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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lulu, the Modern Art Exhibit

Pre-curtain tableau, snapped by me

What does it say when your feeling at the end of a four hour evening at the opera is simply exhaustion? Not boredom, because Alban Berg's Lulu is one of the most compelling storylines ever set to opera. Not disdain, because everything put onstage was thoughtful and intelligent. Just exhaustion, like, okay, it's over, I want to go home.

The production by William Kentridge was certainly visually striking. Kentridge's concept of the opera seems to be that Lulu is the ultimate tabloid thriller. It's an intelligent idea, as Lulu's longtime protector Dr. Schön is a newspaper publisher, and it's unclear whether he ever views Lulu as more than tabloid fodder. A large portion of the stage was always a projection of various images  -- of newspaper headlines, silhouettes of Lulu, ink sketches of the various men in Lulu's life. This was very useful during the scene changes and also the famous orchestral interlude in Act Two after Lulu murders her third husband Dr. Schön. Various headlines blared as Lulu was arrested, imprisoned, and taken ill with cholera. The constant stream of Lulu images also made a huge plot point (Lulu's portrait) not just a static object but a constantly changing image.

Kentridge has real talent as an artist -- for once the projections didn't look like a powerpoint presentation, but an intelligent visual conception of a very complicated opera. In fact, I would love to see an art exhibit based on his Lulu sketches.

And therein lies the problem with the production. Kentridge is a very, very talented artist. Everything about the production resembled a trendy downtown art exhibit. Even the two mimes that were onstage all night -- one a woman who spent the whole evening spreading herself over a grand piano, the other a hunchbacked man who occasionally pushed a cart but more often pushed panels open to signal a scene change -- wouldn't have looked out of place at such an exhibit.

Photo by Ken Howard. See how the stage is cut in half?

Kentridge's actual direction of the opera, however, was considerably more mundane and didn't really capture the complexity and richness of Berg's score or Frank Wedekind's storyline (Berg based the libretto off two of Wedekind's plays). The mimes for instance eventually became nuisances -- at the most intense, dramatic moments of the opera, their presence almost seemed to undercut Berg's opera. His overuse of the panels for projections meant he always cut the stage in half -- in Act One all the action took place on stage right, Act Two on stage left, Act Three started off using the whole stage but then ended on a tiny corner stage left. The large cast was left to fend for themselves in personregie that was decent, but not spectacular. In contrast to the projections, which are big and splashy, the direction emphasized the banality of evil. All of Lulu's lovers are complete tools. Lulu herself is played as entirely amoral -- her murders seem done more out of boredom than anything else. Maybe it didn't help that a paper breast and vagina were occasionally taped to her clothes and she wore a paper bag over her head.

Lulu with the bag over her head, photo by Ken Howard

Marlis Petersen has said she's retiring Lulu after this run. Petersen still has the physique du jour for the role -- in the picture below note the toned legs and upper body even when she's wearing short shorts and a bra. I respect her commitment to this very difficult role. It seems really churlish to say this but her interpretation and vocal performance just weren't to my taste. Her voice is now rather opaque and colorless, especially in the upper-middle registers, and her coloratura approximate. Her top sounds white and strained. The total lack of vocal warmth took away from the character's supposed sensuality. From an interpretive angle her conception of the role is very cold, very cynical. Of course you could argue that a character that leaves dead bodies strewn all over the stage is a cold and cynical character. But the cigar-chomping, perpetually bored hooker that Petersen portrays doesn't exude any sex appeal. Why are men (and women) repeatedly willing to throw away their lives for her? With Petersen this is a mystery. Being sexy is about more than having great legs. I often felt like I was watching a singing mannequin last night.

Peterson and Reuter, Photo by Ken Howard
The supporting cast were all decent. Susan Graham's Countess Geschwitz injected some pathos to the otherwise rather cold direction. Her voice was sometimes overpowered by the orchestra and now has a graying pallor, but it was still a marvelous performance. The Countess's lament near the end of the opera ("If I were to throw myself into the river, what is more cold? The water or Lulu's heart) was blessedly free of any directorial intervention, and became the saddest moment of the evening. When Lulu came back with her last customer (Jack the Ripper) and blithely dismissed Geschwitz as her "sister" there were no splashy projections. The coldness of the remark sunk in and caused a chill. I also really enjoyed Franz Grundheber;'s comically sleazy turn as Shigolch. It's a brief part but he really knows what to do with the role. Other standouts: Martin Winkler's oily Animal Trainer/Acrobat, and Elisabeth De Shong, who had a rich mezzo and made a real vocal impact in her three brief roles (Wardrobe Mistress/Schoolboy/Page).

Alwa and Lulu, Photo by Ken Howard
Lulu's quartet of doomed husbands were less successful. To be fair, the Physician (James Courtney) is onstage so briefly that he doesn't have time to make an impact. Paul Groves (Painter) sounded vocally worn and he didn't make much of an impact in Act One. Daniel Brenna (Alwa) was vocally fresh but probably needs more experience on how to grab attention -- Alwa plays a pivotal role in the opera, but Brenna sort of stayed in the background, and the character seemed detached from the drama of the evening. As for Johan Reuter's  Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper, he has a big beefy bass-baritone but his interpretation was very cold, brutish, without a hint of any of the tenderness and/or manipulation that would make Lulu so deeply attached to her "protector" so many years later. The director made no attempt to differentiate Dr. Schön's social class, to give him a veneer of respectability that would make his childhood "patronage" of Lulu believable.

But maybe this brutish portrayal was Kentridge's vision. Lothar Koenigs' reading of the score in the pit was also loud and unsubtle, and went for bombast rather than the lyricism that is abundantly present in Berg's difficult, dense 12-tone score. 

Kentridge's approach to the opera works if you pick a few famous lines from Lulu -- that moment, for instance, when Alwa says that were it not for her eyes, he would think she was the "coldest whore" in the earth, and Lulu responds that she's never pretended to be anything other than what "men need me to be." Lulu as cold, unfeeling sex object -- that's the focus of the production. 

