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Friday, April 3, 2015

The King and I

The King and I production that's in previews at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on Broadway is perhaps indicative of how many shows are nowadays: polished, professional, aesthetically pleasing. Bartlett Sher's revival does nothing radical with the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The iconic bits, like the long Jerome Robbins' ballet "Small House of Uncle Thomas" or the march of the King's children are lovingly recreated. Sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber aren't really spectacular but they follow the outlines of, well, what you'd expect to see in a The King and I production. Zuber has gone to great lengths to recreate Deborah Kerr's enormous hoop skirts.

This is in many ways a good thing. The American in Paris attempted to do too much and the results were (in my opinion) tedious and pretentious. The King and I is a perfect evening for those who loved the original musical or the classic film adaptation. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll whistle a happy tune.

There's only one problem: as it stands, the show seems more like a homage to past greatness than a living, vibrant musical. Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe as the leads are, as I said, polished and professional, but they don't catch fire the way Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr did. O'Hara and Watanabe seem distant and cordial to one another at all times -- that wonderful moment when in "Shall We Dance" when the King places his hands on Anna's waist goes for nothing.

For a glimpse of the sexual tension that was missing last night:

Listen to the quiver in Kerr's voice as she says, "No, as a matter of fact ..." Kelli's cheerful, matter-of-fact delivery of the same line neutered the whole scene.

Of course the Kerr/Brynner pairing was one of those happy felicities where lightning simply struck at the right time. Brynner was (let's not beat around the bush here) hot as hell, and Kerr had the perfect mixture of stiff upper lip with an underlying sexual curiosity and intensity. The two of them had fantastic chemistry. Yes, Kerr's singing had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon, yes the yellow-face on the extras was cringeworthy, yes several songs got cut, but the film still sizzles, all these years later. 

Kelli O'Hara (Anna) on the other hand exudes a cheery confidence and the niceness of an elementary schoolteacher. This is all to the good. But her Anna is not particularly warm. In fact, Kelli's Anna might be exhibit A for the crucial difference between warm and nice. Warm suggests inner feelings, niceness is the surface affect. The connection to the King came across as slightly superficial -- a bit like colleagues at a workplace who might like chatting during lunch, but it begins and ends there. Someone also needs to fix that overly fussy wig -- just way too much hair. 

Most of Anna's songs ("Hello Young Lovers," "Shall We Dance," Getting to Know You") are indestructible. O'Hara has an absolutely lovely voice, but the role seems to lie too low for her, as her voice sounded grainy and somewhat bottled up at times and didn't bloom the way I expected. I heard her as Valencienne in the Met's The Merry Widow and that high soprano part was way more her metier. 

Ken Watanabe's diction was at times very hard to understand -- not a surprise, as English is not his first language. The King doesn't have to do much actual singing, but Watanabe struggled sometimes with the bits of singing he had to do -- he completely flubbed a section of "Is a Puzzlement." I think before the show opens officially they still need to work with a diction coach so his dialogue is more clearly articulated.

Watanabe's acting sometimes mimicked the iconic Yul Brynner poses and mannerisms (like the exaggeration of "etc. etc. etc" and the pigeon-toed strut) but Watanabe did differentiate his portrayal from Brynner in some crucial ways. Brynner was full of swagger, Watanabe seemed plagued by self-doubts from the beginning. But at other times Watanabe looked just flat out uncomfortable all by himself on the stage, and I'm not sure this (or his lack of chemistry with O'Hara) can really be fixed. 

The production really shines in other ways -- first of all, there isn't that usual tiny Broadway band, but a respectable sized orchestra (situated under the stage, Bayreuth style). That made the music sound less canned than usual. The dancers and extras (including the children) were wonderful. They took great care to cast Asian dancers and actors and avoid yellow-face. "Small House of Uncle Thomas" was hands down the highlight of the show. The iconic Robbins choreography was as enchanting as ever and Ashley Park (Tuptim) nearly stole the show with her heartfelt portrayal of the unhappy Burmese "present" to the King.

