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Friday, April 29, 2016

Spring Season Diaries, part one: shiny Jewelry

The incomparable Tall Girl of Teresa Reichlen, photo @Andrea Mohin

Spring Season is so hectic that it's easier simply to keep shorter diaries of things you saw. So the first two weeks of spring season I saw three ballets at NYCB. Here are my brief thoughts:

April 19, 2016 - New York City Ballet's Spring Season kicked off on April 19 with a performance of Jewels that was packed to the rafters even in the fourth ring (unusual on a weeknight). It was not the best NYCB could offer as Jewels. Emeralds was the biggest mess -- Amar Ramasar is completely miscast in the lead cavalier role and this ballet brings out the least in Tiler Peck. She's good, but you can always see her working too hard to achieve a resemblance of a dreamy reverie. Rebecca Krohn in the second solo part gave one of her usual low impact, bland performances. Rubies was much better. Megan Fairchild and Gonzalo Garcia didn't have the spiky edge that this ballet calls for but they did have the flirtatiousness and playfulness down pat. Teresa Reichlen reprised her unparalleled Tall Girl portrayal in Rubies. The cool, remote authority she exudes (as well as the mile-long legs and nonchalance) make this a modern day classic portrayal. She has so much strength -- she did all those unsupported developées and penchées without any strain. When she exited the stage with one last unsupported arabesque penchée the audience clapped loudly. Then Diamonds. I've now seen Sara Mearns in Diamonds several times and she looks more miscast each time. At this point in her career she's simply not classical enough to pull this off. Her arms get sloppier every day. She has a habit of pushing through the music and punching out the steps that takes away from the reverie of the pas de deux. In the Scherzo section she failed to play with the music, but again muscled gracelessly through the steps. Tyler Angle was her attentive partner.

Famous diagonal in Symphony in Three Movements, photo @ Paul Kolnik
April 22, 2016 - Order was restored three nights later in a rather eclectic mixed repertory bill. Bournonville Divertissements is still a work in progress for City Ballet dancers. But the wonderful thing is watching certain dancers "get it" this time. For instance, Indiana Woodward stood out in the Napoli pas de six as someone who just gets the style. She's sweet, unaffected, with a buoyant jump and soft landings. Anthony Huxley (the soloist in the pas de six) is another dancer who looks at home in Bournonville. He gets the deep plies, the direction changing jumps, the modest arms. The two of them were also wonderful in La Sylphide this winter. I have high hopes that Woodward will be able to one day carry the more romantic, classical portion of NYCB's repertoire.

Moves is Jerome Robbins' ballet that's set to no music. Instead, we're supposed to concentrate on the sound generated by the dancers moving through space. To achieve the maximum sound Robbins' choreography is rather cold and angry -- lots of foot stomping, thigh slapping. I suspect the ballet was gimmicky when it premiered in 1959, and it's gimmicky now. The two central pas de deux despite their complicated contortions don't have much sensuality and instead come across as sexually aggressive. Despite the scowls and predatory positions the ballet feels shallow -- in fact a sort of City Ballet beauty pageant, as the tallest and most model-like members of the company (many still in the corps) paraded around onstage in attractive workout clothes. Adrian Danchig-Waring and Emilie Gerrity in the central pas de deux (the one where he carries her offstage in the shooting duck position) looked like an underwear model ad.

After intermission the meat and potatoes of the program came out. First, Tiler Peck absolutely blazed through the Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. This is an overdone gala piece but actual City Ballet performances are surprisingly rare. Anyway, back to Peck. She flew around the stage for 9 minutes with her trademark accelerated chaine turns and bouncy fast footwork. Andrew Veyette partnered her very well (great fishdives, complete with the downward head dip). A few caveats: Peck went for a series of straight fouettes instead of the alternating step sequence between fouettes. Veyette still has very hard landings on his cabrioles, to the point where he lands with a large audible thud. Ouch. Despite these reservations the overall performance had an infectious energy that had the audience cheering and demanding multiple curtain calls.

Hyltin and Stanley, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Brief pause, and the army of 16 white leotarded girls in that famous Symphony in Three Movements diagonal upped the energy level of the performance even more. All of the soloists were stellar -- Ana Sophia Scheller surprised me by going head to head with Daniel Ulbricht in the famous leapfrog jumping sequence in the first movement. Sterling Hyltin and Taylor Stanley were wonderful at conveying the the contrasts in Balanchine's steps -- being turned in and then turned out, arms and feet stretched and then flexed, arms rippling and then aggressively clawing. Hyltin herself completed a blindingly fast, expansive ménage of pique turns and from where I was sitting I saw that she had so much momentum she crashed into the wings face first when she went offstage. Megan LeCrone and Joseph Gordon completed the sextet and both were wonderful. LeCrone used her lanky, jelly-like torso to great effect and nailed every single pirouette in that lengthy sequence towards the end of the first movement. The corps were amazing -- this ballet demands total energy and concentration from them and they didn't disappoint. They really were an army of soldiers.

Reichlen and Janzen in Diamonds, photo @ Paul Kolnik

April 28, 2016 - Another performance of Jewels. Several reasons to be happy. For one, novelty factor. Jewels casting tends to be very repetitive so until tonight I'd never seen this particular Emeralds combo, Hyltin/Veyette in Rubies or Reichlen/Janzen in Diamonds. In Emeralds, Abi Stafford gave the liveliest performance I've ever seen her give, Jared Angle continues to prove his worth as the senior danseur partner, Sara Mearns was actually restrained and elegant in the Mimi Paul role, she and Adrian Danchig-Waring walked up a storm in their walking duet, and finally, Taylor Stanley/Sara Adams/Meagan Mann might be the new winning trio ticket. Rubies: Savannah Lowery as the Tall Girl in Rubies was simply not as strong and iconic as Tess on opening night. Hyltin/Veyette were not quite as cute as Fairchild/Garcia (who looked like puppies) but they had more humor and edge. Veyette looks way more like Eddie Villela's self-described "leader of the pack in Queens." Hyltin has more flexibility and extension than Fairchild, and could really hold those sudden lunge poses. And as I said, she's less "cute" than Fairchild, but she has more sass.

Reichlen in Diamonds were maybe the best Diamonds goddess I've ever seen? (Point of reference: I've seen Wendy Whelan, Maria Kowroski, and Sara Mearns do it). Wendy had the musicality but lacked something in glamour. Kowroski had the glamour but not the technique. Mearns has the technique but not the elegance. Reichlen had it all -- the beauty, the elegance, the statuesque strength and technique. Even her remote introversion worked here. Janzen looked cute and disappeared behind Reichlen, which is the point of this very goddess-centric work. It's exciting to see the rows of newish corps members and apprentices in Diamonds -- they're all beautiful, tall, and you can imagine them dancing the leads one day. It's an exciting time to be a fan at NYCB. Three performances down, at least seven (???) to go?

