Total Pageviews

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

La Donna del Lago

This is a weird way to begin a review but the thing I kept thinking of at tonight's premiere of La Donna del Lago was that Seinfeld episode when Kramer is driving with George's mother and in the middle of a casual conversation he "stops short" with the car. This causes much awkwardness all around.

What does "stopping short" have to do with Rossini? Well, Rossini is one composer that (if played right) never "stops short." Bellini was maybe a better melodist, Donizetti a better dramatist, but Rossini has an implacable momentum that is always musically impressing.

You never would have known it though from the Met's plodding, joyless, arid premiere of La Donna del Lago. And for this I think the conductor Michele Mariotti has to take a lot of the blame. He consistently missed capitalizing on any of the music's momentum. Instead it was start, stop, start, stop all night. A musical number could be going swimmingly until the conductor "stopped short" and all momentum was lost.

Juan Diego Flórez made up his own rhythm and if Mariotti wasn't with him, well, so be it. The others often started and stopped, started and stopped, constantly looking to see if Mariotti had picked up his baton again. This was particularly egregious in the closing showstopper "Tanti affetti" -- Joyce DiDonato has sung this aria many times but last night seemed almost hesitant. Again, Mariotti stopped short and Joyce had to stop short as well.

With that being said, the problems of La Donna del Lago went beyond simply conducting. A basic problem was casting -- the opera's premise is that Ellen/Elena's (Joyce DiDonato) love for Malcolm (Daniela Barcellona) is so constant that she rejects the advances of both the King James (Flórez) and a rebel leader Roderick (John Osborn). Of course Ellen's that 19th century ideal of the perfect, constant female whose affections cannot be swayed either by a besotted king or a Braveheart-like warrior. Così non tutte.

In order for this to work you need a very strong Malcolm. Daniella Barcellona was not that singer. Her voice was nothing special -- a workmanlike instrument that sounded hollow and occasionally turned squally. She seemed to have trouble with many of Rossini's more difficult passages. She was hideously costumed in a ratty tatty kilt dress and they actually DREW a beard on her. No, I'm serious. She looked grotesque, and one wonders how no one put his or her foot down and said "No, a drawn on beard on a woman doesn't work." It was the most ridiculous sight I've ever seen, Joyce rubbing her face in Barcellona's drawn-on beard.

On the other sides of the quadrangle you had Juan Diego Flórez, who, twenty-odd years into his career, still sings Rossini with a matchless style and infectious energy. He didn't interpolate many acuti but since James mostly sings in duets and trios that might have been a group decision. His voice sounds less strained than it did in Cenerentola last season -- some cancellations and vocal rest seem to have done a world of good. Flórez and DiDonato have wonderful chemistry together and the rapid vibratos of their voices blend beautifully. "O fiamma soave" was beautiful. At the end of the opera one wanted to smack Ellen in the head and say, "Marry the king, you silly girl!"

Matching Flórez note for note (almost) was John Osborn, another endearingly pint-sized tenor whose voice can (mostly) handle the demands of Rossini's music. The color of his voice is darker than Flórez's but he has the same ease in the stratosphere (as well as the same nasally timbre). The only thing Osborn missed completely was a high C at the end of his act one cabaletta. He went for it, but the note wasn't there. He did the same thing in his otherwise excellent Guglielmo Tell at Carnegie Hall -- had all eight cylinders roaring, and then reached for non-existent high notes in "Corriam, corriam." From then on I noticed that almost no one else in the cast went for acuti at the end of cabalettas. The dueling duet between James and Rodrigo in Act Two was exciting vocally but someone has to tell Osborn and Flórez that their swords should face each other, not the audience.

Here's Osborn in La Scala in the same role. He's capable of so much more than we heard last night:

Oren Gradus (Ellen's father) was simply vocally unacceptable. I hate to use the word "inaudible" because sometimes I think people use it simply to mean "Oh my god his voice wasn't the size of Birgit Nilsson's" but Gradus truly was inaudible in long stretches, and when heard him, you didn't want to hear him.

I was saving Joyce DiDonato for the last because it's obvious she believes so much in this opera. It's due to her tireless championing of this opera that it's been sung (with very similar casts) in La Scala, Paris, London, Santa Fe, and now New York. But last night seemed like a very off night for her. The usual pep and energy she brings to every role weren't there, and (to be frank) neither were the DiDonato coloratura fireworks. She was fine singing in the lyrical passages like her opening cavatina but in the more barn-storming passages like the act two terzetto and of course "Tanti affetti" DiDonato did some very uncharacteristic ducking and drop-outs. They were brief but enough to stop the musical momentum. That tight vibrato in her upper register was super-intrusive last night -- it's as if she simply couldn't rid her voice of tension. She does have a fantastic trill. But it wasn't A-grade DiDonato last night.

Here she is in Paris, 2010:

The production team (director Paul Curran, Sets/Costumes Kevin Knight) got booed at the curtain calls. Certainly it was not an exciting production -- and the few times the directors tried to spice it up fell terribly flat. For instance, in the second act, heads hung on sticks throughout the stage. War, you know. But the heads were little more than the rubber masks people buy at Halloween stores. So the overall look was "oh, heh" rather than "wow, war."

I think my main problem is that it was clear Curran was going for an old-fashioned, picturesque look for the production, but didn't even achieve that. The plain dresses, the drawn-on beards, the almost non-existent scenery, and people CARRYING trees onstage all screamed "tight budget" more than anything else.

Overall, last night was the kind of night no one wishes to have happen, ever: a semi-rare work is finally given a new production after many years' absence in New York, and you have on paper the best possible cast to sell this work. What should have been an exciting night turned into one where the singers limped along to the finish.

In fact, if you want great singing along with a great show, I actually recommend the current run of Carmen with Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna (and later Jonas Kaufmann). Garanca's icy timbre and cool, aloof style are not the stereotypical Carmen, but she's so vocally alluring that one can understand why men go mad for her. And Alagna, a veteran at this point, still sings Don José with passion and style. The chemistry between the two remains as hot as ever.

