Total Pageviews

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Semiramide Revival Has a Death by Baton

Ancient Babylonia, photo @ Ken Howard
You might have recalled that a month ago I was dithering about whether to see Semiramide or a second performance of Parsifal. Wagner beat out Rossini. The great thing about living in NYC though is that I had a chance to see Semiramide as well. Win-win I guess. So last night I was transported back to the magical world of ancient Babylonia ...

Oh who am I kidding? This revival of Semiramide was lifeless and uninspiring and didn't transport me anywhere except to constant glances at my watch. It wasn't really the singers' fault per se, nor was it the production's -- John Copley's 1991 production presented this opera seria with some picturesque tableaus and fabulous costumes. Instead the energy-killer last night was conductor Maurizio Benini.

The opera was heavily cut -- about 45 minutes worth of music. But instead of cutting entire numbers, there were a bunch of disfiguring internal cuts. Arias or choruses jumped from the first stanza to the "final" cabaletta stanza without any transition in between. So as a result the opera actually seemed longer because it was so repetitive -- choral interludes or chances to decorate the second verses were gone. It became one number after another with no connections.

Benini also managed to conduct Rossini while avoiding any hint of the famous Rossini crescendo. I don't know how that's possible, but there it is. It all was smoothed over into some sort of primo ottocento easy listening muzak. I'm not that familiar with this score but even I could tell that there were moments like the appearance of Semiramide's murdered husband's ghost where the music was supposed to sound much more atmospheric and ominous than it did. Bleh.

Meade and Abdrazakov, photo @ Ken Howard
The cast was okay-ish. Angela Meade in the title role has a large, competent dramatic coloratura soprano voice which she used to fairly good effect for most of the opera. A few caveats: her ornamentation mostly consists of blasting high notes in alt which might be crowd-pleasing but definitely isn't Rossinian. Her voice in the middle register can sound abrasive -- there's a hard edge to it that is not exactly ugly but not pretty either. "Bel raggio" had a pennywhistle high E. My thing about these extreme notes in alt is that they better be great. Meade's high notes are there, but they're thin and disconnected from the rest of her voice.

More bothersome was her complete disengagement from the character. She never seemed more than slightly perturbed at all the storyline surrounding her. "My dead husband whom I murdered has returned as a ghost. Oh well." "The man I love is actually my son. Oops." Changes in mood were indicated by turning her face -- face away from a character = upset. A face towards a character = happy. An appearance of her murdered husband's ghost caused her to simply look down at her hands. When she read the letter that informed Arsace of his real parentage her response was to crumple the letter up and then take a seat in the temple. Very dramatic.

Sarah Mesko
Elisabeth DeShong in the trouser role of Arsace was sick and replaced by Sarah Mesko. Mesko was obviously nervous and shaky in her Act 1 aria "Ah! Quel giorno" but once her voice settled in she was a pleasant mezzo-soprano who managed the music well despite having a voice that sits too high for this role. Brava to her for stepping in on such short notice and giving a creditable performance. She's also a tall handsome woman who looked believable as a young man.

Ildar Abdrazakov as Assur was more problematic. His voice is no longer flexible enough to really handle Rossini roulades and so the coloratura was sketched rather than truly sung. He also does not have the low notes needed for the role -- they came out as a sort of growl. He did look great in those shirtless costumes, I'll give him that.

For a comparison, here's Ildar in the Act 2 mad scene vs. Samuel Ramey. You can hear how much richer and more flexible Ramey's voice is.

Camarena, photo @ Ken Howard
The best, most consistent singing of the night came from the characters with the most tangential relation to the plot. Ryan Speedo Green projected real authority as Oroe the high priest. His voice has a rather prominent vibrato which might not be to everyone's taste but this is a major voice and I can't wait to see what he does next. Javier Camarena's role in the opera is even weaker -- Idreno loves Azema who loves Arsace who is loved by Semiramide. So that's like 4 degrees of separation from the central drama. But he does have two show-stopping arias, one in the first act and one in the second act. Alas, Rossini roulades are not really Camarena's specialty either (a lot of his runs were aspirated), but his bright, pingy voice and astonishing upper register (I lost track of how many high notes he interpolated) were definitely a much-needed jolt of adrenaline. Old timers often lament "lack of squillo." Camarena definitely has squillo.