In other news, Angel Corella has fired 40% of the PABallet roster. I was shocked at the dismissal of Evelyn Kocak, who I remember dancing very well in the PA Ballet's trip to the Joyce. Made me more grateful to follow the NYCB where, for the most part, the roster stays constant, and you can follow dancers as they develop and grow from season to season.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Miami City Ballet Paints the Town Red

Serenade by the MCB, photo @ Andrea Mohin

When out of town ballet companies that are not The Royal Ballet/Mariinsky/Bolshoi/Paris Opera Ballet tour NYC, the formula is often depressingly predictable. They book for a few performances at the Joyce/City Center/Theatre Formerly Known as State Theatre, they bring some modern works along with some Balanchine, they try their best, and the reaction of the NY audience is polite but distant. This makes the Miami City Ballet's tour to NYC this week all the more remarkable. They got the snotty "I saw SUZANNE do this" audience to stand up, scream, cheer. They not only exceeded expectations, they smashed them into smithereens. Miami City Ballet came to the Big Apple and painted the town red.

How did they do this? Simple. They picked ballets that highlighted their strengths and hid any weaknesses. The first thing you notice about the dancers is their incredible vigor. There are no "alabaster princesses" (as Mr. B called his muses) among the dancers -- almost all of them are like Energizer Bunny rabbits. The second thing you notice is that this is a company that embraces diversity. There aren't rows of corps girls who are alike in shape, build, and appearance. There is a great variety in height, body type, and yes, skin color. Rather than try to squeeze the dancers into a specific mold, it seems as if at MCB the differences are embraced. You have tiny little dynamo  Nathalia Artha burning up the stage side by side with stately veteran Jennifer Kronenberg. It's clear though that despite the diversity this company dances with a similar spirit and purpose, and sometimes that is just as effective as having a row of girls where every finger is held at the exact same angle.

I caught two programs, and both programs showed how shrewdly this whole trip was planned. Lourdes Lopez opened the tour with Serenade, that seminal Balanchine ballet that until now I had thought required incredible purity and a feeling of sisterhood among the famous 17 girls. MCB doesn't have that and probably never will -- it's not in their DNA to embrace architectural, geometrical shapes. You notice how wild the girls are -- their abandon reminded me of the Wilis. And then the soloists come on, and you realize that MCB hasn't changed the ballet's steps, but it is danced with a very different accent. For one, this becomes very clearly the story of the Waltz Girl (former ABT soloist Simone Messmer, making her role debut!) and her death.  Nathalia Artha (Russian Girl) dances up a storm, and Emily Bromberg (Dark Angel) has a quieter presence, but their antics seem like traps designed to pull Waltz Girl to her death. The whole ballet takes on a very sinister edge. Rainer Krenstetter hovered creepily over the fallen Waltz Girl's body like Death Spirit. The famous ending in which the Waltz Girl is carried offstage had a step that was given a very strong emphasis -- Messmer held a long, tender embrace with one of the girls before she was carried off. It was like Giselle embracing Albrect before she returns to her grave. Is this ur-text Balanchine? Probably not. But it was compelling, and Messmer was incredibly strong -- beautiful jump, rock-solid balances, expressive face. Messmer was a soloist whose career at ABT floundered until she finally packed her bags and left. So glad to see that she's found an artistic home in Miami. New York's loss, South Florida's gain.

Nathalia Arja in Symphonic Dances photo @ Alexander Izilaev

I admit I wasn't a fan of Ratmansky's Symphonic Dances -- as is often the case with Ratmansky he seems to be saying too much and too little at the same time. There's a vague nod to Soviet tractor ballets -- the first and third movements evoke the humble, hearty spirits of field peasants (although oddly dressed -- the guys in the third movement seem to be wearing bags over their heads), while the second movement is rather obviously the bored ballroom waltzing of the bourgeoisie. But the whole thing was too hyperactive to really make an impact -- the eye just saw overly busy steps. But again, the dancing was remarkable. Nathalia Arja received huge applause as the girl with the red dot -- she ended the ballet with a monster dive into the arms of a dancer (Kleber Rebello?) who carries her offstage. She was at all times the solo spitfire. Equally remarkable was Jeanette Delgado, another dancer who exemplified the "comrade peasant" spirit. It was their irrepressible energy that made Symphonic Dances appealing despite itself.

The second program again showcased the inexhaustible energy of this company. Justin Peck's Heatscape is set to the pounding music of Martinu's first piano concerto and as with a lot of Peck is notable more for its athleticism and vigor than truly memorable steps. But it's fun to watch. The beginning and ending reminded me of Peck's Rodeo, with the entire cast running towards the curtain. The middle movement (danced by Tricia Albertson and Kleber Rebello) was a hyperactive pas de deux with Rebello repeatedly throwing Albertson in the air when she's in arabesque position. Liam Scarlett's Viscera was considerably less portentous than anything else I've seen from him. There was structure and contrast in mood, and the music (Lowell Lieberman's Piano Concerto #1) had clear dancing beats . Scarlett himself designed the costumes and they were wonderful -- leotards, but made of thick velvet and full of deep reds and purples. The ballet is dominated by two contrasting dance styles -- the stately, serene veteran dancers Jennifer Kronenberg and Carlos Guerra (retiring after this season) in their quiet duet vs. the turning, jumping ball of energy that is Jeanette Delgado. Delgado is one of those dancers who is so secure in her core that she can go off-balance on purpose without ever losing her balance, if that makes sense. I don't know if Viscera or Heatscape are really a great or even good ballets, but again, MCB dancers know how to sell their material.

Bourrée Fantasque, photo @ Renato Penteado

The program ended with Bourrée Fantasque, a gem of a Balanchine ballet that isn't currently in the New York City Ballet repertoire. Bourrée shows how much pop culture Balanchine was able to absorb and then insert into his classical ballets. The score by Emanuel Charbrier sounds like salon music. The first movement with a comically mismatched pair (the pint-sized Shimon Ito with the leggy Jordan-Elizabeth Long) reminded one of a vaudeville act. The pratfalls might have been too cute by half but the audience laughed. The second movement had Simone Messmer in the trademark Karinska-style tulle gown. When Balanchine brings out those long tulle gowns usually the mood is foreboding and ominous (think La Valse!). But the mood of the movement in Bourrée was showy rather than serious -- think big MGM "ballet" production number. The third movement was really an eleven-o-clock Broadway showstopper. Girls were hoofing, they were jumping joyfully across the stage in huge grande jetés, and, best of all, they repeatedly ran around the stage in a big happy circle. In the middle of this was again the irrepressible Nathalia Artha, this time with the charming Renato Penteado. Only Balanchine can do these ballet finales where the stage just seems flooded with joy. Why doesn't NYCB revive this? It's delightful.

MCB was Eddie Villela's brainchild and it still looks very much like Eddie's company -- the dancers have the same strength and many of them even have the same Eddie jump. The transition from Villela to Lourdes Lopez in 2012 was not smooth -- there were many bitter feelings, all played out in the press. But this tour to NYC shows the company is in good hands with Lopez. A few caveats: the women shone very brightly, the men less so. And all this raw power and energy is wonderful, but can they dance Petipa, or better yet, can they dance the "imperial" Balanchine pieces like Theme and Variations? I'd need to see this company more to make that judgment. But that's the point -- I want to see more of this company. Come back soon, MCB. You've already conquered NY.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Elektra - Game of Thrones

Meier and Stemme in Chereau's Elektra, photo @Marty Sohl

My favorite TV series now that Mad Men is over is Game of Thrones. I've followed the sex and gore in Westeros since the first season and have also read all of George R,R. Martin's books. One of the greatest things about Game of Thrones is the character of Cersei. Cersei is the series' great villainess. She's pure evil. It would take too long to list all of Cersei's depraved machinations and deeds. But one of the fascinating aspects of Cersei is that all of her actions are understandable, and even sympathetic. In her own mind, she's doing the right thing, and when we watch her, we find ourselves agreeing.

Last night the Met premiered Patrice Chéreau's intelligent and insightful production of Richard Strauss's Elektra and I thought about how everyone in Elektra (at least as directed by Chéreau) is like Cersei -- a monster who happens to be 100% right. Chéreau died before he could personally direct this production (it premiered in Aix in 2013) but Chéreau's DNA was all over the evening. This production took away the campy sensationalism that Elektra can sometimes become and really brought the Greek tragedy back into the opera. 

The unit set (by Richard Peduzzi) at first looks unremarkable -- Mycanae is an orderly grayish courtyard where the servants are (surprise!) cleaning. The look is vaguely Hellenic and timeless at the same time. And for the first part of the opera there really wasn't anything "special" about Chéreau's direction -- Elektra (Nina Stemme) was indeed the feral creature of most other Elektra productions -- she crawled on all fours and burrowed in an underground basement that was accessible by a trap door. She carried around a blue security blanket. When she sang "Allein" it was clear her physical, emotional, and psychological separation from everyone was an unbridgeable gap.

Pieconzka and Stemme, photo @ Marty Sohl
Where Chéreau's intelligence as a director became evident was the first duet between Elektra and her sister Chrysothemis (Adrianne Pieczonka). The contrast between the two sisters was remarkable -- Elektra is dressed in baggy pants and a grubby T-shirt, whereas Chrysothemis for all her deprivation looks beautiful and put together. And when Klytämnestra entered (Waltraud Meier) suddenly this looked like a real family, not just an opera family. Chrysothemis physically and facially resembles Klytämnestra, and Elektra looks nothing like them. Waltraud Meier plays Klytämnestra not as a cackling harridan, but someone very much like Chrysothemis -- determined to maintain appearances no matter what the circumstances. Like mother, like daughter. Klytämnestra and Elektra are unable to reconcile not only because of Agamemnon's death but because mother and daughter simply have two different worldviews. How many times have we heard "I just can't get along with my mother? She just doesn't understand me, and she never has." That was them, onstage. 

There are so many other thoughtful, human touches to Chéreau's personenregie and I don't want to give away how he handles the final confrontations of the opera but one way he really makes this a real drama is the way he directs the servants. The oldest servant (Roberta Alexander, 67 years of age) was also the most sympathetic to Elektra. That makes sense, as she would have known Elektra as a child and seen her before she became feral and consumed by anger and rage. There are no small roles in this production. You can tell the servants also live in fear, from the way they roll out a red carpet and bow obsequiously to Klytämnestra to their furtive side glances whenever Elektra comes onstage. Even Orest's guardian (Kevin Short) was a vividly realized, chilling character. His reaction (or non-reaction) to the bloodbath spoke volumes about what this man has seen, what horrors Orest's journey might have entailed. This level of thoughtfulness and text-specific direction makes Chéreau's death that much more of a loss to the artistic community.

Stemme and Owens, photo @ Marty Sohl
Chéreau's production is so intelligent that I wish I could say the evening was an unalloyed success. There was however some seriously compromised singing. Nina Stemme despite her committed acting and wonderful interpretation struggled with the vocal demands of the role throughout the night. In the beginning of the opera, her middle simply didn't have the richness, steadiness and resonance to cut over the huge orchestra, although the attacks on the upper register were exciting. Later in the opera, just when the core of her voice settled, her top turned wiry and harsh. Maybe it was opening night nerves, but the exciting climaxes of Elektra's music were subdued when it was so clear Stemme was working that hard to control her instrument. Adrianne Pieczonka has a bright soprano with a surprising ability to cut through the orchestra, but her upper register can also sound harsh and colorless. The interaction between the sisters was beautifully portrayed though -- as I said, this seemed like an actual family rather than an "opera family." When Elektra spits "I curse you" to her sister it wasn't just a vocal and dramatic climax. It was an intimate family drama.

Waltraud Meier's ageless beauty and incredible acting skills almost made up for the fact that at this point, the core of her voice simply is insufficient to carry over the orchestra. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen wisely withdrew the volume during the riveting mother-daughter confrontation scene but even with the orchestra marking there were times I saw Meier's mouth open and very little sound came out. She eventually settled on a form of sing-speech but Strauss's music really demands more voice than Meier can provide at this stage of her career. Meier did not do the traditional cackle at the "news" of Orest's death. It was an unorthodox but effective choice. Queen Cersei does not need to cackle to exert her power.

Eric Owens (Orest) had the opposite problem -- his handsome bass-baritone had the firmness, richness, and pure volume that the ladies lacked. But for whatever reason he fit awkwardly into the production. Chéreau's personenregie calls for more subtlety than Owens can provide -- Owens is a straightforward sort of performer, and Chéreau's vision of Orest is ambiguous and unsettling. Burkhard Ulrich as Aegisth had a similar problem -- plenty of voice, but unable to make an impact in his brief time onstage. He seemed like a bland guy in a suit.

Esa-Pekka Salonen got a huge deserved ovation for his sensitive reading of Strauss's score. If one craved decibels, he didn't disappoint -- the overwhelming loudness of the orchestra was ear-splitting in the side balcony boxes where I sat. But he also was scrupulous about following the almost lilting waltz rhythms that dot the score, and the Met orchestra sounded gorgeous during the more lyrical moments.

Last night's performance vocally wasn't an Elektra for the ages -- in terms of pure vocal fireworks, the concert at Carnegie Hall with Christine Goerke was more exciting. But the Met now has a wonderful new production of Strauss's seminal opera, one that hopefully will be handled with care in upcoming revivals. Strauss's opera and Hofmannstahl's libretto are not subtle. They were designed to shock, to provoke, to offend. But Sophocles' play is a timeless drama about love, hate, power, and revenge. Chéreau managed to remain true to both Strauss/Hofmannstahl and Sophocles. This was Greek tragedy at its best.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Pennsylvania Ballet - Contemporary Ballet Done Right

Lillian DiPiazza and Arian Molina Soca in Grace Action, photo by Alexander Izilaev
It was almost on a whim that I decided to check out Pennsylvania Ballet's program of contemporary pieces at the Joyce Theatre. PA Ballet has received a lot of buzz since the appointment of beloved ABT principal Angel Corella as Artistic Director. Corella immediately put his stamp on the company -- he fired longtime staff and has shuffled the roster. The Joyce Theatre brochure had a "letter" from Corella in which he tellingly talks about how the company just finished performing "my new Don Quixote." This is HIS company now.

The program he brought to NYC are all recent pieces -- the oldest (Matthew Neenan's Keep) premiered in 2009. And they're all what I would call pop ballet. They're not masterpieces, nor do they intend to be. And I must say, they chose three pop ballets that, unlike a lot of contemporary ballet pieces, were refreshingly watchable and fun. There was no screeching dissonant music, no agonizing ennui and angst, and best of all, the pieces were SHORT! The whole program was like eating a bag of potato chips and ice cream -- empty calories to be sure, but enjoyable.

