Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold March 31, 2011 Starring Bryn Terfel, Richard Paul Fink, Stephanie Blythe, Arnold Bezuyen, Dwayne Croft, Franz-Josef Selig, Patricia Bardon, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Fabio Luisi cond.
This afternoon I went to the New York City Opera's Elixir of Love. It's usually called Elisir d'Amore, and set in some kind of rustic Italian fairy-tale-land, but Jonathan Miller's production has set Donizetti's everygreen opera in the American South, 1950's era. Miller took a page from Peter Sellars' famous production of Cosi fan tutte that was set in "Despina's Diner" and decided to make the unit set "Adina's Diner." At various points in the opera, the characters dance along, jukebox style, to Donizetti's catchy tunes. It was overall a charming performance, with a more relaxed vibe than a typical performance at the Metropolitan Opera. The small-scale production and cast of mostly young, unknown performers gave Donizetti's opera a freshness and energy that propelled the whole afternoon along.
It's so strange to have three videos of one production available on DVD, but a third video Natalia Makarova's staging of La Bayadere was released recently by the Royal Ballet. Natalia Makarova was the first dancer to revive the complete La Bayadere in the West (Rudolf Nureyev had staged the famous Shades Scene for the Royal Ballet). At the time Natalia Makarova made her staging for the ABT in the 1970's, most people were unfamiliar with how the ballet was performed in Russia.
If ever there was one ballet associated with one company, it might be the Bolshoi Ballet and Don Quixote. This colorful romp through 16th century Spain has almost nothing to do with Cervantes' novel, which is a profound philosophical dialogue between two mythic characters, Don Quixote and Sancho. Despite the famous events, the novel is not driven by narrative, but by ideas. Perhaps that's why there have been so few great adaptations of Cervantes' work. Petipa/Gorsky's ballet is based on a small episode in the Cervantes novel, but really it's just an excuse for a non-stop dance spectacular. Don Quixote and Sancho are walk-on characters who have little to no relation to the plot. Ludwig Minkus's score is bright and bouncy, maybe the best score he ever composed. The ballet was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, but the version we know today is really the revised choreography of Alexander Gorsky. Gorsky erased the formal classicism that Petipa favored, and made Don Quixote heavily focused on character dancing. As a result, the ballet feels like folk dancing, even if it's not. Today's live in HD transmission from the Bolshoi made the best possible argument for this ballet.
This afternoon, thanks to a friend, I was able to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company for the second time this week, in a very different triple bill -- Arden Court, Three Dubious Memories, and Cloven Kingdom. This is my third time seeing Taylor's company, and every time I think I "get" him as a choreographer, he does something that surprises me, and makes me rethink what he's about, what drives him. What's his philosophy on life, or dance? I left the City Center pondering these questions, that probably can't be answered.
The afternoon bill opened with Arden Court, and it was one of the most charming dances I have ever seen, period. The music is by baroque composer William Boyce, and then men are bare-chested (the audience sighed at how handsome the Taylor dancers are, in that effortless, all-American, athletic way), the women dressed in pretty white dresses with colorful multi-colored dots. As "pants," the men are wearing these white tights with the same multi-colored dots. Again, I could be wrong, but my first impression was that the dancers could be fairies, or elves, or little children playing in a garden (there is a large rose backdrop). The whole dance has a wonderful playfulness that is uninterrupted by any darkness. The men and women run and crawl in circles, skip and hop across the stage, and at other times they pose in stillness, as if they were savoring the moment. At one point, three of the men do supported cartwheels. It's an expression of childlike joy, and also proof that partnership in dance is not just between a man and a woman. One of the most striking scenes is the lineup of six men -- one of the men all of a sudden decides to do a handstand. At other times the dancers cross the stage in exuberant diagonal leaps. It literally made me sigh with happiness.
Then it was intermission, and when the curtain came back up it was Paul Taylor's other premiere work, Three Dubious Memories. The dance actually has a strong story -- it's a clear homage to the great Kurosawa film Rashomon, in which one story is told from different perspectives. There is a "chorusmaster" and a sort of Greek chorus, who are dressed in gray and throughout the dance are stern and unsympathetic to the main drama between the Man in Blue, Man in Green, and Woman in Red. The first section is titled "As Remembered by the Man in Blue" and his memory is of him violently interrupting a romantic idyll between the Woman in Red and Man in Green. The Man in Blue savagely separates the couple, then forces himself upon the Woman in Red. The second section, "As Remembered by the Man in Green," maybe too predictably has the opposite perspective -- the Man in Green catches Woman in Red and the Man in Blue in a forbidden tryst, and is furious. But the third section, "As Remembered by the Woman in Red," turns the whole storyline upside down. The Woman this time is the interloper, as she walks in on a homoerotic, ambiguous situation between the two men. The final section has the choristers return, and the two Men and Woman sit grimly on three of the choristers, who are now doubling as chairs. The love triangle is now permanently separated. The two Men and the Woman do not even look at each other or touch in the final section. It's as if the Greek Chorus has pronounced their judgment, and that is that neither Man gets the Woman. I remembered the playful, sexy interactions between men and women in Arden Court, and Three Dubious Memories was such a contrast.