Peter Gelb has made it known he loves primo ottocento opera, and under his reign the Met has finally "caught up" to the rest of the world in the sense that works like the Three Queens Trilogy, Le Comte Ory, Guillaume Tell, and La Donna del Lago were finally staged, and warhorses like L'elisir, La Cenerentola, Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale, Norma, La Sonnambula, I Puritani, La Fille du Regiment, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia get more play-time. This is all to the good. But casting for these works remains inconsistent -- disfigured by old-fashioned cuts, sung by singers who have intermittent understanding of primo ottocento style, conducted by routiniers. Last night someone who had never heard any Rossini before might have concluded that he was a dull, ponderous, repetitive composer. Do it right or don't do it at all.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Why I Walked Out of Angels in America UPDATED: Saw Perestroika!

At the end of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches I had a choice to make. I could either grab some dinner, and return for the evening performance of Perestroika, or I could go home. I decided to go home.

I shocked myself. I had been looking forward to seeing Angels in America for a long time. The production (a transfer from National Theatre Live) had racked up plaudits and awards all over the place. During Millennium Approaches I found Tony Kushner's writing alternatively funny, biting, insightful, thought-provoking. There were parts that in my opinion could have used some judicious cutting -- (one example: the opening monologue with the rabbi went on for way too long) but overall I was impressed with how little this play has dated. AIDS is no longer a death sentence and the artistic community is no longer losing so many talents to this dreaded disease but a good play is a good play. The many references to 1980's hot button issues also serve as a timely reminder about just how heartless Ronald Reagan was towards AIDS patients as nowadays many Democrats seem to view him through a gaze of nostalgia in comparison to Donald Trump.

Instead I walked out and decided not to return for the second part because I thought Kushner's play deserved a better presentation than it received. I don't think I've ever seen a production hampered by so many poor directorial and acting choices. (edit: I was also sick as a dog which is why I decided to see Perestroika later -- see below).

Lee Pace and Denise Gough
Where do I start? The #1 mistake was the casting of Lee Pace as Joe Pitt. Joe is already an unlikable character but Pace just about killed him. Pace's delivery of his lines was so wooden, so lifeless, that he sucked the energy out of every scene he was in. He really seemed like he was reading straight from cue cards or a powerpoint. In fact I've seen corporate keynote addresses that had more sparkle than Pace. I could not believe he read for this part and director Marianne Elliot said "Yes that's it. He's our guy." The scenes between Joe and Louis, Joe and Roy Cohn, Joe and Harper, were all sapped of any vitality. For instance in the painful scenes between Joe and Harper I think we're supposed to sense that Joe is genuinely tormented by his poor treatment of Harper. Joe delivered his lines with all the passion of a 5th grader in a spelling bee. The conflict and guilt that Joe feels is just not there and thus a hard-to-like character becomes simply annoying.

McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize, photo @ Helen Maybanks
Running a close second to Lee Pace was the choice to cast James McArdle as Louis. Louis is one of those stereotypical neurotic Jewish characters that populate theater. The thing about these characters is that if played the right way they can be endearing. I hate Woody Allen's personal life choices but damn if he isn't lovable in Annie Hall. McArdle makes Louis all whine, all whimpering, ZERO humor or charm. His long monologue on race relations that started the third act was what cemented my decision to go home. Three and a half hours with McArdle and Pace was already 3.5 hours too much. I couldn't bear to imagine having to spend another 4.5 hours with them.

Gough and Stewart-Jarrett, photo @ Helen Maybanks
I had been impressed with Denise Gough in People, Places and Things. I was therefore surprised at how unaffecting her Harper Pitt was. She recycled some of the same tics and mannerisms she used in People, Places and Things but Emma and Harper are very different characters. Gough also seemed like she was concentrating so hard on getting that flat "typical" American accent just right that she ignored the character's pathos. These strung-out, drug-addled miserable wives are a beloved theater trope for a good reason: they work in touching the heart. Actresses always want to play Mary Tyrone or Birdie Hubbard. Gough made Harper ... well, she made her annoying. For someone who is addicted to valium Gough read her lines like she'd popped too many speed pills instead. And she also didn't get the occasional flashes of humor and irony in Harper that give the audience hope that underneath the drug addiction there's a spirit waiting to come out. In fairness to Gough Kushner's writing for Harper is very tricky. Lots of rambling about ozone layers and Antarctica and other flights of fancy to show that Harper isn't all there. But it can sound very stagey.