Lillian diPiazza
First of all, the dancers of PA Ballet are gorgeous. Not just generically good-looking dancers, but strikingly drop dead gorgeous. The most beautiful of them all was the couple of Lillian diPiazza and Arian Molina Soca. These two dark-haired stunners were the centerpiece of both Matthew Neenan's Keep and Nicole Fonte's Grace Action. Not only are they facially beautiful, but they dance with this authority and style that set them apart from the rest of the company. Even when diPiazza is spinning face down on a stool (why???) in Keep she moves like a prima ballerina.

The weakest piece of the evening was the opener. Matthew Neenan's Keep is one of those ballets that has a severe disconnect between the music, the choreography, the costumes, and the mood. None of the elements were bad but it never came together. The music was to string quartets by Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov but the costumes looked like flamenco and the choreography was a mix of uh ... contortionist contemporary ballet and Alvin Ailey? I really couldn't keep track. Three couples were in flouncy dresses, with Lillian diPiazza at first looking like that iconic Revelations woman with the flouncing skirt on the stool. But her choreography was mostly of the "woman lifts leg, wraps around man's neck" sort. It was watchable, but there wasn't any cohesion.

Revelations stools

Trey McIntyre's The Accidental was much more enjoyable. It was more modern dance than ballet -- actually, you could picture Paul Taylor using this music. It was set to a charming, plaintive set of songs from Patrick Watson's Adventures in Your Own Backyard, and the choreography didn't say much either but sometimes it doesn't need to. In a 20 minute ballet, choreography that is energetic and sets a nice mood for the music is enough. The ballet opens with a sweetly sexy duet between Evelyn Kocak and Craig Wasserman, had a few more duets (Oksana Maslova was lovely in the second duet) and ended with a melancholy solo by Craig Wasserman. I urge people to give this album a listen too. It's very catchy and Watson's melodies are soulful and sweet.

Evelyn Kocak and Craig Wasserman in The Accidental, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The best piece of the night was Nicolo Fonte's Grace Action. It was set to a variety of pieces by Philip Glass. First of all, when you use Philip Glass music you already win -- the music is always compulsively listenable and its insistent rhythms and repeating melodies lend themselves well to dance. The ballet on the surface is a Twyla Tharp imitation -- feet kicking, heads thrown back, dancers screaming ENERGY at all moments. Dark blue lighting and sleek navy blue leotards completed the look of wholesome athleticism. If this had just been danced by average dancers, I might not have enjoyed it much. But, as I said, this is where Lillian diPiazza and Arian Molina Soca proved their star quality. The heart of the ballet is the long section set to Movement II of the Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. There are numerous pairings and groupings, but diPiazza and Molina Soca stood apart. Among the sea of strobe lights and and athletic leotarded girls they somehow made their duets pulsate with romantic urgency.

In his opening letter Angel Corella said "I know that New York audiences are very smart and know good work and good dancing when they see it, which is why I know you are going to love this program." And I think that's why this run at the Joyce has been a success -- he played it smart. He didn't overshoot and program an all-Balanchine bill that would have invited unflattering comparisons to New York City Ballet. (A few months ago, I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet in a Balanchine triple bill. They tried hard but except for James Moore's wonderful Prodigal Son the dancers weren't really memorable and they came across as a regional company that was too ambitious.) He didn't program a gala of "classics" that wouldn't have fit the tiny intimate Joyce Theatre. He programmed three highly digestible but relatively unknown ballets. PABallet is in good hands with Corella.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Roberto Devereux - God Save (???) the Queen

Roberto Devereux, photo by Ken Howard

Last night I saw Sondra Radvanovsky complete her "Three Queens" trilogy with a performance of Roberto Devereux, commonly thought to be the most difficult role in the trilogy. Overall I thought it was the most impressive of her portrayals, although as with all things Sondra she was consistently inconsistent.

I didn't expect her to cope flawlessly with the vocal demands of the role. The role is notoriously difficult and Beverly Sills once said it took five years off her career. Radvanovsky however is not a singer who makes you forget this passage here or that passage there that was bumpy. In fact, her style of singing magnifies all those bumps in the road. Part of it is her voice -- a large, unwieldy instrument with that doesn't have the flexibility for all the tricky coloratura-with-sudden-octave-drops that Donizetti wrote for Giuseppina Ronzi di Begnis. Cabalettas had to be taken at a slow pace -- "Quel sangue" was practically a dirge. But I could accept that "Vivi ingrato" and "Quel sangue" would not be sung with the ideal ease and speed and momentum.

Less forgivable are rather unmusical habits that have crept into her singing. Her blazing upper register (up to a D natural) is both a blessing and a curse -- audiences crave the ear splitting acuti and she usually delivers -- "Ah! ritorna qual ti spero" ended with a fabulous D natural. But she also lunges at these high notes in a veristic manner, and ignored the repeated high B's that preceded the cabaletta's finale. She's overly fond of repeating certain vocal effects -- a wispy pianissimo whether the music calls for it or not, snarled/spoken declamation and glottal attacks rather than truly dipping into her lower register. And one wishes she hadn't gone for the high D at the end of the "Quel sangue," as she couldn't really sustain the note and so when Elizabeth collapsed on the floor it seemed out of vocal necessity rather than as a dramatic choice.

Radvanovsky in the final scene, photo @ Ken Howard
But Sondra's obvious hard work and diligence were also evident and her voice for all its flaws has a way of rising majestically with the music. Donizetti's opera has such grandeur written into the music for Elizabeth that to hear Sondra's voice flood the auditorium in a huge wave of sound had its own built-in thrill. Sondra's acting was also less histrionic than I had feared -- yes she might overdo the old-lady gait that apparently afflicted the real-life Elizabeth I, but she also captured the desperation and pain of the queen. In the past vulnerability isn't something that Sondra conveyed naturally, but when she sang "Vivi ingrato" she made the wise decision of singing directly to the audience, and you wept with the queen. Sondra will never be a singer I adore. But I do admire and respect her accomplishment this season.

Hard-working Gelb stalwart Matthew Polenzani I heard struggle with the title role's prison scene cavatina/cabaletta on opening night. Last night he cancelled right before curtain time and was replaced by Mario Zeffiri, who actually had a light, graceful tenore di grazia which he used with a refreshing sense of primo ottocento style. His voice was a bit underpowered and he approached the cabaletta "Bagnato in sen di lagrime" very gingerly but give him credit -- he sang both verses, with the second verse decorated. I heard the Met audience ungraciously boo him during curtain calls. The two people next to me booed him. I wanted to slap them.

Here's a clip of him singing "Credeasi misera":



Garanca and Kwiecien, photo by Ken Howard
Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca (Sara) was true luxury casting: she had the gorgeous timbre, arresting stage presence, and ease of vocal emission that made her emanate star quality. Her voice has grown in size and her upper register is now much more powerful, so she was able to interpolate quite a few high notes. Sara's music is sort of ho-hum but Garanca made it sound beautiful, especially her opening cavatina "All' affitto." Less felicitous casting was Mariusz Kwiecien as Duke of Nottingham, who has reshaped his baritone into an almost unrecognizably dark, snarling instrument. Fine, do that if you can actually sing the music. But he sounded horrific -- off pitch braying on any sustained tones, ugly barking elsewhere. For whatever reason Nottingham was directed as ambiguously gay, with strong romantic vibes with Devereux. It's weird how in Pearlfishers Kwiecien and Polenzani showed very little bromantic chemistry, when both the music and text support some homoerotic longing. Nottingham and Devereux? I don't see it, but okay.

