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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Simon Boccanegra - 1/28/11

Two thoughts entered my head while I watched tonight's performance of Simon Boccanegra. One was that it was one of the finest nights of Verdi singing I've ever experienced. The other was that it's a crying shame that last year's revival, with the novelty casting of Placido Domingo in the title role, got the HD transmission, the DVD release, and all the publicity, because this year's cast was infinitely finer.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Traviata video marathon all in one post

If you don't feel like scrolling through my blog for all the Traviata essays and video marathon reviews, here they are, all in one page:

The Met performance that prompted this video marathon

Zeffirelli vs. Decker scene by scene comparison

Traviata #1: Film with Anna Moffo from 1968

Traviata #2: Scotto and Carreras in Tokyo

Traviata #3: Zeffirelli film with Stratas, Domingo, MacNeil

Traviata #4: Gheorghiu's 1994 performance at Covent Garden

Traviata #6: 2004 Venice production with Ciofi, Sacca, Hvorostovsky

Traviata #6: 2005 Salzburg production with Netrebko and Villazon

Traviata #7: La Scala, 2007, with Gheorghiu and Vargas

The final Traviata, a truly old school experience


The final La Traviata in this video marathon is the 2007 video from La Scala, starring Angela Gheorghiu, Ramon Vargas, and Robert Frontali. Lorin Maazel conducts. Even though this is the most recent video in the timeline, in many ways it's the most old-fashioned. It's so old-fashioned that I wonder if even Maria Callas would have found it a bit stuffy. Even the bad old cuts are all taken -- Germont's cabaletta, the second verse of "O mio rimorso" as well as the still-standard second verses of "Ah forse lui," "Addio del passato," and "Parigi o cara." Gheorghiu gives her mature interpretation of Violetta, which no matter what you think of her, has to count as one of the most well-known interpretations of her era.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A timeless Traviata - Netrebko, Villazon (video marathon continues)

My video marathon of La Traviata continues with the blu-ray release of the now-legendary La Traviata starring Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon at the Salzburg Festival in 2005. I've already written plenty about the Willy Decker production here and here, so I'll just focus on the vocal performances by Netrebko and Villazon in this post.



This performance of La Traviata is already an instant classic, and not just because the Decker production is by turns beautiful, inventive, provocative, and haunting. This Traviata captured the brief time when Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon were the It Couple of the opera world, and is probably the one Traviata video I'd take to a desert island, if forced to choose. (My other favorite is the Gheorghiu Covent Garden video.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Which operas should have beautiful productions?

In the endless debates of regie vs. traditional opera productions, there has been one persistent complaint about regie productions -- that as a rule, they are not as beautiful as "traditional" opera productions. It's unfair to generalize, but regie productions often update the opera to a modern era, or they mix/match periods. Sets are stylized, or explicitly shocking. Stage directions are ... well, often not PG. One of the most beloved features of La Cieca's parterrebox is the weekly "Regie quizzes" in which parterrebox members are invited to guess which opera pictures of a production are taken from. An example of his Regie quiz can be found at the link.


How good is "Apollo's Angels"?

The bombastic New York Times Book Review by Toni Bentley blared, "It has never been done, what Jennifer Homans has done in “Apollo’s Angels.” She has written the only truly definitive history of the most impossibly fantastic art form, ballet, this most refined, most exquisite art of “aristocratic etiquette,” this “science of behavior toward others,” as a 17th-century ballet master put it, in which lovely young women perch upon their 10 little toe tips (actually, it is ­really just the two big toes that alternately support the entire body’s weight: think about it) and waft about where the air is thinner — but heaven is closer." Obviously, she liked the book.

Jennifer Homans' book, a history of ballet, has gotten equal parts praise and scorn -- praise for her thoughtful, methodical research, her elegant writing style, and her passionate views. It's gotten scorn because of her famous (or infamous) epilogue, where, after such loving research, she declares ballet "dead." The epliogue can be read online at the New Republic. But, having read the book cover to cover twice now, I wonder, just how good is Apollo's Angels?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A "new-old" Traviata - 2004 Venice (Ciofi, Sacca, Hvorostovsky)


My video marathon of La Traviata continues with the 2004 production from Venice. The director was Robert Carsen and this is maybe the first real "regie" Traviata. Carsen updates this Traviata to the sleazy 1970s nightclub scene, and the overwhelming theme of this Traviata is money. Money is tossed at Violetta from the opening chords, and the green dollar bills become an integral part of the scenery. Alfredo in this update is a paparazzi, whose loving photos of Violetta win her heart.

A Bolshoi Double Bill Live in HD

I woke up early this morning to catch the Bolshoi Ballet's double bill that was being transmitted to theaters worldwide -- in this case, a rather odd pairing of Asaf Messerer's Class Concert and the classic Giselle. Overall I found the presentation to be a bit of a disappointment. It was well-danced, it was worth watching, but it wasn't really a performance for the ages.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Happy Birthday Mr. B!