In fact, Park is reason enough to see this show. She's absolutely lovely as Tuptim. Her duets with Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora) were highlights and not just throwaway numbers in a side plot. Ruthie Ann Miles gave a much more modern portrayal of Lady Thiang but it worked -- you believed that this strong-willed woman kept the peace in the palace and harem. Jon Viktor Corpuz (Prince Chulalongkorn) was also very strong and again, not a throwaway character.

There's so much good about this show that one is tempted to believe that maxim "good is the enemy of great." Kelli O'Hara is very good as Anna, she's just not great. Ken Watanabe is good as the King, but he's not great either. The production is good, the sets are good, the costumes are good, the singing is (mostly) good, the dancing is very very good, etc., etc., etc.

In contrast, there's a lot about the 1956 film that isn't good. The dubbing by Marni Dixon is intrusive . Rita Moreno in yellow-face as Tuptim is cringeworthy, as is the exaggerated pidgin English much of the cast adapts (it's thankfully minimized in the Sher revival). The obvious studio sets give the film an artificial feel. And the lack of irony in the "Western exceptionalism" zeitgeist comes across as hopelessly naive in the post-Vietnam era. But Yul Brynner's towering performance as the King and Deborah Kerr's equally heartfelt Anna make the film great.

Maybe good really is the enemy of great.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Met National Council Auditions: Grand Finals

What a wonderful afternoon! What a great thing to see young singers singing their hearts out and all that talent onstage. I was 4/4 with my picks. Only unsure about the fifth winner, who turned out to be tenor Joseph Dennis. And thanks to my friend Gerald Martin Moore I got to meet some of the amazing winners afterwards in the reception.
These were my predictions during intermission. I was 4/4. Unsure about the final winner.

The amazing Reginald Smith, whose voice really shook the rafters.
Elegant French mezzo soprano Virginie Verrez
Amazing bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee

An American in Paris

I actually hesitated before writing this review of An American in Paris because: 1. It's still officially in "previews" although the prices that are charged are the same as a regular show; and 2. maybe some time and distance will soften my stance on the show. But then I decided no, better to just lay it all out.

First, a little background: I am a huge fan of Robert Fairchild, the NYCB dancer who is the leading man in An American in Paris. I knew when he made his Broadway debut that I'd be there, no matter what. I am an even bigger fan of the classic Gershwin songbook and film score. I've been impressed with much of Christopher Wheeldon's choreography. A dancer I adore dancing (and singing) to music I loved -- who could ask for anything more?

An American in Paris turned out to be one of my bitterest disappointments. Even more so since this was my first "treat" to myself after finally landing a decent job. There was so much potential to make a great show that it's unbelievable how many wrong turns were taken. I guess I'll just go down the list, one by one, of ways An American in Paris turned out to be a disappointment:


You're going to shake your head at this. How can they mess up the Gershwin ballet suite, the great American songbook, the Concerto in F? Well, it's possible. The musical arrangements were a travesty. They were relentlessly brassy and pushy -- they managed to make classics like "Embraceable You" and "S'Wonderful" sound irritating. I wasn't expecting Ella Fitzgerald but I also thought that the Gershwin music would be played with some care. I guessed wrong.

I know comparisons are odious but Hershey Kay's orchestral arrangements for Balanchine's Who Cares? are superior in every way. They at least allow the Gershwin music to breathe.


Craig Lucas has decided to "fill in" some of the original film's paper-thin plots with more modern jokes and storylines. Jerry Mulligan is still an ex-pat/artist, but Adam is now Adam Hochberg, a Jewish composer with a gimped leg from the war, and Lise is a dancer. Jerry is the scenic designer and Adam is the composer for a ballet that's commissioned by Lise's guardians, the Baurels. Henri is the Baurels' son and still Lise's suitor. And Milo is still a rich patron of Jerry's art.

The main issue with the book is how they handle the problem of Henri. Henri in the first act is the constant source of "tee hee, he's gay" jokes. Which would be okay as a plot point because after all (spoiler alert!) Jerry has to end up with Lise. There's a big punch-line where Henri alone compliments a woman on her fabulous shoes. I thought some of the gay jokes were a bit too modern (Henri's mother asks him whether he's simply not interested in the "fairer sex") but whatever, comic relief and all that.