But that ignores the heart-rending backstory of this opera that gives the title character a complexity and richness and makes the opera more than a tawdry tale of the Fall of a Femme Fatale. Lulu's horrific childhood, her inability to relate to others in a way that's not sexual and destructive, the creepy child abuse vibes you immediately feel when you see her with Shigolch and  Schön, and her desperation to be with somebody (she finds three johns in the course of 10 minutes, and begs the last one to stay with her for a pittance), that's also Lulu. Her love for Schön is sick and twisted, but it's real. It's what makes Alban Berg's opera such a challenging but rewarding experience. Those nuances were mostly gone in Kentridge's splashy but impersonal production.

As I said, Lulu is more than having great legs.

As a side note, supertitles in this production are imposed at the bottom corners of the stage with the idea, I suppose, for you to stare at the stage constantly and not at the back of the seat. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Angela Tosca

Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca, Facebook photo
Angela Gheorghiu's Tosca shouldn't have worked for a million reasons. Her soft-grained lyric voice is now even more under-powered, and she admitted in an interview that she didn't like Luc Bondy's production. But her return to the Met for just two performances of Tosca last night was a triumph. Yes her voice occasionally didn't have the reserves of power to ride over the orchestra, yes her acting was sometimes a touch mannered, but Gheorghiu is like many great singers in that she draws attention to what she can still do, rather than things beyond her ability.

Luc Bondy's production was a conscious reaction against the "traditional" Tosca productions. It was booed vociferously when it first opened in 2009. But over the years it's "evolved" in that different singers have changed the blocking, subtly or unsubtly, to suit their own tastes. Gheorghiu arrived onstage in Act One and it was obvious that she'd gotten a new set of costumes (the train in Act Two now resembles a royal wedding train) and that her Floria Tosca was a much softer, more coquettish personality than Bondy's original conception of the role. She ignored some of the original blocking, like fanning herself after she murdered Scarpia, or slashing Cavaradossi's painting.

Photo by Ken Howard
Bondy's production does seem to favor voices -- Gheorghiu was audible all night. A few of the C's in the second act were flat, and her bottom register has sort of dissolved into vapors, but she really knows how to sell the big moments. Her duet with Scarpia was intense, desperate, and she also knew how to save up her voice so it wasn't overpowered by the orchestra. "Visse d'arte" was performance art at its finest -- she ended the aria on one knee, head bowed to the audience. The audience ate it up. Her naturally soft, sexy voice gave the duets with Cavaradossi a real intimacy. She also knows some classic stage tricks, like finding the center of the spotlight during ensembles so attention is always drawn to her, and turning to the side during duets so audiences can admire her tailored gowns.

Roberto Aronica (Cavaradossi) has a large if somewhat muscled voice. It's not very beautiful and unlike, say Franco Corelli or Luciano Pavarotti he isn't able to float soft notes in "Recondita armonia"  or "E lucevan le stelle" nor was his performance but the performance was professional and competent, and I'll settle for that. He does have squillo.

Željko Lučić must be one of the most over-exposed singers on the international scene. Heavy hitting baritone role? He's there. His voice really isn't to my taste -- it tends to get stuck in his throat, but he did seem more engaged as Scarpia than is the norm with him. I liked the staging during "Visse d'arte," where Tosca is singing her heart out and Scarpia is sleeping on the couch. Otherwise, Scarpia no longer does much of the original blocking -- no more dry-humping the Madonna statue in Act One, and the business with the hookers in Act Two is now more of a casual hang out rather than active servicing. Eh. He gets the job done.

The minor roles were better than usual. John Del Carlo (Sacristan) is now king of comic comprimario roles I guess. Conductor Paolo Carignani got a huge smooch from Gheorghiu during the curtain calls. He's her kind of conductor - when she wants to be ahead of the beat, he indulges her. When she wants to fall behind to do some classic Gheorghiu note-spinning, he puts his baton down. 
Overall the evening was one of the better Toscas I've attended in all my years of operagoing. ISince Gheorghiu now limits her performances so severely, I'm happy when she showed up last night she gave it her all. Maybe she does live for love and art after all. And clothes. She definitely lives for those tiaras and gowns. But hey, when you've got it, flaunt it.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Elektrifying Elektra

Photo by Chris Lee

Last night's Elektra (courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall) was one of those nights where the audience was screaming and stomping, like a gladiator arena. It was by far the most exciting, visceral opera performance of recent memory.

At the center of the performance was Christine Goerke's electrifying performance in the title role. Goerke's voice is a real dramatic soprano. It has organ-like richness and resonance and unusual warmth. She was skilled with singing off the words -- you didn't have to understand much German to feel a chill when you heard her declamations towards her dead father Agamemnon. When she first opened her mouth in "Allein!" people gasped that after so many pretenders, here was the genuine article. Her voice is so ripe and has so much texture that an occasional thin top was barely noticeable. She sang the title role with passion, conviction, and beauty. (Yes Elektra has many beautiful moments.) She was also a magnetic actress. She used no score and stayed onstage the whole evening, her red dress symbolic of Elektra's bloodthirst, her huge eyes radiating hatred. At the end of the evening when she did that cathartic dance it didn't look awkward at all -- this was "semi-staged" performance at its best. In short, she was demented.

She was surrounded by colleagues who also all brought their A-game to the table. Gun-Brit Barkmin (Chrysothemis) was nearly as arresting as Goerke. Her soprano is an intriguing mix of silvery lightness with unexpected power. The dialogues between the sisters crackled with tension. And both women were convincing enough actresses to make the sister dynamic totally believable. Jane Henschel was a more subtle, passive Klymanestra than the typical portrayal. She played the World's Worst Mother as a recognizable type -- the mom that just doesn't care, and lets her lover take over her world. Her one misfire was the extended cackle at the end of her scene with Elektra. It just didn't seem to fit her passive, "my daughters are living like animals and my husband was killed but eh, whatever" characterization.

The supporting cast was equally strong. Gerhard Siegel (Aegisth) was simply outstanding in the brief role. He exuded menace. You totally believed that he'd made the household a torture chamber for Elektra and Chrysothemis. James Rutherford (Oreste) was stiff, a bit formal, the only one who very obviously was singing in a "concert opera" rather than Elektra in concert format. But you couldn't argue with the richness of his timbre or his vocalism. Even the various household help were excellent.