Tonight the New York City Ballet celebrated Mr. Balanchine's birthday with a rousing all-Balanchine program that I just had to attend. All-Balanchine programs are becoming rarer and rarer, and judging by how packed the house was on a frigid and icy winter night, balletomanes all over recognize how special it is to be treated to a program of Balanchine masterpieces. Happy Birthday Mr. B!



Tosca - 1/21/11 (Radvanovsky, Alvarez, Struckmann)

Last week I wrote a blog entry in which I had some pretty harsh things to say about Sondra Radvanovsky. So tonight I did the right and proper thing and went to see a performance of Tosca starring Ms. Radvanovsky herself. It was also my first time seeing Luc Bondy's production in the house (I had only seen the HD broadcast), and I have had kind of a rough, annoying week, so I was pretty excited when the chandeliers rose.


Monday, January 17, 2011

Jets fever - and Tom Brady hatred

I am as excited as anyone that the underdog Jets defeated the Patriots yesterday. I have become a football fan in recent years, and today I was talking with my mom and my mom said, "I'm happy for the Jets, but it's not right what they're saying about Tom Brady. He seems like an okay guy."

She was probably referring to comments like these. Tom Brady is one of the most hated athletes in the country, and the thing is, other than winning three Superbowl rings, he hasn't done much to deserve the hatred. Unlike Michael Vick, he hasn't served two years in jail for running a vicious dogfighting ring. Unlike Ben Roethlisberger, he hasn't been charged numerous times of sexual assault. Unlike Brett Favre, he hasn't become a national joke in terms of crying, when the cardinal rule is "no crying in football." Unlike Ray Lewis, he hasn't killed a guy. And unlike Antonio Cromartie, who trash-talked Brady in the article I linked, he hasn't fathered nine children with eight different women and refused to pay child support.
No, hatred of Tom Brady seems to stem around three basic arguments:
1. I hate the Pats/Bill Belichick, therefore I hate Tom Brady
2. Tom Brady is not exciting
3. Generalized hatred towards a successful, confident athlete

Of the three different arguments of hatred, I'd say only #2 has real merit. Tom Brady is not an exciting quarterback, and never will be. He relies heavily on his offensive team, because he can't run the ball himself. He rarely leaves the pocket. His coach, Bill Belichick, is famously controlling and Tom Brady is one of those QB's that basically does what the coach says. He's not ever going to blaze across the field, ball in hand, to save the play. That is a bit boring.

But on the other hand, this predictability is probably what makes him successful. He's a team player, and he knows his limitations. He's not as muscular or fast as some other quarterbacks, but he doesn't make a fool out of himself by trying things that he can't do. He's also generally a good sport, and handled the endless "why did you lose?" questions yesterday without snapping or being rude. He didn't enter the NFL an insta-star, but was instead drafted in the sixth round and started as fourth-string quarterback before working his way up. He's fairly good-looking (I like the long hair) and has a cute son and a hot supermodel wife. Seriously, why all the hatred? I admit that I kind of like him, even though I don't like the Pats.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Zeffirelli's Phantom of the Traviata

Next up in the La Traviata marathon -- the famous (or infamous) film of La Traviata made by Franco Zeffirelli, and starring Teresa Stratas, Placido Domingo, and Cornell MacNeil. This film is praised and scorned in equal parts by opera fans, and it's both an astonishing success and a massive failure.


Franco Zeffirelli in recent years has become synonymous with "old fashioned opera director." His lavish, stubbornly traditional production of La Traviata at the Met was just dropped in favor of Willy Decker's edgy, modern-dress version. To see my thoughts, read here. But having been familiar with the Met staged version, I was still surprised by some of the choices in the film version.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Italian Traviata in Japan

Next up in my La Traviata video marathon: a 1973 performance from Tokyo that has probably as idiomatic of a cast as could be found: Renata Scotto as Violetta, Jose Carreras as Alfredo, and Sesto Bruscantini as Germont. It is also available now on VAI.



The video is taken from a live broadcast, and it has embedded Japanese subtitles in the background. The video is okay, but not great. All the then-traditional cuts are taken (both Germont's and Alfredo's cabalettas, parts of "Parigi o cara," the second verses of "Ah forse lui" and "Addio del passato," plus one unusual cut right after the final "Oh gioia! in the orchestration). The production is traditional, but somewhat drab and bare-bones. Ironically, this makes the settings believable -- Violetta's party in Act One looks like a smallish gathering in a spacious Parisian apartment. The country house also looks like something Violetta could actually realistically afford. Flora's party doesn't seem to take place in a palace. The last act really does take place in a sparsely decorated bedroom.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Old school "Traviata" - La Traviata marathon

On a whim I decided to watch a video tonight that I hadn't watched in a long time -- the 1968 film of La Traviata with Anna Moffo. Having just seen the Willy Decker La Traviata, I was surprised at how many changes there have been to La Traviata over the years, and decided that I'd do a video survey of La Traviata on video over the years. Maybe I'll do this with a few more operas in the future. The first film in my survey was made in 1968.


