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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: