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Saturday, September 30, 2017

NYCB Fall Season: 4 (!!!) Swan Lakes

NYCB Swan Lake, photo @ Paul Kolnik
When the 2017-18 season for NYCB came out last spring, I saw that the first two weeks of the season were devoted to Peter Martins' Swan Lake. I thought "Oh good, giving my wallet a break." This was one production I was in no hurry to revisit. I saw it once with Sara Mearns and that was enough. Or so I thought. Flash forward to September. I found myself buying tickets to see four (!!!) different Swan Lake casts. The struggle is real, y'all.

I still hate the production. I hate the mish-mash of Balanchine/Martins/Ivanov choreography in the lakeside scene. I hate the hideous decors by Per Kirkelby. I hate the mismatched green costumes in the first act. I hate the Jester. I hate the hilariously bad Russian dance in which one female dancer usually slinks as if doing a Middle Eastern belly dance. I hate the cold, non-sensical ending (Rothbart is defeated, but as dawn approaches Odette still goes back with her swans and Siegfried is alone). The only part of new choreography I like is the ballroom pas de quatre. The difference is now NYCB has such a strong roster of Odette/Odiles that I wanted to see what they could do with this iconic role. The casts I saw were: Reichlen/Janzen (Sept 22), Hyltin/Catazaro (9/29), Fairchild/Garcia (9/30), and Peck/Finlay (10/1). Yes, I really sat through this production three times in three days. God help me.

The first performance was the most disappointing. Teresa Reichlen gave the kind of constricted, expressionless performance she often gives when she has a bad case of the nerves. She's an amazing dancer but her bloodcurdling Siren, her incomparable Rubies Tall Girl or her majestic Firebird (some of her best roles) were nowhere to be seen in her Odette/Odile. She didn't differentiate between Odette and Odile -- both were stony and passive. She got through the role, and that was about it. Her and Janzen did not really bother telling the story with their bodies. Janzen's partnering was also off. The black swan pas de deux had not an iota of sex appeal. They're both wonderful dancers but this ballet brings out the least in them. The corps was also obviously underrehearsed and often out of the step with the music and their arms looked sloppy.

Hyltin and Catazaro, photo @ Kent G. Becker
What a difference a cast (and a week) makes! The next couple I saw (Sterling Hyltin and Zachary Catazaro) were so exquisite that I felt like I was truly getting the Swan Lake experience, and not just the neo-classical, abbreviated Martins' Swan Lake. Catazaro from his entrance was telling a story -- his Prince was young, curious about the world. He took his bow and fussed over it the way a young man would. Hyltin as Odette was breathtaking -- so slight, but with such soft arms, pliant back, regal posture, that you forgot she was the shortest of all the swans onstage. Unlike Reichlen she stretched those iconic poses to beautiful effect. She and Catazaro made the white swan pas de deux (here with that allegro ending which I dislike) truly sing with heart-melting tenderness. Hyltin's Odette variation was wonderful. Her sissones in her variation burst with longing to be free. You believed in Catazaro and Hyltin because it was clear they believed in Swan Lake.

The black swan pas de deux was amazing. Hyltin's body language was completely transformed and she and Catazaro really ACTED not with their faces but with their bodies. Loved the way Hyltin's Odile would beckon Siegfried with a hand and then turn her whole body away. Her variation was fine, with those double pirouettes followed by the pirouette in attitude only lacking the ability to balance longer to show off those poses. For those who were counting the fouettés, Hyltin got through all of them -- started with a triple, then did singles with some doubles thrown in. She started traveling downstage a bit but ended on a triple (!!!) right with the conclusion of the music. Catazaro is not a virtuoso dancer but his variation was also very clean, very musical, and again, the emotional investment he put into this role showed.

Hyltin, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Martins' ending to the final lakeside scene actually made sense with Hyltin. She was able to convey to Siegfried that he had broken his vow and there would be no happy ending. Their final duet was beautiful. Finally at dawn as the apotheosis music played, you saw Hyltin transform herself back into a swan. The back straightened, the arms started flapping, and she bourreéd offstage with her flock of birds forever. What was muddled and confusing with Reichlen and Janzen was heartbreakingly clear with Hyltin and Catazaro. Bravo.

Other shoutouts in this performance: Harrison Coll was a wonderful Benno, and handled the demands of the pas de trois with excellent double tours. Spartak Hoxha's Jester made the most of what is a very irritating part. And Adrian-Danchig-Waring (welcome back!) and Emilie Gerrity managed to make something of the Russian dance. The swan corps were much improved -- their arms even had a softness and flow that I don't usually associate with this company.

