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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Der Rosenkavalier - Should I get a ticket? "Ja, ja."

Garanca and Fleming, photo @ Ken Howard
Last night's performance of Der Rosenkavalier was the bar none the best-sung performance I've heard at the Met all season. That didn't mean there wasn't a note out of place all evening, but every performer was singing at the highest possible level they are capable of singing. As a result Strauss's opera which can have such longueurs bubbled along to its ending in a surprisingly quick four-and -a-half hours. If you want to hear impeccable vocalism I urge everyone to snatch up a ticket to the remaining performances.

Renée Fleming's Marschallin is widely thought to be her operatic swan song. She is not retiring. In fact, it's just been announced that she will sing Nettie in a revival of Carousel. But she is retiring the operatic roles (Marschallin, Arabella, Desdemona, Rusalka) that have been the meat-and-potatoes of her career. With this in mind her Marschallin sounded vocally fresher than she's sounded in years. She seemed to make a concerted effort to project the middle of her voice without resorting to glottal attacks or growling. The huskiness that I've heard in recent years was gone. The role is not a long role, and it allows her to show off her still gorgeous upper register. She capped the trio with a high B that would be the envy of many singers thirty years younger.

Her interpretation was what we've come to expect from Fleming over the years -- dignified, reserved, a bit remote. Fleming is one of the few superstar singers to actually hide from the spotlight during the big moments, to turn her face away from the light. The upshot is that when this Marschallin says that she's leaving Oktavian and Sophie to their happiness, it looks 100% sincere. Fleming quietly walks offstage without one more scene-stealing glance at the audience -- in fact, despite the fact that she's decked out in black furs, her exit was so quiet I didn't realize she was gone until the start of the Oktavian-Sophie duet. The downside is that those who want blood on the stage will never get it with Fleming.

Garanca manspeading, photo @ Ken Howard
Elina Garanča's Oktavian was one of those performances so perfect that I instantly thought that one day I'd be able to brag that I saw this portrayal. Her buttery smooth mezzo can soar into the stratosphere or it can sound like a teen going through puberty with sudden voice drops. Her voice projects beautifully throughout the entire auditorium, and she also gave the most complete interpretation of the night. She was able to switch so quickly in body language, appearance and demeanor between a teen boy and the perky maid Mariandel. For instance when she smokes a post-coital cigarette she sits in a masculine way, man-spreading and slumped over a chair. But as Mariandel she was the gorgeous Grace-Kelly-lookalike she is offstage, and in Act Three (set in a high-class brothel) she looked like she was having the time of her life actively playing against type as the very sexually aggressive prostitute. Garanča has also said this is her farewell to Oktavian, which makes her performance that much more treasurable. (Totally off-topic, but in my dreams I've always wanted to play Oktavian just so I can sing "Nein nein! Ich trink' kein wein.")

Match-not-made-in-heaven: Groissböck and Morley, photo @ Ken Howard

If the Met audiences didn't really know Günther Groissböck before this run of Rosenkavaliers they certainly do now, as his portrayal of this unlikable, obnoxious character was so well-sung that he got a stomping ovation during curtain calls. Groissböck's Ochs was less outwardly ridiculous than most Ochs' -- he was younger, with a veneer of military respectability. He got his laughs from his behavior, which was gross. He pawed and leered at anything that moved. His bass is handsome, sonorous and with a large range -- his low E at the end of Act 2 was really sung, and not just a growl. Groissböck also knew to inject enough joie de vivre to prevent his character from being truly unbearable. Ochs' lilting waltz melody helped -- you can't hate a guy whose favorite melody is that catchy. And plus, at the end of the day Groissböck is funny. Not many Ochs are truly funny.

The Faninals, photo @ Ken Howard
Erin Morley's Sophie was more mature and less bratty than the way the role is often played. Her small but lovely voice has a youthful flutter and sweetness that's very winning, and it blended beautifully with Garanča's Oktavian in the Presentation of the Rose. But really, there wasn't a weak link in the cast. Even a smaller role like Faninal (Markus Brück) was memorable -- he managed to capture Faninal's overt social climbing and fawning over the gross Ochs in just a few moments onstage. Matthew Polenzani as the Italian singer was luxury casting. Sebastian Weigle led the Met orchestra in a performance that was light and waltz-like. As I said, the show rarely got bogged down in note-spinning and each act progressed speedily from start to finish. 

As for Robert Carsen's "new production" (which isn't new at all -- it first premiered in Salzburg in 2004) ... I'm actually not going to comment much on it. There were some things I liked (Paul Steinberg's set design, Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes), some things I really disliked, but I couldn't write about them without spoiling some of the evening's most memorable moments. I also think that your response to the production will depend on whether you think Der Rosenkavalier is a drawing room comedy or a broad sex farce. I will say that I think Carsen takes one decent idea (the impending World War I) and way overplays this idea until it wears out its welcome. But I also think that the musical values of this production are so high that even if you hate the production, there's plenty of reason to still go see this run of Der Rosenkavalier.

I mean, listen to this. Know that you're never going to hear it again. And, if you haven't already, buy a ticket.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Dear Evan Hansen - A Great Musical For Forever

Cast of Dear Evan Hansen, photo @ Matthew Murphy
This year is actually unusual because I now have seen all the three major contenders for the Tony for Best Original Musical -- The Great Comet, Come From Away, and Dear Evan Hansen. I have great respect for the creative teams behind The Great Comet and Come From Away, but if DEH loses the Tony for best musical, it will be a travesty. The other two musicals had their charm, and Come From Away was touching. But Dear Evan Hansen was simply one of the most emotional, genuine, beautiful experiences I've ever had in the theater. 

Those who want flashy music and dancing might not like the deceptively simple score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and a book by Steven Levenson that renders DEH more a "musical play" than anything else. There are no big 11 o'clock production numbers in DEH, no huge anthems. All the songs have a sort of almost casual melody, like pop ballads teens might really sing to each other while strumming a guitar. There's no huge above-the-board stars like Bette Midler or Patti Lupone. No, DEH succeeds by telling a difficult story in an honest, beautiful way.

I think everyone knows the basic outline of the story by now -- shy, awkward Evan writes daily letters to himself as part of his therapy treatment. One letter falls into the hands of a troubled classmate Connor (a wonderfully sardonic Mike Faist). Connor kills himself and his family thinks the letter is a suicide note and Evan lets the family think that their troubled, angry son was actually a cherished friend. Evan and his "friendship" with Connor becomes a social media sensation. This is a story that can only end in tears.

Platt and Jones, photo @ Matthew Murphy
The casting was pitch perfect. Ben Platt deserves every accolade he's getting for his heartbreaking portrayal of the lonely, anxious Evan. His unassuming demeanor belied a powerful expressive voice, and by the end of the evening his face was drenched in tears. It would have been easy for him to go for pure sentiment but Platt's portrayal of Evan was complex and multifaceted -- in between the anxious motormouth talking you could sense there was a mean streak and a manipulative side to nerdy Evan, which made his anguish and remorse all the more affecting.

