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Saturday, December 20, 2014

A last look at Ratmansky's Nutcracker

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

It's weird how memory is both stunningly accurate and deceptive. For instance, I remember how cute and funny the Little Mouse was four years ago. He's still cute and by far the best thing about Ratmansky's Nut -- Justin Souriau-Levine stole the show again. I also remember the scenery for the second act being threadbare and even grim looking, while the divertissements were charming and whimsical. Memory didn't fail me there -- Act Two had the same cheap-looking scrim with painted golden columns that made the Sugar Plum kingdom look vaguely jail-like, while Ratmansky's quirky sense of humor livened up the divertissements. Balanchine might have more substantial awe-inspiring choreography but Ratmansky's Arabian dance (with a bunch of harem girls ditching a eunuch), Russian dance (nice slapstick Trepak) and Mother Ginger (Little Mouse wreaks havoc!) were all highlights of the show.

But in other ways memory totally failed me. For instance I remember disliking the Snowflakes originally -- they weren't as pretty and magical and Balanchine's crowned, wand-waving creatures. But on second viewing their recreation of a sinister bone-chilling blizzard was perhaps the most inspired moment of the show. I loved the way they slowly turned from gentle falling snowflakes to surrounding Clara and the Prince with hypothermic implacability. I also can't believe that I didn't remember how touching Clara's first interactions with the life-sized Nutcracker Doll are. The switch from life-sized doll to toy is one of Ratmansky's most sensitive moments.

Another way memory failed me was that I was a lot less impressed with the choreography for the grown-up Clara and Prince upon second viewing. Tonight the Soviet-style lifts and all the swoony moves seemed distinctly clichéd, especially when you consider Ratmansky's generally offbeat, humorous style. Maybe it was because last night's Clara and Prince (Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak) are very charming dancers, very pretty dancers, but they don't dance on a grand scale. So the big Grigorovich one-handed lift and all that swooning and diving looked gauche. On the other hand the first pas de deux where the child Clara and Prince mirror their adult selves is a lovely moment.

The production is only four years old, but in many ways already looked old and careworn. The small, narrow BAM stage made it a necessity for some of the dancing to occur in the wings. Act One in particular looked cheap and non-descript, and claustrophobic. The Stahlbaums' home didn't have anything that would distinguish it as a real "home." Ratmansky's choreography often seemed busy and the humor was hit or miss. The Little Mouse was cute but the kiddie tantrums weren't and neither were the hamming adults. The ABT's orchestra looked cramped in the tiny pit and played badly -- the crucial strings were out of tune and there was little sense of rhythm. They did the impossible and made Tchaikovsky's music sound lumbering and plodding.

The performances were a lot like what I often see from ABT -- great soloists, underdeveloped company. Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak are both charming, lovely dancers but looked underrehearsed -- for instance, that big one-armed Grigorovich lift could have looked less awkward with more rehearsal and practice. Lane also ran out of gas in the celesta variation. Twice she stopped dancing entirely and the orchestra ground to a halt and waited for her to gather her energy. Again, practice and experience could prevent those momentum-killing moments. The Dance of the Flowers with the pollenating bees also had some poor coordination -- if the men didn't have bee helmets on, I never would have known that they were supposed to pollenate the flowers. It looked as if they were just running around the flowers. Victor Barbee was rather fey as Drosselmeyer -- he had very little rapport with little Clara (Annie Hinako Levy). Arron Scott and Luciana Paris were wonderful in the Harlequinade and Columbine duet but I've seen Scott dance this kind of solo for years. He can't do this forever. This company has talent, but not much in the way of style or uniformity.

This final view confirmed my original opinion that despite very charming and funny moments, what Ratmansky's ballet lacked was magic. I went with a friend and ran into another friend and one is a balletomane while the other is a casual enthusiast but both of them commented on this lack of magic, so I don't think it's just me being a stick in the mud. I mean, why is magic important anyway? Well, in the case of the Nutcracker, it's important because the magic in Tchaikovsky's score never stops. It's Tchaikovsky's music that gives the paper-thin storyline depth and soul.

Ratmansky's best work often resembles folk dance -- he has a tendency to choreograph on the downbeat of the music. In the first act the kids have a tantrum and stomp their feet on the downbeat repeatedly. Balanchine's choreography, on the other hand, seems to expand naturally when Tchaikovsky's music soars. I'll just give one instance: in the finale, there's a rising scale -- in Balanchine's version, the sled that carries Marie/Clara and the Prince rises along with the scale, so the curtain falls on them possibly heading towards the heavens. Music goes up, Marie goes up. Ratmansky has Clara falling downwards in her bed. The music goes up, Clara goes down.