Here is the beautiful couple in their curtain calls:

Fairchild as Odette, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Performance three: Megan Fairchild and Gonzalo Garcia. This is Megan's debut in the role, even though she's been a principal at NYCB for 12 years. One can see why she wasn't given this role before: she's short, with the proportions of a soubrette. She also tends to do best in comedy -- she was absolutely wonderful as Ivy Smith in On the Town. Fairchild and Garcia gave a decent, respectable performance, but it didn't match the poetry of Hyltin/Catazaro. Megan is technically very strong, but her physique really limits how expressive her body can be in this role. Her movements lacked grandeur. Gonzalo Garcia is a good partner and a sincere actor, but there's something so joyful and pure about his persona that the angst of Siegfried's plight doesn't come naturally. Their white swan adagio was well-danced, but lacking in drama. I thought Megan would do better with the Black Swan pas de deux than the White Swan adagio but oddly that wasn't the case -- she just wasn't very convincing as the vampish Odile. Her Odile variation was very secure, but her fouettés were not -- they traveled quite a bit and looked shaky. The final scene was disappointing -- unlike Hyltin, Fairchild didn't completely transform herself back into a swan as the apotheosis music played, but chose to simply bourreé backwards with her and the flock of swans closed Siegfried off.  It was a good effort, but it didn't quite cut the mustard. The highlight of the performance might have been the pas de quatre -- Joseph Gordon, Ashly Isaacs, Unity Phelan and Lauren Lovette danced up a storm.

Peck as Odette, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Tiler Peck and Chase Finlay were the final couple I saw. This run of Swan Lakes is also Tiler and Chase's debuts in the ballet. Tiler Peck is probably the company's strongest technician. Scratch that. She's probably the ballet world's strongest technician. There's nothing she can't do. However roles that require a lot of acting and drama have never been her forte -- I remember her flawlessly danced but decidedly un-magical La Sylphide. So therefore I was curious to see her tackle Odette/Odile.

Before I start on Tiler let me say that Chase Finlay was the only prince to act in a realistically royal way. It's part of Martins' staging that the jester in the first act sneaks onto the throne. All the other princes good-naturedly swatted the jester away. Chase shoved the jester and drop-kicked him for good measure in full Joffrey mode. It would have made Cersei proud. His blond bouffant hair was perfectly coiffed, and he exuded a distinct narcissism.

Final curtain calls, photo @ Kent G. Becker
From Tiler's loud entrance applause you knew she was the audience favorite. With that said her Odette is clearly a work in progress. Her superhuman strength in par terre dancing means that her back and upper body are stiff boards. Her swan arms need work -- way too much wrist flapping, not enough movement of the shoulders and back. Her white swan act was actually a disappointment -- her and Chase did not have much rapport, and as I mentioned, the lack of softness and flow in her upper body was detrimental. BUT her Odile really blew all the other NYCB Odiles out of the water. That's not a surprise -- the Black swan pas de deux is meant to showcase technical strength, and Tiler has a surfeit of strength. Every pose was perfectly held. The control she had in her variation was remarkable -- those difficult double pirouettes to pirouette in attitude were like child's play to her. And she rocked the fouettés -- all doubles in the first half, switching to singles in the second half, minimal traveling. The thrill on Tiler's face was palpable -- she even cackled at Chase. At the end of the pas Tiler and Chase both came forward for three bows, Bolshoi style.

Here's a video NYCB released of Tiler's fouettes:

Chase and Tiler's last act was not as heartbreaking as Sterling and Zachary's. Tiler for one didn't have the swan arms to make that final transformation back into a swan at dawn quite as effective. But it worked, because Chase's portrayal of the prince was so selfish and full of self-regard that Odette leaving him alone in his grief seemed like just punishment. And Tiler, who was passive and expressionless in the earlier lakeside scene, ratcheted up the emotion for an affecting farewell to Siegfried. She's a remarkable dancer, and she will clearly grow in this role. She and Chase got 7 raucous curtain calls. Also: Aaron Sanz, Sara Adams and Kristen Segin were IMO the most charming of the pas de trois that I saw.

Last spring at ABT much ado was made of the fact that so many of the ABT principals could not complete the basic requirements of Odette/Odile including those famous fouettés. It's therefore remarkable that NYCB, that doesn't do 32 fouetté ballets regularly, went 6/6 with Odiles who made it to 32. But that's the strength of the company right now. I tip my hat to this amazing group of dancers. And the performance of Sterling Hyltin and Zachary Catazaro will live in my memory as one of the most moving accounts of this ballet I have ever seen.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Opening Night Norma: Business as Usual

Opening night Norma, photo @ Ken Howard

Last night was one of my personal firsts: attending an opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. The opera: Bellini's Norma. I thought at the very least it'd be fun in a special occasion sort of way. Instead it was one of the most normal, average nights I've ever spent at the Met. It wasn't a bad performance so much as a terribly routine one.

The new production by David McVicar looked like something that was raided from old sets of Die Walkure. Norma's house looks a lot like Hunding's hut, and the centerpiece of the Druid command center was an enormous tree. I really thought Norma was going to pull a sword from the tree. The costumes by Moritz Junger were nondescript dark drapes for most everybody. It was a safe, inoffensive production for the most part, save some odd directorial choices. Why does Norma begin "Casta diva" by crawling on her hands and knees to the little treehouse platform, and why does she scurry under the tree to sing "Ah bello a mi ritorna"?