Conductor Andris Nelsons led a sensitive, even lyrical account of the score, that emphasized the disconcerting waltz rhythms and bright major keys that perpetuate this blood-soaked, harrowing drama. The 100-member orchestra of course rocked the house during the climax of the opera but Nelsons was careful to never make noise for noise's sake.

It seems as if every opera fan has this story of how they went to Elektra and screamed their lungs out afterwards. I had always kind of rolled my eyes at those stories, because my experiences with Elektra have been ... well, mediocre. But last night I finally got my "that one time, when I went to Elektra, and I screamed and stomped and banged the walls" tale.

Christine Goerke has set a very high bar for current Elektras. One endearing thing about her: it seems as if she took Birgit Nilsson's advice of wearing comfortable shoes. During the frenzied dance at the end of the opera you saw that underneath the billowing red gown was a pair of cute ballet flats.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

NYCB Fall Season

Huxley and von Enck Photo by Paul Kolnik
For many reasons I was only able to attend two performances of NYCB's Fall Season. An earlier mixed bill found Megan Fairchild back in that short but challenging powerhouse Tarantella. Welcome back Megan. Her brother Robbie Fairchild was taking a night off from An American in Paris to dance the Hoofer in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. He was charming, if a little too slick by half. Teresa Reichlen as the Stripper had the Legs and the Hair but not the Sass. Come back soon, Robbie. NYCB misses you.

Yesterday afternoon's double bill of Harlequinade/N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz was a more interesting afternoon because it showed the company in transition. Harlequinade was Balanchine's affectionate tribute to a Petipa ballet. The score by Drigo is sweet if forgettable, and the whole thing is a cotton candy confection with the sad undertone of most commedia dell'arte stories. But to play the lead lovers Colombine and Harlequin you need the right mix of sweetness and spice that yesterday's leads didn't really have.  Ashley Bouder (Colombine) was dancing her last performance before going on maternity leave. For years Bouder has been like the Old Faithful of the NYCB. Always able to dance the most challenging ballets, night after night, rarely injured. I'm sure she'll tackle motherhood with the same iron determination that she seems to apply to everything else in her life. She came across as a bit too mature for Colombine. She also understandably seemed to curtail some of the steps. Andrew Veyette was capable if a little blank as Harlequin.

But just as Bouder takes a break, two younger stars seem ready to seize the spotlight. Claire von Enck and Anthony Huxley absolutely stole the show as the bickering married couple. Huxley's facial contours naturally seem to lend itself to the sad clown expression, and von Enck's tiny, terrifying ferocity was a joy to watch. Bouder and Veyette lightly touched the world of commedia dell'arte, but Huxley and von Enck inhabited their roles. Apprentice Miriam Miller appears ready to replace Maria Kowroski (also on maternity leave) as the tall, sexy blonde on the roster. The role of the Good Fairy doesn't call for much except to look pretty, but Miller sure does look beautiful. This, along with her debut as Titania this past spring makes me think Peter Martins has huge plans for her.

SAB students, photo by Paul Kolnik

Harlequinade is another ballet which displays Balanchine's genius with choreographing for children. Children are never just "there" in Balanchine's world, never trotted onstage just to look cute. They (and their bright costumes) are treated as an integral part of the ballet's structure. Their suite of dances in the second act added an energy and joy to the otherwise sad world of commedia dell'arte. The SAB children were amazing.

N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz, photo by Paul Kolnik

N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz represents the best of Jerome Robbins earlier career, when he seamlessly combined elements of classical ballet with popular dance. No pointe shoes, no Chopin, just a bunch of "kids" in casual wear and sneakers. The ballet was made in 1958 but the sharp, unsentimental rhythms and moves are still recognizably "New York" almost sixty years later. There is something very timeless about this piece, the casual, jazzy posture calls for the kind of minute concentration that Robbins was infamous for demanding (or threatening) from his dancers. In the series of backwards somersaults one of the girls actually took a tumble. It was almost impossible to take your eyes of Gina Pazcoguin as the "lead" girl: she commanded attention. In the pas de deux Taylor Stanley and Ashley Laracey were cold, remote, mysterious. Taylor Stanley continues to be one of the most intriguing male dancers in the NYCB lineup: he's not conventionally handsome and he has an unusual build for a ballet dancer, but he has beautiful line and musicality.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Otello - when NP stands for "Non Production"

Photo by Ken Howard

The 2015-16 season of the Metropolitan Opera opened with Bartlett Sher's "new production" of Otello that would have been more appropriately labeled as a "Non Production." The set by Es Devlin was a bunch of plexiglass panels that slid back and forth mostly for the purposes of ushering the chorus on and offstage. The stage was bare except for an Ikea-upholstered bed at the end of Act 2 and Act 4. The blocking and person-regie was barely existent. A singer could have read the libretto for five minutes and come up with the same movements. Onstage, offstage, cower in fear, ball fists to look mad, collapse in a heap on the floor to look dead.

It's hard to understand Sher's thinking in this production. The opera is updated to the 19th century -- why? It only reinforces the idea of this being a non-production because the generic gowns and suits (designed by Catherine Zuber) everyone wears evokes nothing in particular except "in the past." I can understand the decision not to put Otello in blackface, but why did he not bother to characterize Otello at all? There's no sense of who he is. He is not an "other" in Venetian society. He is not a fearsome warrior. He is not a tender lover. He is not a jealous, rage-fueled husband. In this production he's just a guy in a military suit. Was it the acting limitation of Aleksandrs Antonenko? Why did Sher almost completely ignore the deliberate structure of Boito's libretto? Boito split the acts into: Act 1 - public realm, Act 2 private realm, Act 3 private becomes public, and Act 4 private. In this production the plexiglass panels move back and forth aimlessly, without any sense of scenes changing. The setup of the performance was often very much like a concert opera -- singers lined up at the lip of the stage, staring at the conductor, chorus in the back.