This is an ensemble cast where there were no small roles. Rachel Bay Jones positively glowed with warmth and heart as Evan's struggling single mom. Will Roland provided most of the comic relief as Evan's one "parents' friend" Jared, who nevertheless helps Evan in his deception. I was astonished to find out that Laura Dreyfuss (Zoe, Connor's sister) is 28, as she so perfectly imitated the mannerisms of a sullen, confused teen. Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson were wonderful as Connor's grief-stricken parents. I could go on giving accolades to the cast, but it's not really one person that stands out, it's the chemistry of the entire cast. They have all been together since DEH was an off-Broadway show, and the emotion and feelings they generated was obviously didn't happen overnight.  I would go urge people to see this cast, because the replacements might be fine singers, fine actors, but I doubt they will have the alchemy of this OBC.

Here's one of the most beautiful songs from DEH:

I think anyone who's ever felt lonely, alone, awkward, shy, depressed, can feel the pain of the people in this drama. When Evan sings "Would anyone notice if I disappear?" or "Is anyone waving back at me?" it wasn't a cheap ploy for sympathy. It made people in the audience wince. There's no big uplifting happy ending either. Just life. As the curtain went down I could hear audible sobs from all areas of the auditorium. Dear Evan Hansen touches the heart "for forever."

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Come From Away - Blame Canada!!!

Come From Away's stranded passengers, photo @ Sara Krulwich
2017 is the year I blew all my disposable income on Broadway. Tonight I saw yet another musical: Come From Away. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know by now that Come From Away is based on the true story of over 6,000 plane passengers whose flights were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland following September 11, 2001. The residents of Gander had to become impromptu hosts and a bunch of strangers who would never speak to each other on a plane are forced to live in close quarters. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll tell everyone to see it ... In fact the only reason I bought a ticket was because several friends saw it and loved it and I trust their taste.

The ensemble, photo @ Sara Krulwich
So what did I think? I liked it a lot. First of all, I was surprised at how much I took to the score. Husband and wife team have of Irene Sankoff and David Hein have created a score that's a mix of Irish folk-pop and bluegrass. There are accordions, fiddles and bagpipes. Plenty of Riverdance-like stomping. It's the sort of music that gets people all peppy and cheerful. I also loved the cast. The 12 players all switch roles seamlessly between the residents of Gander and the stranded plane passengers. All the ensemble members are excellent but a few stand out -- Jenn Colella as the female pilot has a lovely voice and the evening's only solo song: "Me and the Sky," Joel Hatch exudes a calm decency as the mayor of several different towns in Newfoundland, and Rodney Hicks is very funny as the blunt African American passenger who can't believe he's being invited into white homes. The opening number "Welcome to the Rock" has become the show's anthem but my favorite songs were the ballad "Stop the World" and the earworm "Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere."

Of course the people of Gander, Newfoundland are the salt of the earth — they invite everyone for drinks at the pub! They open their homes for people to shower! (One laugh line: "Thank you for coming to Walmart. Would you like to come back to my house for a shower?")  An animal shelter worker takes care of the planes' four-legged travelers -- cats, dogs, and a pregnant chimpanzee! And the plane passengers are the usual motley crew you’d expect in this sort of musical —a gay couple named Kevin and Kevin, two middle-aged divorcees who fall in love, a Muslim chef, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a intrepid plane pilot, a wary African American NY’er, and a mom whose son is a firefighter in ground zero.

The unit set. Isn't everything so pretty in Canada?
The script has the 1/3 serious, 1/3 comic, 1/3 let's-hold-hands-and-sing-kumbaya formula down pat. There's the obligatory Tim Horton jokes, a group sing of "My Heart Will Go On," and some exaggerated Canadian accents. Lest you think this is all fun and laughs, the script also has some darker moments -- an Egyptian passenger is shunned by the other passengers and Gander residents until he reveals himself to be a talented chef. I guess the way to erase cultural stereotypes is cooking a great meal. And of course continual reminders of 9/11 pop up throughout the show. One character is the anxious mother of a firefighter. 

Normally I have an allergy to this sort of calculated-to-make-you-feel-good show. I don't dislike sentiment, but I do dislike works that become overly sentimental. However as the show progressed (100 minutes without intermission) I became aware that any criticisms or nitpicking were essentially useless because you can't hate on a show that makes people so damned happy. And not happy in the xenophobic, ugly, "Make America great again" and "Build that wall!" way. But happy because it's a show about nice people being nice to each other. I don't think this show would have been as popular in a different year. But when you turn on the TV and all you see is Donald Trump, Sean Spicer and a United Airlines passenger being dragged off the plane  this is the musical that will soothe your soul.

Here are a few of the songs from the show:

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Six Degrees of Separation; Momsical #3

Unit set of the Kittredges' living room
My theater blitz continues: I attended the second preview of the revival of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation on April 6th. I know that it's the second preview and thus the show is still ironing out the wrinkles, but I think this revival is well worth attending for several reasons. this is just a well-constructed, well-written, thought-provoking play and even if you've seen the movie I think a live performance is worth seeing. Some aspects of the play are dated. It sounds unlikely nowadays that an art dealer can really own a Fifth Avenue apartment, and the characterization of the Ivy League Kids is overly broad. But the play still makes us think about uncomfortable issues of race, class, identity, and, for lack of a better word, how much of the "liberal" New York population is really so that rich upper class Manhattan Brahmins can feel less guilty for being, well, filthy rich. The Cats jokes are appropriate as there is currently a Cats revival on Broadway.

David Hampton
Another reason is that since 1991, we have found out more about the con-artist that inspired this play: David Hampton died of AIDS in 2003. He really did con a bunch of rich New Yorkers into thinking that he was Sidney Poitier's non-existent son. Hampton continued to hustle and con even after his release from prison and the publication of the play. In the play "Paul" (Corey Hawkins) is a vague, shadowy character whose motives and background are never explained. Hampton appears to have been a much more sinister figure.

The revival is directed by Trip Cullman and is generally well-cast. Allison Janney's Ouisa is wonderful -- she's funny, admirable and pathetic all at once. Janney is also the best at making some of the more portentous parts of the play read naturally. John Benjamin Hickey's Flan was appropriately nebbish. The Kids (Colby Minifie as Tess, Keenan Jolliff as Woody, Ned Riseley as Ben) were funny but overly broad in their characterization. They also need to stop shouting/screeching their lines -- they were really eardrum-piercing.  James Cusati-Moyer as the Hustler looked nice even in the Full Monty. Peter Mark Kendall (Rick) and Sarah Mezzanotte (Elizabeth) as the young couple Paul REALLY fleeces had brief roles but were very touching.