So this isn't my favorite Nutcracker, but it doesn't mean it wasn't a fun night. It's always wonderful to see how engaged little kids are in this ballet -- it's great to hear girls who give a blow-by-blow description to their mothers during the performance. It might be noisy, but it's a lovely kind of noise.

On another note, if you didn't see Stephen Colbert's final show you basically didn't live. Most "final shows" are exercises in narcissism. But Colbert's was funny, touching, and finally, just flat out awesome. I mean, to see Cookie Monster belting out "We'll Meet Again" with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill de Blasio and Jon Stewart and Big Bird ... just watch this video.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Marina Rebeka

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

An excerpt from my review:

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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The FAB-ulous Boheme!

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

Update: my review for parterre box.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Guglielmo Tell

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

First things first: wow what an astounding score! The storyline is kind of weak (there's a revolution and a guy has to shoot an bow into an apple placed on top of his son's head is about all I could make out of it), but the score sounds like an imaginary operatic collaboration between Beethoven and Verdi, with Rossini's own melodic talent thrown into the mix.

The orchestra often employs the famous Beethoven thunder, as well as the Beethoven-esque dialogue between different sections of the orchestra. For instance, in one section, the strings would open the conversation, the percussion would respond, and on and on until it became a huge wall of sound. The rousing, nationalistic spirit of the opera and the heavy use of the chorus reminds one of early Verdi. But make no mistake, this is also unmistakably a Rossini opera: there are endless forays into the stratosphere for the tenor, fiendishly difficult cabalettas, rip-roaring crescendos and accelerations that drive everyone onstage and the audience into a frenzy. But the final chorus sounds celestial and, uh, I know Rossini and Wagner weren't really of the same era of music, but it most reminded me of the finale of Parsifal.

The performance this afternoon was led by Gianandrea Noseda and the Teatro Regio Torino. You could argue with using the Italian translation, you could argue about some of the cuts that were taken to fit the running time into a hair under four hours (the opening Act Two chorus was nixed entirely), but you could not argue with the amazing energy and commitment of the conductor (five stars for watching him jump up and down for four hours), orchestra (five stars for following Noseda's often breakneck speeds), chorus (if I could give them 10 stars I would, they were spectacular), and performers in this large cast.

John Osborn was pretty amazing in the inhumanly punishing role of Arnoldo. Osborn doesn't have a beautiful voice, but his voice has both the ease into the stratosphere and the heroic squillo that this role demands. He also has musicality and is one of those performers who brought energy into the often staid concert opera format. Osborn was thrilling in "O muto asil del pianto," and received a prolonged ovation and an appreciative shout from a guy in the galleries. Noseda and Osborn both blew a kiss at the extra-vocal fan. Osborn was psyched, you could tell -- his face had the expression like he'd simultaneously won the lottery and scored a date with Jennifer Lawrence. But unfortunately during the barn-storming cabaletta "Corriam, corriam" his upper register started to give way. You could hear his voice breaking and all the discipline it took for him to not crack completely. Because he's obviously a pro, he soldiered through the rest of the aria. He looked crestfallen. This didn't take away from his overall outstanding performance.

I know he's capable of absolutely hitting a home run here, and I look forward to hearing him in La donna del lago in the winter at the Met.

Angela Meade (Mathilde) has now established herself as the go-to girl for concert versions of semi-obscure primo ottocento operas. She seems to be a quick study and rarely cancels, and for that I give her respect. With that being said, I hated listening to her. I was trying to think of a way to describe her, and I finally came up with one: an ugly-voiced stimme-diva. If you have the voice of Montserrat Caballé, you can get away with a more placid, generalized interpretation of a role. But that's the point: you have to sound like Montserrat Caballé. There are singers today whose beauty and purity of voice justifies their stimme-diva approach to roles. Elina Garanca for instance isn't the most exciting performer but who cares when her voice is so beautiful? Meade's voice has lost whatever freshness it had in its early years and now has a sharp, curdled edge and an intrusive vibrato that is crossing the line into flat out unsteadiness. She often falls short of pitch. The lower register is gargled and sometimes inaudible and the coloratura runs are dispatched with all the passion of a court stenographer recording a patent infringement trial. She had neither the float for "Selva opaca" nor the dynamic energy for the duet with Arnoldo. She can throw in a high note here and there and most of the audience claps. I guess I should say something nice about her so I will: she has really pretty hair. Seriously. It's long, silky, and curls in princessy ringlets at the ends like Duchess Kate.