And by the way, here's the Seinfeld "stopping short" clip:

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Winter Season at NYCB

NYCB had some bad timing during its winter season. The start of their season coincided with the sold-out Mariinsky gig at BAM. Since then, mother nature and injuries have plagued what is traditionally the NYCB's busiest dancing season. Ana Sophia Scheller and Rebecca Krohn are still out with injuries, and on Tuesday 2/3 Andrew Veyette joined the list of injured.

I caught one of their first week performances (a triple bill of Serenade, Agon, and Symphony in C) which was notable for several debuts: Erica Pereira's surprising quickness and security as the Russian girl in Serenade, and Ashley Bouder's glittering performance in the first movement and Brittany Pollack's whiz-bang turns in the 4th movement of Symphony in C.

In that performance Andrew Veyette did his usual superb job in the first pas de trois of Agon. Veyette is someone who performs so often in such a variety of roles that you almost take his presence for granted. On Tuesday he and Ashley Bouder were dancing in the effervescent Donizetti Variations. From the very opening you could just tell something was off. The conductor played this spritely score with unusual slowness. Ashley's saut de chats (the ones where she stretches her free leg out like an arrow) had their usual astonishing ballon but even she seemed unusually tentative. But Veyette was obviously dancing through pain in his solos. Finally after his second variation solo where he struggled through a series of double tours and winced from what looked like a hard landing, and walked offstage. That was it. He didn't come out for the coda or finale. Ashley Bouder and the corps danced it alone.

Veyette had a highly publicized debut the next night in the premiere of Justin Peck's Rodeo (set to Copeland's famous suite). Peck came out before the curtain to announce and Peck himself and Sean Suozzi would be subbing for an injured Veyette. Get well Andy.

How was Peck's new ballet? Well the audience loved it. I had wondered how he would handle using music that's already been used for an iconic ballet (Agnes de Mille's Rodeo). Peck's ballet has the same all-American high energy and spirits without seeming derivative. There's two teams of males that seem like they're on opposite sports teams. They are wearing different colored striped jerseys and athletic socks. This is a very male-dominated ballet -- there's only one female dancer onstage (Sara Mearns, dressed sort of like a cheerleader -- sweater, leotard, no tights). The two teams sprint across the stage as if they were charging the length of the field. At other times they jump, spin, and leap in a happy, all-American way.

The opening pas de trois was awkward -- Peck danced in Veyette's place and he towered over Gonzalo Garcia and Daniel Ulbricht and couldn't keep up with his own choreography. The second episode was maybe the best -- Daniel Applebaum, Craig Hall, Allen Pfeiffer, Andrew Scordato, and Taylor Stanley performed a rarity: an all-male quintet. Peck has a good eye for the talents of individual dancers. The dancers seemed like part of a brotherhood. Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar had a surprisingly tender pas de deux before the barn-storming finale. Is this a great ballet? Time will tell. As for now it plays as a high-spirited piece of modern Americana. But Peck's new ballets have brought a level of excitement and buzz to NYCB premieres that's unprecedented.

The program started with Ratmansky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Somehow I had missed this in the fall. Ratmansky is so prolific that he has almost as many misses and hits. Anna Karenina is a crashing bore, Cinderella and Nutcracker terribly uneven, some of his creations for ABT have come and gone unmourned (The Tempest, Firebird). 

At his best he's simply the best choreographer in the 21st century, period. Pictures at an Exhibition is Ratmansky at his most inspired. Mussorgsky's uncommonly playful piano suite brings about all the things that are most lovable about Ratmansky: his quirky sense of humor, his mixture of folk dance with classical ballet vocabulary, the sense of warmth and community he creates onstage. The staging, costumes and decor are based on Wassily Kandinsky's Color Study: Squares in Concentric Circles.

There are only 10 dancers onstage and they come and go almost casually. This is a ballet that's so rich I'll have to view it multiple times to catch all its complexity and nuances but standouts from last night:  an extraordinary "flying" duet between Sterling Hyltin (who took over the Wendy Whelan role) and Tyler Angle set to "The Old Castle," as well as a solo for Sara Mearns that showed off all her best qualities (recklessness, largeness of movement). As always, there is, as I said, that sense of community. All five girls (Hyltin, Mearns, Lauren Lovette, Gretchen Smith, Indiana Woodward) and five guys (T. Angle, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Gonzalo Garcia, Joseph Gordon, Amar Ramasar) pile on top of each other playfully, or they march together in solemnity. Sometimes the girls are carried gently with their legs sticking out like darts. Sterlimg Hyltin also puts her hands on the stage, as if to pay homage. So many wonderful things goes on, but when the curtain falls you feel as if you were given a peak into a lovely world that would continue in its merry adventures even after the music was over.

Seen in the audience at this premiere gala: Gillian Murphy, David Hallberg, Robert Fairchild, Marcelo Gomes, James Whiteside, Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon ...

Other random thoughts about the company:

- Can Chaconne be saved? There's an old video of Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins that showed how they brought their unique glamor to a ballet that's somewhat starchy and staid. With Teresa Reichlen and Adrian Danchig-Waring (both superb dancers) there was simply blankness.

- Speaking of Reichlen, she was part of maybe the finest performance of Serenade I have ever seen at the NYCB. Sterling Hyltin, Erica Pereira and Reichlen were amazing as the trio of girls, and Robert Fairchild made a very welcome return. Ask La Cour doesn't do much but he did make Reichlen's Dark Angel revolving arabesque ghostly.

- Sara Mearns is having a standout season. She's in the best physical shape she's ever been in and whether it's the sole girl in Rodeo or the doomed socialite in La Valse she commands the stage. She even manages to be effective in the second movement of Symphony in C despite not really having a traditional tutu physique.

- Zachary Catazaro and Ashley Laracey are not long for the soloist ranks. Both of them were absolutely outstanding in La Valse, which is maybe my least favorite Balanchine ballet ever made that's still commonly performed today.

- Lauren Lovette made a quick descent from "promising soloist" to "overcast and not quite ready." She's small, she's pretty, and she is the offstage partner of Chase Finlay. But her recent debuts (she took over for Tiler Peck in Pictures at an Exhibition and debuted in third movement of the Bizet) show a glumness, as if all she cared about were getting the steps right. Peter Martins seems to be throwing so much at her.