The whole issue is that in the second act, Henri switches sexuality. His gayness is dropped completely and he becomes a bit like the Paul Henreid character in Casablanca -- a noble (if stolid) resistance fighter. And the reason Lise feels indebted to Henri is because (spoiler alert!) she's Jewish and her parents were killed by the Nazis but Henri hid her during WWII. Henri says he'd "die" for Lise. In light of this total switch in characterization, the treatment of Henri in the second act by Adam and Jerry borders on cruel and uncomfortable and the gay jokes in Act One seem cheap and pointless.

The characterization of Adam was also a problem. Adam has been re-written to be a sour, hard-drinking Debbie Downer. Come on. This is a musical comedy. Actually have some, you know, comedy. Even the character of Milo is neither fun nor amusing -- in this musical book she's a completely lovely lady whom Jerry spurns because she's not Lise.

The character development for Jerry and Lise was always going to be weak -- it was in the 1951 film as well -- but I didn't expect it to be that weak. Jerry pleads and Lise pouts. That's about it. A shame because Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope have real charm.


Robert Fairchild (Jerry) and Leanne Cope (Lise) are terrific dancers and game singers. Fairchild in particular has a wistful, airy tenor that adds to his boy-next-door appeal. But with that being said, it was obvious that the show decided to cast around their singing limitations. Most of their singing numbers end as ensembles and Cope tries with "Man I Love" but can't quite cut the mustard. This splitting of the cast into the "the singers" and "the dancers" means that much of the Gershwin songbook is squandered in meaningless throwaway moments. Max von Essen (Henri) and Brandon Uranowitz (Adam) probably do the most actual singing but their characters are somewhat peripheral. Jill Paice (Milo Davenport) is a terrific actress and singer, so the choice not to give her much to sing is a puzzlement. I thought maybe giving Paice a Gershwin number would have added depth to Milo's character.

Veanne Cox and as Madame Baurel is also wasted -- she's actually a good singer, but she has almost nothing to sing either. She does do a good job as the shrewish Madame Baurel, and provides some much-needed comic relief.

The show probably would have been better off either having Jerry and Lise sing more (their voices are not bad -- not true Broadway voices, but acceptable) or having more of their scenes be pure-dance. As it stands right now it's a mish-mash.


This part disappointed me the most. I thought that if the singing and the book disappointed, the dancing would at least blow me away. But Wheeldon's choreography is for the most part incredibly formulaic Broadway steps. It's background dance choreography that you see in, well, pretty much every Broadway show. For those familiar with Wheeldon's ballet choreography, this is a disappointment -- you expect more.

The worst moment was the "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" number in which the charming tap-dancing of Max von Essen is marred by vulgar Busby-Berkeley line-dancing showgirls who quite frankly look like strippers and (even worse) an interruption by Brandon Uranowitz that makes no sense as isn't Adam supposed to have a gimped leg? A moment that might have humanized Henri and also showed off Max von Essen's talents is wasted by a whole bunch of extraneous noise.

More shockingly, the incredible dance talents of Fairchild and Cope are squandered as they (believe it or not) don't have much notable dancing. Oh sure there's a lot of dancing -- off-centered pirouettes for Fairchild because he's, you know, a jazzy kind of guy, and Cope gets lifted over and over again with her beautiful legs sticking out like arrows -- but it's empty choreography. Wheeldon is overfond of a one move in particular -- it's the one where the man lifts the woman to about shoulder length and twirls her around. Use it once, beautiful. Use it twice, beautiful. Use it 100 times, tiresome and tedious. There's one lovely moment that has so much potential but is wasted -- Jerry and Lise have a clandestine moment and dance to "Liza." I thought this would be a big dance production number -- maybe to a medley of Gershwin music. A moment like Astaire/Rogers "Cheek to Cheek" or "Never Gonna Dance." But nope. Jerry gives Lise a few twirls and bye-bye.

Only the final "An American in Paris" fantasy ballet (pictured above) sequence remotely lives up to Wheeldon's potential. I wasn't crazy about some of the corps dancing that Wheeldon has for the ballet but the moments between Jerry and Lise finally have some real choreography. There were even several steps that stood out to me, one being Jerry blissfully putting his cheek on Lise's leg. But it's frankly too little, too late. (The show, FYI, runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes).


