that Lawrence Brownlee can hit a high F in I Puritani and that's not even the most talked-about event of the season:
But that's because everyone was talking about this:
As I said, embarrassment of riches.
But for tenors, the new rule seems to be: do not call in sick. Your cover/replacement will be just as good.
Friday, May 9, 2014
Two years ago I saw this young soprano in Il Trovatore. I thought she was nice, promising, fresh-faced, but still a work in progress. What a joy it was then to see her last night in Cosi fan tutte -- she absolutely lit up the stage. She was exactly the right mix of immature, vain, but adorable as Fiordiligi. Her voice is exactly what Mozart sopranos are supposed to sound like -- creamy and silvery, and her singing has such cleanness. My review of the complete performance is at parterre box.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Disclaimer: The following is a purely fictional recreation of what Richard Nixon and the Berlin Wall might have thought about tonight's performance of I Puritani. The views expressed by the Nixon, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman do not reflect the views of the blog-owner.
April 30, 2014, 12:46 AM, Air Force One:
Richard Nixon (R.N.): Well, Bob, John, I have to say, tonight, we really pulled it off. This will get the goddamned liberal media off our backs for good.
H.R. "Bob" Haldeman: Yes, sir, it certainly will. A great night for the presidency, yes, sir.
John Ehrlichman: Yes, it will please all those liberals for sure.
R.N.: To do what we did, you know, have a (inaudible) Soviet soprano, onstage, singing with an, an Afro-American tenor, and a Polack baritone, that's just, the New York Times never would have thought Richard Nixon could pull that off. And for the President of the United States to stand on that stage, and present the opera, it's like if I ... if I went to China or something.
Haldeman: (Laugh). And I already saw the presses. They said "NIXON UNITES WORLD ONSTAGE."
R.N.: Who said that, the Post?
Haldeman: Yes sir, the Post.
Ehlrichman: Well, goddamn.
R.N.: Bob, have any, uh, cabinet members called, saying they saw us on television, or anything? Have you gotten any, uh, reactions from them?
Haldeman: Well, not yet, but, you know, it's late ...
R.N.: Tomorrow, could you call around, to see, you know, how they felt about it? Whether they liked it?
Haldeman: Yes sir, tomorrow first thing in the morning.
R.N.: And I thought I Puritani really represented, you know, Anglo-Saxon values. Patriotism, love, loyalty, wholesomeness, there's none of that, you know, homosexual Jewish agenda onstage. The men and women were all dressed up decently, like upstanding people, and not half-naked. And we were sitting in a box but I didn't see any, you know, obvious homosexuals in the audience. I mean, one or two might have been, but I went to the men's restroom, and it was really clean in there.
And I thought that it would be, you know, strange, seeing a Soviet soprano kiss an Afro-American tenor, but they kept it really wholesome, I liked it.
John, what did you think?
Ehrlichman: Well, Mr. President, I thought that the music was lovely and all that but kind of boring. Slow love song, fast love song, slow patriotism duet, fast patriotism duet, slow girl is sad solo, fast girl is sad solo, and on and on. I mean, after the show I went up to Mariotti ...
R.N.: Who the hell is Mariotti?
Haldeman: The conductor, sir.
Ehrlichman: I said to him, "You know, Maestro, if you took that entire score, with all those sheets, and you threw them into the Hudson River, would anyone know or care?"
Haldeman: No, no, John, you're wrong there. The composer of the opera was a man by the name of Vincenzo Bellini and he's a very famous opera composer. And the way they sang, well, that's the style of the operas of Bellini. It's very specific and he composed them that way for a reason. It's called "bel canto."
Ehrlichman: Famous or not famous, it was boring. And that Soviet soprano, she's a dish and all, but she looked kind of empty-headed, and notice when she threw the veil into those fake candles, the poor baritone had to run across the stage to get the veil because it was so obviously fake candles ...
Haldeman: Speaking of her, Mr. President, Mitchell did call, he said he saw us on television, and he said ...
R.N.: What did he say? Did he say anything about my speech?
Haldeman: No, well, no he didn't say anything about your speech, but he did say something about the soprano.
R.N.: Nothing about my speech? Goddamn great cabinet we have here.
Haldeman: It's Mitchell. He said that the soprano when she sang her high notes ... she sounded like she had her titty in a big fat wringer.
Ehrlichman: (Laughs) So true.
Haldeman: The soprano was attractive, I agree.
Ehrlichman: Good thing we didn't take Kissinger. He would have wanted to discuss international affairs with her, for sure. (Laughs.)
Haldeman: She's married to the conductor.
R.N.: So nothing about my speech, goddamn.
Haldeman: But I think everyone thought the tenor Brownlee was good. He's such a little guy, but he can sure sing!
R.N.: I still think the picture of a Soviet soprano with an Afro-American tenor singing together, on the biggest stage in the United States, I mean, the magnificence of it! We won't talk about the Polack baritone, he was sick. What the hell is his name, anyway? I couldn't pronounce his name in the teleprompter, made me so goddamn annoyed.
Haldeman: Mariusz (M-A-R-I-U-S-Z) Kwiecien (K-W-E-I-C-I-E-N). Now don't ask me if I'm pronouncing it right, because I don't know myself.
Ehrlichman: I noticed how everyone's voice in the last act got bigger. I could barely hear them in the first act and then they're bawling into my ears in the last act?
R.N.: Could it be that they were miked?
Haldeman: No, no, opera houses are not miked. That's the difference between opera singers and, you know, rock-and-roll singers. Opera singers have to learn to project their voices without a mike.
Ehrlichman: So after the show I went up to that Gelb guy, and I said, "Say, Mr. Gelb, those voices sounded awfully ... BIG in the last act." And you know what he said to me?
R.N.: What'd he say?
Ehrlichman: He said to me, "Well, this is purely off the record, but here at the Met, everyone mikes everyone."
R.N. and Haldeman: (Laughs) Well, goddamn.
Saturday, April 26, 2014
During tonight's absolutely amazing Cenerentola Javier Camarena finished "Pegno adorato e caro" with a long-held D followed by an even longer high C, the audience predictably started screaming, just like opening night. This time though, after it was clear the ovation would not stop, Camarena ran back onstage to acknowledge the applause. And then ... an encore!!! Yes it was planned because the chorus also ran back onstage and Luisi immediately cued the band, but he deserved it. You could see the joy on his face as he held an even longer D and C. This is a guy who just has to open his mouth and the audience is already screaming.
Yes, I think it's safe to say ... Javier Camarena is ready for his close-up.
p.s. And the rest of the cast was also much improved from opening night, if that's even possible. But they were much more relaxed with the comedy, Luca Pisaroni sounded GREAT (as opposed to opening night, when he sounded ... ), and Corbelli and Spagnoli absolutely chewed the scenery and gave a master class in how to sing and act opera buffa. Joyce DiDonato threw in even more crazy machine-gun coloratura in "Non piu mesta." It really was just one of those nights.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Friday, April 18, 2014
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Last night I had the privilege of attending the remarkable Butterfly of Kristine Opolais. My review is at parterre box. An amazing singer and performer.