- More Tiler Peck! She was absolutely riveting in Wheeldon's Mercurial Manouvres. Her pas de deux with Jared Angle was spine-tingling. Anthony Huxley was wonderful as well.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Disruptor at the Met for Iolanta/Bluebeard Premire

Last night the delayed NP of Iolanta/Bluebeard was interrupted by this man. I reviewed the entire performance for Parterre Box. An excerpt:

Trelinski said Alfred Hitchcock films inspired him when he planned these productions. With this insight in mind I’ll just say that Hitch would have called theIolanta half (replete with the noisy protestor) the MacGuffin. The lush music, fairy tale marriage story, and curtain call antics were just a trick for the audiences to appreciate the bone-chilling story of Bluebeard and his doomed wives.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Call Me Debbie

The first thing you need to know when you read Deborah Voigt's Call Me Debbie is that she's a "down to earth" diva. I confess I have an allergy to people who label themselves "down to earth" -- it's my experience that genuinely down to earth people don't walk around with a "Down to Earth" advertisement.

That reservation aside Debbie Voigt's memoirs (we learn that "Deborah" was a stage name she chose to seem more formal) are enjoyable, easy to read, in an Oprah kind of way. I download this on my ipad this morning and by noon I was done. Those looking for gossip or insight into the cut-throat, competitive opera business will be disappointed. Jessye Norman required a personal assistant to spray her path with mist. There's unnamed Mezzo X and Mezzo Y who gave her a hard time but otherwise everyone is wonderful, fantastic, supportive, amazing. Luciano Pavarotti called her up one night to ask about gastric bypass. Leonie Rysanek cheered her on the first time Debbie sang Chrysothemis. Anna Netrebko gave Debbie pointers on how to signal to the prompter "I need help." Placido Domingo made her swoon with an onstage kiss. President Bill Clinton kinda sorta copped a feel. And so on.

Yes the incident with the "little black dress" at Covent Garden is covered, but in a light, shallow way. And that's to Ms. Voigt's credit: she doesn't bang on for chapters and chapters reciting and re-reciting old grudges and feuds. You can glean more about the incident by watching this youtube video:

The book is mostly an addiction/recovery book in the time-honored formula of many such memoirs. All the boxes are checked: the distant, punishing father (he used to go on Food Patrol to make sure Debbie wasn't overeating), the strict religious upbringing, the broken family (father left her adored mother), the low-self esteem and body image issues, the broken relationships with unavailable, no-good men, substituting one addiction for another -- Debbie opted for gastric bypass and lost 100 pounds, but hit the bottle. Food addiction turns to alcohol addiction. Of course with addiction there's the recovery part and that's recounted too: the AA meetings, rehab, and rediscovery. Oh, and God. The Man Upstairs plays a big part in these addiction/recovery memoirs, and Debbie's no exception.

A lot of memoirs follow this general pattern. The question is how interesting you can make this journey to the readers. Voigt's journey lacks the outlandish craziness and dark humor of say, Mike Tyson's similar book. It's an easy read, but it's not an interesting read.

The memoir is only 288 pages and there are definitely some major deletions. Debbie is tight-lipped about whether the drastic weight loss had an effect on her voice, but her memoir is littered with quotes from effusive reviews by Anthony Tommasini. Voigt doesn't mention the very public vocal difficulties she's endured in the later stages of her career, including being dismissed by the Washington National Opera (and long-time mentor Francesca Zambello) after a disastrous dress rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde. In fact, Zambello is almost completely deleted from the memoir, as is James Levine, another person who had a huge hand in shaping her career. Joe Volpe, Peter Gelb, and Herbert Breslin are given blank cameos. Her acknowledgments page lists people that don't figure anywhere in the book -- who were her vocal teachers? Who promoted her career? It's a mystery.

You can read about the WNO incident here. But a quote from the article is more illuminating about Debbie than the 288 pages of memoir:
“There’s a line in the Big Book of [Alcoholics Anonymous], of which I am a member,” she says, “that ‘the grace of God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.’ ” That, she says, is how she feels about this cancellation. One of her main emotions is “relief.” “I am so tired,” she says, “of competing with myself” — with her younger self, that is, preserved on records and in the memories of her many fans. “I’ve done everything I wanted. It’s time to let her [in this case, Theorin] do it. I did the same thing to Jessye Norman when I was young. It’s a natural cycle.”
The woman in that article sounds angry, defeated, and defensive. "Debbie" from the book is as airbrushed as the cover -- there's only a few hints here and there is more to Debbie than a "down to earth diva." One is a rather mean aside she mentions about her gig hosting Met HD's. She goes into some detail about how Natalie Dessay flubbed the E-flat of "Sempre libera" and how crestfallen Dessay was during the interview. If this were a no-holds-barred, singer-bares-all kind of memoir then mentioning this incident would be natural. But for a memoir where so much of her career is deleted you have to question why Voigt would pointedly mention a colleague's failing vocal estate.

Debbie ends the book with: "My name is Debbie. I'm a daughter, a sister, and a friend. I sing for God and I sing for others. And now, more than ever, I sing for myself, too -- and that makes me happy." Well great for her. But this is not A-list memoir material.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mariinsky Waves Goodbye

The final performance of Swan Lake at the Mariinsky was maybe the most old-fashioned of the three Swan Lakes I caught. Viktoria Tereshkina has a contemporary physique and line, but her facial expressions and portrayal owed a lot to silent movie acting. There was nothing subtle about it, but her Odile especially was tons of fun. The long-held balances, the doubles and triples thrown into the fouette sequence, and, finally, the old-fashioned milking of bows. She came forward for a bow whether the audience response warranted it or not. Her Prince, Vladimir Shklyarov, was the Siegfried with the most bravura technique. His boyish looks and spotlight hogging reminded me of the young Nureyev. He's one of those dancers that does that slow walk with his back to the audience before he begins a variation to drum up anticipation. Andrei Yermakov really camped it up for his last performance of Rothbart (the death scene convulsions!), while Vasily Tchachenko was by far the most appealing Jester of the run.