Conductor Maurizio Benini conducted a shapeless, unstylish account of the score. Part of this might have been his adjustment for the idiosyncratic phrasing and rhythm of Radvanovsky, but part of it seemed like laziness. For instance in the overture he played the "God Save the Queen" melody with no sense of solemnity, and the instruments were shockingly out of tune. He then switched gears to the "Bagnato in sen di lagrime" melody as if it were a Sousa marching band anthem.

The production overall was a success. David McVicar avoided the dourness and stodginess that crept into his productions of Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda. The large handsome unit set that McVicar designed himself served the production well -- it evokes both a royal court and an Elizabethan-era theater. I could have done without the quirk of having the courtiers constantly present in the upper "gallery" but overall the production told the story, was nice to look at, and satisfied 21st century America's craving for all things Tudor era. The costumes by Moritz Junge were very colorful and, as I said, satisfied this Tudor buff.  McVicar was not working with very strong singing actors, but he drew decent acting performances from everyone.

This Met season had five operas by Donizetti and the real success story was that after many years of lagging behind, uh, the entire opera world, the Met audiences and the administration has embraced primo ottocento masterpieces. All three Queen trilogy operas play fast and loose with historical facts, but all of them have something deeper: emotional truth that is more compelling than pure historical accuracy, and that credit belongs to Donizetti alone. I mean, listen to this. There is no book than can make me feel Elizabeth I's inner life more than these fifteen minutes of music:

Singer is Mariella Devia, who I heard sing this in Carnegie Hall in 2014. It was only one of the greatest experiences of my operatic life.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

She Loves Me

Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti in She Loves Me, photo by Joan Marcus

Right now two classic musicals by the team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick are playing across the street from each other. Fiddler on the Roof and the Roundabout Theatre's She Loves Me are both playing by the corner of 53rd St./54th St. and Broadway, and you can't really go wrong with either musical. Both shows are over 50 years old, and the fact that they're still being revived is a testament to their continued appeal. But the approach Bartlett Sher took to Fiddler on the Roof and the approach Scott Ellis took to She Loves Me is a useful comparison of how to revive (or how not to revive) classic musicals.

Bartlett Sher decided to take a Very Serious Approach to Fiddler. Much of the humor is muted, and it's largely been stripped of its vaudeville DNA. There's a framing device with a red parka that honestly seems like a cheap Schindler's List ripoff. Fiddler is such a strong show both musically and dramatically that even with Sher's tinkering the warmth and emotion had much of the audience dabbing its eyes. But one wonders what could have been had Danny Burstein and company been allowed to play up more of the joy and humor of the show.

In contrast, the new production of She Loves Me doesn't attempt to find a dark subtext to this very well-known tale of two perfume shop workers who feud during the day but are secretly lonely heart pen pals when off the clock. Instead, the premium seems to have been on finding the right actors for each role, and developing a natural chemistry among the entire cast so the entire show bubbles along as sweetly as, well, vanilla ice cream. Director Scott Ellis understands that humor if done right doesn't undercut a show -- it deepens and strengthens the more serious themes.

Benanti and Levi, photo by Joan Marcus
Unlike Fiddler, She Loves Me has no huge hit tunes,  and no real big production number either (except for maybe the tango at the Café Imperial). The "big moments" of the musical are really the small moments -- when Georg (a wonderful Zachary Levi) does a cartwheel of joy during the title number "She Loves Me", or when Amalia (Laura Benanti) jumps out of bed to sing about the virtues of "Vanilla Ice Cream." But there's no big show anthem. It doesn't matter. The show is enchanting from start to finish.

A huge part of the success is due to the pitch-perfect performances of Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi. Benanti has the same sort of neurotic, introverted charm that also made Margaret Sullivan so winning in Shop Around the Corner. Benanti is so physically gorgeous and her soprano so beautiful that on paper it's hard to believe that Amalia has resorted to answering lonely heart ads, but you watch her act slightly brittle and tetchy around Maraczek's shop and it's totally believable. Wonderful, wonderful performance. Levi is also great at depicting the exact sort of guy people dislike at work -- the ambitious middle manager type who acts a little supercilious. When Amalia and Georg finally realized that they were each others' "Dear Friends" the guy next to me was sobbing. Zachary Levi and Laura Benanti made you believe in the love story.

Krakowski and Creel, photo by Joan Marcus
This is an ensemble musical, and everyone in the ensemble was wonderful. Jane Krakowski was a sweetly ditzy Ilona, who's been carrying on a one-sided affair with the rakish Steven Kodaly (Gavin Kreel). I could go back to the show night after night just to watch Jane Krakowski's adorable pronunciation of "books" and "optometrist" in "A Trip to the Library." Krakowski's playing the same sort of character she played on 30 Rock but when a schtick works that well, keep on going with that schtick. Nicholas Barasch was very cute as the delivery boy Arpad. Michael McGrath as Ladislav Sipos the low key clerk was the perfect straight man in the show although I can never forget Felix Bressart's amazingly eccentric performance as Pirovich in Shop Around the Corner when I see the corresponding character in She Loves Me. I thought Peter Bartlett preened too much as the Headwaiter, and Byron Jennings was a bit bland as Maraczek (especially compared to Frank Morgan's great performance in Shop Around the Corner), but those are minor complaints.

Levi and McGrath, photo by Joan Marcus
Director Scott Ellis focused on getting good singers for every part, so the choreography by Warren Carlyle was more low-key than usual for a Broadway musical, but it was fitting for this unpretentious production. David Rockwell's sets are absolutely lovely -- the perfume shop ends up being a little jewel box of a set. Jeff Mahshie's costumes were colorful and attractively retro-1930's but believable as clothes for "ordinary people."

It's amazing that this material doesn't come across as dated. After all, it's based on a play that was written in 1937. But the hectic and competitive nature of retail work ("Twelve Days of Christmas" was hilarious), the loneliness that people are rarely willing to admit to (especially in the era of social media, where every meal has to be a special, filtered event on Instagram), these things are so beautifully depicted in She Loves Me that the show could have been written yesterday. Studio 54 is the place to be if you want to see the most beautiful, enchanting musical on Broadway. In fact I already long to make a return trip. As Maraczek's workers would say, Thank you, thank you, we'll call again.


And just because this movie never, ever gets old:


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Don Pasquale and L'elisir d'amore: A Tale of Two Tenors

Grigolo and Kurzak, photo @ Marty Sohl
On March 15 and 16th the Metropolitan Opera performed two beloved Donizetti comedies that starred tenors with remarkable vocal instruments. Both Vittorio Grigolo (Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore) and Javier Camarena (Ernesto in Don Pasquale) have the kind of voices most singers dream of: the warm, sunny, timbres with bright pinging upper registers. They open their mouths, and the audience loves the sound of their voices. However, the similarities between the two tenors begin and end there.