The show is aesthetically pleasing -- sets and costumes by Bob Crowley are charming and evocative of post-war France. The projections are somewhat busy but do a good job of switching scenes with minimum fuss.

As mentioned, the cast is terrific. Fairchild really does have the Gene Kelly boy-next-door appeal, and Leanne Cope has gamine charm. Max von Essen is a great singer and dancer.

But as I said, An American in Paris is all about squandered opportunities. There is so much potential for greatness. But when the lights dimmed yesterday, all I could think was "thank god it's finally over."

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A (Long) Chat with Danielle de Niese

Soprano Danielle de Niese, photo by Sven Arnstein
Opera lovers of today might know Danielle de Niese from her astounding output in the last decade: starting with her famous video of Giulio Cesare as well as her continued participation in the Glyndebourne Festival and for New York operaphiles, her recent performances of The Enchanted Island, Così fan tutte, and Nozze di Figaro. But de Niese actually made her Met debut in 1998 as Barbarina and has been singing ever since she was 8 years old! Unfortunately Danielle won't be able to sing in the may revival of The Merry Widow, but for the happiest reasons: she is expecting her first child! But Danielle was kind enough to take the time to talk with me about her very long, successful career. Thank you Danielle!

Here are some highlights:

Ivy: Let’s start with how you began singing. I saw that you competed in a Whitney Houston competition as a child! Whitney Houston is one of my idols. Which songs did you sing, and tell me a little more about that experience!

DDN:  I fell in love with singing when I was about 5 years of age; my mother had already been singing to me since I was born, and my parents were definitely surprised that I was able to sing with perfect intonation at the age of 1 and 2! Then at the age of 5, my parents took me to classes and I was hooked! I studied singing, piano, music theory, jazz dance, modern dance, ballet, tap dance and drama. It was like Fame!! And then I won a National Talent contest called Young Talent Time which was televised on TV. It was the Australian equivalent of America’s got Talent, and was the youngest winner in the history of the competition at 9 years of age. I sang a Whitney Houston medley of "The Greatest Love of All" and "I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and it was amazing to win a big competition and sing on National TV! and I look at the clips of it now and it still brings me to tears— I was so tiny! Like you, Whitney is one of my idols! Her voice was a voice for a the ages and her genuine joy for what she did was inspirational- it is very sad that the end of her life was marred by tragedy.

Ivy: I assume you always liked to sing. When did you decide, however, that you were going to pursue a full-time career as a classical singer?

DDN: Well during that same time that I won Young Talent Time (about 8 years old), I also took my first classical singing lessons after my mom finally found a teacher in Victoria, Australia (where I was born and lived until 10 years of age) who would accept to teach a little 8 year old! The minute I started those lessons and discovered I was able to produce that classically produced sound in my voice quite naturally, I fell totally in love and was “bitten by the bug” as they say. 
I chose to become an opera singer because of all the things I studied as a child (Piano, Ballet, Jazz Dance, Tap Dance, Music Theory, Drama, and Voice), classical music was the thing that made me feel most special and distinguished. While other kids wanted to be a doctor, vet, nurse, fireman, I decided at that age that I wanted to become an opera singer! I think I realized even at 8 years of age (when I took my first classical voice lessons) that being able to produce a classically trained sound in my voice was a gift and something I couldn’t ignore. I also really really LOVED it, and still do- it’s like a love affair that continues even today! 

Ivy: I saw that you actually made your Met debut in 1998, as Barbarina! Obviously you were very young back then. How was that experience for you?