The Mariinsky closed out their tour with a limp triple bill of Chopin. Chopiniana/Les Sylphides premiered at the Mariinsky over 100 years ago and had maybe the most legendary "first cast" of all time -- Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Tamara Karsavina. Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky were renowned for their elevation and lightness. The leading couple today (Timur Askerov and Oksana Skorik) are the opposite of light and effervescent. Askerov has clumsy posture with hunched shoulders and sloppy arms. Skorik is one of those really tall, crane necked, scary looking Russian ballerinas -- she's a dead ringer for Maleficent. But she also has really hard, tough landings. Yana Selina and Anna Lavrinenko were exquisite -- beautiful, with those rippling Vaganova arms and airy jumps. The corps was wonderful, but the pianist was not -- she totally ignored all the markings and decided to make the polonaise, waltz, mazurka, nocturne all sound like a dirge. This is a Mariinsky trademark. They should have done better.

Benjamin Millepied's Without was next. It's one of those color-coded couple ballets. For the first 15 minutes I thought well, this is nice, pleasant, sort of derivative but at least it's pretty. The choreography is a lot of swoony duets with a few goofy moves thrown in the mix. Unfortunately the ballet went on for about 50 minutes. I thought it ended several times before it actually ended -- the lights dimmed, the audience applauded ... and the music started up again, and the swoony duets began again. It was endless. This was the ballet where the Mariinsky's rather rigid casting system was up-ended and we got to see some of their other dancers. Kristina Shapran and Andrei Yermakov were very lovely as the blue couple, as were Yana Selina and Filip Stepin (purple couple). The other couples were: Anastasia Matvienko/Konstantin Zverev (red couple), Tatiana Tiliguzova/Ernest Latpov (orange couple, in one of the ballet's few humorous moments), and Margarita Frolova/Xander Parish (green couple).

Jerome Robbins' In the Night closed out the program and it at least had the advantage of being brief and well cast. It's A- Robbins, but A- Robbins is better than A+ Millepied. The young couple (Anastasia Matvienko and Vladimir Shklyarov) were ardent and adorable. A bit like Romeo and Juliet. The middle aged couple (Ekaterina Kondaurova and Yevgeny Ivanchenko) were a bit stolid, formal, but that is how it's supposed to be. Kondaurova still seems stiff in the lower body, like she's working through an injury. Uliana Lopatkina and Andrei Yermakov were the older, passionate/tempestuous couple. Lopatkina was of course her usual extravagant, poetic self. Maybe no ballerina can be so unchanging at yet compelling in everything she dances. She didn't quite nail the occasional humor of the choreography but it was still a wonderful performance. Yermakov has really princely lines and looks. Why was he dancing Rothbart all week?

The afternoon wasn't a total loss though: during intermission in the lobby I saw the great Mikhail Baryshnikov, now old and decidedly gray. He was going incognito (black trenchcoat, sunglasses), but he gave away his dancer background when he started talking animatedly with a small group. He was apparently objecting to Timur Askerov's port de bras and demonstrated this, and then pulled his arms up in a proud fifth (probably to demonstrate how he thought it should be done). And all of a sudden, you saw Misha Baryshnikov, superstar again.

In other news, the New York City Ballet started its Winter Season with an all-Balanchine program and threw several debuts into the mix: Erica Pereira as the Russian Girl in Serenade, Megan LeCrone in the pas de trois of Agon, Ashley Bouder in First Movement of Symphony in C, Lauren Lovette in Third Movement, and Brittany Pollack in Final Movement. Robert Fairchild who's about to become a Broadway star in American in Paris was cast in the smallish role of the male in Serenade. The debutantes all acquitted themselves with professionalism (if not exact mastery yet) but that's the NYCB way -- there's no sure things. Just put on your big girl tutu and dance. Perhaps no other company is as unsentimental.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mariinsky Swan Lake #2: A Turkey

There is a certain look performers sometimes have on their faces when things are just not going their way. There's a deflated look in their eyes, posture, and demeanor that makes it clear to the audience that magic is just not going to happen on this particular night, and they are being professionals by chugging through the remainder of the performance. That look was in abundance at tonight's performance of Swan Lake at BAM. The Mariinsky swans were as beautiful as ever, Andrei Yermakov was a terrifying Rothbart, the pas de trois was elegantly danced by Filipp Stepin, Nadezhda Batoeva, and Yana Selina (!!!), but the leads Ekaterina Kondaorova and Timur Askerov were just disappointing compared to last Friday's magical performance by Uliana Lopatkina.

Ekaterina Kondaurova is an excellent dancer. She was a wonderful Stepmom in Ratmansky's Cinderella. And on paper she should be an excellent Odette/Odile. She's tall, with long limbs and that proud, majestic Vaganova back. Really beautiful face too -- looks like a 1940's Hollywood femme fatale. With that being said, I think it was a combination of Odette/Odile not really being her role, and this simply not being a good night for her. Her White Swan act was fine, if not as exquisitely detailed as Lopatkina. But there was a tenseness in her upper body and it also seemed at times that she was distorting her hip in her developpés. Her arms, although long, don't have the boneless rippling quality of the best Odette/Odile's. Her attitudes and arabesques were slightly stiff -- her legs didn't sing.

The Black Swan act was where the real problems started though. At the very beginning of the Black Swan pas de deux in those split lifts/supported pirouettes she slipped through Askerov's arms and Askerov yanked her up in time from a total fall. After that she never seemed to regain confidence -- she danced the variation as if in a total daze. She ignored the musical markings and just pumped through the steps without noticing that she was often either several beats ahead or several beats behind. Gone were carefully the carefully prepared iconic Odile poses -- she just flailed her arms or legs up a certain way and that was that. In the coda she started traveling in a circle during the fouettes, and looked dizzy. She mercifully cut the sequence short, even if that meant finishing before the music finished.