The Met's current production of L'elisir d'amore has handsome old fashioned painted backdrops by Michael Yeargan and "traditional" costumes by Catherine Zuber but is a remarkably dour, humorless take on Donizetti's timeless comedy. Bartlett Sher apparently decided that Nemorino was not the lovable, illiterate sap that was described so vividly in Felice Romani's libretto, but a brooding poet and a mean drunk. Belcore's army is actually violent and scary -- they physically shove and manhandle Nemorino and sexually harass the girls. I mean, it's a comedy. The army shouldn't be giving off an ISIS vibe.

Enrique Mazzola led a lively and coordinated account of the score from the pit. Alessandro Corbelli (Dulcamara) is a living treasure -- an old fashioned opera buffa baritone who is completely idiomatic in both the patter arias and in pulling off the tried and true schtick. Ying Fang was lovely as Giannetta. But otherwise the performance made you scratch your head.  Adam Plachetka (Belcore) has a handsome voice but the directions in this opera make Belcore and his army, as I said, more ISIS than soldiers looking to "have fun off-duty time." Aleksandra Kurzak (Adina) is an engaging actress and a musical singer. However, the upper register of her voice seems to have receded to the point where any sustained tones come out as white, off-pitch squeaks.

Vittorio Grigolo as Nemorino gave a performance equal parts endearing, bewildering and narcissistic. You can certainly admire the energy he brings to the otherwise joyless production -- in the first act he played with some members of the children's chorus and juggled an orange. But his entire performance seemed directed towards an imaginary member of the audience sitting in the first row (let's call her "Vittoria"). "Quanta è bella" was sung towards "Vittoria" instead of Adina. Throughout the performance he gazed adoringly at "Vittoria." He undressed her with his eyes. Even in the love duet that ends the opera when he finally kissed onstage Adina his gaze was directed at "Vittoria", and when the blocking called for him to fall onto the ground in a tight embrace with Adina he waved at "Vittoria." During the curtain calls he reached for his heart and flung it at "Vittoria." Lucky woman.

Grigolo's musical interpretation was also bizarre. On paper his voice is a perfect fit for Nemorino. But he has a bumpy, erratic sense of musical line. He tends to lunge at notes randomly with almost no sense of legato -- at times his phrasing resembled someone who hasn't yet mastered a language and keeps putting the em-PHA-sis on the wrong sy-LLA-ble. "Una furtiva lagrima" was sung almost completely as a vocal display. There was no sense of Nemorino's inner life. At the end Vittorio gazed adoringly at "Vittoria" then when the applause died down lifted his head upwards towards the heavens to garner more applause. Grigolo is a gifted singer but this role brought out his most self-indulgent tendencies.



In contrast, the next night's performance of Don Pasquale was one of the HAPPIEST performances I've ever attended. The audience at the end of the night refused to leave the auditorium until the cast came out for bow after bow. Everyone was in better vocal shape than opening night, particularly Eleanora Buratto, who not only displayed a freer upper register and more articulated coloratura, but a real comic spirit that was missing in her debut night.

Camarena, photo @Eva Chien
Despite the fine singing of the entire cast the night belonged to Javier Camarena, who was never anything but musical, always interacted with his colleagues onstage in a playful, organic way, yet had the audience screaming and stomping. He again interpolated a D-flat at the end of "Povero Ernesto" and held the note throughout the orchestral finale. The audience carried on until conductor Maurizio Benini picked up the baton again for an encore. Camarena's bis was decorated with graceful ornamentation and of course capped with another blazing D-flat that was if anything even more secure than his first one. He also ended the finale of Act Two with a huge D-natural. This is Javier Camarena's third encore at the Met. And obviously he is a skilled musician and singer who has probably has a healthy sense of self-worth. But you never felt that the performance was an egotistical display. Instead he conveyed joy of singing and performing throughout the evening and that energy crossed the footlights. He also was an effective actor and a considerate colleague. He stomped his foot repeatedly (and adorably) at Ambrogio Maestri's Pasquale, the serenade and duet of Act Three were lovely, and he was really singing to his Norina.

I teach in an inner city school where a common saying among the students is "Miss you're doing too much." In many Met productions I've attended this year I often got that feeling. Meticulously rehearsed and promoted performances that were also dull and uninspired, like the Lulu that was more art exhibit than opera. Don Pasquale proved that the formula for a successful performance is really just great singing and engaged performers. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it?

Last night's curtain call

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Javier Camarena - King of the High D's

Buratto and Camarena in Don Pasquale, photo @ Marty Sohl

If there's type of opera fan that absolutely sets my teeth on edge, it's the high note freaks. The type that will dismiss an entire performance of Lucia because the soprano didn't sing two (unwritten) high E flats in the (transposed) Mad Scene, or will overlook hours of abysmal, unmusical singing just because a singer capped "Di quella pira" with a huge roaring high C.

But occasionally there comes a singer whose upper register is so glorious, and who uses said register in such a musical way, that you can't help but scream and stomp when said singer brings the house down with a blazing high note. Javier Camarena is one of those singers. In tonight's Don Pasquale when he capped "Povero Ernesto" with an interpolated high D flat, and then interpolated another D natural at the end of the Act II ensemble, the absolute beauty of his voice set the house on fire.  It wasn't just that he got to those high notes and held it for so long, it was him finding the center of the pitch and staying there. Camarena is not just a singer who relies on his remarkable upper register. His voice as a whole has such a sweet, round, enveloping sound. When he goes for that acuti it sounds like a natural extension of his naturally energetic, impassioned style of singing. He's versatile -- he can sound almost stentorian when interpolating a high note, but gentle and seductive in "Com'e gentil" and "Tornami a dir che m'ami."

Dramatically Camarena hits the right notes as well. He has a naturally sunny, impish stage presence. He manages to turn his pint-sized physique into an attribute -- Ernesto is one of the brattiest tenor characters ever written (just a notch below Pinkerton and Duke) but Camarena's foot stomping tantrums were endearingly childish. His interactions with Don Pasquale (Ambroglio Maestri) seemed organic -- you could believe that these two not-so-dear relatives had been living together and butting heads for a long time. Camarena managed to make Ernesto a likable brat, if still a brat. Camarena emits a real joy when singing and that joyful energy is really transmitted to the audience. Bravo x 1000.

Maestri and Molnar
The rest of the cast was professional but not up to Camarena's level. Ambrogio Maestri on paper looks like a great fit for Don Pasquale -- Italian bass baritone, known for his portrayals of Falstaff and Dulcamara. But he had some coordination issues with Maurizio Benini in the pit and sounded underpowered for much of the first act. His voice did warm up in the second and third acts, but his patter in "Cheti cheti immatante" was surprisingly poor for a native Italian speaker. He was a good actor who made one feel sorry for poor old Pasquale. Levente Molnár (Malatesta) was disappointingly bland and his baritone doesn't have much tone or body. Again, patter was subpar. The Pasquale/Malatesta chemistry was a bit off -- maybe it will become more playful and funny as the run progresses. Two years ago Alessandro Corbelli and Pietro Spagnoli put on a master class of how to do opera buffa patter in La Cenerentola. So it can be done.