Here's a soprano whose voice was not conventionally beautiful but could bring a thousand times more beauty to everything she sang:

Luca Salsi was solid if not outstanding as William/Guglielmo Tell. It's refreshing to hear a baritone these days who hasn't barked the sheen off his voice. "Corri alla madre" was sung with a reasonable amount of legato. There are echoes of Rigoletto in that aria. Marina Bucciarelli was unknown to me but a delightful Jemmy. Really high, pure soprano. The trio of basses were all outstanding. Marco Spotti (Gualtiero), Fabrizio Beggi (Melchtal), and the Gabriele Sagona (Gessler) all managed to shine and make the most of their moments in this very large cast. Mikeldi Atxalandabaso (Ruodi) had one of those tiny, whiny, bleaty voices that only make sense in Rossini operas where the villain is often given that kind of vocal line.

The finale of Tell is so out of this world beautiful that words can't really do it justice. I've never gone to church in my life except for weddings and funerals but if ever there was music that described the opening of the gates of heaven, it would be this. And so here, without further ado:

What a great opera. I hope to hear it again soon.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Recent Russki stuff I've seen

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

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

I saw two performances. The first performance was with the very skinny, stylish Viktor Lebedev, who was comically mismatched with his Kitri, Angelina Vorontsova. Vorontsova is one of those ballet dancers who has it all -- beautiful smile, winning personality, a solid if somewhat unrefined technique. She's also "pleasantly plump." And you realize while watching her dance that you want her to stay that way -- not everyone looks good being a beanpole, and she's just a natural cherubic charmer. Even if this meant the overhead lifts were shortened or deleted, or she didn't quite fit in her tutus. Lebedev is a spectacular dancer -- in Basilio's variation he did that infamous step sequence from Balanchine's Theme and Variations. You know, the double tour/pirouette sequence where you can really see the lactic acid bursting out of every dancer. But Lebedev trucked through that variation easy peasy lemon squeezy.

The second performance was the by now well-know Osipova/Vasiliev circus show. Vasiliev is a lot of things -- you can yell at him for having no turnout, no grace, hard landings, and a ballet vocabulary that begins and ends with barrel turns, split revolution leaps and various revolutions in the air. But he has comic flair and charm. His now-ex girlfriend Natalia Osipova is the opposite -- she tosses off triple fouettes without blinking. Her leaps are light and as I said, she hangs in the air like a little butterfly. But there's something quite hard-boiled about her dancing nowadays. She barely makes an effort to communicate with anyone onstage, and her expression at the audience ranges from a tight smile to a sullen glare. Maybe she's just sick of dancing Kitri.

Ekaterina Borchenko was a wonderful Queen of the Dryads -- stately and strong, and I like that they do the Mariinsky variation with the Italian fouettes. Veronika Ignatyeva was a cute, tiny Cupid. I also enjoyed the mime roles of Don Quixote (Marat Sheminov) and Sancho (Alexey Kuznetsov). The Mikhailovsky production really integrates them better into the ballet than most productions of Don Q.

The Mikhailovsky is a wonderfully charming company -- very diverse aesthetically and ethnically, but stylistically unison. It's one thing to watch the Mariinsky's 32 swans with most of them obviously selected heavily for a similar look -- tall, majestic, and most of all, thin, thin, thin. It's another to see a short, somewhat squat girl standing next to a tall beanpole but with their arms and hands held at an identical angle. That's the Mikhailovsky. As I said, Don Quixote isn't high art. But it's fun.

Over at the Met Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is the opposite of fun. This dark, grim tale of adultery and murder is heavy going and sold poorly at the box office. Too bad, because it's one of the best things the Met has put on this season. James Conlon was magnificent with the Met orchestra, and really breathed life into Shostakovich's score which is by turns bombastic, violent, crude, and then tender and poetic. The work is filled with dark humor -- the cheerful, amoral waltzing Russian priest is my favorite motif. Even the murder-suicide ending is weirdly funny. The "death for worthless Sergei" number jumped to 4 people.

The cast was uniformly committed, intense, and believable. No one would ever accuse Eva Marie Westbroek of having a beautiful voice. It can turn squally up top and the cut of the voice gives it a sharp tangy edge. She also looks quite blowsy and middle-aged. But this all worked to her advantage. You felt Katerina's desperation and even sympathized with her pathetic love for Sergei. Brandon Jovanovich was completely sleazy and hateful as Sergei, but had enough of that oily slickness to make his womanizing ways believable. Both of them threw themselves into Graham Vick's very graphic stage directions during Shostakovich's very graphic musical depiction of their first sexual encounter (complete with sliding trombones to depict some in-out, in-out, Clockwork-orange style). The fact that both of them were tubby and out of shape while modeling various Kama Sutra poses just added to the realism of the piece.

Supporting cast all excellent, particularly Anatoli Kotscherga as the hateful Boris, and Mikhail Koleslishvili as the delightfully amoral waltzing Priest. Dmitry Belosselskiy added to the strong impression he made in Aida with a haunting, soulful Old Convict.