Paul and his marks, photo @ Joan Marcus

If there's a weak link to the revival it's Corey Hawkins' Paul. Maybe he will grow as the previews progress but right now he comes across as one note -- too overtly glib, his contempt for his marks apparent throughout. Most master con artists are more subtle, and use a disarming sense of humor and humility rather than the hard-sell and swagger. (Then again Donald Trump did get elected so ...) Also, a big theme of the play is that Paul and Ouisa form a genuine if odd bond. The long phone call towards the end of the play is supposed to illustrate this. I didn't see that bond last night. Paul still came across as a desperate hustler, and as a result the finale had a somewhat muted impact.

But as I said it's only the second preview and I'm sure the production will gel more in time. But as of now, tickets can be obtained for low prices at several discount sites and this is a good revival of a good play.

James Barbour
Today I saw "momsical" #3 -- Phantom of the Opera. I had tried to maneuver my mom into seeing Hello Dolly! but no dice -- my mom decided she'd rather see Phantom, so crashing chandeliers it was. There's not much I can add to Phantom that hasn't already been said so I'll just include a couple of Mom's nuggets:

Mom: "That Christine is so annoying. She knows he's a stalker and still bothers him. Why does she keep pulling off his mask? It's rude. Doesn't she have parents?"

Me: "Her dad is dead."

Mom: "She has a mother though doesn't she?"

Me: "She also kissed him at the end."

Mom: "Yeah but I can understand that. She kissed him so she could get rid of him."

Me: "Did you like this better or Cats?"

Mom: "I liked Cats better. I thought it had a better storyline. The story here is hard to follow with all the scene changes. Like one minute they're in a cemetery and the next everyone is in an opera singing."

Me: "Did you like this at all?"

Mom: "I liked the music. I didn't like Christine's (Ali Ewoldt) voice. But the stalker (she's referring to James Barbour, who plays the Phantom) has a really good voice."

Later on the train home she pulled out her smartphone and tapped me. "Oh no. James Barbour is a sex offender."

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Little Foxes: Basket of Deplorables

Sometimes when I watch the characters parade through Trumpland I get a surreal feeling. I almost can't believe that people like Paul Ryan, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and the rest of the vat of deplorables exist.

Tonight on Broadway there was a pithy reminder that people so greedy, so heartless, so devoid of any inner life or compassion and empathy really do exist, and what's more, people have been writing plays about these kinds of people for a long time. The Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of Lillian Helmann's classic The Little Foxes has a bit of stunt casting -- Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney are alternating roles of Regina and Birdie with each performance. When I first heard about this casting I immediately decided that Cynthia Nixon was a more natural Regina and Laura Linney more of a Birdie. So this was the cast I saw tonight. The show is still in the first week of previews.

Prior to this evening my only frame of reference is the famous 1941 movie adaptation so I'll be referencing that movie a lot. Bear with me.

I think I made the right choice. I honestly can't imagine the role reversal. Laura Linney was pitch perfect and heartbreaking as the long-suffering, alcoholic, abused Birdie. She nailed the fluttery, genteel manners of a Southern belle and was so likable and vulnerable from her first entrance that the theater gasped when her husband Oscar (Darren Goldstein) casually hit her. I loved the way she indicated to the audience her alcoholism by the nervous way she snuck gulps of alcohol while the others drank in a leisurely, social way. Her monologue about the hiccups drew extended applause. I didn't think it was possible to equal Patricia Collinge's performance in William Wyler's film but Laura Linney has done that.

Regina and Birdie, photo @ Joan Marcus
Cynthia Nixon's Regina still needs a little refining (her Southern accent comes and goes) but already you can see a strong clear vision of Regina. Nixon's Regina doesn't really attempt to play up the Southern charm and sex appeal. Her body language is aggressive and cold, and one thinks that had Regina lived in another time she would have made a great CEO. When she declares she's "going to Chicago" (presumably to become Marshall's mistress) there's no sexuality in her voice. It's purely business for her. Nixon doesn't have quite the iciness of Bette Davis's famous portrayal but she comes close. In the famous "I hope you die" scene Cynthia Nixon's voice is more desperate, more high-pitched. Regina is scared of losing her get-rich-quick scheme, but the fear is very real and palpable and thus human. But Regina's heartlessness is chilling. When Horace was struggling up the stairs Nixon sat back in a chaise lounge and smirked. Mission accomplished.

Richard Thomas's Horace had an aw-shucks decency but also a wiliness that's absent from Herbert Marshall's portrayal. His interactions with Regina had more venom -- you could imagine that once upon a time there was passion in this mutually toxic relationship. Horace might have been weak in the heart but his stubbornness was as implacable as Regina's greed. And the Hubbard deplorables (Michael Benz as Leo, Michael McKean as Ben, Darren Goldstein as Oscar) were fantastic and nicely differentiated. Leo was a spoiled playboy, more frivolous than anything. Oscar was a brute and wife-beater. Ben was the smooth businessman. The Tim Cook to Ben's Steve Jobs. Or (ugh) the Mike Pence to Ben's Donald J. Trump.

Only Francesca Carpanini was a bit immature and annoying as Alexandra. Not that she was bad, but her portrayal didn't have the depth of the other actors onstage. As a result her final confrontation with Regina didn't have all the impact it could have had. Cynthia Nixon played the final scene perfectly though. There was a trace of tenderness as she asked Alexandra to stay one last time, but her body language was still cold and distant. Regina had given up all pretenses of wearing a human suit a long time ago.  Caroline Stefanie Clay as Addie and Charles Turner as Cal provided comic relief as well as a moral center to the surroundings as they tried the best they could to protect Birdie and Horace.

Daniel Sullivan's direction is straightforward and direct. There's one unit set, a rather plain-looking parlor in Regina's home. It's a very non-interventionist production -- Sullivan seems content in letting the actors play out the drama. The evening is 2.5 hours long with two intermissions but there wasn't a slow moment. This is a wonderful revival and I highly recommend that everyone who loves this play see it.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Hello Bette, Goodbye Glenn, and Love is for Sale

Bette Midler in Hello Dolly! Photo @ Julia Cervantes
This was a big Broadway blitz for me. On Friday evening, I attended City Center's Encores! presentation of Cole Porter's  The New Yorker's.  A day later it was time for Divine Miss M (aka Bette Midler) and the highly publicized revival of Hello Dolly! Finally I watched Glenn Close get ready for her closeup in the revival of her star vehicle, Sunset Boulevard.