As an aside, I never ever get tired of hearing this recording of the Don Pasquale patter aria made over 100 years ago. Listen to the way the patter rolls off their tongues:



Eleanora Buratto (Norina) was making her Met debut.  You can see from her operabase that she's worked a lot with Ricardo Muti. Plusses: she has a large, well-produced soprano with an attractive, darkish timbre. Certainly not the typical fluttery soubrette sound. Minuses: a tendency to sound flat and white on her high notes, approximate coloratura (although truth be told, no worse than Anna Netrebko when she sang Norina), an occasionally bumpy musical line without much sense of legato, and no trill. Norina is also one of the least likable opera heroines so you need a soprano with a lot of natural charm and charisma. Netrebko had/has that in spades, Buratto doesn't really. I have to see more of her to really get a judgment on what she's capable of. Oh well. One could certainly do a lot worse.

Here's a video of Buratto singing Norina's opening cavatina "Quel guardo, il cavaliere":



Maurizio Benini's conducting was not strong. He had coordination problems with the singers, especially Maestri, who in much of Act One was singing a bar ahead or behind. The horns were distressingly out of tune. His account of Donizetti's sparkling score was bland. It's depressing that he's been tapped to conduct the upcoming Roberto Devereux run. A real routinier.

Otto Schenk's 2006 production is charming and still serves the opera well. His directions make the opera funny enough that the cruel edge of the libretto is softened. I love Rolf Langenfass's set for Pasquale's mansion, which looks grand on the surface but has Pasquale sleeping downstairs in a dilapidated nursing home type bed. It's old fashioned, but Don Pasquale is not an opera that needs the regie treatment.

But this run of Don Pasquale is certainly worth seeing for Camarena. You're hearing a tenor in his prime singing a role that he was born to sing with a voice that can only have been a gift from God.

Here are the curtain calls from last night:


Monday, February 29, 2016

A Very Mariinsky Weekend, Part Two

Uliana Lopatkina and Andrei Ermakov in La Rose Malade

The Mariinsky's stint at BAM ended tonight in a program that might have been called "Back to the USSR." The whole series of performances was billed a "Tribute to Maya Plisetskaya" but unlike the Ballet Russes gala Friday this performance consisted almost completely of excerpts from Soviet ballets. It was also more heavily centered on Uliana Lopatkina, who performed 6 out of the ten excerpts, and that's not even counting the inevitable Dying Swan encore.

When you watched these excerpts from Fountains of Bakhchisarai, Legend of Love, Shurale, Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet, one can see both how Russian ballet is tied to its Soviet past but also how it's evolved and moved on. Clips of Maya Plisetskaya or Galina Ulanova in these dram-ballets, indicate that charisma and energy often trumped taste and classical form. The great critic Edwin Denby upon first seeing the Bolshoi in 1959 had this to say: "You keep seeing open mouths, hunched shoulders, jutted chins, arms turned inside out at the socket and avidly reaching; you keep seeing elbows bent stiff or stretched stiff, hands crooked at the waist, impatient arms, agitated hands, bobbing heads."

Denby's vivid (if harsh) assessment is confirmed from various video clips of that era. Watch this clip of Ulanova and Plisetskaya in Fountains of Bakhchisarai. Plisetskaya's raw power is undeniable. So are her open mouth, hunched shoulders, jutted chin, arms turned inside out at the socket, impatient arms, agitated hands, and bobbing head.



In contrast, the excerpts tonight were performed with legs and feet perfectly turned out, hands and fingers carefully tapered just so, rigid and proud necks, shoulders, and heads. Lopatkina in the huge upside down lifts of the Legend of Love duet positioned herself to emphasize the sculptural stillness of the position, rather than the superhuman strength required to achieve that pose. Part of this is the classic Bolshoi vs. Mariinsky distinction, but I also think ballet has evolved and dancers simply can't recreate the style of Soviet dram-ballet.

Let's start with the familiar -- even Lopatkina's gorgeous legs couldn't save the atrocity that is Alberto Alonso's Carmen Suite. Andrei Ermakov pranced around onstage in a polka-dotted blouse while Lopatkina sashayed around him. We only saw 10 minutes of this, but I have seen the 45 minute enchilada and it's excruciating. Ekaterina Osmolkina's soft lyrical style and supple back were lovely in the Romeo and Juliet balcony duet. Her husband Maxim Zuzin is really not at her level. Vladimir Shklyarov and Maria Shirinkina again performed the Giselle pas de deux, except this time she did the opening developpé and he didn't fall out of a double assemblé. Shirinkina's Giselle is not a powerhouse a la Natalia Osipova. But the fluidity of her arms, her quick (and low to the ground) entrechats and her airy jumps made me wish to see her full-length Giselle. And I know Lopatkina has been dancing La Rose Malade as a gala number for ages but no matter how many times I've seen it I marvel at the quiet dignity she brings to the piece.

The more adventurous side of the evening were from ballets rarely seen outside Russia. We got two scenes from Fountains of Bakchisarai -- the rather watery, generic adagio, and the much meatier Act III finale. I wish the finale could have been performed with some basic props and scenery because much of the action and blocking did not make much sense without any scenery. Nevertheless Maria Shirinkina was absolutely lovely and lyrical in the "Galina Ulanova" role, and Uliana Lopatkina burned up the stage as the vengeful Zarema. She was cast against type but made for a convincingly jealous harem mistress.

Lopatkina in "Little Humpbacked Horse"
Lopatkina was draped in a veil and lifted on Ermakov's shoulders for about five minutes in a sweet little excerpt called Melody. Asaf Messerer set this duet (whose choreography sort of resembles Ashton's Meditation pas de deux) to Gluck's Elysian fields music. The "melody" was heavenly, the choreography was trite. An excerpt from Leonid Yakobsen's Shurale (Valeria Martynuk and Maxim Zuzin) however was a delight -- the excerpt was so brief but the charming folk-like number made me long to see the entire ballet. The Legend of Love excerpt reminded me of everything I hate about Grigorivich ballets -- the bombastic music, the choreography that seems to consist of one overhead lift after another (and when all options have been exhausted, just turn the lady upside down!), the sheer ugliness of most of his moves.

The final number, to Ratmansky's Little Humpbacked Horse was the only nod to the 21st century. But it was absolutely the highlight of the evening. The partnership between Shklyarov and Lopatkina (so infrequent) was beautiful -- she was again cast against type as the playful, toimboyish Tsar Maiden and he repeated an excerpt (where Ivan repeated messes up his variations until he wows the crowd with a perfect series of turns a la seconde) from the ballet that made NY audiences fall in love with him. I almost cried watching them together -- you not only saw two great dancers, but wondered at the partnership that might have been.

The final moments of the evening were maybe the most touching -- the dancers bowed as Lopatkina quickly changed to do one more Dying Swan. This might have been barebones suitcase ballet, but Loptakina's devotion to her art and her generosity to her audiences reminds me of Anna Pavlova's famous last words: "Get my Swan costume ready."


Final curtain call

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Very Mariinsky Weekend, Part One

Kolegova as Raymonda
The Mariinsky Ballet is without doubt one of the greatest companies (if not the greatest) in the world, but it can sometimes display a maddening arrogance. You love them and hate them at the same time. A case in point was their tour to Washington, D.C. and New York this week.

