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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Don Quixote - The Osipova and Vasiliev Show

The signature move of the Natalia Osipova/Ivan Vasiliev super-duper Don Quixote occurs late in the first act -- the move is a one-handed lift, with a ballerina holding a striking pose in the air for effect. But Vasiliev takes it a step further -- in the middle of holding his left, he raises a free leg in arabesque and even raises his foot to demi-pointe. It's a trick that I first saw when I saw their HD cinemacast with the Bolshoi more than two years ago.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of showboating in a ballet like Don Quixote. The choreography (a mix of Petipa and Alexander Gorsky) has long been a staple of ballet galas for its bravura requirements. Gorsky's choreography was designed to be a mix of folk dance and classical ballet at its most flamboyant. But (and here's the key): the performers have to look like they are having fun when doing these tricks and playing to the crowd. Last night's performance had this weird mix of every gala trick in the book along with a grimness that made the evening strangely joyless.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mixed Bill at ABT -- Actually Mixed

There are times when the ABT can seem like an excellent overall company. It can do some more modern works by Twayla Tharp or Mark Morris very well. The program started off with a spirited rendition of Morris's rather pretentiously named Drink to Me With Thine Eyes Only. I didn't like the ballet, but that doesn't mean I didn't appreciate the dancing. ABT is also often absolutely wonderful in smaller narrative ballets. Ashton's A Month in the Country is a perfect example. It's a 40 minute ballet slice of life ballet about a family: a vain and lonely married woman (Natalia Petrovna), a flirty ward, a rambunctious son, and a clueless and much older husband. There's an "admirer" that the family views as a joke. Then a handsome tutor named Belieav arrives, and feelings rise, tempers flare, and hearts break. The ballet is filled with little Ashton motifs like the sideways "walking" lifts and the fluttering legs. The music (three pieces by Chopin) are heart-tugging.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Love, drama, passion, suffering at the ABT

I once ran into an ex-boyfriend years after we broke up. It wasn't at all like The Way We Were or any movie where two exes see each other and all the feelings rush back. I barely remembered anything about him, and he had an irritating habit of spitting on the sidewalks. Finally I got so annoyed I got off one stop early on the subway and walked home to avoid spending another minute with him. So much for romance.

But that's real life. In ballet, passion is eternal. When two former lovers meet in ballet, the world stops. Hearts collide. And most of all, women bend backwards in a swoon (see above picture) over and over again, to accentuate the point that passion is, indeed, eternal. John Cranko's Onegin is a lush, romantic adaptation of Tchaikovsky's already lush, romantic adaptation of a famous Russian poem. It needs lush, romantic dancers to maximize the drama and romance, and tonight at the ABT, it certainly got the performance of a lifetime in the pair of Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes, who I'm sure made more than a few hearts flutter.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mrs. John Claggart's Sad Life

I once read a biography of Renata Tebaldi entitled Voice of An Angel. The book was filled with beautiful pictures of the legendary soprano, along with a fairly comprehensive outline of her life that for once wasn't simply filled with tomes about how much Tebaldi loved her mother and the adoration "big Renata" engendered in the Metropolitan Opera audiences. Yet after reading the book Renata Tebaldi the person still felt strangely two-dimensional and distant. It was probably the intention of the great lady herself -- she was always a private person. 

But read Mrs. John Claggart's Sad Life, the blog by Albert Innaurato, and suddenly the great soprano becomes not just "Tebaldi" but Renata, a flesh and blood woman full of warmth, humor, and wit. "Mrs. John Claggart" is the Henry James of the opera world -- sharp, dense, insightful, sometimes verbose, but always profound, and able to hint at the darkness beneath the surface. He's seen everything and everyone but his reviews and blog entries are not exercises in predictable name-dropping and fanboy shilling. Instead they are adventures that capture both the thrilling excitement and depressing banality that can exist in one evening at the opera. 

Read his story of his visit to La Scala and behind the scenes look at a doomed Forza production, and you'll learn about how an opera is really produced. But more importantly, you'll understand what opera singers and conductors are really like - flawed, sad, but ultimately sympathetic people. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Great Gatsby


Baz Lurhmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby opened this weekend to mostly negative reviews from the critics. The criticisms were familiar: it was gaudy, it was tacky, it celebrated the very excesses F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novella chastised. The romance between Gatsby and Daisy was sentimentalized, the prose of the novel was awkwardly worked into the script. And so on and so forth.

Of all the criticisms I've read, I think only one really holds water: Luhrmann does sentimentalize the romance between Daisy and Gatsby in a way Fitzgerald never did. The Daisy of this movie (played with a porcelain delicacy by Carey Mulligan) is not the "careless people" Daisy of the novel. It's telling that one of the most famous lines about Daisy ("her voice is full of money") was dropped. Luhrmann certainly turned the Gatsby/Daisy connection into something more beautiful than Fitzgerald intended.