Hello Dolly! is the show you'll want to watch if you think lots of laughs, a few catchy songs, pretty sets, and an old-fashioned star vehicle for a diva is your idea of the perfect night at the theater. Jerry Herman's score still bubbles along with tunes that I'm sure are being hummed from here to Yonkers and beyond by all who were in the audience tonight. Director Jerry Zaks seemed determined to recapture as much of the original Carol Channing production as possible. The sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto are bright and cheery. Based on some sleuthing (aka Google Images) the sets look almost identical to the original Oliver Smith designs. The choreography was officially credited to Warren Carlyle but closely followed the original Broadway production, or so I was told by someone who saw the OBC. This was an exercise in nostalgia, so it makes sense that the production is so similar to the original. The enthusiasm of the audience was overwhelming -- parts of Waiter's Gallop and the title song were almost drowned out by cheering. It was deserved though -- Waiter's Gallop is one of the most charming dance numbers I've ever seen on Broadway.

Bette Midler as Dolly Levi lives up to the hype and then some. She's funny, she can SING (and dance a little!), and she exudes a warmth and energy that is infectious. She seemingly ad-libs so many comedy bits -- her few lines about the length and repetitiveness of the "Hello Dolly" production number had the audience in stitches, and she's amazing at physical comedy too -- watch what she does with her turkey-and-beets meal in Act 2. She does preserve her voice for the big numbers -- she is 71 after all. But when she lets out that big generous voice in "Before the Parade Passes By" or "Hello Dolly" the audience goes giddy with glee. She's so sincere of a performer that the just-bordering-on-corny monologues to her late husband come across as heartfelt. Very often star diva vehicles end up being self-indulgent vanity pieces. Not here. The Divine Miss M completely loses herself into the role of the salt-of-the-earth matchmaker.

Baldwin, Midler, Feldstein and Trensch, photo @ Sara Krulwich

Her supporting cast is generally excellent. Gavin Creel (Cornelius) and Kate Baldwin (Irene Molloy) almost steal the show right from under Bette's blond curls. Their chemistry is so strong that their love story actually becomes the heart of the show. Creel is handsome, ardent, funny. Baldwin is beautiful with a lovely, wistful voice. When the curtain goes down you want these two to live happily ever after. Creel's "It Only Takes a Moment" and Baldwin's "Ribbon Down My Back" are going to be hard-to-beat Tony submissions. Taylor Trensch (Barnaby) and Beanie Feldstein (Minnie) were also a charming pair of young lovers. Will Burton (Ambrose) and Melanie Moore (Ermengarde) started off strong but faded more and more as the show progressed as Creel and Baldwin stole the spotlight.

The only sour spot of the night (and I'm sure many will disagree with me) is David Hyde Pierce's Horace. I just didn't believe in Dolly and Horace -- Hyde Pierce's portrayal was so priggish that I actually envision his half-million dollars being needed for a divorce settlement. Also, DHP really can't sing at all, which makes the inclusion of "Penny in My Pocket" a puzzlement. The chemistry between Midler and Hyde Pierce was not particularly warm. As a result, the Dolly/Horace romance unfortunately became the least interesting storyline arc of the night. I do think Hyde-Pierce is a talented actor, but he just isn't well integrated into the production. Hopefully this will change as right now it's still in previews.

But that's a small quibble when one thinks of the overall joy of the show. Are parts of the show dated? Yes. Does the marriage of Dolly and Horace come across as a mutual love of the cash register than an affair of the heart? Yes. But who cares? Hello Dolly! is corny, it's funny, it's an American musical in the best sense of the word. And Bette Midler is probably the best Dolly any of us are going to see in our lifetimes.

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Glenn Close at Sunset Boulevard, photo @ Sara Krulwich
A day later I was in the cavernous Palace Theatre for a very different kind of star vehicle. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard is receiving a limited run with Glenn Close reprising her closeup as Norma Desmond. First of all, let me just interject that if you want an unflinching, well-acted drama of aging Hollywood divas, there is nothing better than FX's Feud: Bette and Joan. Sunset Boulevard fans, if you're not watching Feud, you should be.

Having said that, Sunset Boulevard worked almost despite itself. I'll just get the negatives out of the way first. Number one: Glenn Close can't sing. No beating around the bush here -- even with a 40-member orchestra supporting her in the most loving way possible there was no hiding her thin, quavery voice. Number two: the numbers for Joe (a dapper Michael Xavier) and Betty (a pert Siobhan Dillon) are third-rate ALW muzak. And if you consider what "first rate" ALW-music is like ... well ... Number three: the production is a rather industrial, impersonal looking set of platforms and staircases that doesn't really evoke the morbid splendor of Norma Desmond's Hollywood mansion.

Ready for her closeup, photo @ Sara Krulwich
Having said that, I was deeply moved by the performance. Glenn Close can't sing, but she can act up a storm, and she made Norma Desmond a real person rather than a grotesque caricature. She has help from the musical book, which sticks closely to the Billy Wilder movie. But Close doesn't try to recreate Gloria Swanson's iconic portrayal. Close's Norma is more filled with obvious self-doubt. Her artistic choices elevated the material beyond camp into something moving and sad. I knew from the moment I saw her cradling the dead chimpanzee that Close had the ability to make the absurd believable. In her two big numbers "A Perfect Year" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" she knew exactly how to turn her face towards the light, to show the audience what it meant to be a star. Even her shot voice ended up being strangely effective -- you sort of wondered how much Close was hanging onto stardom by taking on such a challenge as a septuagenerian. It's like Midler and Dolly -- the Close/Norma pairing was an great fusion of artist and role and I feel privileged to have seen both portrayals in one weekend.

The other star of the evening was the large orchestra that was at the back of the stage. This full-sized orchestra not only filled the huge Palace Theatre with a lush, gloomy sound, but also supported the voices in the best way possible. They filled out the vocal lines when Close's voice was failing and boosted her up when she was able to rise vocally to the occasion. Fred Johanson wasn't able to make Max quite as sinister as Erich von Stroheim in the movie but he acted the role very well. Michael Xavier also didn't have William Holden's world-weary, cynical, washed up persona, but he was glibly handsome and thus believable as a screenwriter-turned-rent-boy. Only Paul Schoeffler as Cecil B. DeMille was a real disappointment -- his scenes with Norma had no affection, no sense that this director still cared about Norma.

Here is a snippet of the loving curtain calls this afternoon. I unfortunately didn't tape Close's heartfelt speech about how HIV affected the theatre community.

Strallen and Tutu, photo @ Caitlin Ochs
The Encores! presentation of Cole Porter's The New Yorkers has none of the star power of Hello Dolly! or Sunset Boulevard but it was a fun fabulous evening. The "storyline" (and I use that term loosely) is about various romantic entanglements that happen when society gals meet bootleggers. This musical was first presented in 1930 and has Cole Porter's trademark combination of cynical lyrics and bubbly-as-champagne melodies. The most well-known piece from the work is probably "Love For Sale," which was banned from the airwaves for its frank ode to the world's oldest profession. And Encores! decided to interpolate "Night and Day" and "You've Got That Thing" into the festivities. But really, the joy was hearing many of the racy Porter songs together with the joke-a-minute book by Herbert Fields. Some of the jokes are dated but a great deal of them are not. The bizarre Act One ending song "Wood" just added to the silliness.