The cast and musical performance had some highs (notably Sonya Yoncheva's radiant Desdemona) but nothing so spectacular to merit a new production. Antonenko's voice sounds like it SHOULD have the volume, squillo, and stamina for the punishing title role, But the actual sound is strangulated, monochromatic, doesn't project well, and he yells more than he sings. His interpretation brings no sympathy and his diction is atrocious -- consonants AND vowels are mostly gone. "Un bacio" comes out as "Un baaaa-ooooo." This might be ameliorated if he had any acting chops but he might be a worse actor than the last Otello I saw (Johan Botha) if that's even possible. He balls his fists when he's mad. That's it.

Photo by Ken Howard

Zeljko Lucic is a somewhat over-exposed baritone at the Met nowadays -- it seems as if there's a heavy-hitting Verdi baritone role, Lucic goes on. His woofy, fading baritone was less problematic as Iago than in some other roles I've seen him in -- his introverted, low-key stage persona was sort of effective in portraying the kind of quiet, gossipy creeper. His voice still gets stuck in his throat sometimes ("Credo" was an unfortunate time his voice decided to get stuck) but it was a solid performance.

The best thing of the night (and the only singer to merit a new production) was Sonya Yoncheva's Desdemona. Her large, well-produced, shimmery soprano floated over the 4,000 persona auditorium with an angelic sweetness from the first act love duet to then great Act Three concertato to the final piano in her prayer. Yoncheva's acting wasn't that detailed, but she created a dignified, sympathetic character. This is the third time I've seen Yoncheva (I've also seen her in La Boheme and La Traviata) and I don't know whether it's conscious or unconscious but she's set herself up as a viable foil to the Met's current prima donna Anna Netrebko. Netrebko's extroverted, lusty portrayals and powerhouse voice are huge crowd favorites. Yoncheva is a cooler creature, but no less arresting. Beautiful voice, beautiful woman. Her future seems limitless.

The supporting roles were mixed. Jennifer Johnson Cano was an excellent Emilia. Her voice blended well with Yoncheva's. Dimitri Pittas (Cassio) is one of those younger tenors who already sounds old. Quavery, whiny voice. Maybe I'm spoiled -- my last Cassio was Michael Fabiano. Yannick Nézet-Séguin certainly can create an exciting, brassy stentorian sound from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra but he didn't show much sensitivity to the struggling Antonenko, who could have benefitted from a conductor less determined to max out the brass section.

This is a new production that won't even take a season or two to look tired and dated. It already looks tired and dated, and it's ... what, three weeks old?

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Returns and Debuts at the Met Opening Week: Il Trovatore and Anna Bolena

Dima getting pelted with flowers -- photo by Marty Sohl
The Met 2015-16 season might have opened with a new production of Otello but the first performance of Il Trovatore was by far the most emotional, exciting start to the season. Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky announced in the beginning of the summer that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He has returned to the Met as di Luna for three performances in the fall before he'd resume his treatments.

Last night as Hvorostovsky made his entrance music the ovation was so loud and deafening that conductor Marco Armiliato had to stop completely and restart the music after the applause stopped. Dima stepped out of character for a second to bow and acknowledge the audience appreciation. There was an equally heartfelt ovation after "Il Balen" and during the curtain calls the members of the Met orchestra pelted Hvorostovsky with flowers as the rest of the cast tactfully stepped back.

Hvorostovsky would have gotten a warm welcome back even if he'd showed up and marked the whole performance. But his portrayal of di Luna was worthy of all the cheers. No he doesn't have the sheer volume of a "classic" Verdi baritone, but his elegance, use of legato, and musicality make him a very special singer indeed. There's nothing to say except that he's a courageous, classy musician and I hope he gives us many more wonderful performances in the years to come.

Photo by Marty Sohl
The cast assembled for this Il Trovatore was one of the rare modern-day efforts to provide this opera with the voices it deserves. Anna Netrebko's Leonora represented the best of her mature, middle-career voice. The center of gravity in her voice has dropped: she now has a huge, cavernous lower chest register with an almost mezzo-like plumminess and resonance. This made for an exciting "Misere" and "Tu vedrai" (both verses included). Musically Anna was on her best behavior -- the rhythmic slackness and sagging pitch that have plagued her in the past were mostly absent last night. Both "Tacea la notte placida" and "D'amor sull'ali rosee" showed a richness and lushness of timbre that hasn't been present since maybe ... well, since maybe Leontyne Price. And yes, the trills mostly were there.

The tradeoff for this rich, mezzo-like New Anna voice: a thinning, less powerful top. In the first half of the opera high notes were either gingerly touched in cadenza (and quickly abandoned) or high options were not taken (as in the D-flat at the end of the Act One trio). After the intermission her top opened up a little but it still sounded thin and quavery compared to the rest of her voice. Of course Anna wouldn't be Anna if there wasn't some sloppy huffing and puffing during cabalettas "Di tale amor" and "Vivrà! contende il giubilio" but those small demerits paled next to the general excitement and beauty of her portrayal. This role is very simpatico to her current voice. The role doesn't offer much in the way of acting opportunities but Anna's naturally extroverted, bubbly personality gave the love triangle credibility.

Dolora Zajick (Azucena) can probably sing this role in her sleep and in her entrance scena when she forgot several bars of music I did wonder if she was coasting on her still impressive instrument. True, her Azucena doesn't bother to do much besides sit in the center of McVicar's rotating set and let her voice rip. Zajick has a classic mezzo donut hole -- her high notes are still powerful (including the high Bb that ends the opera), her lower notes are enormous. The middle of the voice has lost a lot of color and also horsepower -- it occasionally sounded curdled and (yes) inaudible by Zajick standards. But this would still have been an impressive portrayal whether she was 33 or 63 (Zajick's actual age).

I'm saving the worst for last. Yonghun Lee (Manrico) has a lot of superficial attributes that would make him seem like a good Manrico. His voice is large enough to cut through the orchestra. He has an okayish top. He's good looking. But he's what I call a 9-5 tenor in that he gets the job done but without much in terms of musicality, phrasing, diction, vowel articulation, acting or vocal beauty.