The 1968 film with Anna Moffo was made by her then-husband, Italian film director Mario Lanfranchi. In later years Moffo would complain bitterly that the marriage turned out to be a nightmare, with her Svengali-like husband overworking her ruthlessly. By the time they divorced in the early 1970s, her voice was a shred of the lovely instrument it had been in the mid-1950s. Nevertheless, opera lovers have to feel a degree of gratitude that Lanfranchi did make all those films with his wife, for they preserved some of her loveliest work.

Love for Big Love

On Sunday the fifth and final season of Big Love returns to HBO. I've loved this show since its very first episode, and I found the fourth season disappointing and full of improable plot twists (Nikki getting injected with frozen embryos?), but it didn't diminish my love for what I think is the best family drama on television.



Monday, January 10, 2011

Bolshoi's Spartacus over the years

Last night I popped into my DVD player a total impulse buy -- Bolshoi Ballet's 2008 video of Spartacus. I can't believe it but I now have four videos of a ballet I don't even like. I have the 1970 live recording witht the original cast, the 1979 film version, the 1990 live version, and now this video.

Spartacus was for a long time the Bolshoi's calling card. It was choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich to suit "old Bolshoi" style. The story of a slave uprising against the evil Roman Empire played very well to Soviet propaganda. It was a ballet that for a long time only the Bolshoi COULD perform -- a company of 200 dancers, they've always been known for the strength of their males, who could handle both those endlessly repeated cross-stage leap diagonals and what I call the "curtain drape" lifts, where the female is lifted above the male's shoulder and draped over it like a curtain. To complete the look, the females would let their long hair hang down the side of one of Spartacus's shoulder's, and the legs hang down the other side.

Woman as curtain drape!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

"My Happiness" - Belated Happy Birthday to Elvis

Yesterday would have been Elvis Presley's 76th birthday. And there is no better birthday tribute to Elvis than the first single he ever recorded, "My Happiness," a song he sang as birthday present to his mother. It was recorded at Sun Records in July 1953, and the rest, as they say, is history.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Zeffirelli vs. Decker (scene by scene comparison)

I thought this would be useful:

Act One

Libretto says: A room in Violetta’s house. Violetta is seated on a sofa talking to the Doctor and some other friends, who come and go. Some of the guests turn to meet a group of new arrivals, amongst whom are the baron and Flora, on the arm of the Marquis.

Zeffirelli's production: A room in Violetta's house, he's got that part right. The room is in the Zeffirelli style of being extremely large, with fancy furniture. The party, however, seems to be a run of the mill party, without any of the seediness that I'd imagine a real demimonde party might have. Later on in the production Angela Gheorghiu started the scene by making out with the Baron as the guests came in. But I think the Zeffirelli production makes a fatal mistake in Act One when he doesn't really differentiate Violetta's party from any drawing room gathering in the 1800s. It's a little too pretty. Strangely, not much is made of the business of Violetta giving Alfredo a camelia.



Decker's production: Violetta actually is seated with a Doctor Grenvil on the side, and as the guests arrive, she reluctantly kicks on her red pumps, puts a camelia in her hair, and then the party begins. Even though the guests are in modern dress, the party resembles what I imagine a demi-monde party to have been like -- drunk, seedy, filled with empty "pleasure."



Violetta in this production is very clearly drunk, and she drinks throughout the party. This is actually more consistent with what we know about Marie Duplessis, who vacillated between desperate trips to doctors and reckless partying as she got sicker. Much more emphasis is made about the white camelia that Violetta gives Alfredo.
Violetta's "Ah forse lui/Sempre libera" are fairly conventionally staged, with her throwing champagne before "Sempre libera."

La Traviata - same production, totally different experience

I went to see the new production of La Traviata at the Met tonight -- the one everyone's been talking about. The production by Willy Decker replaced the overstuffed, traditional Franco Zeffirelli production. The Decker production was already a well-known product -- it first premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2005, and back then starred the operatic glamour couple of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. That performance was released commercially on DVD. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan,  signed Decker, Netrebko, and Villazon for a repeat performance.

But between 2005 and 2011, a lot happened. Netrebko pulled out of the engagement, Villazon ... stopped singing, but Gelb remained determined to stage Decker's production. A new cast was hired (Marina Poplavskaya, Matthew Polenzani), and tonight I finally went to see what the fuss was all about.



Saturday, January 1, 2011

Getting one's feathers up over Black Swan

There's been a lot of hand-wringing among balletomanes about Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. The wildly popular movie about a young ballerina's descent into madness as she prepares for her big breakthrough in Swan Lake has been criticized for misrepresenting the ballet world by some prominent dance critics, and I've also heard people say how Natalie Portman doesn't really dance in the movie, that Black Swan is camp, and on and on. But I really think people are totally missing the point about this movie, and so I've decided to start the new year off with a blog about Black Swan.