DDN: I was 18 years old and a freshman at Mannes College of Music when the MET came to my performance of Le Nozze di Figaro at Mannes in which I san Susanna. I was asked to audition for Maestro Levine and the MET which, at 18, was a big big surprise! I was at school when my manager told me the MET had   given me the role of Barbarina in this new Jonathan Miller production of “Figaro” conducted by Maestro Levine which would star Cecilia Bartoli, Renee Fleming, Bryn Terfel, Dwyane Croft and Susan Mentzer. I really could not believe my ears! It was a dream cast and Barbarina was a very coveted role in this production

However, they said they were not sure that I was old enough for the program, whether I was mature enough and whether I can handle the rigorous demands made of a Met artist, which obviously at first seemed wild, because I had just been given a MET debut when I would be 19 years old! :)
But it was the right assessment to make- it would have been one thing for me to perform on stage but another thing to go into a rigorous program at 18 years of age with people twice my age. I was asked to do a coaching with John Fisher to ascertain if I had was as developed as a musician as I was a performer. Fortunately, because I had the piano and music theory training since 7, I passed Mr Fisher’s coaching with flying colors, and was then invited to join the Lindemann Young Artist’s Program, which was wonderful because of the excellent training I would receive whilst in the program! 

Ivy: I think it’s safe to say your “big break” came in the 2005 Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare. That performance made its way to DVD, and is considered one of the most excellent recordings of the opera. Do you ever go back and look at that performance and if so, how do you react? Are you proud of it, or do you think, “There are things I would never do today now”? 

Yes it is one of my all-time favorite experiences, and was a huge milestone of my career. This David McVicar production of  ”Julius Caesar” has become an instant classic. It changed the way people looked at opera, pushing singers to another level. People are so moved by the piece.

I can never get away from the iconic role of Cleopatra. It has such resonance with people, some of whom tell me that their kids watch “Julius Caesar” at home. Professors as well as students and even children have responded to it. I always say to people that for me it’s like Titanic was for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. For those two actors to be part of that during that period of time that changed everything, that had such a massive success and a massive impact! And Giulio Cesare was like the Titanic of the opera world, you know? It just had a global impact, and people knew it from the moment we were rehearsing. You could feel that there was a gasp in the air; people would come to us and go, “oh my God I hear that Cesare will be really good!” People would come and watch our rehearsals. When we did the first run of the first choreographic number of Cleopatra, when as we finished it I was on the side hyperventilating, but everyone else was clapping and they were so excited! It was an opera that really changed the game. It really changed the way we use choreography, and I think people will look back in history and realize that it was one of the very first productions - one that really pushed it – that had not just choreography on the stage but actually the singers themselves participating in full of the choreography.

I don’t often have time to go back and look at the DVD, but recently I did a wonderful talk with the wonderful Fred Plotkin which was streamed online and they showed a clip of me as Cleopatra and.. I found myself tearing up with emotion. I am so so proud of this career achievement and the life-long friendships that have been forged and I never ever think that there are things I would never do- I would do them and would do the role for many years to come! I performed the role in that show four times, and amazingly, each time I started rehearsals (it’s a very aerobic role!), I thought “oh I must have some stamina reserves out of having been used to doing this before” and each time I didn’t; I had to start from the beginning again, to learn again how to regulate my heart. I always had to do cardio exercises on a treadmill while I was rehearsing, trying to sing some aria while running, because I had to get used to singing with a high heart rate! 

Ivy: You’ve worked so many times with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. Could you tell me a little bit about the maestro and his methods? How does he draw such incredible work out of singers? 

DDN: Bill Christie is an inspiring mentor, a brilliant collaborator, a force to be reckoned with from the pit, and a dear friend.
Some of the best performances of my life---even my debut Decca recording-- have all taken place under his baton He has an unbeatable energy, a great love for the music and the drama, and an innate sense of timing and dramatic flair- it’s these qualities that brings out the best work from all the people he works with. 

Ivy: Also, you’ve since then sung Cleopatra in this revival. How do you keep each revival fresh and spontaneous? 

DDN: Well for me, the thing is that if you are really listening and reacting in real time, then every show will be fresh and spontaneous! Everything in a story has never happened until that moment you play it out on stage— So I never have to think about making a show fresh and spontaneous because they are never the same! :)

Ivy: You’ve had such an incredible career singing baroque opera. However, I know a lot of opera lovers that still say baroque opera is too specialized for them, almost like they’re intimidated of it! What would you like to say to the people who are intimidated by baroque, so to speak? Is there an opera you’d recommend as a starter for people who think “da capo” and run away?