And finally there was Susan Brown in the many roles: rabbi, Hannah Pitt (Joe's Mormon, unforgiving mother), Ethel Rosenberg. She played every single character with a cold, hard, steely demeanor. It got monotonous. One of the play's most memorable moments is when Roy Cohn remembers his machinations in getting Ethel executed. This is the "big reveal" moment when the audience realizes that Roy Cohn is even more monstrous than we expected. So his ghostly encounter with Ethel should show some sign that Ethel was someone sympathetic right? Not with Susan Brown.

Nathan Lane, photo @ Helen Maybanks
It's a shame because amidst all this disappointing acting Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn gave the play so much energy and life. Nathan Lane can't resist making Roy Cohn a funny bastard more than a truly evil man. But then again, Roy Cohn probably did have a sort of snake oil charm to him and Lane knows how to deliver lines and jokes with timing, precision, character. All things sorely missing from Pace, McArdle, and Gough. And as a result Cohn became one of the few "likable" characters onstage in the sense that I was interested in his storyline arc and wanted to follow him. Cohn might have been a loathsome socipath in real life, but in this production at least he has spunk and doesn't talk like a zombie.

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter also transformed himself completely from the star of the Spiderman movies into a sickly AIDS patient who is abandoned by his lover Louis. Prior Walter is a tricky character to play: I didn't stay for the second half but it's clear even in the first half that he's being set up to be some sort of savior/messiah. Those types of characters can be hard to pull off as flesh and blood people. But Garfield manages to do it, and makes Walter's hallucinations with all the "prior" Prior Walters funny. I also liked Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize.

Andrew Garfield, photo @ Helen Maybanks
I wasn't just disappointed with the acting. I thought some of Marianne Elliot's directorial choices were head-scratching. First of all, Adrian Sutton's music that accompanies the play has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It's loud, bombastic, and frankly unlikable. The three storylines were done on a turntable with each "set" looking like the waiting room in a dentist's office. The "angel" reveal was this: the theater blacked out, and then there was an explosion, and the angel (Beth Malone in this performance) was held up by two puppeteers. The audience was screaming. Why? It was a cheap effect.

And so I decided to take an "L" for the day and went home. Since this show has been popping up with some regularity on TDF I'll try to see the second part sometime. But yeah, so basically I left Angels in America not because I didn't like the play but because I liked the play too much to see it killed by some uninspired acting. I'm reminded by Roy Cohn's speech:
I would have pulled the switch if they let me. Why? Because I hate traitors. I HATE communists. Was it legal? FUCK legal. Not nice? Fuck nice. The Nation says I'm not nice? FUCK THE NATION. Do you wanna be NICE? Or you wanna be EFFECTIVE.
 Tony Kushner's play cannot handle the Lee Pace/James McArdle "nice" performances. It needs way more energy to be effective.

The final tableau

UPDATE: Part of the reason I responded so poorly to Millennium Approaches was I was coming down with a nasty virus. I'm still home sick. But I am seeing Perestroika on 3/16 so I will update this as soon as I see Perestroika.

March 16, 2018

Ethel Rosenberg visits Cohn
I went back to see Perestroika a little less than a week after I walked out on the double header. I was no longer feeling the effects of the nasty virus and was determined to give the entire Angels in America a chance.

Overall I found Perestroika to be a much weaker work than Millennium Approaches.Ushers told me that between last week and this week they had cut about 20 minutes of Perestroika. Well the play still felt endless. There are no doubt some brilliant scenes (Roy Cohn's death being one of them) but the play felt much more preachy, less organic, and more self -indulgent.  Perestroika unlike Millennium Approaches does not have a very tight dramatic structure. The play weaves in and out between realism and surrealism, ozone layer and atmosphere,  heaven and earth, angels and mortals. Sometimes I felt like I was listening to several a PhD thesis on religion, law, and politics.