You understand why Stalin banned this opera -- so many years later, it's a deeply uncomfortable work. I don't think I could see it every year, or even every five years. But it's also a masterpiece. Something like Don Quixote (the ballet) goes down easy. Too easy. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a reminder that art is sometimes offensive, unpleasant, ugly, all the things Stalin didn't want to admit still existed in the USSR. And come to think of it, the story could just as easily apply to new-Russia, where the "unbelievably popular" Putin has put out decrees against any expressions of "degenerate" tendencies. It always is one of nature's wonders to see brutal dictators insist that their country exudes nothing but sunshine and smiles.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Vintage Flames of Paris clips

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

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

Here is Vorontsova with Zaytsev:

I also found these vintage clips.

Actor's pas de deux:

Flames of Paris, Character Dances:

Flames of Paris pas de deux:

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Flames of Paris

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

In a way it makes sense that Stalin loved this ballet so much -- I've never seen a ballet so cavalier about deaths. There are FOUR onstage murders in this ballet (I counted), but all that bloodshed is apparently forgotten a minute later when the whole stage lights up in a blaze of happy folk dancing and flag waving. My favorite example of this cheerful attitude is the character of Therese, the basque dancer. She brings the house down in a justifiably famous basque dance, then somehow she winds up in the Versailles. Then a minute later she's dead. But who cares? We won the Revolution and before anyone can say "R.I.P. Therese" it's time for some more happy dancing! Yay! I can just picture Uncle Joe watching this ballet. "Oh she died." "Who cares? A million people died today. Let's dance!"

In case you care, here's a (rough) outline of the story. There's Jeanne (Oksana Bondareva), a peasant, who meets Philippe, a revolutionary (Ivan Vasiliev). Philippe recruits Jeanne. At the same time at the Versailles, there's this dancing couple named Diana (Irina Perren) and Antoine (Leonid Sarafanov). There's an evil Marquis (Mikhail Venshchikov) who makes a pass at Diana, and ends up killing Antoine. Diana barely has time to grieve before she's recruited for the Revolution. Then there's a famous basque dance in the Parisian square, where Therese (Mariam Ugrekhelidze) dances up a storm. Then the revolutionaries storm the Versailles. Farewell Therese. But yay! The People have won the Revolution, so let's hear the people dance! Ballet ends with the rip-roaring pas de deux for Jeanne and Philippe and more flag-waving.

Let's focus on what's good in this ballet. For one, the score by Boris Asafiev is surprisingly charming. He incorporates a lot of French baroque melodies and some folk tunes and it's not Tchaikovsky, but it's always listenable and pleasing. The scene at the Versailles includes a quaint recreation of French court ballet. Most of all, the ballet includes many chances for Russians to show off their character dancing. You really can't see that in Western companies -- dancers who step onstage and look nothing like ballet dancers, but have the raw power and energy of classical folk dancing. And they really went to town on the production values -- each short scene had a complete scenery and costume change. How did the peasants ever acquire so much colorful fabric? But the stage is always fun and vibrant to look at.

As for the dancers, they weren't perfect but they were right for this ballet. Ivan Vasiliev's ballet vocabulary seems to consist entirely of barrel turns, double/triple tours en l'air, and ... uh, that's about it? He's sloppy -- his landings often result in a loud thud on the floor and forget about fourth or fifth position -- if he's anywhere near vertical that's already refined by his standards. His physique is thick and honestly kind of lumpy. But he gets the crowd going and he can lift ballerinas like paper, and that's what this role needs. Oksana Bondareva is one of those ballerinas where she steps onstage, and you think, "ok, she can crank out fouettes until tomorrow morning." You see those tough turned-in ankles and you know. And crank those fouettes out she did -- a bunch with her free leg extended a la seconde, and then a bunch more doubles and triples. She's clearly a "spunky" dancer, great for Kitri and this kind of stuff. Not very graceful but she gets the job done.

The secondary couple of Diana and Antoine were more interesting. Irina Perren is that ballerina you always encounter in these Russian tours -- refined, exquisite, and, for reasons known only to the company, not dancing leading roles. I kept thinking she would have been a wonderful Giselle -- why didn't she get to dance one on the tour? I looked at her biography and saw that she's no spring chicken -- she graduated in 1998 from the Vaganova Academy. She was equally at home in the court divertissement and then in the last act we got to see her in the Freedom pas de deux that consisted entirely of her in a series of one-handed gravity-defying overhead lifts (the lifter was Marat Shemiunov). But even in that small pas de deux, you saw how her arms and hands were in the most lovely, tapered positions. Leonid Sarafanov in the brief role of Antoine (he gets killed off after about 15 minutes) looked much more comfortable tonight. This role just highlights his superb technique and not his limited acting skills. Veronika Ignatyeva (Cupid) had a moment of weak ankles but was otherwise a total doll.

