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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Winter Season Diaries: NYCB's Academy Awards

Teresa Reichlen and Daniel Ulbricht in Prodigal Son, photo @ Andrea Mohin

The first week of Winter Season at NYCB is usually low-key. The company is tired from the Nutcracker marathon and also rehearsing for the inevitable world premiere of some new works. So the programming tends to be basic Balanchine. Stuff the audience knows and loves. Dancer-proof ballets.

And thus it was so this winter season. The first week was dominated by two excellent Balanchine triple bills: a "Balanchine Short Stories" program of La Sonnambula/Prodigal Son/Firebird and a more eclectic program of Allegro Brillante/Swan Lake/Four Temperaments. I saw one of the AB/SL/4T's performance and two "Short Stories." I don't need to tell you that Tiler Peck was amazing/super/stupendous in Allegro, and that her diagonal of consecutive triple pirouettes that was timed to end exactly with a CRASH in the piano chords gave me goosebumps. Andy Veyette was her fine, steadfast partner. Ashly Isaacs made an energetic debut as Sanguinic in the 4T's and Anthony Huxley's Melancholic was a highlight. He really has the contorted backbends and sudden shifts in poses down pat and what's more, make them look natural.

La Sonnambula, Prodigal Son, Firebird and Swan Lake were interesting as it required NYCB dancers to do something they're not accustomed to doing: acting. All four are short but intense story ballets and it's not okay to simply "do the steps, dear." I saw two separate casts and it's interesting how different dancers handled this demand to act. So, we now present the Academy Awards of Motion Dances, winter NYCB edition.

Nominees: La Sonnambula, Prodigal Son, Firebird, and Swan Lake

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Daniel Ulbricht in Prodigal Son. You could simply marvel in his technique -- huge flying jumps, series of triple/quadruple pirouettes that he decelerated as a show of control. But his portrayal was a success because he clearly made an arc in the Prodigal Son's development from an arrogant brat to a horndog lush to the humbled but mature man. His first and last interactions with his father (a wonderful Aaron Sanz) rang true. His chemistry with Teresa Reichlen's implacable Siren was hot. When the Prodigal Son crawled under the Siren's crotch there was a gasp in the theater. The Maria Kowroski/Joaquin de Luz by pairing by comparison was too PG-rated in energy to make much of an impact.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Teresa Reichlen in Prodigal Son. When did Reichlen turn into such an actress? Her Siren was nasty, sexy, venomous. We all know about the Siren's famous snake coiling arm gesture, but she was the only Siren out of the three I've seen this year (Maria Kowroski and Veronika Part of ABT were the others) to use her cape as a boa constrictor. When she tightened that velvet around her neck and looked at the boys suddenly we were in an S&M club. When she kicked the beaten and robbed Prodigal Son it was delicious.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Zachary Catazaro's Prince in Firebird. Firebird is such a ballerina-dominated ballet. Who cares about the Prince and his insipid Princess? Well, Catazaro proved that it's possible to make something out of this role. Catazaro is the only Prince I can remember in recent memory who actually responds with surprise to the light at the back of the stage before the Firebird (AshleyBouder) makes her entrance. A tender glance here, a startled reaction there, and all of a sudden this becomes the Prince's story as well. In contrast Justin Peck merely let Teresa Reichlen to carry the entire ballet.

Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Sterling Hyltin as the Sleepwalker. I know this is sort of cheating but Sleepwalker is a SHORT role. Most of the ballet is dominated by the flirtation between the Poet and the Coquette and the various interactions at the masked ball. The Sleepwalker flits onstage in her candle, flits offstage, and only returns for the ballet's gruesome conclusion. Hyltin's feathery light bourreés which made her seem like she was gliding across the floor, her mass of unkempt tresses, and the completely blank, soulless stare she gave her Poet (Chase Finlay) whenever he tried to touch her made a ghostly frightening impression. By contrast, Tiler Peck's very well-danced Sleepwalker was very much of this world. Because she's Tiler Peck she was technically clean as a whistle. But the ethereal feeling was not there. This extended to her perfectly straightened, set and sprayed hair which just didn't give off a Crazy Woman in the Attic vibe.

Honorary mention in supporting act go to Aaron Sanz as the Father in Prodigal Son, Daniel Ulbricht who brought down the house as Harlequinade in La Sonnambula.

And just for kicks:

Chagall's initial curtain
Best Production Design: Is this even a race? It's still Chagall's amazing Firebird backdrops. In fact, the trouble with this ballet is that the production can dwarf the actual dancing. Thankfully NYCB currently has Teresa Reichlen and Ashley Bouder, two strong Firebirds. They have different strengths -- Reichlen uses her long arms and back to create a soulful, majestic creature. Her Berceuse is a song of mourning. Bouder startles with the quickness of her jumps. But both are equally valid interpretations and the force of their personalities can battle Chagall. No mean feat.

Mearns and company in Swan Lake, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Best Costumes - Alain Vaes' costumes for Swan Lake. Yes, the red-headed stepchild of the Balanchine canon, his not-very-inspired abridged Swan Lake. The ballet he openly said was a "bore" and changed countless times (new coda to adagio, added variations, dropped variations, reshuffling numbers, you name it). The ballet itself despite some lovely choreography for the corps remains a odd duck -- as if someone had decided to choreograph to a 30 minute orchestral suite from a 2+ hour ballet. But, my oh my, the costumes! Siegfried and his hunters have real hunting bags along with their bows and arrows, and the corps de ballet is outfitted in these black feathery concoctions that look gorgeous. The image of the black swans surrounding their Swan Queen (decked in the traditional white tutu) is stunning. And in the Swan Lake I saw with Mearns and Jared Angle, the costumes were just about the only thing great in that performance.

Best Original Score - I don't know. Getting to be a Sophie's choice here. Stravinsky's Firebird is one of the most famous ballet scores of all time but Prodigal Son's score matches the action so well that ... We'll defer to Mr. B on this one. No doubt he'd pick Firebird.

Best Director - George Balanchine in Prodigal Son. Duh. And look at this picture. 'Nuff said.

Best Picture - Prodigal Son. Made in 1929 but has lost none of its dramatic power. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll blush. And if you're not moved by this, then ...

Now I'm signing off because I really don't want to hear any of these winners thanking their agents and publicists.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Obama, no longer president, but always My President

A photo posted by Ivy Lin (@poisonivylin) on

It's hard to believe that in less than 24 hours Barack Obama will no longer be POTUS. He's a man I admire so much as a person, as a politician, as a leader, as a role model.  He never lost his dignity, his cool, and (most importantly) his humanity. Other people have expressed their admiration more eloquently. I'll just say this: Barack Obama might no longer be the President of the United States, but he'll always be My President.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Roméo et Juliette - Shakespearean Tragedy is a Happy Night at the Opera

Grigolo and Damrau, photo @ Ken Howard
Romeo and Juliet are in the crypt. Romeo succumbs to the poison just as Juliet awakens from her self-induced slumber. Juliet stabs herself so she can die along with Romeo. Bodies slump over each other. Curtain. That's what happened last night at the end of the Met's new production of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. It's basically what happens at the end of any presentation of Shakespeare's play.

Tragic. Heartrending, right? But as the lights dimmed I felt something I haven't felt while attending an opera in a long time: happiness. Yes, happiness.

Why? Because the performance last night was pretty much perfect. Not perfect in the sense that there were no flaws with the singers (there were), or that the production by Bart Sher was mind-blowing (it wasn't), but the energy from the star-crossed lovers (Vittorio Grigolo and Diana Damrau) was such that all flaws and reservations were swept aside in by the force of their performances. They were extraordinary.

Grigolo has finally found a role where he can channel all his sometimes hyper, erratic energy. His Roméo brimmed over with life. During the balcony scene he leaped onto one of the pillars in an attempt to touch Juliette's hand. Did he succeed? No, but he got cheers from the audience just for the try. Vocally he was also on his best behavior. There was his usual fondness for exaggerated dynamics, and his tendency towards veristic delivery clashed with the traditional French style of singing. But my, what singing! The role lies in a sweet spot in his voice -- there was no strain, no yelping. His voice was ringing and clarion all night. He capped the Act Four ensemble with a huge high C, and in his numerous duets with Juliette it was his ardent voice that soared over the orchestra and into your ears. Moreover, he really lived the role, made this somewhat sappy, cardboard character into someone real and lovable.
Balcony scene, photo @ Ken Howard

Damrau was not as flamboyant as Grigolo. You could tell she prepared for this role -- she can sometimes be brassy but she took care to present herself as shy and reserved. Her voice took some time to warm up. It now has a slightly husky, colorless quality and trills no longer come easily to her. "Je veux vivre" didn't have the ideally youthful quality and her voice has lost some flexibility. But as the opera progressed she and Grigolo's partnership became symbiotic -- they pushed each other to greater heights. Her Potion Aria was surprisingly powerful. By the bedroom duet her voice was soaring along with Grigolo's. She was a ying to Grigolo's yang. They complemented each other beautifully. Will they become the New New New (Onstage) Love Couple?