In Millennium Approaches I recognized the brilliance of Kushner's play and was frustrated that I didn't think the actors were maximizing the impact. In Perestroika I'm not sure the greatest actors in the world could have made some of the monologues work. The opening monologue by some Soviet diplomat about, well, perestroika, was longer and even more unfunny than the rabbi's monologue that opened Millennium. Louis's long rant to Joe about legal decisions took some important political points and then proceeded to drain them of any interest because the tone of the monologue was so didactic and without nuance.

Garfield and Stewart-Jarrett, photo @ Helen Maybanks
With that being said, Perestroika also exposed the limits of Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield's acting abilities. I had liked them a lot in Millennium Approaches but in Perestroika their approaches were too one-note. Garfield in particular must have shrieked the entire time he was onstage. He started at a level 10 of hysteria and had nowhere to go. Nathan Lane also tried too hard to wring humor and laughter out of Cohn's character. Cohn is in such a grim state of affairs in Perestroika that the slick humor that was believable in Millennium Approaches (when Cohn still had the facade of luxury and power) did not work when Cohn was desperate, dying, on a morphine drip, and disbarred. Even with these weaknesses though Lane is still bar none the best actor of the production.

Susan Brown and Andrew Garfield, photo @ Helen Maybanks
But the whole production suffers from some weak casting in principal and supporting parts. Lee Pace in Perestroika has to go the full monty but his awkward, stilted delivery was as much of an energy sucker as it had been in Millennium. Susan Brown in Perestroika has a scene that if done right should absolutely break the heart. Hannah Pitt has to accompany Prior to the hospital after he faints at the Mormon center. Prior shows Hannah the lesions that have wrecked his body. Hannah quietly holds Prior's hand. Susan Brown keeps a stiff upper lip in this scene when some sentiment and softness are needed. And James McArdle's Louis went from annoying in Millennium to truly unbearable in Perestroika.  He played him as so shrill, whiny, selfish that he just gave us no reason why we should care about this guy. Denise Gough's character of Harper has a smaller role in Perestroika and she faded almost completely out of the play, her monotonous droning voice simply becoming a nuisance. I also thought Nathan Stewart-Jarrett's Belize was stereotypical to the point of being offensive.

McArdle and Pace
The directorial choices in Perestroika were also questionable: again, Marianne Elliot resisted any effort to put the play in a specific place and time. But Perestroika has even more of a 1980's/early 90's zeitgeist than Millennium. The long discussions about Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War make the nowhere-land approach mind-boggling. It also dulled the impact of one of the play's most famous moments: when Prior breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience about how "the great work begins":

“And the dead will be commemorated and we’ll struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.” 

When this speech played in the 1990's, I can only imagine its impact. People in the United States were still dying of AIDS at a shocking rate. The anti-retroviral medicines had yet to be developed. There was no guarantee that the "great work" would even continue. Today AIDS is still a horrible virus that infects millions of people around the world, but with the right medications it's not a death sentence. But even with the improvements in life expectancy among those who are HIV+ the "great work" continues and it's now concentrated in places like sub-Saharan Africa where the countries lack the means to provide their patients with life-saving medication.

So Prior's speech TODAY should give us a reminder of what life was like back then, and how far we've come, but how much "great work" needs to done still. Yet this moment went for very little. Andrew Garfield's speech was nervous and jittery, and without any time, place and perspective the opportunity for a history lesson is lost.

If you want to see a truly great version of Angels in America, I highly recommend the HBO miniseries. Even if you don't have HBO it's available to rent on Amazon. The performances there are so pitch-perfect without a single false note and everyone is a flesh and blood character. And then here are extensive clips of the OBC in 1993. Watch how real those actors were, how little artifice there was. They are raw and powerful. In other words, they are everything that this revival of Angels in America is not.

This production is a lost opportunity. The great work continues, but this production is not the one that will inspire people to continue that great work.