The real stars though were the folk dancers and in particular the basque dancer Therese (Mariam Ugrekhelidze). My first thought when I saw her was, wow, she's kind of ... large. Not fat, but she has a thick torso and powerful thighs and doesn't look like a ballerina at all. But she could really dance up a storm, and so could the corps de ballet behind her. The other two standouts were Viktor Lebedev and Andrey Yakhnyuk as the Fraternity Brothers. They didn't have much to do besides entrechats but oh my! What beautiful dancers, and what clean beats! And then there was the cute little girl who danced with the crowd in the finale. French Revolution turned into G-rated family fare.

Other random observations about the Mikhailovsky: I couldn't help but notice that the company is more ethnically diverse than the Bolshoi and Mariinsky. You saw a lot of faces that were clearly from central Asia, and varying complexions. Marie Antoinette (Alla Matveyeva) was a hoot -- if anyone's face could scream "let them eat cake" it was her. The orchestra does NOT indulge the lugubrious tempi that prima ballerinas at the Mariinsky like Uliana Lopatkina favor, nor does the conductor allow for dancers to stop the music to milk ovations. And the corps de ballet doesn't have the flawless look of the Mariinsky. Sometimes they look ragged. But that's part of their charm. You realize that this company isn't perfect, but you like them.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Mikhailovsky's Lifeless, Leaden Giselle

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

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

The Mikhailovsky Ballet is in town for two weeks, and Osipova, who's now a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, flew in for an appearance with her other main company. (For those keeping track, Osipova started at the Bolshoi, went to the Mikhailovsky, then the ABT, then the Royal Ballet). The Mikhailovsky Ballet is thought of by some Russian balletomanes as just as fine of a company as the more well-known Bolshoi and Mariinsky. And indeed, the production by Kirov legend Nikita Dolgushin looks out of a 19th century storybook. The peasants weren't wearing generic Giselle peasant frocks, but really lovely, well-designed dresses that suggested that in this village, the mama's are very talented tailors. The scenery was picturesque and I liked how carefully the choreography and blocking separates the noblemen from the peasants.

In Act Two Dolgushin included a variation for Myrtha and the Wilis and some extra music in Giselle's initiation scene that are cut from other standard productions of Giselle. I suspect this music was probably in the 1842 version but 86'ed over the years. Dolgushin also included some 19th century theater effects -- moving trees that flew up and down to hide a dramatic "reveal" of a character, and veils on the Wilis that were attached to strings that "magically" flew off. Did it add much to the experience? Not really, but it was different, and you can't see it in other productions.

But the performance didn't work. For one, the Mikhailovksy seems to have underestimated how narrow and shallow the Koch Theater stage is -- all that shrubbery in the second act made it hard for the Wilis to dance. The stage was also too brightly lit for both acts -- in Act One, the bright lighting made the whole thing look sort of Disneyish, and in the second act, the bright lighting took away from the spooky ghostliness of the story. Kind of hard to get scared when it all looks like a merry party in the woods.

The Mikhailovsky's casting tonight was also off. Natalia Osipova and Leonid Sarafanov are both excellent dancers. They just shouldn't dance together. The chemistry was entirely non-existent. Osipova's Giselle has now acquired some grand diva mannerisms -- her attempts to seem shy and sweet in Act One looked stilted. When Giselle discovers Albrecht's treachery, there's a big moment when Giselle throws off the necklace Bathilde had given her. Most Giselles are able to make this moment very frenzied and even angry. Osipova just calmly picked off the necklace and tossed it on the ground as if she were a prima donna rejecting an unflattering wig. Sarafanov is a simple, boyish, uncomplicated Albrecht. He looked like a teenager playing hooky rather than a caddish count. This might have worked with a Giselle that was naturally childlike, but next to Osipova's Diva it did not work at all. Osipova's dancing was technically magnificent -- her Spessivtseva variation included her making a small circle onstage in the middle of her diagonal on pointe. Her pique turns were so expansive she seemed to be flying across the stage.

Here's a video of her Giselle variation:

I thought the lack of personality would be alleviated in Act Two, which contains more pure dancing and less mime and acting, but it was actually worse. Sarafanov and Osipova seemed to be dancing on entirely different planets. On paper they look like a great couple. He can jump, she can jump. And in those simultaneous assembles, boy could you see it. Both flew across the stage and landed in a tight fifth. But they were onstage at the same time, and dancing inches from each other, and yet there was no sense of reconciliation and connection. Instead, both decided to go to the Olympics. Osipova's Giselle still has that incredible ballon and elevation, and her grand jetes don't just soar, they fly to the moon and back. Her initiation turns were so fast they were demented. Her exposed developpes and arabesques were completely still and secure. And those series of backwards entrechats -- no one can hang in the air like Osipova. But beyond those incredible athletic gifts, there was nothing. I've seen her Giselle with David Hallberg. I know she's capable of so much more than she gave tonight.