But otherwise, I thought this was an entertaining, faithful adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel, and it will make many viewers read the novel again, or for the first time. No, the movie doesn't quite capture the hard, cynical edge of Fitzgerald's prose. It comes closest with the portrayal of Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a brutish, racist man whose only appeal is his old money and social stature. But Luhrmann absolutely convey how beneath decadence, there can be a profound melancholy and emptiness. You can see this every year while watching the award shows -- the starlets weeping crocodile tears of "happiness" while repeating the same acceptance speech over and over again. You can see it in every college frat party that starts off with beer and girls aplenty and ends with people stumbling home drunk and puking. Lurhmann's filming of Gatsby's famous parties is masterful. The loud soundtrack (a mix of modern music by Jay-Z, Beyonce, Lana del Rey, Sia, and other artists), the party scenes (filmed in 3D), the colorful frocks serve as a wonderful backdrop for the introduction of Jay Gatbsy.

When Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) finally appears onscreen, he does so with the same twinkly smile that won hearts in Romeo + Juliet (also a Baz Luhrmann feature) and Titanic. But there's now creases under that smile. Fitzgerald's Gatsby is deliberately opaque -- all his mannerisms are supposed to add to his mystique. DiCaprio fleshes out Fitzgerald's outline in a way that's faithful to the book (he does a wonderful job affecting an international accent as he calls people "old sport"), but he also takes some acceptable creative licenses. This Gatsby has a desperation, even menace that Fitzgerald's character did not -- when DiCaprio is onscreen, you sense that despite the smile and the charm, this is a man at the end of his rope. DiCaprio has been repeatedly snubbed by the Academy Awards because in recent years he's chosen some very deliberately "actor-ish" projects (J. Edgar Hoover being Exhibit A) to mixed results. He's at his best when he's just a variation on "Leo" -- oozing charm with a hint of melancholy and desperation. He was "Leo" in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Romeo + Juliet, Titanic, Catch Me if You Can,  The Departed, Django Unchained. There was a wonderful lack of pretense in those movies. In this movie, he's again just "Leo", and that's wonderful.

I also can't understand the criticism of Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway. Yes he's the dull straight man, but that's what Nick is in the novel -- a bystander and observer. Yes, the framing device of Nick being in a mental ward is ham-handed, but it's also a tribute to the real-life F. Scott Fitzgerald, who did end his life as a broken alcoholic.  It is true that Lurhmann neglects the Nick/Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) romance but all screen adaptations have to streamline the subplots.  I'm more grateful that the awful sleaziness of the Tom/Myrtle affair was kept intact, including the penthouse-converted into whorehouse party that Tom takes Nick to in the beginning of the novel. Actually, for every scene that Luhrmann missed or didn't get right, there are so many where he's pitch perfect. The climactic confrontation between Tom and Gatsby captured all the anger, desperation, and confusion that Fitzgerald depicted.

At the end of the day my criteria for judging a screen adaptation of a novel is, "Will viewers get it?" Lurhmann's film isn't perfect, but I think viewers will "get it." It's not like all those Jane Austen movie adaptations that turn Austen's sharp social satires into swoony romantic comedies. Luhrmann understands the essence of Fitzgerald's novel. Sometimes the execution isn't perfect, but you leave the movie understanding The Great Gatsby. I even like how sometimes Lurhmann simply types up the more meditative lines of the novel right onto the screen -- it's a little awkward, but it's an acknowledgment that a movie can only do so much. The audience in the theater was silent at the end of the movie -- bowled over, perhaps, by the uncompromising bleakness of Fitzgerald's story. And Fitzgerald's novel is as fresh today as it was in the 1920's. The idea that the American dream is really an American nightmare is one that rightly still makes people squirm. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past." 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

NYCB: All American, All Balanchine

I attended my first performance of the NYCB's spring season yesterday afternoon. The theme for the spring season is "American Music Festival" and yesterday's program was a rather eclectic collection of Balanchine ballets that were set to American music: Who Cares?, Ivesiana, Tarantella, and Stars and Stripes.

Of the four ballets, the one I was most curious about seeing was Ivesiana. It's not a regular in the City Ballet repertoire. It's a rather weird ballet, with three extremely dark, even sinister sections and one section ("In the Inn") that seems more Broadway than anything. As a result the ballet lacks the usual Balanchine cohesion and in fact does seem like a hodgepodge of vignettes set to Charles Ives music, as the title would suggest.