Monday, March 5, 2018

An Elektra With No Charge

Goerke as Elektra, photo @ Karen Almond
If there was one event at the Met that I was looking forward to all season, it was Elektra. I was certain that in an otherwise safe and dull season Elektra would blow the roof off the place. I wasn't basing this on mere conjecture. I was convinced that this Elektra would be absolutely elektrifying (sic) because in 2015 I heard Christine Goerke sing an Elektra at Carnegie Hall for which demented is too mild a word. It was one of those evenings where the oldest, quietest gentlemen in the upper rings of the balcony were screaming their lungs off. Surely when she sang Elektra at the Met it would be just as great, if not even greater?

The sisters, photo @ Karen Almond
So it was with these sky-high expectations that I went to tonight's performance. And things started promisingly. The cavernous, organ-like quality Goerke's voice made her opening phrases in the "Allein" monologue crackle with excitement. Just the way she bellowed "Agamemnon!" gave one a visceral thrill. But as the monologue went on and the tessitura went higher I began to realize that this was a singer in major vocal trouble. Her upper register is completely disconnected to the rich, contralto-like core of her voice. Her top notes are alternately thin, wobbly, shrill, and at times inaudible. I give Elektra bonus points because the relentless assaults into the upper register can be taxing for even the strongest of voices, but even with that "it's Elektra" mindset, there were times when the sounds Goerke was making wasn't music, but noise.

It's a shame because Goerke's interpretation of Elektra was interesting and very different from Nina Stemme's cold, zombie-like portrayal. Goerke portrayed Elektra as much younger, with more life and spunk left in her. At times she appeared to be in arrested development as she clung to a security blanket and hugged her hated mother almost out of habit. It was thus a disappointment to see Goerke's dramatic choices in the final moments of the opera. Goerke had played Elektra as full of fury and fight, and I expected her to do what she did in Carnegie Hall, which was dance around the stage (or in the case of Carnegie Hall, the tiny platform) in a frenzy. But Goerke decided upon a series of rather slow, jerky movements and ended the opera sitting onstage in a daze, still very alive, as her sister entreated her to follow Orest and start a new life. I think had Patrice Chereau been alive he no doubt would have worked out an ending that worked better for Goerke's own stage personality. As it was, the finale which is usually thrilling was just awkward.

I mean just look at the wild abandon of Goerke in this scene compared to Stemme's more closed off portrayal. I just feel like that energy was not utilized for much of the opera.

Schuster, photo @ Karen Almond
Goerke's vocal struggles contrasted with Elsa van den Heever, who had a complete triumph. She sang Chrysothemis with pure tone, gleaming upper register, and an evenly distributed voice. Dramatically she hit the right notes too, as the sympathetic sister who still hopes for a good life. Her duet with Elektra was alternately tender and chilling. Her final entreaties to Elektra soared over the orchestra and one ended the opera hoping that Chrysothemis really has that family and kids that she longs for.

Michaela Schuster as Klytämnestra was also vocally a huge improvement over Waltraud Meier, the previous Klyt of this production. Meier looked like a million bucks and acted the hell out of the role, making her a sort of glamorous monster. But she barely had a voice. Schuster wasn't as gorgeous physically but she actually had a voice (a rather gravelly mezzo), and her confrontation with Elektra felt more evenly matched. She also played Klytämnestra more sympathetically than Meier. Meier was Cersei v. 2.0. All fake glitz and sympathy. Schuster sounded genuinely traumatized and made us remember that in the Greek myth Klytämnestra's hatred for her dead husband is justified -- he sacrificed her daughter Iphigenia.

I also enjoyed Mikhail Petrenko's Orest more than Eric Owens' portrayal. Petrenko's bass is kind of dry, cold and colorless, but his portrayal is more vivid. For one, he looked creepy. He looked like a man who has been to hell and back and is used to lurking in the shadows. Owens had a tendency to sing his lines with little regard for the Elektra of that production (Nina Stemme). With Petrenko and Goerke, the recognition scene felt like a real dialogue and that also happened to be the part of the score which was the most simpatico to Goerke's voice.

Goerke and Petrenko, photo @ Karen Almond
Jay Hunter Morris was Aegisth and his never-beautiful tenor has now turned very thin and sour indeed. Aegisth is a short role though. I was also disappointed with the singing of the maids and servants and Orest's guardian (Kevin Short). I realize this is a revival but the maids are an important part of the fabric of Elektra and all that screeching did not make for a good introduction to the opera.

I am in the minority on this but I did not care for Yannick Nézet Séguin's conducting. It's very loud, very exciting and the audiences loved it but I thought it was totally insensitive to the singers. When a conductor hears a singer struggling the way Goerke was during the performance, it is NOT time to turn up that 100-member orchestra to a level 10. I noticed this tendency to bluster through in Parsifal as well -- when René Pape was struggling, YNS swept the orchestra right along until Pape was just about drowned out. Right now he's still conducting like an orchestral conductor, and not an opera conductor.  Just my opinion.

The Chereau production on a rewatch looks a lot weaker. The cerebral approach (it starts with maids silently sweeping) takes a lot of the juice from Strauss and von Hofmannstahl's masterwork. And some of the blocking now looks ridiculous. For instance, Klytämnestra is not killed offstage, but dragged onstage. Elektra then beckons Aegisth towards the discovery of her body with a candle. This would make sense if Klytämnestra was offstage. But it makes less sense when Elektra is leading Aegisth around the stage for five minutes and his wife's body is two feet away from him. The mechanism for him discovering the body is also very contrived -- Klytämnestra's body has apparently been meticulously placed on this sliding panel on the floor, so it can be pushed upstage so tada! Aegisth finally sees his wife's corpse after being in a 2-foot vicinity for five minutes. It's very artificial, and Elektra is primal. As a result the audience response after the final chord was the most muted I've ever experienced.

It doesn't make me happy to write this review. I went in fully expecting to love it, and I think Goerke has a lot to give as a singer and as an artist. The richness of the core of her voice is very special indeed. There are many dramatic soprano parts that do not require such punishing tessitura. I would love to hear Goerke sing those roles. But I think her Elektra days are over. As a side note, her predecessor in this production, Nina Stemme, also did not sound her best as Elektra. The next season she sang Isolde magnificently. Hint hint for Christine?

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Winter Season Diaries: All Stravinsky Closes Season

de Luz and Fairchild in Baiser, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The true mark of a NYCB devotee is how much they look forward to the all-Stravinsky programs. The leotard ballets and spiky scores can still bring the jitters in people who adore Jewels, Serenade or Theme and Variations, but if just the thought of that diagonal of soldier-girls in Symphony in Three Movements gives you the tingles, then I'd say you're all in. So it's fitting that NYCB ended its winter season with an excellent all-Stravinsky/Balanchine bill of the rarely performed Divertimento From Baiser de la Fée and long with repertory staples Agon, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements. For one, it's a test of the company's resilience. It's also a test of the audiences' loyalty. The dancers more than rose to the occasion. And the audiences' enthusiastic responses indicated that company loyalty among ballet-goers is still strong.

Coll and Hyltin as the lovers, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Earlier in the season I saw a performance of Peter Martins' Romeo + Juliet that had a lovely, lyrical Juliet in Sterling Hyltin, an appealingly ardent Romeo in Harrison Coll (making his debut), and some virtuosos in the roles of Mercutio (Daniel Ulbricht), Tybalt (Joaquin de Luz), and Benvolio (Joseph Gordon). But Martins' version of this warhorse still fails to sing. Martins' version is best in the fight scenes, where the violence escalates in a very organic, tense way, and there's also some realistic pushing/shoving that mimics the kind of fighting of hotheaded adolescents. But in the extended love duets the choreography is simply too static. There's an over-reliance on Juliet stretching her leg in arabesque and throwing her arms up in ecstasy, and also the predictably acrobatic lifts. But unlike the versions of MacMillan or Lavrovsky, with Martins you never feel the buildup of passion that culminates in the passionate kiss that ends the balcony scene nor does the despair of the lovers in the bedroom scene register. In fact, they're still giggling like little kids. Still, this has been a breakout season for Harrison Coll who has brought an irrepressible energy to everything he's danced, and a great showcase for Sterling Hyltin's talents.