Sarafanov's Albrecht was even more callow in Act Two. His lifts were labored -- there seemed to be some poor timing, as I noticed that Osipova was giving her feet the little "pushoff" before the lift, but Sarafanov seemed to ignore those cues and delay the lift until it looked like he was carrying a lead balloon. His worst misfire was in the series of entrechat sixes that he dances at Myrtha's command. Oh, they were incredible entrechats. Those feet tight and the crosses crisp and fast, and amazing height. But the point of the entrechats is that Myrtha is ordering him to dance till exhaustion. Sarafanov started flying, and the crowd started clapping, and he was so excited that he pumped his fists in the air as Usain Bolt would after the 100 m dash, and decided to go for another round of entrechats. But just as many figure skaters often stumble in the last minute of the long program, Sarafanov overestimated his jumping stamina, and fell out of the entrechats with a messy spill. Gold medal lost, and oh wait, Osipova is already standing upstage, ready to "rescue" Albrecht! I happened to glance upstage and Osipova had the most impatient look on her face as she watched Sarafanov's antics. So Sarafanov had to haul ass and finish out the floating arabesque variation with a visibly pissy Osipova. Awkward city.

The strange thing about Osipova and Sarafanov's Giselle Olympiad is that the other dancers seemed to be dancing another ballet altogether. The company as a whole has pleasing manners and grace. Vladimir Tsai (Hilarion) had the virtue of being both better looking than Albrecht and also is played as a gentle giant type. The peasants in Act One formed a merry little community -- they all cheered on Giselle's dancing with a genuine enthusiasm. Veronika Ignatyeva and Andrey Yakhnyuk (peasant pas de deux) had their moments of hesitation but overall invested this often formulaic piece with a winning sweetness and charm. Ekaterina Borchenko (Myrtha) and her Wilis had a beautiful softness and flow. I loved watching their arms and the way they swayed back and forth with the music. Borchenko isn't like the stereotypical Myrtha -- she's not fierce looking and her jump is actually sort of weak. But she and her Wili sisters' graceful romanticism made it believable that these Wilis were heartbroken brides.

In fact, I wondered at the end of the evening whether I'd really experienced the Mikhailovsky Giselle at all. Is this what a performance in their home theater would be like? Or are we seeing a "Stars of the Russian Ballet" touring version, with the principals throwing in a dog and pony show because that's how audiences overseas expect Russian dancers to dance? I bought several tickets for the Mikhailovsky. I hope the next performances are better.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Show Boat

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

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

Friday, October 31, 2014


I reviewed last night's performance of Aida at Parterre Box. A snip:
At the first intermission at last night’s Met revival of Aida, I turned to my companion and said, “So… what about the Aida? I thought she was supposed to be good.” 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Death of Klinghoffer

The premiere of Death of Klinghoffer is over. There were protests, but the crowd was smaller than expected. There was occasional in-house booing and disruptions (in particular one man kept shouting "The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven") but the overall audience response was positive. John Adams received a rousing ovation. The controversy might live on, but now that the premiere is over, I hope actual dialogue of the opera can begin. Because, you know, now people have actually, uh, seen the opera.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Goodbye Wendy

On October 18, 2014 Wendy Whelan danced her last performance with the New York City Ballet. The house was jam-packed -- tickets sold out minutes after they went for general sale, and I met someone who had gotten a last minute ticket by arriving at 6 am for standing room. It was an emotional occasion. The stage was crowded with past and present NYCB dancers -- octogenarian Jacque d'Amboise delighted the audience by waltzing Wendy around during her lengthy curtain calls. There were former partners Damian Woetzel, Jock Soto, and Philip Neal, all looking handsome and elegant as ever. Many ABT dancers were spotted in the audience -- David Hallberg, Irina Dvorovenko, Gillian Murphy and Ethan Stiefel. It seems as if the entire dance world was there to pay tribute to this remarkable ballerina.

The program that Wendy chose displayed her shrewdness and intelligence. It carefully highlighted what she could still do -- in particular, use her remarkable body as a sculptural instrument to carve positions in the air. In La Sonnambula her tiny, wispy frame still looked as ghostly as ever, her large eyes spooky and soulless. Robert Fairchild, Sara Mearns, and Daniel Ulbricht, all stars in their own right, tacitly toned down their usual high-energy performances so the spotlight was on Wendy.