I know she's capable of more:

Timur Askerov is an odd choice for a Siegfried -- Filipp Stepin of the pas de trois actually has the more classically proportioned body. Askerov has shortish arms and a habit of squeezing his shoulders that makes his arms look even shorter, and can look sloppy. His partnering was also sloppy --this is a hard thing to describe but good partners will hide the deficiencies of the ballerina. Yevgeny Ivanchenko of last Friday's performance was slow and tentative at times but there was a cleanness to his line and partnering that was valuable. Askerov and Kondaurova had little to no chemistry. In the final lakeside scene neither of them bothered to act out the apotheosis music -- both just traveled to downstage center and that was it.

I haven't seen much of Askerov, but I have seen enough Kondaurova to know that in the right role she can be real dynamite. Now Kondaurova and Askerov were both professionals. They didn't give a BAD performance by any means. It just wasn't a good performance either by Mariinsky standards, or even their own standards.

I go back from a final Swan Lake on Jan. 23.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Royal Danes

There exists a brief snippet of La Sylphide's opening solo as performed by Ellen Price in 1903 (see above). The film might be of low video quality but the lightning fast footwork, the effortless ballon, and the charmingly modest épaulement are immediately apparent.

How does one preserve the Bournonville hallmarks of charm, grace, fast and fleet footwork, and effortless elevation in a ballet climate that now favors big jumps and flashy pirouettes? This question has been plaguing the Royal Danish Ballet since time immemorial but the miraculous thing is, for the most part, the Bournonville tradition lives on. This was apparent in the Royal Danish Ballet's brief tour to NYC this week.

I caught the final performance (1/18), a Sunday matinee on a miserably soggy, rainy day.  The tiny Joyce theater was fairly packed -- a tribute to the loyalty the Royal Danes engender, despite the fact that the Mariinsky are also playing in a sold-out week at BAM. There was no scenery, no live music, just 13 dancers (and two of their biggest stars, Amy Watson and Alban Lendorf were out with injuries). But by the end of the Tarantella in Napoli the audience responded exactly how they've always responded -- almost limp with joy.

The program could have been entitled "Bournonville's Greatest Hits." All of the usual suspects were there -- the ubiquitous Flower Festivals of Genzano pdd, the pas de sept of A Folk Tale, Jockey Dance from From Siberia to Moscow, Act 2 of La Sylphide, Conservatoire pas de trois, and finally, Napoli Act III.

For the most part the dancing seemed trapped in a time capsule (in a good way). You noticed the modest arabesques, the emphasis on fast, direction-changing jumps rather than huge Russian-style diagonals, the wholesome stage manners. This was as apparent in the vets of the company (Diana Cuni, Gudrun Bojensen are both near mandatory retirement age) as the newer stars (Ida Praetorius, Sebastian Hayes). You might have thought you'd seen Flower Festivals of Genzano pas de deux too many times, but watch the joyous flirtatiousness of Diana Cuni and Ulrik Birkkjaer as they perform this chestnut and try not to smile. It's impossible.

But behind this idyllic performance were forces of change. Nikalaj Hubbe is the artistic director of the Danes and he's made it clear that he considers modernization necessary. We got a hint of this in La Sylphide. Hubbe has created a new production that's taken away the colorful kilts, the woodsy scenery (it's now set in a clinical white room), and (most importantly), the tradition of playing Madge as an old, bitter woman. In the clip from La Sylphide we saw that James was no longer in a colorful plaid kilt -- he was now in severe black. And Madge is no longer a woman. Instead, he's a male dressed in a modern gray suit. The story seems to be one of an affair between Man-Madge and (gay?) James. The ballet ends with Madge (Sebastian Hayes) and James (Marcin Kupinski) engaged in a passionate lip-lock. Madge got his man back.

The sad thing about this not just that Hubbe is abandoning one of the most beautiful, classical productions ever created, it's that none of these "new ideas" are fresh or innovative. James' attraction to the sylph and his relationship with Madge was plenty ambiguous before Hubbe's "new" take. Is James attracted to the unattainable? Exotic becomes erotic? And why does he listen to Madge? Now it's all spelled out in the most obvious way -- James is gay. Madge is his former lover. The sylph -- don't know who she is anymore. Effie? Oops. They're all distractions in this Brokeback Sylphide.

But what was remarkable was that despite the cosmetic changes Hubbe has made to the company, the style is still there. Sebastian Hayes in his dancing excerpts displayed all the hallmarks of Bournonville style: the proud ballon, the dizzying abilities to change directions mid jump, the erect posture and port de bras.

The Danish ballet-master's spirit lives.

Mariinsky: Cinderella, Ratmansky Style

My second night at BAM was markedly different: it was my first time seeing Alexei Ratmansky's Cinderella. And the short version of the story is: I hated it. I usually find Ratmansky to be an interesting (if inconsistent) choreographer but this is one ballet I can put on the shelf and never see again.

To be fair, I didn't hate everything about it. I liked some of Ratmansky's ideas: the stark industrial look in Act One, the Prince (Konstantin Zverev) being a sort of Fred-Astaire-type dancer instead of the traditional dull-as-potatoes-cavalier, the Stepmother as an oligarch trophy wife.

But overall the concept lacked magic, humor, and charm. The scenery (by Ulia Utkin and Yevgeny Monakhov) was monochromatic: one gray backdrop was lifted to reveal ... another gray backdrop, and then that was lifted and you saw ... yet another gray backdrop. The costumes were also a very mixed bag: I liked Cinderella's sweater dress and some of the 1930's styles in the ballroom scene but the seasons' 80's punk rock cutout bodysuits were a horror.

The choreography had some of the usual quirky Ratmansky humor but fell flat in the big moments: just when Prokofiev's score soars, Ratmansky's steps sag. For one, having the Prince be a sort of Fred-Astaire-type ballroom dancer was a good idea, but Fred needs a Ginger. Ratmansky gives Cinderella a bunch of rather generic, sad-sack steps and the two pas de deux are rather forgettable. Diana Vishneva (for whom the role was created) still has the waif-like build and saucer eyes, but she wasn't given much interesting material except in the second act, where she does have a nice solo. Vishneva is now in the twilight of her career and it's good to see her onstage with her home company, I guess. Konstantin Zverev has the Fred Astaire forehead but was somewhat wooden and he and Vishneva never sparked.