His lack of musicality was the most dismaying. His performance reminded me of Franco Corelli at his laziest but without Corelli's heaven-sent voice. He chugged along a totally ho-hum "Ah! si ben mio" and then of course cut "Di quella pira" down to one verse, let the chorus sing the repeated "Alarmi's" and dropped out completely before capping the act off with a bawled high C that started off with enough ping but went south both in pitch and steadiness as he insisted on holding the note over the orchestra's final bars. As I said, if you want to do this kind of musical hot-dogging, you really, really need to be Franco Corelli.

Stefan Kocan's Ferrando showed off what seems to be a perma-wobble but with an oddly intriguing timbre. Conductor Marco Armiliato indulged all his singers to a fault, allowing Anna in particular to luxuriate in the sound of her own voice all night.

But despite these quibbles this was undoubtedly an exciting night at the opera. The performance has a snap and crackle that matched Verdi's blood-and-thunder music. The ovations for Hvorostovsky are the reasons one goes to the opera -- to experience the love and affection between audience and singer, and the way an audience can sometimes propel singers into greatness with their energy. Viva Verdi and Viva Dima!

ETA: A youtube clip has surfaced of the curtain calls. Enjoy!

Photo by Ken Howard
The Saturday afternoon premiere of Anna Bolena kicked off Sondra Radvanovsky's Three Queens season. Peter Gelb is an unabashed fan of primo ottocento operas and has made them a priority in his season programming. But this afternoon's performance proved that the Met still has a ways to go if it wants to establish itself as a house with high standards for primo ottocento operas.

For one, Marco Armiliato led a performance that one would think might have been tolerated as a late-in-the-day Dick/Joan Australian tour, but was unacceptable with today's knowledge of bel canto performance practices. Internal cuts and hacked off cabalettas might have saved time but they were musically jarring. Armiliato started off by cutting the entire overture.

In other instances he let singers drop out not for just one or two bars, but an entire sheet of music, so they could bawl an acuti at the end of a number. This was particularly egregious in the Act One concertato finale, when Sondra Radvanovsky simply turned her back on the audience for most of the final portion, and turned around to scream a wiry high D. The charged, exciting duet between Seymour and Anna in Act Two also ended with both Radvanovsky and Jamie Barton (Seymour) dropping out completely for way longer than necessary so they could sing a high C.

For anyone who thinks this is "tradition," listen to Callas and Simionato in this duet. Neither singer drops out the way Radvanovsky and Barton did:

These extended drop-outs just to bawl acuti reveal an acute ignorance of the structure of primo ottocento music. The point of cabalettas is for accelerated, exciting singing. The singers, the orchestra, all are supposed to be eight cylinders roaring as the music reaches a climax. By allowing these drop-outs the architecture of the music is lost. Cabalettas simply become throwaway moments where singers can drop out to interpolate a high note.

Sondra Radvanovsky is one of the most frustrating, uneven singers I've ever encountered. She can often go from shrill and squally to exciting and impressive and then back to shrill and squally within a matter of seconds. For instance she can often sing a note and it will start out with laser focus and a trumpet-like ring, but before the note is over it's turned into a sour squeak. Her Anna Bolena was no exception -- it combined some very lovely moments (a surprisingly tranquil, tastefully decorated "Al dolce guidami") with some exciting moments (A "Coppia iniqua" that despite some quirky ornaments was genuinely thrilling and capped off with a strong Eb) with a whole lot of screaming.

Her Anna Bolena has been given a new set of costumes (slightly less dour than the 2011 originals) and the final scene has been restaged by David McVicar. Anna is now in a white gown and her trademark long hair is cut, lock by lock, as she awaits her execution. The blocking is now more like a traditional Mad Scene. I actually didn't like it -- one of the things I loved about Donizetti's writing for Anna was how much of the real-life Anne Boleyn he incorporated into the music. Her fiery temperament, her defiance in the face of death, those things are all vividly apparent in Donizetti's score. By having Anna twitter around like a blank-eyed Lucia McVicar made her more of a conventional heroine.

Jamie Barton (Seymour) has a bright, fresh, well-produced mezzo voice with a delightfully open and friendly stage persona. The role seems to lie a bit high for her -- she often seemed to be singing at the upper ceiling of her voice. But this is a voice with loads of promise.

The rest of the cast was almost identical to the 2011 premiere. Ildar Abdrazakov (Henry) was blandly inoffensive -- not really menacing at all. He nonetheless got some lusty audience boos because you know, Henry's the bad guy. Stephen Costello (Percy) continued to struggle with a role that lies too high for him in a house that's too big for his slender tenor voice. When pushed his voice tends to become a desperate bray. "Vivi tu" went okay but his habit of conking out on cabalettas continued as even with one verse cut he struggled and ended the aria with another huge drop-out, but not even an attempt at an acuti. Tamara Mumford (Smeaton) has an intriguingly plummy mezzo voice and it's a little weird to see that 4 years later she's still singing these smaller roles at the Met.

Radvanovsky received a warm ovation but the audience energy was noticeably lower than at last night's Il Trovatore. Anna Bolena is a great opera, but the current Met cast is not the best advocate for this masterpiece.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Almost everyone knows how Go Set a Watchman got published -- Lee is now infirm and rumored to no longer be of sound mind. Her lawyer "discovered" this lost manuscript. In fact Watchman was a first draft of the novel that was sent to editor Tay Hohoff in 1957. Hohoff rejected the manuscript and suggested many changes and eventually all those changes and rewrites became To Kill a MockingbirdWatchman is not a sequel to Mockingbird. It is not an alternate version. It's a first draft, and one can argue about the ethics about publishing it altogether -- would Beethoven have wanted his initial scribblings of his symphonies published and played by orchestras?

The revelation that Harper Lee's "long-lost" novel Go Set A Watchman gave the sainted Atticus Finch a "dark side" made the front pages of the New York Times for days and caused the predictable teeth-gnashing that one of the most beloved literary characters's reputation is somehow ... tarnished? Atticus in this book is not the same Atticus who defended an innocent black man and urged his children to be kind and unprejudiced. He's an infirm man who is vehemently against the NAACP and is outraged at the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. He's even joined the "Maycomb Citizens' Council," a club that's dedicated to preserving, well, the Southern way of life.