DDN: Interestingly I know a lot of opera lovers who adore Baroque and won’t have anything else! So there’s probably equal amounts who love it and can’t relate to it. 
To those who can’t relate to it, or who feel that compared to more contemporary opera that the soundscape of baroque music is too sparse for their liking, I would say that Baroque music has provided the musical skeleton to every wonderful song we know and love today and the melodies don’t get catchier than those from the baroque period- in fact baroque arias are like pop songs and I wrote a piece that touched on this subject for the Huffington Post.

Ivy: I love your video of L’Incoronazione di Poppea with Phillip Jaroussky. But I’d like to ask you about Poppea. The music for her is so beautiful, so seductive, but the character is actually really manipulative and a villainess! How do you balance those two sides of that character?

Two “bad" people make one good couple!  But seriously though, in actuality I don’t feel that Poppea is “bad" and that is, for me, what makes her so fascinating. “Bad” people live amongst us and they probably don’t think of themselves as bad. They still live rich lives, they fall in love, they align with people who share their interests and they have lots of “good” people stuff like birthdays, children, holidays etc.. For me, Poppea is someone who acts out of the best interests of those she loves. She loves Nero so she will do whatever it takes to protect his interests, be that ruthless (like with Seneca), or ego-boosting (like with Nero). Their final duet moves continually from dissonance to suspension and resolution. For me, it’s rather perfect that the duet ends with a unison because these two people are so synched in their intentions and desires that they basically turn into one. 

Ivy: You sang in the Met’s new production of Nozze di Figaro. It’s really different from the old Jonathan Miller production. One of the things I noticed in the Eyre production was that the relationship between Susanna and the Countess was directed to be more formal and employer/employee. What do you think about this? Are Susanna and the Countess friends? 

DDN: This production is quite different from the Miller production because of the period change. In this time period, ladies maids were a great deal more educated and some even spoke more than one language. Though there was definitely a class distinction on the outside in formal situations, and though the dress code between them is a great deal more stark than in the original period of the piece, in an intimate setting in this time period, these two ladies could have had more to talk about than the Susanna and Countess of the original time period and might have been closer. So I think in this show they conduct a relationship that one can call “friendship” in terms of the Countess taking Susanna into her confidence, though in a formal household of the 1920’s there would have been a very distinct line drawn between the relationship in public and the friendship behind closed doors.

Ivy: We saw you around the world in an HD of Cosi fan tutte. Despina can be played a variety of ways — I’ve always seen her as kind of mean, to be honest! A little shit-stirrer. Do you see her the same way?

DDN: I see Despina as a girl who would rule the world if only she was born into a different class. I think she’s happy to wake these innocent girls up to the realities of life and she’s so hell-bent on proving her point that she too falls for the guys and can’t see the wool being pulled over her eyes!

Ivy: And do you think there’s anything going on between her and Don Alfonso? Their’s enough ambiguity in the da Ponte libretto to suggest there might be an interest there.

DDN: In my opinion, there has definitely most definitely been something between her and Don Alfonso in the past. There is far too much innuendo in their dialogue for something not to have happened! :)

Ivy: Also, in Cosi fan tutte you’re working with Maestro Levine, who one could say has a very Romantic approach to Mozart. Very little appogiaturas, ornamentations, or cadenzas are allowed. Is it a big adjustment working with Levine after working with Les Arts Florissants? Do you have to adjust your voice, your ornamentations, even the tuning? 

DDN: Not a big adjustment at all, I just didn’t do the cadenzas I did on my Mozart album (even though it was, they say, written by Mozart), my appoggiaturas remained the same. Maestro Levine has such a sense of dramatic timing and such a deep understanding of character that he doesn’t need any extras, he infuses the opera with so much inner life it’s been such a pleasure to work with him, as always.

Ivy: You’re well known for your portrayals of Despina and Susanna. I’m surprised you haven’t sung Zerlina. Or have you? Is that in the future? 

DDN: I really should do Zerlina— ok I will do it! I did do it once for a role and house debut (with two hours rehearsal) at the 2003 Prague Spring Festival when I was 23. IT was great fun!