One of the most ill-conceived ideas was to have Cinderella's step sisters act like very bad dancers. First of all, it was obvious that Margarita Frolova and Yekaterina Ivannikova were impeccably trained Vaganova-trained dancers -- you can tell by their 180 degree turnout and rippling arms. Them impersonating stumbling, stuttering ballerinas had an arch, smug, too-cute-by-half feel: like, oh, look at their gorgeous feet as they fall. It wasn't funny. Sir Frederick Ashton had the right idea by making the Stepsisters wonderful en travesti dancers in the musical hall tradition. In that production, the Stepsisters' dancing becomes such a highlight that the audience laughs with the sisters.

Oddly the best choreography goes to the Stepmother: maybe it was Ekaterina Kondaouova's commanding presence, but the Stepmother stole the show. She camped it up as a Real Housewife of the Neva. Other small solos revealed the depth of talent in the Mariinsky corps: the lovely Yana Selina lit up the stage as the third act female dancer. I've seen Yana Selina since she toured with the Mariinsky maybe 10 years ago. And every time her huge smile and lovely presence brighten the entire performance, and I wonder why she's always been relegated to small variations and solos.

Another highlight was the dance instructor couple (Yuri Smekalov and Viktoria Brileva). Smekalov was smarmy and funny. Brileva is still in the corps but she's one to watch -- a real twinkle in her eyes and she was more adept at the Bob Fosse-faux-retro choreography than anyone else in the cast.

The Seasons choreography was also creative and fun, despite the horrid costumes. I liked the Winter variation where there was a row of snowflakes who bump into each other constantly. The four men of the seasons (Vasily Tkachenko - Spring; Ernest Latypov - Summer; Konstantin Ivkin - Autum; and Andrey Solovyov - Winter) looked and danced great despite the horror costumes they were given. Day-glo 80's punk? No, just no. The Fairy Tramp never became more than a total nuisance in Ratmansky's version.

As I said, Ratmansky's quirky humor is always a plus. But whether all these ideas come together to form a whole is another story. His Nutcracker  was full of good ideas mixed with some frankly terrible ideas.  On the other hand his Little Humpbacked Horse, Concerto DCSH, and Russian Seasons are great complete ballets. I have to put Cinderella in the "misses" column.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Swan Heaven - Mariinsky Arrives in BAM

There are certain things you expect when you see an Uliana Lopatkina performance. You expect extreme beauty of line -- those endless arms, the tapered fingers, the mile-long legs. You expect a stately dignity -- I saw Lopatkina as Nikya maybe 10 years ago, and she was as glacial and remote as the highest Himalaya peak. It was as if her body was a temple. I also saw her in Symphony in C where her line was so exquisite that you sort of forgot how she sort of pulled the Balanchine choreography into a molasses crawl. Of course there was the Dying Swan where she flapped her boneless arms and the applause lasted longer than the dancing.

So I went into tonight's Swan Lake (the Mariinsky Ballet is in town for a little over a week) expecting the same glacial, exquisite, but remote beauty. I did not expect that in at age 41, Lopatkina is dancing with the strength, stamina, and passion of a woman half her age. If anything, there's a newfound sturdiness to her -- her upper body is as tapered as ever, but her lower body has a more toned, muscular look. Her legs, calves, and feet seem re-inforced with thin, invisible steel.

I knew this was a new Lopatkina when she made her entrance. In the 2006 video she makes a slow, careful entrance and skips the traditional grande jete. Tonight she entered with skimming bourrées and a big, airy grande jete. Yes, the boneless flapping arms were there, yes that beautiful developpé a la seconde was as stunning as ever. But what was unexpected was Lopatkina's warm-blooded passion. This Odette was not just a mournful swan. In that beautiful moment when Odette wraps herself in Siegfried's arms Lopatkina also wrapped her free leg around Yevgeny Ivanchenko's torso in a rather extreme attitude, and lunged into his arms. She bade farewell to Siegfried with an extravagant arabesque penchee which ended with a big smooch. There was nothing remote about Lopatkina's Odette.

You also noticed how the slow, funereal tempi were discarded in favor of a brisker, more urgent style. In Odette's variation the small BAM stage meant she sort of ran out of room on the diagonal but she improvised a few steps backwards. In the coda there were lightning fast passe/relevé's and beats that again, were just surprising in a wonderful way. Lopatkina's always been famous for her adagio dancing. Tonight she proved that she can be just as adept at allegro.

Don't get me wrong -- everything that was special about Lopatkina was there. Those arms!!! The way she can flap her "wings" during those split leaps that simulate a wild bird flying out of Siegfried's reach. But she added this romantic urgency that made the White Swan act very human. In the adagio her final leg beats (that simulate a a fluttering heart) were just so exquisite that the packed house was pin-drop silent, and as she finished in a final arabesque pencheé the house erupted.

Lopatkina's Odile didn't have the whiz-bang triple fouettes of some of her contemporaries, but that strength and control were ever-present. When she rose on pointe she stayed there and you felt she could have stayed there forever. Her characterization is unorthodox -- she favored an icy film noir style rather than vampy grinning. But again, you noticed the unexpectedly crisp footwork -- in her variation she's one of the few ballerinas who does the beats before the big developpé in that pirouette/developpé sequence. Her fouettes were all singles, but they were fast and centered. No traveling, no wild kickiness. It was overall just a magnificent performance from a dancer who made no compromises due to age or habit.

Evgeny Ivanchenko (Siegfried) was not the most exciting dancer, but he was a wonderful partner for Lopatkina and he has great posture. He doesn't slouch or ignore turnout in order to pump out one more pirouette. With that being said he probably should find some alternate choreography for his variation -- the double tours looked so labored. Yaroslav Barodin was okay as the Jester. Not the best I've seen. I really dislike the Jester in Swan Lake productions -- it always seems like an excuse to give the shorter guys something to dance. And no one on stage ever looks amused by the Jester.