I sat and read Go Set a Watchman and if there's any literary character assassination, it's not really Atticus. Atticus in Watchman is so distantly drawn, so opaque of a figure, that one can easily just forget about him as soon as the book is over. The real disappointment, one that's harder to shake, is that the "Jean Louise Finch" of Watchman is NOTHING like "Scout Finch" of To Kill A Mockingbird. Mockingbird's Scout was a precocious, intelligent child. Watchman's Jean Louise Finch plays like a clichéd heroine from a young adult novel, and an annoying one at that.

When one reads Watchman the first thing that jumps out on the page is how thinly sketched every character is compared to the richly drawn Southern gothic counterparts in Mockingbird. "Jean Louise Finch" is a whiny, over-dramatic twenty-something year old and most of her storyline is dominated by a romance with Henry Clinton, a lawyer in Atticus's firm. She's 26, lives in New York, comes back home to Maycomb, Alabama, and discovers to her shock that Atticus is not perfect, Henry is prejudiced as well, Calpurnia no longer really recognizes her and Aunt Alexandra is still very, very annoying. The end. Oh, Jem is dead.

Remember how Scout was a tomboy, who was also really smart and capable? Well here's Jean-Louise: "Although she was a respectable driver, she hated to operate anything mechanical more complicated than a safety pin: folding lawn chairs were a source of profound irritation to her; she had never learned to ride a bicycle or use a typewriter; she fished with a pole."

To get a flavor of the of the love interest in this novel, here's an excruciating passage with Henry:
"I don't even love you like that anymore. I've hurt you but there it is." Yes, it was she talking, with her customary aplomb, breaking his heart in a drugstore. Well, he'd broken hers.
Henry's face became blank, reddened, and its scar leaped into prominence. "Jean Louise, you can't mean what you're saying."
"I mean every word of it."
Hurts, doesn't it? You're damn right it hurts. You know how it feels, now.
Jean-Louise is outraged that her father and Henry have joined the Maycomb Citizens' Council but in the climax of the book she has an argument with Atticus which reveals that she's as bigoted as Atticus, if not worse. She also says that she was "furious" about the Brown vs. Board of Education decision because "they" were "tellin' us what to do again." She also agrees that the "Negro" population is "backward" and "unable to share the fully in the responsibilities of citizenship." In fact, her only defense of Brown is "Atticus, if you believe all that, then why don't you do right? I mean this, no matter how hateful the Court was, there had to be a beginning."

The protracted argument with Atticus stems not from any disagreement with Atticus over the basic philosophy behind segregation but from Jean-Louise's fury that Atticus had brought her up believing all the things about fairness and colorblindness and now he's backtracking. In other words, like many of the millenials of today who post 100 selfies a day with hasthags like #lookingood and #nomakeup, it's all about me. But let's examine some of Lee's "wonderful" prose here:
"Atticus, I'm throwing it at you and I'm gonna grind it in: you better go warn your younger friends that if they want to preserve Our Way of Life, it begins at home. It doesn't begin with the schools or the churches or anyplace at home. Tell 'em that, and use your blind, immoral, misguided, n___r-lovin' daughter as your example. Go in front of me with a bell and say, 'Unclean!' ... Point me out as your mistake. Point me out: Jean Louise Finch, who was exposed to all kinds of guff from the white trash she went to school with, but she might never have gone to school for all the influence it had on her. Everything that was Gospel to her she got at home from her father. You sowed the seeds in me, Atticus, and now it's coming home to you --" 
This is awful writing. But it only gets worse: after the blow-up with Atticus Jean Louise talks to her uncle "Dr. Finch" who tells her: "You're color blind. You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see are between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like. You've never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you're still unable to think racially. You see only people." Jean-Louise's response to that might the one (unintentionally) hilarious moment in this novel: "But Uncle Jack, I don't especially want to run out and marry a Negro or something." If this is Lee's version of racial enlightenment ...

There's not a single character in Watchman that one wants to "follow" to the next page. Part of a writers' job is writing about characters that the reader cares about. Not good characters, not moral characters, not racially enlightened characters, but characters that attract interest and attention. Watchman is entirely devoid of any such characters, and thus any interest. You read it for the novelty factor and that's it. All the headlines about Atticus not supporting Brown vs. Board of Education when read in the context of the novel seem like a cheap hook by Lee to get the book published because of the timeliness of the current events in 1957.

There are a couple things in Watchman that remind me of Mockingbird, but unfortunately they don't speak very well of Lee as a writer. You remember how in Mockingbird Harper Lee had this habit of introducing every character with a long expository history, instead of simply letting the character come alive by himself on the page? That habit is here in Watchman, except there's no colorful lines to make those expository character introductions more interesting. You remember how sometimes huge confrontations in Mockingbird were tidied up with a neat homily, like "You never really understand a person until you see things from his point of view"? Well, you see traces of that in Watchman. But without confrontations that hold any meaning, those neat homilies become even more irritating.

It's interesting, then, to see that among all this trash, Hohoff rescued parts of Watchman that turned into Mockingbird. The "Tom Robinson" storyline in Mockingbird is drawn from a one paragraph description in Watchman about how Atticus once defended an unnamed black teen in a statutory rape case and won. In Watchman the story is told in such an impersonal, brief way that blink and you might miss it. The character of "Dill" is also taken from a brief passage about Scout's school days. "Aunt Alexandra" in Watchman is an insufferable and bigoted, but somehow Hohoff managed to make Lee rewrite her into a woman with a similar character, but enough pathos that she becomes a recognizable figure in the Southern gothic genre: the proud, lonely belle. Jean Louise's close relationship with Calpurnia as a child is also present in Watchman, except in a far more mundane storyline: Calpurnia talked Jean-Louise out of a phantom pregnancy scare.

Other things one just has to assume were created by Lee mining her imagination. Who knows where the Boo Radley story came from? It's not anywhere in Watchman. It became the heart of Mockingbird. Why is the relationship between Jem and Jean-Louise remembered as so cold and distant in Watchman, when it was warm and close in Mockingbird? How about Tom and Mayella Ewell? Sheriff Tate? These richly drawn characters are again missing in Mockingbird.