The second chunk of the programming was perhaps the best. Excerpts from Dances at a Gathering that ended with that always crowdpleasing move of the peach girl (Wendy) being thrown and twisted in the air (and Zachary Catazaro making a great catch). The adagio from Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH was maybe THE highlight of the evening. Tyler Angle partnered Wendy as if she were a goddess, and the choreography showed off the tender, lyrical side of Wendy's dancing that was often forgotten when she was in her prime, as people considered her to be that kickass B&W ballet queen who could contort her body into any shape she wanted. And finally, there was the inevitable After the Rain pas de deux with Craig Hall. For 10 minutes, the audience was pindrop silent as Arvo Pärt's beautiful scored played in the background and Wendy and Craig carved themselves into the by-now very familiar shapes of Wheeldon's signature work.

Now, here's the thing. After the Rain has become such a Wendy calling card that the NYCB has programmed this piece to death since its premiere. Is it a great piece of choreography? Well, as my friend pointed out during intermission ... not exactly? It's effective, and the acrobatic poses are striking, but Wendy made it into a repertory staple. I can't picture other ballerinas being able to move through those poses with such slow control, and displaying such strength even as she fell into Craig Hall's chest repeatedly. One wonderful thing about Wendy: she could make pieces better than they actually were just by being her.

In between the works in the second part of the program there were two brief films of Wendy. Both showed her earthy fun sense of humor. They also showed beautiful clips of her earlier days. I'll always remember Wendy as that unbeatably flexible girl in the Agon pas de deux who could also be a beautiful Sugarplum Fairy (her shoulder jumps were always awe-inspiring). If there was a role Wendy was outright bad in, I can't remember it.

The final piece on the program was a little oddity. A joint effort by Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, called By 2 With & From, the score was a Max Richter adaptation of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The choreography was basically a tribute to Wendy -- Tyler Angle and Craig Hall took turns partnering Wendy in moments that were alternately solemn (the Wheeldon half) and more offbeat and fun (the Ratmansky half). The final pose was Wendy being held aloft in the air, her back arched proudly for the last time.

And then it was time for the floral tributes, the cheering, the bows, the confetti, the streamers. But maybe the most touching tribute from Wendy came from a security guard who had checked my bags when I first picked up the tickets earlier that evening. "Wendy could do anything," he said. "And she is a nice girl." I murmured something about them all being nice, and he said, "No, but she was NICE." So many people turned up for Wendy Whelan's farewell not simply because they admired her. She was loved.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Macbeth, take 2

The opening night Macbeth was surprisingly sparsely attended but strong word of mouth quickly made subsequent shows sold out. Last night I decided to catch the second-to-last performance of Macbeth -- all the way up in the Family Circle, standing room.

First things first -- it's a cliché that sound is best in the Family Circle, but a very true one at that. Only in the upper rings of the Met do you get the full voice/orchestra balance, so the textures and nuances of orchestration that are missed in the lower rungs ring loud and clear from the upper rings. I heard details of Verdi's score that I never could have heard sitting in a prime orchestra seat.

Second of all, the Adrian Noble production from 2007 looks amazing from so far away. From up close you can see the tackiness -- the oddly dressed, squatting witches, the never-ending business with the chairs (most distracting in the Sleepwalking Scene), the costumes that look for lack of a better word, well, cheap. But from so far away, the dark lighting and shadowy costumes made the whole thing look ghostly and atmospheric. The production really needs to be seen from far away.

I thought it was obvious that compared to opening night, Lucic (Macbeth), René Pape (Banquo), and Joseph Calleja (Macduff) all sounded slightly tired. Lucic in particular appeared to be doing a sort of early-Verdi-meets-Bayreuth-bark thing. His voice, which can turn wooly and clouded under pressure, brayed and was often beneath the pitch. Only during "Fuggi regal fantasma" was there a hint of the legato and cantabile line that's so important in early Verdi. Luisi's treatment of the score again tries to erase the sometimes crudely written Verdi melodies. It makes the music sound more important, but perhaps less exciting.

Anna Netrebko, however, seemed completely freed from any pressure to be note-perfect for the HD, and instead she did some wonderful vocal experimentation. It's odd what she apparently thought needed improvement, vs. what I thought needed improvement. For instance, on opening night, I thought her opening aria "Vienni t'affreta" was a bit rough and imprecise. Last night the bumpiness was still there, and there were still missing grace notes and trills. I also thought that the Act Three duet with Macbeth on opening night was marred by awkward blocking and a weak climactic high C -- well it was even weaker last night. The C was barely touched as she pulled Lucic into a rather awkward tight round of horizontal mambo.

However, the changes she did make were all improvements. For instance, "La luce langue" was even more expressive than opening night -- less of a sledgehammer approach, more introverted and sung as an internal dialogue. Maybe the greatest improvement was during the Brindisi -- opening night I remembered her sounding somewhat insouciant throughout. Tonight, during the second verse her voice had a cold rattle, as if she were gritting her teeth and shaking with rage at her husband. She also managed two full-throated trills that in context sounded like her exerting her control over the situation in the most kick-ass way.