The production and cast were lovely. The set was an art deco platform that looks straight out of an Astaire/Rogers movie, the costumes evoked the Jazz Age, and Chris Bailey's choreography wasn't memorable but it got the job done -- lots of tap numbers for the talented cast. Scarlett Strallen as Alice Wentworth had a light, bell-like soprano voice and a sweet, winning manner. She can also dance pretty well. Tam Mutu as bootlegger Al Spanish is a rare breed -- a musical theater hunk who can also really sing. Their lovely duet "Where Have You Been" was a highlight. Arnie Burton was a scene-stealer as Feet (short for Effete) McGeegan, and "Let's Not Talk About Love" stopped the show. Kevin Chamberlain played the Jimmy Durante role with a good natured irreverence. Another standout was Ruth Williamson as Alice's mother Gloria. Gloria sang my personal favorite song of the evening, "Physician" with lyrics like "He simply loved my larynx/And went wild about my pharynx/But he never said he loved me." Only disappointment was Cyrille Aimée who sang the anthem "Love For Sale." She simply didn't really catch one's attention. But overall it was a lovely evening of time travel froth -- you were brought back to Prohibition-era New York where lyrics mention drinking so much that everyone realistically would be dead from alcohol poisoning or cirrhosis.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Jean François Borras's Werther: Three Years Later, Even Greater

A little more than three years ago Jean François Borras got a last minute call to step in for an ailing Jonas Kaufmann. It was his first ever performance of Werther, and I remember being stunned at the beauty of his voice, the sensitivity of his portrayal, and his musical, idiomatic style.

Almost exactly three years later Borras once again got one evening to sing his Werther. It was the final performance of the run and the performance was again sparsely attended. I was a bit apprehensive at first -- would he be able to repeat the levels he reached three years ago?

I needn't have worried. He was even more wonderful. His voice has grown in the upper register, and his performance was more musical and stylish than that incredible debut three years ago. Borras is a lovely tenor, but he's not a showy singer, and his Werther didn't knock you over with the manic energy of Vittorio Grigolo's portrayal. At least not right away. However as the evening progressed I think many in the audience were jolted that they had unwittingly (???) experienced something rare and special: an, idiomatic, heartbreaking performance of one of opera's best tenor vehicles. At the end of the evening the applause was loud and deafening as the audience yelled and screamed even as the curtain was being lowered for the final time.

Since that Werther three years ago Borras' career has expanded -- he has returned to the Met every season since and is now a regular in Vienna. He has more experience with the role and it showed -- he was smarter about pacing himself.  In the first half of the opera he held his voice back sometimes. He probably realized that the big moments of Werther are in the second half of the opera. And indeed in the second half he projected his light, lyrical tenor with more force and power. "Pourquoi me réveiller" was capped with strong and secure high notes.

But Borras is not a tenor for those who want exciting, pingy performances full of squillo. He's also definitely not a tenor that eats up the stage. That was Grigolo. Borras has a pure, lyric voice. The chief virtue of his performance was his sensitivity. Unlike Grigolo, he remembered to constantly jot down thoughts in his notebook in the first act. His Werther was a young man worth caring about. Borras also seemed to inspire Isabel Leonard to give a much more emotional, inspired performance. Grigolo overpowered Leonard completely. With Leonard and Borras it was like witnessing an intimate dialogue between the two singers. They were listening to each other. The death scene was heartbreaking. David Bizic, Maurizio Muraro, and Anna Christy continued to provide solid professional vocalism. It was a performance to treasure.

Here is a video I took of the curtain calls. A very special moment.

And here is the performance on soundcloud:

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Werther: Heartbroken and Heartbreaking

Grigolo and Leonard, photo @ Marty Sohl

I caught the matinee performance of Werther this afternoon. My last experience with Werther had been the memorable series of performances with Jonas Kaufmann where Kaufmann was showered with confetti at the curtain calls. (I had no idea that this would be the last time Jonas Kaufmann ever performed in NY.) This afternoon's performance was more sparsely attended -- rows of orchestra seats were empty.

If I wanted to I could probably list about 1,000 things wrong with Vittorio Grigolo's performance in the title role. Not idiomatic, too veristic, overwrought to the point of hamminess (he let out a huge scream before his suicide), overreliance on a few vocal effects and mannerisms. But when judging Werthers, there's only one factor that matters. Did he break your heart? And by that measure, Grigolo was an unforgettable Werther.

Kaufmann and Grigolo almost made it two completely different operas. Kaufmann played the poet as a withdrawn, depressed young man. Grigolo burned up the stage with intensity and energy. His was a candle burning at both ends. In the Act Three duet with Charlotte (Isabel Leonard) he so forcefully pulled Charlotte back to the couch that one worried about Leonard's shoulder sockets. His voice is not large but it projects well and has plenty of ping which served him well in the climax of "Pourquoi me réveiller." Grigolo wasn't all bombast though -- in the first two acts he toned down his energy considerably and was convincing as the sensitive, introverted poet. And in the death scene his final duet with Charlotte was tender and intimate. This was a treasurable, memorable performance.

photo @ Marty Sohl
The rest of the cast for this revival was solid if unspectacular. Isabel Leonard is a beautiful woman with a basically attractive voice, and she played Charlotte as younger and more unsure of her feelings than Sophie Koch. Her French is unintelligible though -- it sounded like mush. And in the more demanding moments of Act Three there was an unsteadiness to her tone. David Bizic (a holdover from the 2014 production) continues to do wonderful work as Albert -- his open friendly face and good-natured manner gives the drama another layer of depth. Anna Christy was a pert Sophie with a rather scratchy voice. Maurizio Muraro was a likable Bailiff. Edward Gardner's conducting was low-key and unmemorable -- too bad, because Massenet's score is so full of lovely moments.

The afternoon ultimately belonged to Vittorio Grigolo, who almost singlehandedly turned this series of Werthers from a routine, tired revival into something memorable and heartbreaking. Richard Eyre's somewhat prim, Downtown-Abbey production faded completely into the background as Grigolo so dominated the opera. Grigolo was also a wonderful Romeo and his voice seems to be getting stronger every time I hear him. I look forward to hearing this exciting artist in the future. No matter what, he's never boring.

Here is a curtain call I took. By now, the Grigolo curtain call antics are an expected and beloved part of the Grigolo Show.

And here's the last 40 minutes or so of the performance. Starts with "Pourquoi me révellier" and goes all the way to the finale.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

La Traviata: Oh Gioia!!!

Yoncheva and Fabiano, photo @ Marty Sohl

The Willy Decker production of La Traviata opened at the Met in 2010. I saw the first cast and every revival since. That's a lot of little red dresses. All the Violettas I've seen brought something special to the role. However I had never experienced a complete Traviata -- one where ALL the singers came together to create an unforgettable, moving experience. Until last night, that is.

First of all, great credit must be given to Nelson Martinez, who stepped in for an ailing Thomas Hampson with only a few hours notice. Martinez got a warm and deserved ovation at the end of the evening. His is a sonorous, rich, well-produced baritone with no troubles negotiating the role. His approach was direct and uncomplicated -- Papa Germont was a stolid, stodgy man who wanted to protect his family.  He sang most of the Act Two duet with Violetta in a clipped way, as if he really didn't know what to do with her torrent of emotions. "Di provenza il mar" earned a huge hand from the audience. What a voice, and I feel so lucky to have witnessed his triumph. So yes, there are baritones other than Placido Domingo and Zeljicko Lucic if the Met is recruiting.

Yoncheva, photo @ Marty Sohl
Sonya Yoncheva is the most complete, satisfying Violetta since Angela Gheorghiu. This is not to say she was perfect. "Sempre libera" was marred by some labored coloratura and a shrill upper register. The glory of Yoncheva is not her upper register, but rather the core of her voice. It's a soft-grained voice that nevertheless has enough power to float over the orchestra and ensemble and flood the auditorium with waves of sound. "Amami Alfredo" and the great Act Two concertato had her voice soaring. The final act was a master class of vocal control -- she brought her voice to a threadbare whisper before expiring with a huge, life-affirming "Oh gioia." The timbre of her voice is just so perfect for this role -- the dusky color of the voice can sound alternately sultry and melancholy.

Her interpretation was very different from the other Violettas I've seen in this production -- she was more languorous and world-weary than most Violettas. She wasn't manic and overeager to squeeze every ounce of hard-partying into her short lifespan. But with her bedroom eyes and indifferent manner, one understood why men pursued her -- she was undeniably the sexiest Violetta I've ever seen.  Of course it helps that, like the real life Marie Duplessis, she has raven hair, pale skin and is very beautiful woman. Run, don't walk to see this magnificent soprano.

Michael Fabiano's Alfredo is the first one who seems entirely comfortable with this production -- other Alfredos have always looked diffident and embarrassed when asked to cavort in boxers in the first scene of Act Two, and uncomfortable during the ugly scene at the Flora's party when Alfredo shoves money up Violetta's legs. Not Fabiano. He performed all the stage business with relish. Fabiano's natural intensity worked well, as did his muscular, handsome tenor voice. His voice is not the usual slender lyric tenor we often get for Alfredo. A few quibbles -- I wish he'd use more dynamics. He's one of those singers who loves forte. I also wish he wouldn't drop out so much in "O mio rimorso" just to hit a high note (listen to the YT clip below). But again, the intensity of the performance, the level of engagement and chemistry he has with Yoncheva, all make him the most complete Alfredo I've ever seen live.

The conductor Nicola Luisotti led an erratic account of the score from the pit. At times he sounded like he was trying to break some sort of record for the fastest La Traviata. But in Act Three he became so lugubrious and labored that both Yoncheva and Fabiano had trouble following his dirge-like tempi during "Parigi o cara." Papa Germont got one verse of the cabaletta, and Violetta got to sing both verses of "Addio del passato" but otherwise all the standard cuts were taken, including the big cuts in "Parigi o cara" and "Gran dio." Disappointing.

The Willy Decker production has by now lost most of its shock value. It's being retired after this season. It's a deliberately clinical take on the opera. The white background suggests a hospital ward, and the clock symbolism is a bit heavy-handed. But with Yoncheva, Fabiano and Martinez last night it became blood-and-guts theater. It was a phenomenal night at the opera. Really, GO SEE IT. If you don't live around New York, GO SEE THE HD. You won't regret it. The next time you get a Violetta/Alfredo pairing this dynamic might be never.

Here is a video I took of the curtain call. Very grainy but:

Friday, February 17, 2017

Welcome Back, Joseph Gordon!

After being out for the fall and Nutcracker season with an injury, the wildly talented Joseph Gordon made his return to the NYCB stage as Gold in the 2/15/17 performance of Sleeping Beauty. NYCB has put up two brief but wonderful clips of the performance:

Joseph Gordon as Gold. No explanation necessary.
And the ever radiant Sterling Hyltin's entrance as Aurora:
Also new to me was Sara Mearns' delightfully hammy Carabosse, by far the most entertaining of the four that I've seen:

This has been a wonderful series of performances. I go to my last one tonight.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sleeping Beauty Marathon

Balanchine's glorious Garland Waltz, photo @ Paul Kolnik

I went on a Sleeping Beauty marathon this weekend and saw three performances in two days. NYCB's Sleeping Beauty is one of the finest productions I've seen -- Balanchine's wondrous Garland Waltz with the SAB children weaving in and out of the garland formations is itself worth the price of admission. The designs are beautiful and tasteful. Although Peter Martins cut the knitting scene and made some more abridgments this is a surprisingly complete Sleeping Beauty, and a nice contrast to ABT's historically correct but somewhat fussy and constipated Ratmansky version. For instance, more of the Panorama music is included than many versions, and the Wedding divertissements are almost all there. Especially adorable is the little SAB students they have as Little Red Riding Hood. They steal the show every time.

Here are the casts I saw:

PRINCESS AURORA: Sterling Hyltin; PRINCE DÉSIRÉ: Chase Finlay; LILAC FAIRY: Savannah Lowery; CARABOSSE: Marika Anderson; TENDERNESS: Ashley Hod; VIVACITY: Mary Elizabeth Sell; GENEROSITY: Miriam Miller; ELOQUENCE: Claire Von Enck; COURAGE: Meagan Mann; GOLD: Russell Janzen; DIAMOND: Teresa Reichlen; EMERALD: Emilie Gerrity; RUBY: Alexa Maxwell; WHITE CAT: Indiana Woodward; PUSS IN BOOTS: Cameron Dieck; PRINCESS FLORINE: Ashly Isaacs; BLUEBIRD: Harrison Ball

Hyltin as Aurora, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Of the three Auroras I saw, Sterling Hyltin was the most delicate, charming and well-acted. Although her technique is strong (the Rose Adagio balances were solid and each one clearly held), when watching her you focus on the perfume she adds to the role rather than the technique. Little touches like caressing each rose during the Rose Adagio, or lovingly handing the roses to her mother before her final set of balances. Hyltin's flexibility and the harmony between her upper and lower body-- the stretch of her arms and legs, and her soft, pliant back -- is one of her glories. Certain moves like the renverses will just look better on a dancer like Hyltin. She also has a light airy jump. Her Vision Scene is the so lovely, so ethereal. She was really like a sprite, darting in and out of Chase Finlay's grasp.