I think most people who read To Kill a Mockingbird assumed that Scout was really Harper Lee, and Harper Lee was Scout. The novel is semi-autobiographical, and Lee worked many elements of her childhood and upbringing into the novel. Scout Finch's sharp observations, her love for her family and community, her integrity and moral compass -- I think most readers assumed that these were really the qualities of Harper Lee. The fact that Lee has led a reclusive life since the book's publication in 1960 has only added to the mystique. Harper Lee never crashed and burned the way her childhood friend Truman Capote (Dill in Mockingbird) did. It's like she wrote the book, and closed the curtain on her life permanently.

Watchman is so poorly written, so devoid of anything that might even suggest the embryonic stages of a literary classic, that I started to wonder if that old rumor that Truman Capote had a heavy invisible hand in the writing of Mockingbird was correct. What's more, it made me think, is this "Jean-Louise" Finch really Harper Lee? If these were her first thoughts about herself, then either she didn't give herself enough credit or Lee later created a Scout Finch that was less true to life but more appealing to readers.

But all these debates about the ethics of publishing Watchman, who really were the invisible hands that shaped Mockingbird, how much of Harper Lee was put into both novels, is really a moot point at the end of the day. The fact is To Kill a Mockingbird is not a perfect book, but it's a book worth reading because it's well-written, interesting, and imaginative. In other words, a classic. Go Set a Watchman is none of those things.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Still Loyal to the Royal

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae, photo by Andrea Mohin

It used to be that the Royal Ballet's tours to the U.S. were guaranteed sell-outs and their stars had rabid followings across the pond. Margot! Rudi! Sibley and Dowell! Lynn Seymour! Their versions of the "classics" were considered superior to any American company's. This was true even 10 years ago -- I remember the last time the Royal Ballet toured NYC it played at the Metropolitan to packed houses. They presented a wonderful tribute to Ashton ballets, and several ballerinas on their roster were internationally acclaimed dancers (Alina Cojocaru, Darcey Bussell, Sylvie Guillem, Tamara Rojo). I remember seeing, among others, Syvlie Guillem in Marguerite and Armand, and absolutely beautiful The Two Pigeons by the Birmingham National Ballet, and Symphonic Variations.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Romeo and JULIET

Photo by Nigel Norrington
Evgenia Obraztsova was only 19 when she performed her first Romeo and Juliet at the Mariinsky. She was an instant sensation. It's not hard to see why. She looks like the Juliet of your dreams -- the huge saucer eyes, the radiant smile, the flowing Renaissance locks. For several years she seemed to be on a path to becoming a Mariinsky prima ballerina -- she was given roles in reconstructions of Ondine, The Awakening of Flora, and Shurale. I saw her in Little Humpbacked Horse and Symphony in C when the Mariinsky toured the U.S. about four years ago. She was adorable.

But then ... the roles stopped. Why this happened, no one knows. In 2013 she finally left the Mariinsky for good and became principal at the Bolshoi Ballet. The Bolshoi Ballet doesn't currently have a Romeo and Juliet in its repertoire so chances to see Obraztsova in her signature role are big events indeed.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sleeping Beauty, Take 3

Diana Vishneva, photo by Gene Schiavone
I caught the final Sleeping Beauty in ABT's highly successful run. Alexei Ratmansky's new-old Sleeping Beauty has no doubt been the box office hit of the season -- today's performance was completely sold out (I stood). And I'm glad, because this performance was (overall) the best performance of the run. Saving the best for last, if you will.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sleeping Beauty, Take 2

Photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Last night I saw a second cast of Alexei Ratmansky's much-talked about Sleeping Beauty. And again, I was amazed at how Ratmansky demanded (and got) all the ABT dancers to drop their usual dancing instincts and to dance his way. Again, you noticed the lower free leg in passé, the chaine and pique turns in demi-pointe, the very specific, rounded, modest épaulement, the low extensions in developpé, attitude, and arabesque, and the lack of overhead lifts. The mime was all there, meticulously articulated by Carabosse (Nancy Raffa), the King and Queen (Victor Barbee and Kate Lydon), and Catalbutte (Alexei Agoudine). All this could never have happened without much rehearsal time, coaching, and a strong artistic vision. And for that, I thank Ratmansky.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Midsummer's Night Dream - Exciting Debuts

A Midsummer's Night Dream has become the traditional way to close the NYCB's spring season. Because the ballet requires so many moving parts (a huge cast of soloists, the entire corps de ballet, plus a large contingent of SAB students) sometimes casting for this ballet can be a bit stale. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

Thus, there was a bit of a shockwave when casting for MSND and cast as Titania in the final performance of the season was one Miriam Miller, who is not even a corps de ballet member yet. She's only an apprentice. The final performance of the season suddenly became a hot ticket, as everyone was curious about Miriam Miller.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

La Bayadere Brought to Life

Photo by Gene Schiavone
There are certain performances where you go in with low or no expectations. I've sort of come to accept ABT's La Bayadere as a weak-tea version of Petipa's grand ballet. The corps formations in the Kingdom of the Shades are simplified, the variations are often a mess, and sometimes even the biggest stars can't keep the flame alive. I wasn't even planning on attending last evening's performance of La Bayadere. It was a last minute decision.

Well, despite many faults, I ended up liking this performance way more than I expected. Credit goes almost completely to Alina Cojocaru, the tiny, waiflike dancer whom I saw in this role more than 10 years ago. 10 years later, Cojocaru has suffered injury after injury, and you can sometimes tell with her occasionally shaky pirouettes and balances. But it's remarkable how much Cojocaru still has to offer in this role.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Ratmansky's New New Old Sleeping Beauty

Photo by Gene Schiavone
I don't exactly understand why this is, but it seems as if ballet companies and choreographers delight in presenting us with their "original" takes on Swan Lake or Nutcracker but when it comes to Sleeping Beauty, they become obsessed with authenticity, original notation, and even recreation of vintage sets and costumes. The ABT (and more specifically Alexei Ratmansky) just debuted yet another "new old" Sleeping Beauty with sets and costumes that are supposedly inspired by Léon Bakst's 1921 Ballet Russes production. And yet again, there are assurances that the choreography is carefully reconstructed from notations.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men Finale

The image I'll take away from last night's Mad Men series finale isn't the Coke commercial that Don apparently dreamed up after he found peace in a California commune. It isn't Joan kicking ass and starting her own company and also getting rid of that rich retired guy (although that was wonderful). It isn't Stan and Peggy getting together (although that was nice too).

I think the most remarkable scene last night was the final one with Betty and Sally. Sally is in the kitchen, cooking dinner for the family, and Betty, dying of terminal lung cancer, is grimly smoking a cigarette. Her back is turned towards Sally.

I loved that moment because Mad Men refused to do to Betty what it often does to beloved characters on a long-running series finale: go soft on them. This was shown to an absurd degree on the otherwise amazing Breaking Bad series: by the closing shot Walter White was practically a hero, and he died in his meth lab, ecstatic and at peace. But the final shot of Betty personified what the character has been for seven seasons: cold, closed off, unable to show affection to her kids, the ever-present cigarette a symbol of her own self-absorption.

There were a million reasons to feel sorry for Betty. Her husband Don was a monster. A very tortured, human monster, but a monster nonetheless. We knew her backstory -- modeling was her dream, before she gave it up for the 2.5 kids and the rich husband. She was deeply lonely and unhappy. It would have been easy to make Betty the poor, put-upon wife.

Instead January Jones and the Mad Men writers made Betty one of the most interesting characters of the show, a character who resisted easy sympathy at every moment. Betty wasn't warm. She wasn't affectionate. She was in her own way as self-absorbed as Don. And she had a mean streak a mile wide. Who can remember her screaming to Sally "You broke MY nose!" Or her disastrous attempt to chaperone a field trip which ended with her screaming at Bobby for doing the nice thing and giving a hungry girl food.

When Betty was diagnosed with lung cancer, I thought, oh man, they're going to finally make Betty sympathetic. She's going to show affection to Sally for the first time. She's going to make peace with Don. It will be Saint Betty. But that's not what they did at all. Betty's last conversation with Don was tense and strained, with her telling him he wouldn't get custody of the kids and then taunting, "You can see them on the weekends. Oh wait. When was the last time you saw them?"

And Sally came home from boarding school and decided to take care of the family even more than she's always taken care of her very damaged parents. But Betty seems oblivious to the sacrifice, to Sally's pain. So the last shot of Sally sadly cooking for the family, and Betty smoking a cigarette in the kitchen was just so appropriate. It was cold. It was selfish. It was Betty.

Bye bye Birdie, and goodbye to Mad Men, a show that for seven seasons made us care about monsters.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

NYCB Does Bournonville

I've now sat through three completely different casts of the NYCB's Bournonville program. It is strange how, as a rule, the Bournonville style manages to completely defeat many of NYCB's most excellent technicians, whereas some of their less experienced corps de ballet members have taken to the Danish master like ducks to a pond. I thought of why this might be so. I have a few theories, and the one I'm most fond of is the idea that many principal dancers and strong technicians are so confident in their abilities that they overlook the key to Bournonville style: modesty. It's hard for them not to snap their arms out to show off a spectacular jump, or to keep their arabesques beneath 90 degrees.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Elusive Muse

There was a moment in tonight's 2 hour talk with Suzanne Farrell at the New York Public Library where Suzanne was laughing, the audience was laughing, and the ice finally seemed broken. Suzanne was recounting how Mr. B taught them to dance, and she quoted him as saying, "You know, you're not only dancing for your mother." It was a fun, witty remark from the always-witty Mr. B. The audience (packed full of veteran dance enthusiasts and current dancers like Gillian Murphy) loved it.

I wish their had been more moments like that in what was otherwise a painfully awkward, unilluminating two hours. For one, the interviewer, Paul Holdengräber, had absolutely no rapport with Suzanne and seemed stuck to his cue cards all night. His interviewing style takes much like James Lipton of The Actors' Studio -- very starchy, dry, pretentious.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Un Ballo et Maschera - Saving the Best for Last

I'm looking over all my Met programs this season and I attended Macbeth (twice), Le Nozze di Figaro, La Boheme (three times!!!), Traviata (twice), Death of Klinghoffer, Aida, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Les Contes d'Hoffman, Iolanta/Bluebeard, CarmenLa Donna del Lago, as well as the Grand Finals of the Met National Council Auditions and a recital by Rene Pape. You might notice something though: all of those performances happened before March. That was when a real job (and a 5:00 wakeup time) kicked in. But today was the last day of the season and I was determined to see Piotr Beczala sing Un Ballo et Maschera.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Spring Gala at the NYCB: The New Yorkers Become the Danes

I usually despise the gala crowds. The cameras flashing, the women teetering in 6 inch heels (sometimes you can actually see the blood from their blisters), the listless, overfunded audience. This year was in fact the first spring gala I'd attended since, well, forever. And sure enough, the VIP's were there, the women in their back-breaking heels and the men drinking joylessly at the bar. But the reason I attended was because the ballet the NYCB was presenting was for once a true event: the NYCB premiere of August Bournonville's deathless masterpiece La Sylphide. The true balletomanes (squeezed for the most part into the third and fourth rings) discussed such important matters as: would the NYCB dancers erase memories of the Royal Danes? Could they master the endless series of beats and direction changing jumps? How much of the mime would be preserved? Do the men look good in kilts? And how adorable is Sterling Hyltin?

Monday, May 4, 2015

NYCB's New Apollo: Back to the Future

George Balanchine never stopped complaining about the atrocious conditions for the premiere of his first masterpiece, Apollo. Apollo was danced by Serge Lifar, a dancer Balanchine disliked both artistically and personally. But he had to be cast as he was Serge Diaghilev's lover. Balanchine's Terpischore, Alexandra Danilova, was shelved in favor of Alice Nikitina, due to Nikitina having been the mistress of a wealthy sponsor. Balanchine later would remark "If we were to go back to the premiere of Apollo everyone would be laughing his head off."