Washington, D.C. got one of the Mariinsky's treasures -- their full-length Raymonda. Western companies have tried to stage this ballet without much success, although Balanchine poached some of Glazunov's best tunes and Petipa's choreography for some of his "based on Raymonda" ballets. But there really is nothing as majestic as watching the Mariinsky company dance the whole thing. So that's why on a cold Saturday morning I took the Amtrak down to D.C. to catch a matinee Raymonda performance.

The performance wasn't perfect, but I felt like I got the true Mariinsky experience. The title character was played by the lovely Anastasia Kolegova, who's not even listed as a principal despite having danced principal parts for years. Kolegova was exquisite -- she's shorter and more compact than the "typical" Mariinsky ballerina, so she didn't have the endless legs and super-attenuated limbs of, say, Uliana Lopatkina. But this smaller stature and thicker musculature made her very adept at the par terre footwork of Raymonda's variations. Her scarf solo showed off her steady balance and strong pointes. In the second act she effortlessly completed a diagonal of forward entrechats and concluded the variation with a series of fast chaine turns. In the Hungarian grand classique her clapping variation was taken slowly but with enough contrast in speed to keep the tension and pulse alive. Her concluding passé/relevé sequence had the force of real character dancing. She's a very musical dancer -- she's not one of those Russian dancers (cough, Ivan Vasiliev, cough) who is completely oblivious to the music. You see her arms, wrists, fingers, neck, shoulders, and feet all responding to Glazunov's score.

Dramatically Kolegova struck the right notes too. Her Raymonda was sweet and dreamy in the first act (loved the way she delicately stepped around the flowers), fearful but a bit aroused in the act two pas de action with Abderakhman, and regal in the last act. One thing I've found Raymondas tend to overdo is their disgust with Abderakhman. I like it when there's more ambiguity -- when she's alternately intrigued and repulsed at the same time.

Saracen Dance
Her Jean de Brienne was the ever-reliable, ever-dull Evgeny Ivanchenko. But thankfully Jean de Brienne doesn't have to do much besides a bunch of difficult lifts. In his one variation Ivanchenko was his typical lugubrious self -- his philosophy seems to be "Why finish with a double pirouette when I can just do a single?" Konstantin Zverev was hilarious as Abderakhman. Real silent movie acting. But Abderakhman's act is by far the most entertaining segment of the ballet. The character dancing from the Saracens and the little kids brought much need vigor to an otherwise static, prim story. Even the near-fall by Alisa Petrenko and Oleg Demchenko in the Saracen pdd was somehow endearing.

The female variations were performed with panache and reflect the depth of the roster. Nadezhda Baoteva (Henrietta) performed the "allegro" variations with speed and fast footwork. Kristina Shapran (Clemence) did the "adagio" variations with grace and suppleness. And finally Sofia Ivanova-Skoblikova knocked the difficult wedding variation out of the park. The four males (Konstantin Ivkin, Yevgeny Konovalov, Ernest Latypov, and Vasily Tkacehnko) completed the double tours and entrechats of the pas de quatre perfectly in sync and without any stumbles. The corps de ballet had a few wobbly moments (one was the difficult sideways lifts in the Act Three grand pas classique where all the women are have to lift their legs at the exact same angle while perched on the shoulders of their partners) but overall maintained their reputation as the greatest corps in the world.

Olga Preobajeska
The beauty of this ballet is mostly in the score, which inspired Petipa to create some of his most greatest choreography. The storyline is wafer thin and could be considered offensive. But the music is unremittingly lovely. In fact, my favorite moments of Raymonda have no dancing at all. As Raymonda falls asleep and dreams of her knight in shining armor the curtain falls to one of the loveliest interludes in all of ballet. Thank you, Mariinsky, for bringing this beautiful ballet to the U.S. Here's a historical photo of Olga Preobajeska in that iconic Cortege Hongrois pose -- hands on waist, other arm behind head. I love the proud carriage and posture in this picture. And many of the Mariinsky dancers still have this posture and pride. That's tradition.

Loatkin's Dying Swan
But there's also another side to the Mariinsky, a certain arrogance that thinks it's okay to charge audiences the steepest prices for the flimsiest of programs. The dancers of these "stars of the Russian ballet"-like galas are usually veteran dancers of the company who are for whatever reason no longer favored by management. So they were sent to BAM in a four performance "Tribute to Maya Plisetskaya." Program A was apparently the 40 minute Carmen Suite + Dying Swan.

I caught "Program B" which was really a Ballet Russes-type gala. All the works were associated with Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina ... There was barely over an hour's worth of actual dancing, and the program looked haphazardly put together. Why, for instance, didn't they bother setting up a window in Spectre a la Rose so Vladimir Shklyarov could make his iconic Nijinsky jump? Spectre without the window is like Apollo without the lute. The Bluebird/Florine pas de deux between Valeria Martynuk and Alexander Sergeev seemed so poorly rehearsed that at one point Martynuk was semi-improvising steps. I don't have to tell you that the evening ended with "A Dying Swan."

Nijinsky and Karsavina with the window set

The good thing was that among all this cheap suitcase ballet was some exquisite dancing. Uliana Lopatkina was as majestic and diverse as ever -- a wild, feral creature in the Firebird pas de deux, a graceful Sylph in the 7th waltz of Chopiniana,  a reasonable "Anna Pavlova" in this filler classroom exercises ballet called Pavlova and Cecchetti, and finally, she danced A Dying Swan with so much grace and dignity you forgot that she's been trotting out this four minute vignette for, oh, over 20 years. Other highlights were Vladimir Shklyarov and his wife Maria Shirinkina dancing a sensitive, romantic Giselle pas de deux, and Ekaterina Osmolkina using that Vaganova-stamped jelly back to writhe in the Zobeide/Slave duet from Scheherazade. Her and her husband Maxim Zuzin made a decidedly odd pair onstage but Osmolkina created enough heat and kitsch for the both of them. These are beautiful dancers. I wish they were given better thought out programs to display their talents.

But this is only a small part of my incredible ballet adventures this weekend. Part Two will be written tomorrow.

ETA: I found this wonderful video of four different Raymonda's performing the "clapping" solo:


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Winter Season Diaries, continued

Hyltin and Veyette, photo by Andrea Mohin
There is something useful about seeing the exact same program done by three completely different casts. NYCB's frantic winter season usually doesn't allow such luxuries, but eight straight performances of La Sylphide/Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #2 (aka Ballet Imperial) allowed for this kind of microscopic comparisons.

The casts I saw:

2/13/16: La Sylphide: Woodward, Huxley, Gordon, LeCrone, Anderson/Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto #2: Reichlen, T. Angle, Scheller

2/14/16: La Sylphide: Hyltin, Veyette, Ulbricht, Pollack, Pazgocuin/Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto #2: Mearns, LaCour, Lowery

2/17/16: La Sylphide: M. Fairchild, Garcia, Schumacher, Pollack, Gretchen Smith/Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto #2: T. Peck, Ramasar, King

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Manon Lescaut

Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna, photo by Ken Howard

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

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Most Incredible (???) Thing

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

Friday, February 5, 2016

Fiddler on the Roof

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