The peasant pas de trois offered the only down moment of the otherwise wonderful evening. Yekaterina Ivannikova, Xander Parish and Anastasia Nikitina were sailing through the pas de trois but at the start of the coda Nikitina took a sudden spill. It was so unexpected that the entire stage looked at her as she hobbled to the side. They waited a second to see if she could re-enter but she did not and just walked offstage, and Parish and Ivannikova improvised a rather deflated coda. Nikitina did not come out for the end of act bows. I hope the injury isn't serious.

Another sour note was the conducting of Valery Gergiev. I know he's responsible for relentlessly promoting the Mariinsky Opera and to many, he is Russian music. But he has remarkably little feel for Tchaikovsky. There was no sweep, no poetry. His approach to Tchaikovsky borders on the clinical.

I'm so happy the Mariinsky toured New York, but at the same time as wonderful as Lopatkina's performance was BAM was not the right venue for the Mariinsky Swan Lake. The shallow stage meant that a line of swans were cut, and some of the choreography in both the "color" acts were altered as you saw dancers constantly looking down to see if they'd reached the apron of the stage. The Act One waltz in particular looked rather improvised. Both the cygnets and the big swans also ran out of room and there was quite a traffic jam at the end of the White Swan act.

With that being said, there's simply no scene as magnificent as the Mariinsky Swans as they make their entrance. You see the proud necks, the tapered arms, the way their free leg often trails in an almost casual way, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for an army of girls to fly around the stage as a flock of swans. Other companies will often drill their swans with very specific positions and poses, and the corps can look stiff and mannered as a result. The Mariinsky swans have a freedom in both their upper and lower bodies that makes it all look so organic and natural.

The swans are perhaps the most beautiful in the last act. The black and white swans link arms the tilt of their faces suggest a sisterhood of sorrow. The way they circled around Lopatkina as their Swan Queen was so touching that the tacked-on happy ending didn't even bother me. Tchaikovsky's Apotheosis music definitely suggests hope for a new beginning, and I prefer the traditional new beginning in the Great Beyond, but the Soviet/Russian new beginning doesn't bother me either.

I was only able to take a few pictures. But here's one. I look at this and I think "This is ballet."


Friday, January 16, 2015

Opera Diaries: the Four Hour Bohème

So 1/15/15 marked what might have been a first: a La Bohème that lasted nearly four hours. Too tired to write much about the details, but after the first act the curtain fell and we heard a loud crash. Apparently the scenery had fallen apart. An announcement was made that there'd be a 20-minute intermission. That really was about 40 minutes, and every intermission lasted about 40 minutes, so by the time the opera was over it was like 11:30. Seriously.

Thankfully the performance was worth staying for -- and I met the cast afterwards!!!

The gorgeous Mimì, Kristine Opolais. She's one of those women that immediately make you feel mousy and plain by comparison. 

Marina Rebeka, who was such a wonderful Violetta, tonight made for an equally wonderful Musetta. The voice is really very special -- airy, like a bell, you can just listen to her all day. 

Finally, the tenor Jean-François Borras, who I saw last winter as a last-minute sub in Werther. He was amazing. One of the most pure, beautiful lyric tenors I'd ever heard. I thought, "I'll probably never hear him again." Well, his Rodolfo tonight was very different, but just as great. Now if you want Michael Fabiano-like squillo then you're better off uh ... listening to Michael Fabiano. But Borras has a very light, youthful, sweet sound. I was talking with someone at intermission that I really wanted to hear him sing with Marina Rebeka -- they both have this lightness to their voices that I think would blend wonderfully. And the good news: he'll be back again next season! Woo-hoo! But go listen to him next Monday or next Saturday afternoon (broadcast).

And last night I heard Sonya Yoncheva in what might have been the sexiest, most complete Violetta I've ever seen. I already knew she'd be great because I saw her earlier this season as Mimì and there's a Youtube compilation of a performance she did with Jean-François Borras two years ago. But she exceeded all expectations. Really just a special, special voice.

But don't take my word for it, just listen here. Now a Yoncheva/Borras Traviata in New York -- puh-lease make it happen!!!!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Les Contes d'Hoffman

I went to the Met's revival of Les Contes d'Hoffman last night and wrote a review for parterre. An excerpt:

A wise man once said: “It’s absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Vittorio Grigolo may be a narcissist, but at least he’s a charming one.

The above is the wonderful Erin Morley's Doll Song.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A last look at Ratmansky's Nutcracker

I first saw Alexei Ratmansky's Nutcracker at the at its premiere four years ago. I remember it being an exciting, expensive event -- seats in the upper reaches of BAM's claustrophobic balcony were nearing triple digits. Since then I've never been back, because despite the charms of Ratmansky's take, it didn't feel as magical as Balanchine's version for the NYCB. But this year it was announced that Ratmansky's Nut would be moving out of BAM forever (!!!). A look at ticket sales a few weeks before the performance hinted why: even with heavily discounted tickets, tickets were easy to get. In short, it was critically lauded but poor box office. So last I went back to get a last look at this Nutcracker. I'll probably never see it again.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Marina Rebeka

I heard the fairly amazing Decmeber 16 performance of La Traviata and found a new soprano to follow -- Marina Rebeka. My review for parterre box is here. Besides Rebeka, the revival is well-worth seeing for baritone Quinn Kelsey.

An excerpt from my review:

Rebeka has an energy and spirit that resembles the hearty lasses in Littlefinger’s whorehouse rather than delicate flower Marie. But to her credit, she didn’t aim for that weak frailty—there was no overdone coughing or making the voice paper-thin for Act Three. It was a straightforward, well-sung Violetta and she had a lot of horsepower for the big moments.
In the Act Two concertato you heard her firm, bell-like sound ride over the chorus and orchestra. She was able to swell her voice for “Amami Alfredo” and the final “Oh gioia!” If she didn’t quite convince you that she was wasting away from a terminal illness, she wasn’t pretentious either, and it was never difficult or unpleasant to listen to her. She got a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the opera.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The FAB-ulous Boheme!