And the Sleepwalking Scene -- opening night I thought she was note-perfect, but she seemed determined to get through the scene without any vocal bumps, so the portrayal was very introverted. The fussy business with having her walk on chairs didn't help. Tonight, she added much more fanciful "traditional" mad scene effects -- some ritards here and there to emphasize Lady Macbeth's confusion, a lot more conventional "mad scene" acting. She colored her voice differently -- gone was the sheet of ice in the opening night. Her voice sounded more disconnected, almost kooky. She also took the final D-flat as a thin whisper, a vocal effect that so many sopranos try without much success.

Interpretively she's also added a lot since opening night. Now Anna's Lady Macbeth is even tougher, if that's even possible -- at one point she literally gives her swift husband a kick in the rear. I doubt Lady Macbeth is a role Anna is going to sing much in the future -- sometimes I could hear that despite her large voice and astonishing range, she was pushing her voice to the maximum. So I'm just glad that I caught 2 of these performances, so I saw both her initial thoughts on the role, and her final thoughts.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Prima Ballerina Wendy

In less than two weeks, Wendy Whelan will retire from the New York City Ballet. It's definitely the Dance Event of the year. Tickets were notoriously hard to get -- I snagged two fourth ring tickets for $94 -- a minute later the whole show was sold out. The farewell will be a busy, emotional event, and I'm sure not many people will really remember the dancing. For that reason I bought a ticket to see Wendy this afternoon in La Sonnambula. I wanted to see her just dance a regular performance.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review for Nozze di Figaro, Rene Pape

I reviewed last night's performance of Nozze di Figaro at parterre box. I'm pretty glad I won the lottery and didn't have to pay full price for it. I also reviewed the Rene Pape recital. Happy reading.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Balanchine in B&W and Color

The NYCB fall season. It only started a few years ago, but now I can't imagine life without it, and it's become maybe my favorite NYCB season. The dancers are fresh and rested from a summer off, the programming is usually full of Balanchine classics, and the weather's nice so you don't have to trudge home from the ballet in snow boots.

The 9/27 evening performance at the NYCB was a severe all Stravinsky, all B&W program: Apollo, Momentum Pro Gesualdo/Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Duo Concertant, and Agon. It's a testament to Balanchine's genius that not once did I think, "Wow, this is too many leotards against too much Stravinsky dissonance."

Thursday, September 25, 2014


There is a certain type of woman you sometimes meet who you know is an absolutely ball-busting coldhearted bitch, but for reasons known only to her insists on acting girlish, coy, and "sweet" in public. I feel like Anna Netrebko has been doing that schtick for the past few years. She's insisted on keeping ingenue roles like Norina, Adina, and Mimi in her repertoire even though neither her stage persona nor her voice really suited them anymore.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Spartacus - Soviet Superman!!!

There are so many ridiculous moments in Yuri Grigorovich's Spartacus that by rights, I should have hated it completely. The choreography for Spartacus and the slaves consists almost entirely of marching (the "goosestep"), leaping on a diagonal, chest-beating and sword-fighting. The choreography for Phyrgia consists entirely of being lifted like a sack of potatoes. The only remotely interesting choreography is for Crassus and Aegina. Crassus brandishes his penis extension (uh, I mean sword) in some truly convoluted ways, and Aegina is asked to shimmy, to lie on the floor and thrust her hips upwards, and then in Act Three, to do a pole dance in which she actually takes the pole and rubs it between her legs and shivers from the orgasm. The score by Aram Khachaturian takes a melody, and then repeats it about 10,000 times more.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bolshoi's Don Quixote - Best Show in Town

Don Quixote has long been considered the Bolshoi Ballet's house special and touring warhorse. Wherever they go, audiences go crazy over the Bolshoi's boisterous, happy, busy depiction of a Spanish fairyland. The curtain rose tonight at the Koch Theater and the effect was the same -- the audience was bombarded with sashaying skirts, rustling maracas, banging tambourines, swaying fans, swinging capes, and the happy reaction said "Ah, so fun."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Bolshoi's Swan Lake

There's a saying in ballet that says "Put Swan Lake on the billboard, and they will come." This certainly seemed the case tonight as the Bolshoi Ballet has kicked off its two week stay at the Koch Theater with a week a Swan Lakes. Well ... I think many of the audience were shocked, to say the least, that in the Bolshoi/Grigorovich version, there's no swan and no lake. In fact, audience reaction was muted, and it made for some awkward moments when the audience was dead silent and the dancers decided to come out for another bow.