The program ended with Cloven Kingdom, which was one of the weirdest, most surreal theater I've ever experienced. My first reaction was "Paul Taylor on acid." After all, could "Cloven" be a drug reference? Who knows. The program notes has the cryptic quote "Man is a social animal," and Taylor has emphasized the animal part of that saying. The "Kingdom" part of the dance's title also suggest an animal world, and what a strange world Taylor has imagined. The music is a mix of baroque (Arcangelo Corelli) and almost African-sounding percussion beats. Eventually the percussion drowns out the baroque melodies almost completely. The women are in beautiful, floor-length evening gowns, the men in handsome black evening suits. But there was nothing beautiful or elegant about their movements. I thought at times Taylor was spoofing classical ballet (the four men interlock arms and do a series of pas de chats, just like the cygnets in Swan Lake), Martha Graham (the huge sweep of the leg in developpe in those big dresses), even Alvin Ailey (the percussion music mix and the exaggerated arm pumping). But the dance is like nothing I've ever seen. Movements are violent and hard, the men crawl and somersault across the floor, evening suits all twisted, like animals in heat. The women eventually don weird-looking shiny geometric head-dresses, and it makes them look mythic, but they too leap and pound the stage relentlessly, as if they were driven by some force that can't even be articulated by dance. In the few moments the men and women are onstage together, sometimes they waltz formally, and then the dance will become almost a messy brawl. It really was a strange work that I probably need to several more times before I can begin to absorb all that Taylor is trying to convey.
When the program was over I thought about how odd the ordering of the dances was. Arden Court is a big crowd-pleaser kind of dance, and I thought that it'd be a natural to finish the program (the way Revelations or Symphony in C tend to be program finishers). Instead, Taylor created a magical, charming world in Arden Court and then proceeded to demolish that charm and magic in two works that really seemed to touch upon the dark side. When the octogenarian came out for his curtain calls, I thought about how next year, when his troupe comes to City Center again, I will probably watch a dance of his and think that I understand his work. And then I will watch another dance and he will put me back at square one, a complete novice with no right to do anything but observe and wonder.
The juxtaposition of violence and love is at the heart of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and successful adaptations of Shakespeare's play tend to have the same mixing of the most shocking violence with the tenderness of young love. Prokofiev's ballet score, West Side Story, Franco Zefferelli and Baz Lurhmann's movies, all have this quality. Charles Gounod's Romeo et Juliette was one of the most popular operas in the 19th century, and the list of great Romeos and Juliettes is a long and storied one. But I think the reason why the opera fell out of favor is that Gounod tilts the focus of the story too much towards the LOVE LOVE LOVE side. The violence between the Capulets and Montague's is barely touched upon except for the pivotal scene of Mercutio's death, and Juliet's combative, overbearing parents are also a non-entity in Gounod's opera (Juliet's mother doesn't even exist for Gounod). The arias and love duets between the star-crossed lovers are stunningly beautiful, but the overall effect of the opera can be saccharine.
For the opera to work, I think one needs exceptional voices and a certain amount of glamor and romantic abandon in the title roles. The last time I saw the opera, it was in 2007, and the teen lovers were Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna. Both of them had flaws in their vocal performance, but they were exciting, sensual performers who threw themselves into the roles of teenage lovers. It wasn't that they looked 13 (they didn't), it's that they seemed to believe they were 13 and falling in love for the first time. Last night the Metropolitan Opera revived Gounod's opera in a professional but somewhat dull performance, that did not transport me into Gounod's lush, romantic vision of Shakespeare's play.
I decided to do something a little different tonight and go watch the Paul Taylor Dance Company in a triple bill of Company B, his new work Phantasmagoria, and Promethean Fire. Last year I went to a Paul Taylor Dance Company performance for the first time and so enjoyed the experience that I had high hopes when I took my seat at the City Center tonight and the lights dimmed. I was not disappointed.