Omg omg omg. This will be brief since I have to write the Parterre Box review. But tonight I saw the unexpected (but totally FAB-ulous) role debut of Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo at the Met, as well as the return of grand diva Angela Gheorghiu. It really was one of those amazing nights and I did one of my rare stage door groupie trips. Amazing cast, amazing performance.

Update: my review for parterre box.

What a diva, just ignore the tiny face next to her. Seriously, Angela is as larger-than-life offstage as she is onstage. She was traveling with an entourage of like 20 people and enough flowers to fill a wedding. Notice the fabulous matching gloves and the completely new stage makeup.

Stage door people were calling him Mr. Fabulous. I think this name will stick. Personally, I warned him that I'm turning into a groupie. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

 The very nice, handsome David Bizic, who is one of those people who is 1000x cuter offstage than onstage. And his beautiful wife is as beautiful as ever. 

Susanna Phillips, and yes, she's as adorable and charming as she looks in this photo. 

Matthew Rose, who is about 7 feet tall, so this photo is all optical illusion. But seriously, great voice.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Guglielmo Tell

I'll be honest: for the longest time I didn't know much about Rossini's William Tell except that its famous overture was the "Lone Ranger" theme. I also knew the tenor part was so murderously difficult that almost no one can sing it and it's supposed to be almost five hours or so uncut. This afternoon's rousing performance of Guglielmo Tell (thus called because the Italian translated version was used) at Carnegie Hall was my first live experience of this wonderful opera. It was one of those happy, music-affirming, life-affirming experiences that left the audience giddy with joy.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Recent Russki stuff I've seen

Before Thanksgiving break I saw two works which really represent the polar opposites of "Russian art." The Mikhailovsky Ballet closed out its tour with performances of that old warhorse Don Quixote, while over at the Metropolitan the "hot" ticket was Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a work that so offended that aesthete Josef Stalin that the work was banned for decades.

Don Quixote is a merry spin-off of one of the episodes in the Cervantes novel, but really, it's an excuse for Russian ballet companies to show off the virtues of Russian ballet companies. Their "the show must go on, otherwise I'm getting sent to a gulag" spirit is very much alive -- in the two performances of Don Quixote that I saw, every variation and character dancer seized the spotlight with an eagerness that was endearing. They made every sashay of the skirt or swing of the fan wonderfully vibrant. The way they beam at the audience after a well-danced solo turn is enough to warm the heart of the worst curmudgeon.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Vintage Flames of Paris clips

I went back for another performance of Flames of Paris this afternoon and enjoyed myself even more. Angelina Vorontsova (Jeanne) was a real charmer -- not as technically strong as Bondareva, but sweeter, more of an ingenue type. And her technique is way stronger than what youtube clips would suggest. Performance just flowed with energy and fun. And the little girl in the last act was adorable.

Other things I noticed: a beautiful corps de ballet girl of African descent. You don't usually see this in a Russian company. Did a little research and found out the girl was Olympiada Saurat Alfa N'gobi.

Here is Vorontsova with Zaytsev:

I also found these vintage clips.

Actor's pas de deux:

Flames of Paris, Character Dances:

Flames of Paris pas de deux:

A couple of thoughts: the Mikhailovsky and Mikhail Messerer has generally done an excellent job of preserving what's left of the extant Vainonen choreography. Whereas Ratmansky reworked the storyline to make it more palatable to modern audiences, he also made the ballet slightly more boring, without the raw energy and spirit of the original. The Messerer reconstruction embraces all the old-fashioned aspects of the ballet and runs with it. There's a little bit of something for everyone -- there's French court dance, folk dances, clog dances, Soviet lift pas de deux (the Freedom pas de deux), and good old fashioned bravura ballet. A fun time is had by all.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Flames of Paris

If the Mikhailovsky's Giselle was a strangely lifeless, depressing affair, their Flames of Paris is one of those good old-fashioned Russian extravaganzas that you can't help but love. Mikhail Messerer's production is a reconstruction of Stalin's favorite ballet (no joke). Uncle Joe apparently loved the cheerful, happy depiction of the French revolution, and it was a popular Soviet vehicle. Of course Vassily Vainonen's ballet eventually fell out of favor, but there's been this new-found interest in many of these dram-ballets. Alexei Ratmansky made his own reconstruction for the Bolshoi, and the Mikhailovsky followed suit last year. The Mikhailovsky's ballet apparently adhered much more to the 1932 original, but judging from how short the ballet is, I suspect a lot of filler was excised and we're left with Flames of Paris -- greatest hits!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Mikhailovsky's Lifeless, Leaden Giselle

I'm lucky enough to have seen Natalia Osipova's evolution in Giselle. I first saw her in this role when she debuted it with the ABT. That was 2009, five years ago. I remember that as a really special night at the ballet. Her Giselle was different -- she imbued those overfamiliar steps with her incredible elevation and ballon, and inhuman speed. Along with those remarkable dancing skills her interpretation I remember as being fresh and unpretentious. I also saw a 3-D film she made at the Mariinsky Ballet a year later, and another live performance in 2012, and another HD film she made with the Royal Ballet just this year.

Osipova's Giselle was never going to be to everyone's taste. Certain things don't come naturally to Osipova -- her face doesn't have the doll-like sweetness we expect in Giselle, and her style of dancing can come across as overly athletic and even aggressive. With that being said, I never thought I'd see her dance a Giselle as soulless and unmoving as the one I saw her dance tonight.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Show Boat

Last night I went to the New York Philharmonic's semi-staged rendition of the classic American musical Show Boat. I reviewed it for Parterre Box. An excerpt from the review:

If you are of the belief that Show Boat can stand on its own as a classic score and thus doesn’t need the trappings of musical production, you’ll love the New York Philharmonic’s “semi-staged” production. Conductor/director Ted Sperlingpresents the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein classic as almost entirely a concert opera. Only a thin backdrop of an old-fashioned river-boat set the scene. The singers and dancers were dressed in modern evening wear, and the action is limited to the thin apron of the Avery Fisher Hall stage. Sperling uses the entire Philharmonic, instead of the usual pared-down orchestra that’s typical for these musical presentations.