She and Chase Finlay were a handsome couple. In the Wedding pas de deux, their fish dives were not only perfectly timed, but you noticed the harmony in their body lines -- their arms, necks, the crests of their torsos were all parallel to each other.  Her Wedding variation was the highlight of her performance. Her arms, hands, and feet all seemed to be flicking delicately along with the music as if in a spell. It was enchanting. Finlay was a handsome prince and partnered well but did have trouble with his variation.

Maxwell, Reichlen and Gerrity as the Jewels, photo @ Irving Chow
Other standouts in the performance: the Jewels trio of Reichlen, Maxwell, and Gerrity. They were the only jewels trio to have the sharp lines and precision of a finely cut gem. Claire von Enck in the "canary" fairy variation and Meagan Mann in the "finger" variation. Harrison Ball's Bluebird didn't have the explosive jumps but did have some very clean lines. He's a beautiful dancer. Savannah Lowery was wonderful with Lilac Fairy's mime and had a motherly disposition, if somewhat diminished technique. Marika Anderson's Carabosse was gleefully malevolent.

PRINCESS AURORA: Ashley Bouder; PRINCE DÉSIRÉ: Andrew Veyette; LILAC FAIRY: Sara Mearns; CARABOSSE: Maria Kowroski; TENDERNESS: Gretchen Smith; VIVACITY: Sara Adams; GENEROSITY: Lydia Wellington; ELOQUENCE: Kristen Segin; COURAGE: Meagan Mann; GOLD: Chase Finlay; DIAMOND: Megan LeCrone; EMERALD: Lauren King; RUBY: Abi Stafford; WHITE CAT: Samantha Villwock; PUSS IN BOOTS: Taylor Stanley; PRINCESS FLORINE: Erica Pereira; BLUEBIRD: Anthony Huxley

The evening performance with Bouder, Veyette, and Mearns was almost a different ballet. Ashley Bouder is the type of Aurora you'll love if you enjoy the spunky Auroras -- explosive pas de chats in the entrance, endless balances in the Rose Adagio, speed and power and attack all evening. I liked her bold attack and aggressiveness ... until I didn't. In the Rose Adagio she distorted the music to show off an extra long-held balance, but there was no youthful joy, no sense that this is a 16 year old girl's birthday and she's excited. The Vision Scene lacked any sense of poetry, the Wedding pas de deux came across as rather businesslike -- Bouder's interactions with Veyette were non-existent. Bouder didn't lean down for a real kiss, or even a brush on the cheek. Andrew Veyette, who is usually such a solid partner, was actually a bit clunky tonight -- the fish dives were not well timed with the music. The performance was certainly a check list of all the ways Ashley Bouder is a technical wonder, but for me it wasn't Aurora. I want more elegance and grace. I've seen Ashley's Aurora before and don't remember her being so hard-boiled in the past.

Pereria and Huxley as Florine and Bluebird, photo @ Paul Kolnik

The evening's best performers were Sara Mearns, who was authoritative, expressive and refined (!!!) as Lilac Fairy, Andrew Veyette whose brooding presence made the Prince less of a cipher than usual, Anthony Huxley as the most high-flying Bluebird with the cleanest diagonal of brisé volés (although bend your back, Anthony!) and Sean Suozzi as a very funny Catalabutte. The fairies also performed at a more consistent level than in the afternoon performance. Maria Kowroski as Carabosse was not so much evil as sort of goofy. Even with all that makeup and dress and rat entourage you still saw her big friendly eyes. Fun, but a bit miscast. Kind of like if Lassie were to play the Big Bad Wolf.

The evening had two scary falls -- first a bad slip by one of Aurora's friends, then the three jesters (Spartak Hoxha, Daniel Ulbricht, Harrison Coll) toppled over when they piled on top of each others' backs. Thankfully it doesn't seem like anyone was hurt.

PRINCESS AURORA: Tiler Peck; PRINCE DÉSIRÉ: Tyler Angle; LILAC FAIRY: Ashley Laracey; CARABOSSE: Rebecca Krohn; TENDERNESS: Mimi Staker; VIVACITY: Olivia MacKinnon; GENEROSITY: Claire Kretzschmar; ELOQUENCE: Indiana Woodward; COURAGE: Unity Phelan; GOLD: Zachary Catazaro; DIAMOND: Savannah Lowery; EMERALD: Brittany Pollack; RUBY: Ashly Isaacs; WHITE CAT: Kristen Segin; PUSS IN BOOTS: Sean Suozzi; PRINCESS FLORINE: Lauren King; BLUEBIRD: Troy Schumacher

Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle, photo @ Andrea Mohin
For those who loved the power and attack of Ashley Bouder but also longed for the porcelain delicacy of Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck's Aurora was a happy medium between the two extremes. Peck's Aurora started off coltish -- she burst onto the stage with so much energy she lost her balance and fell. First time I've ever seen her stumble. But she collected her nerves quickly to complete a serene, secure Rose Adagio. Peck is a human gyroscope. In the variation after the Rose Adagio she was the only ballerina to do all triple pirouettes in that 4-pirouette sequence, and she also added some fancy arm flourishes. Peck's Aurora was probably the most conventional -- she made the predictable growth from youthful energy to maturity. Her Vision Scene had the right aloofness and by the Wedding Scene she was regal although still powerful -- she started her variation delicately by wafting her fingers and arms in the air but finished with a series of blindingly fast pique and chaine turns. She is Tiler Peck, after all.

The performance had the best all-around cast. Tyler Angle again proved his worth as a wonderful partner and a classical danseur noble. His Prince variations were the cleanest with the purest line. The fairies were ALL terrific, particularly Olivia MacKinnon who was the only fairy I saw that could handle the Vivacity variation, Indiana Woodward who lit up the stage in the Canary variation and Unity Phelan who dispatched the finger variation with frightening efficiency. Ashley Laracey had the most beautiful epaulement and classical style of the Lilac Fairies. She is like Hyltin with the flexible back -- her renverses were also gorgeous. Her mime needs to be more clearly articulated, and then she'll be just about perfect. Troy Schumacher's jumps were not that powerful but he was the only Bluebird to bend his back and also really articulate the mime with Florine. Only sour spot was Lauren King's rather sloppy Florine -- strong, precise footwork just doesn't seem to be her thing. Zachary Catazaro's Gold variation was the cleanest of the three Golds I saw but is the Gold variation for the guys a "do what you want" thing? The three Golds (Russell Janzen, Chase Finlay and Zachary Catazaro) all did three very different variations.