But the fault of last night's dull, unenthusiastic performance lies not with McVicar, as really, what CAN a director do with Norma? This is such a singer-centered opera. Very hard to make a regie-Norma. It was instead the flawed performances by ALL the principal singers that made this night not-so-memorable. No one's voice was working the way it needed to work to pull this opera off.

Let's start with the big one: Sondra Radvanovsky. Norma isn't a new role for her. She's sung it many times in many houses, including the Met. She was a replacement when Anna Netrebko decided "nyet" on Norma. The Russian superdiva's primo ottocento skills are suspect but she might have brought a measure of glamour to the evening.

Sondra's Druid Priestess, photo @ Ken Howard
I wanted to like Radvanovsky's Norma. She certainly works hard. But her Norma didn't work for me musically or artistically. Part of it I think is her voice -- it's large and powerful, but can be unwieldy. Notes often become thin and scratchy, the tone wavers and sounds harsh. Cabalettas are a struggle for her -- after a mostly lovely "Casta diva" she sang a bumpy, approximate "Ah bello a mi ritorna." But most of it is her musical choices. Simply put, she's not a very musical singer. It's amazing that after so many years singing Italian repertory, she still pronounces Italian phonetically, with all vowels distorted to an "eee" or "aww" sound. Like many non-Italian singers she also over rolls her r's. Listen to Pavarotti and Scotto. Did they ever roll their r's in such an exaggerated way? Another issue is her inability to sing a clean, unfussy vocal line. She sounds like she's spacing out the music in chunks so she can use two of her favorite special effects: the soft, floated high note, and the blasted, fortissimo high note. A Norma that can't sing Bellini's vocal lines in a clean, instrumental way is a non-starter, in my opinion. Her voice also started to give out during "In mia man." The cascades of sound that Radvanovsky usually supplies just wasn't there at the very moment it needed to be there. And "Son io" was oddly muffled and rushed, so the impact of the Big Reveal was totally lost.

La Divina in Norma
Her dramatic choices were also off. She just didn't exude the authority needed for the role. Look at pictures of Maria Callas in this role: no doubt who was Boss. Her interactions with her two children were off too -- at the beginning of Act 2, Norma contemplates killing them. The scene when done right is supposed to tear your heart out. But Sondra barely looked at them, and the childrens' interactions with Clotilde (an excellent Michelle Bradley) were warmer. Sondra also needs lessons on how to make some stage business more convincing: she held her dagger like a Halloween costume prop all night. No sense that this woman was teetering on the edge of murder.

DiDonato and Radvanovsky, photo @ Ken Howard
Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa) had the opposite problem. Her slender mezzo soprano was an odd fit for this role, which was originated on a soprano (Giulia Grisi, who would go on to sing Norma) and if sung by a mezzo needs one with a secure upper register. Alas, Joyce has never had a secure, free upper register and especially didn't have one last night. In the first act duet "O rimembranza" she tried to match Norma's high C, got nowhere close to the note, and hastily improvised a descending cadenza. She didn't even try in the second act duet "Mira o Norma." Her voice sounded like it had reached its ceiling all night. One wonders why there weren't some transpositions to accommodate Joyce's range. (Correction: I've been told by someone way more versed in music than myself that Joyce's solo at the start of the Act Two duet was transposed, but that was the only transposition.)

But Joyce does so much with such a limited vocal capacity. She's an intensely musical singer who communicates with the audience in a direct, sincere way. When she sang, you knew exactly what she was singing about, what the character felt, and for once, Adalgisa's drama became more compelling than Norma's. She shaped Bellini's vocal lines beautifully -- even when she was reaching for another high note that wasn't there, you could admire the way she made you "see the music." Her diction was clear and there was always a connection to the text. So when she sang those duets with Norma it was like one side (Sondra) was garbled and mushy vocalise, and the other side (Joyce) was a lieder recital.

Calleja as Pollione, photo @ Ken Howard
Joseph Calleja (Pollione) has, like Radvanovsky and DiDonato, a tight, constricted vibrato that is not always easy on the ears. His tone is warm and his stage manner earnest. Too earnest. The McVicar vision of Pollione is a jerk with wife-abuser-vibes. Calleja tried mightily but couldn't quite pull off that persona. Vocally he was fine. Matthew Rose (Oroveso) must have been having a bad night because he sounded shaky and wobbly all night and he usually is reliable.

As usual the Met's orchestra and chorus saved the day. For this production we were spared the overindulgent Marco Armiliato and/or Maurizio Benini. Carlo Rizzi led a sensitive, detailed account of the score, with the melancholy melodies taking center stage. The chorus was as always amazing.

At the end of the evening the principals got a polite if not overwhelming ovation. When the production team was brought out there were neither cheers nor boos, just silence as most people were already shuffling out of the auditorium. As I said, just business as usual at the Met. Not a very promising start to a season that seems designed to be very safe and dull.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

My Last Day as a Cometeer

Dave Malloy as Pierre
So Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 closed this afternoon. It was certainly not the ending fans of this show expected when it opened and was making millions per week. The demise of this musical has been endlessly discussed here, there, everywhere. Today I'll just talk about the thrilling, wonderful experience of being a Last Cometeer.