Ivy: Can you tell us about future roles you’re that you’re studying? What can we look forward to in the future from you? 

DDN: I am currently working on two one act Operas by Ravel (Conception in L’Heure Espagnol and L’Enfant in L’Enfant et les Sortileges) for the Ravel Double Bill this summer at Glyndebourne Festival. I will then create the role of Superstar American Diva Roxanne Coss in the world premiere of Bel Canto be composer Jimmy Lopez at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The opera will be conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and directed by Kevin Newbury and I’m so honored and excited to be creating this role. I’ve also got a new production of Agrippina with Robert Carsen and a new production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Alessandro Corbelli in 2016 (can’t say where yet!). So lots of new roles and new collaborations for me this year! :)

Ivy: One last thing. Boy or girl? (Or surprise?)

DDN: It’s a surprise!! Longest wait of my life! :)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Winter Season Conclusion

Today was the first day of March but New York got hit with yet another snowstorm. It's okay though -- the New York City Ballet's final Winter Season performance was enough to put a smile on any balletomane's face.

The performance started off with a performance Square Dance that might be the finest performance I've seen at the NYCB all winter, period. Ashley Bouder was of course magnificent in the leading lady role -- crisp, secure, fast, with endless reserves of horsepower, but with enough delicacy that's appropriate for this extremely courtly ballet. She's still hands down probably the strongest allegro dancer of the company. Anthony Huxley matched Bouder beat for beat, jump for jump. His adagio solo was buttery smooth. But the corps behind them were with them every step -- it was just one of those performances where you got the sense of a happy dancing community, which is the key for Square Dance.

First things first: how great it was to see Harlequinade for the first time! I never thought "Balanchine" and "Drigo" would ever be in the same sentence but Balanchine's homage to both the Petipa ballet and the traditions of commedia dell'arte is a delightful cotton candy confection filled with a cutesy love story, even cuter kids, and of course (this being Balanchine) lots of terrific dancing. No, this isn't a Balanchine masterpiece (it's great, just not on his most exalted level) but it's fun, colorful, and digestible. Balanchine's version of fast food.

I don't think the NYCB audience knew quite how to respond to such an old-fashioned ballet -- the mime jokes between Colombine's father Cassandre (Daniel Prottas) and Léandre, the stuffy suitor (Robert La Fosse) sometimes came and went without a giggle.

The cast is probably the best City Ballet could assemble today. Tiler Peck (Colombine) was crisp and secure in her dancing and gave her Colombine the same hard edge she gives her Swanilda. When she leans down to kiss Harlequin she always turns up her backside in an exaggerated way, to show Colombine's aloofness. If her first act was cute, in the second act Tiler's multiple fouettes and extended balances were just a delight to watch. If I have a complaint of Tiler it's that in her pas de deux she seems to be striving for a remote, dreamy aura that's very appropriate for some roles (The Man I Love) but less so for others (like Colombine). It's veering dangerously close to an affectation.

Joaquin de Luz (Harlequinade) has the richer role. de Luz is still able to execute all those fast jumps and beats, but what's more, there was a touch of melancholy to his clown. I loved his mandolin solo, which has echoes of both Apollo and the sentimental Neapolitan love songs.

Erica Pereira and Daniel Ulbricht seemed slightly wasted in the roles of Pierrette and Pierrot. They were fine, they just didn't have much to do at all in terms of dancing, and Pereira didn't really capture the shrewish domineering nature of Peirette. Emilie Gerrity (Good Fairy) certainly has the beauty and glamour necessary for this rather bizarre part (The Good Fairy revolves onstage and quickly begins some rather va-va-voom dancing) but she lacks the benevolent fairy touch. A little too Miss America. Lauren King as the chief Alouette was pretty but wan.

The real stars of Harlequinade are the kids of the SAB, who parade around the stage in Act Two with impeccable timing and musicianship (as well as very cute, colorful costumes). Now, Harlequinade is very thin and I think he does use the SAB kids to pad this ballet, but it was still a joy to see their perfect turnout, their cute beaming faces, and their flawless exits and entrances. The future of ballet is in good hands with these kids.

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."