I left the marathon feeling incredibly grateful that NYCB is so deep in talent that it can put on such strong casts in Sleeping Beauty, the ultimate test of a company's classicism. I mean, when in the prologue the fairy cavaliers all are able to pull off squeaky clean double air turns in unison, that's called depth. And having two Auroras who can put on such different but equally valid interpretations. What a great company!

And finally, my friend Irving is a wonderful photographer and he snapped this absolutely precious photo of Little Red Riding Hood (Alessia Reira) and Big Bad Wolf (Daniel Applebaum):

Photo @ Irving Chow

Saturday, February 11, 2017

I Puritani - no high F, but who cares?

Javier Camarena and Diana Damrau, photo @ Marty Sohl

Whoever knew that the serene I Puritani would be the opera to bring out the audience crazies? Last night at the Met's premiere of I Puritani there was this EXTREMELY vocal Diana Damrau fan who would scream "BRAAAAAAVVVVVVIIIIIIISSSSSSIIIIIIMMMMMMAAAAAA" and "THANK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUU" after every number. You could admire her enthusiasm except that sounded more like she was giving birth than anything else.

Then at the end of "Credeasi misera" some fanatical vocal purist (???) shouted "NO HIGH F" at Javier Camarena. The audience was shocked.

The two overly vocal audience members leant some comedy to an otherwise rather sleepy (if vocally solid) revival. Don't get me wrong -- there's reasons to see this revival, the number one being Javier Camarena, whose warm sweet timbre, glorious upper register and winning stage presence officially put him in the designated spot of The Great Arturo of His Time. This status isn't to be sniffed at -- this notoriously difficult part has struck fear in the hearts of many a tenor. Alfredo Kraus, Nicolai Gedda (RIP), and Luciano Pavarotti were previous bearers of this mantle.

No, Camarena didn't sing the high F in "Credeasi misera" but he took so many withdrawals from his NOHC (Notes Over High C) Bank Account that you wonder if he has a secret Swiss NOHC account with millions more notes stashed away. From the C-sharp in his entrance aria "A te o cara" to a blazing high D in "Vieni fra queste braccia" Camarena was unstintingly generous with the audience some of whom were probably counting the acuti and keeping tally on their program. But even if he had missed all those notes, he still would have been a wonderful Arturo simply because of his truly bel canto singing. He has the legato, the musicality, the style. Go see him. He's a star.

Diana Damrau as Elvira was vocally a bit hard-pressed, her acuti shrill and her style of singing does not allow for the kind of seamless legato that's necessary in numbers like "Qui la voce." The voice has lost a lot in color and flexibility. She has come full circle -- last night she approached high notes in the same brittle way she might attack the high F's in Queen of the Night (one of her early successes). Her acting was a bit hammy -- in the long second act scena I thought of what Lucille Ball might have done playing a mad scene and looked onstage and uh, it was a perfect match. She was fond of wrapping herself up in her wedding veil like a mummy. But one cannot fault her enthusiasm, her energy, and her obvious professionalism -- she just finished a run of Juliets (which was a much better fit for her vocally). She and Camarena had a warm chemistry onstage.

Luca Pisaroni and Diana Damrau, photo @ Marty Sohl
The two lower voiced men (for the life of me I can't ever recall their actual names -- I just remember the Nice Bass and the Mean Baritone) were solid if unexciting. Alexey Markov The Mean Baritone has a voice that's rather dry and not mellifluous enough to sound right in Bellini. Luca Pisaroni The Nice Bass looked very cute but it's one of those voices that's rather hollow sounding, without the body or plushness to give the character's numbers the requisite warmth. "Cinta di fiori" was disappointing. The usually barnstorming duet "Suoni la tromba" was routine and not the jolt of caffeine the audience needed. Virgnie Verrez was fine as Henrietta, The Most Boring Queen in Opera.

Conductor Maurizio Benini opened some cuts in the act one concertato and also let Damrau sing "Ah! sento o mio bell 'angeli" to conclude the opera but was almost comically lethargic, with no drive or impetus behind his conducting. I Puritani cannot have a conductor who seems like he just popped a xanax before entering the pit. It already has so many built-in Xanax moments. The Met orchestra which can be so glorious with right conductor sounded almost provincial last night with an embarrassing flub from the French horns. Maybe he'll pick up steam as the run goes on.

The production by Sandro Sequi at this point is a collection of pretty costumes for Elvira and picturesque sets and little else -- even the chorus seems to have given up any pretense of blocking. The multiple steps on the set did allow the vertically challenged singers to look taller while standing next to Luca Pisaroni, so there's that.

But don't just read me. Judge for yourself:

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Great Comet

Last night I saw Dave Malloy's wonderful musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and reviewed it for parterre box here. Suffice to say I enjoyed it very much and recommend it to people looking for a fun night at the theater. Josh Groban and Denée Benton are amazing. A blurb from my review:

I never made it through more than a few chapters of any Tolstoy work. And I never made it through Chapter One, Volume One of War and Peace. Yeah, I know. I suck. Turns out I was just not using the left side of my brain, because War and Peace can actually be a fun, entertaining, lighthearted musical. 
The travails of Natasha, Pierre, Andrey, Anatole, and company are really a funny, tongue-in-cheek soap opera. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is one of those improbable shows that  throws in everything, including the kitchen sink, cabinet and refrigerator, and somehow the final product just works.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Winter Season Diaries: Swan Heaven, Sunday Un-funday

The flock of black swans, photo @ Paul Kolnik
I've seen lots of Swan Lakes in my balletomane life. And to be honest, I've disliked or felt indifferent to almost all of them. A long time ago Nina Ananiashvilli impressed me with her boneless arms and old-style Bolshoi acting. Mariinsky swans are hard to beat -- I loved Viktoria Tereshkina's strength and chutzpah. Uliana Lopatkina's Odette/Odile was a master class of classicism, and she also had an inner radiance and spirituality that was heartbreaking. But really, that's ... it?

Well tonight I was transported to Swan Heaven again, and in the unlikeliest form: petite, slight Sterling Hyltin in Balanchine's one-act version of the ballet. I've never taken Balanchine's abridged Swan Lake seriously -- sometimes I think he took an orchestral suite and had no idea what to do with it. He added a coda to the pas de deux. He added variations. He deleted variations. He changed the setting to some sort of arctic winter wonderland replete with icebergs. The best part of his Swan Lake is unsurprisingly his choreography for the corps -- he has them swarm as an a scary flock in their black feathery costumes. They are not the mournful swans of most "after Petipa/Ivanov" versions. They're wild birds. But his changes to the white swan adagio (a peppy coda) and Odette's variations are unimpressive, the solo for Siegfried is unnecessary, and he unfortunately deleted the dance of the cygnets in one of his many revisions. One thing: nice costumes, especially for the hunters.