The supporting cast varied from mediocre (Mikhail Petrebko's wobbly, hollow Friar Laurent) to promising (Virginie Verrez as the pageboy) to excellent (Diego Silva as Tybalt). But really, this is a two-person show. Gianandrea Noseda led a vigorous but taut performance in the pit -- perhaps this was the reason for Grigolo's vocal discipline. There was no Marco-Armiliato-like indulging of every singers' vocal whim.

Picture I took of the unit set
Bartlett Sher's production took no risks but also did no harm. The unit set (by his longtime collaborator Michael Yeargan) was a handsome stone court yard that was a believable Verona. Small onstage props indicated different scenes like Friar's church or the crypt. The costumes by Catherine Zuber were colorful and generally flattering to the singers. The only misfire was Sher's longtime love for huge fabrics as a scene changer -- he used it in Le Comte Ory, he used it in Fiddler on the Roof, and in Act Four the "bedroom" scene was yet again a large, stage-encompassing sheet that was laid out over the stage. It also billowed over the stage on occasion. I guess this gave Grigolo and Damrau more opportunity to roll around the floor. But in the crypt scene two stone slabs were brought out. So why no bed, in a production otherwise so literal? Oh well. Sher's production was pretty, it didn't intrude on the Grigolo Show, and it sort of matched the somewhat treacly vibe of this entire opera.

Some nights at the opera feel like "eat your spinach" exercises. Last night was a comfort food night. Beautiful music, beautiful voices, pretty sets, pretty costumes. It was like digging into a bowl of chili fries.

Here is Grigolo in one of his patented curtain calls. On anyone else I'd say "over the top." For him? Ange Adorable.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Candide - Not the Best of All Possible Presentations

Candide on paper looked like the perfect opera to revive for New York City Opera's "Renaissance." The old NYCO's Hal Prince production (adapted from his Broadway version) was one of the company's glories. Bernstein's lovable operetta was a perfect fit for the uniquely American sensibilities of the company. So to bring back that wonderful production, with the same revered director supervising, well, that was the best of all possible worlds right?

Wrong. For one, the limits of the tiny Rose Theater made it necessary to scale down Hal Prince's production to what looked like the Dollar Store version. Same familiar circus-performers concept, but tiny, cheap drops that wrinkled and flapped, an awkward miking system that made the voices sound thin and inaudible but the set changes and stage movement ear-splitting, and a cast that was obviously under-rehearsed. Prince (and choreographer Patricia Birch) seem not to have gotten the memo however -- the tiny stage was filled with a full set of dancers and extras and all the stage business of his old production. I've seen a NYCO telecast of the original. In a full sized theater those effects are wonderful. Here it just looked like nonstop onstage traffic jams.

Things started poorly when the orchestra (led by Charles Prince) gave a bumpy, poorly coordinated and out of tune rendition of the famous overture. The cast had talent, but not the right sort of talent -- experienced Broadway actor Gregg Edelman (as Voltaire and the various other authority figures) forgot his lines in several instances. Sometimes he just shrugged it off, but one time he did the all-time most obvious "oops" stage trick -- simply turning the back to the audience and making a jazz hands gesture.

Meghan Picerno (Cunegonde) has a cute stage presence and comic timing, but not nearly enough voice for "Glitter and Be Gay." Note values were approximate, high notes came out either pipsqueak, flat, or not at all. At least the audience seems to have liked her. In the title role Jay Armstrong Johnson (who's done some great work in On The Town) sounded nervous and the miking was odd -- he faded in and out. It also sounds like he was trying to beef up his light, pleasant voice with an overly intrusive vibrato. Linda Lavin (Old Lady) finally brought a dose of old-school vaudevillian "We Need to Put On a SHOW!" mentality -- her line readings weren't subtle but at least you could tell this was a pro who knew how to put on a performance no matter the circumstance.

Other performers who acquitted themselves well in their roles: Jessica Tyler Wright was consistently cute and funny as Paquette, Chip Zien as the Jew who shares Cunegonde with the Grand Inquisitor (Brooks Ashmankis).

Gregg Edelmann, photo @ Tina Fineberg
But in the end I don't think it's the fault of the performers that this Candide was not even close to the best of all possible performances. They all have talent. The lack of rehearsal, preparation, venue, and (let's face it) funds was obvious. The opening night crowd was a real mink-and-champagne crowd but even for this fundraising group the presentation was careless -- Hal Prince didn't even come out for a curtain call. There was no speech by Michael Capasso about the importance of this production in NYCO history. If NYCO is truly going to have a Renaissance, they need to let that garden grow more so they can put on performances that don't come across as a pale imitation of the company they once were.