I also disagreed with the decision to eliminate Lord Capulet's slap of Juliet as she disobeyed his orders. Shakespeare (and Prokofiev) created a violent world and Juliet's rebellious headstrong nature is very much in both the play and ballet's DNA. Lord Capulet striking Juliet was one of Martins' rare moments of correct dramatic instinct -- the audience has to know that Juliet is a maverick. Without the slap the scenes with Juliet's parents fell flat. Ask La Cour and Maria Kowroski didn't inject much personality into their roles either. The best acting performance actually came from Russell Janzen who played Paris as exactly the kind of nice young man parents love.

There's more feeling in the last five minutes of Divertimento From Baiser de la Fée than there is during the entirety of Romeo + Juliet. To the strains of "None But the Lonely Heart" the lovers are inextricably separated. The once-jolly corps (dressed in neat village frocks that remind one of Act One of Giselle) turn into implacable Wilis who pull the lovers apart until they are no longer aware of each others' presence. One by one they step between the embracing lovers who eventually give up trying to fight the force. They end the ballet barely aware of each others' presence. Patricia McBride, the originator of the role, was brought in to coach this ballet. I saw two casts. Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz brought more depth to their roles. Megan has a sweetness and tenderness that suits this ballet well. Tiler Peck and Anthony Huxley were technically smoother but dramatically opaque. Otherwise the ballet is not one of Balanchine's finest. The first 20 minutes seem like filler until the drama-filled final moments of the ballet. Unlike, say, Serenade the ominous, mystical feeling is not accumulated throughout the ballet.

Peck, Stanley, Finlay, Bouder, Kowroski, Danchig-Waring
Agon is a full-blown masterpiece and the ballet is looking great. The pas de deux which has looked formulaic in some recent performances was given a sizzling rendition by Maria Kowroski and Adrian Danchig-Waring. Kowroski, who can seem overwhelmed in the classical Balanchine tutu roles was amazingly sexy and daring, and managed all the quick changes in center of gravity with aplomb including the most famous moments where the woman suddenly wraps her leg around the man's neck and the promenade balance in which she has to drag the man who is lying on the floor. Danchig-Waring is so strong, so solid, that the pas de deux truly became a dangerous mating ritual. It was an overall great performance -- Anthony Huxley, Lauren King and Ashley Laracey were very fine in the first pas de trois. Savannah Lowery had some shaky balances in the second pas de trois but Devin Alberda and Daniel Applebaum cleverly disguised this with expert partnering.

The second cast of Agon was not nearly as inspired. Chase Finlay is an odd choice for the pas de deux -- partnering has never been his strength, and Tess Reichlen who I've seen totally rock this pas de deux tried but she couldn't hide the labored partnering. As a result the iconic moves seemed to chug along awkwardly. The famous drag across stage barely happened. And in the pas de trois Peter Walker didn't seem comfortable with the role. Ashly Isaacs also had a few moments of hesitancy but Harrison Coll and Joseph Gorden were great in the second pas de trois. I went back the next day for a second performance and there must have been some major cleanup/rehearsals because while Finlay is still not ideal the partnering between him and Tess was much smoother.

Hyltin, Danchig-Waring, Fairchild, Janzen, Huxley, Peck
Programs closed with two extremely opposite ballets: the intimate, romantic Duo Concertant and the aggressive, militaristic Symphony in 3 Movements. Symphony in 3 ends with the men crouching down as if preparing for trench warfare, whereas the women are making signs that seem to be rallying the troops for battle. Duo had two different casts -- Bouder and Finlay were physically well-matched but both too self-absorbed to get the sweetness of this ballet, while Fairchild and Janzen did capture the romance but were physically mismatched with Janzen toweing over Fairchild. IMO the performances of Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild set the standard very high for this ballet and no other combo has been able to match their magic.

Symphony in Three Movements also had two very different casts. Tiler Peck/Taylor Stanley/Daniel Ulbricht/Erica Pereira/Megan LeCrone/Joseph Gordon had the better supporting cast, but this role doesn't really seem to fit Tiler Peck. She can do that ménage of pique turns where the ballerina has to weave in between the jogging girls with breathtaking speed but there's something too square about her presentation for the pas de deux to make its full impact. She doesn't get the undulating arm movements of the pas de deux, nor do the famous lifts where woman covers her eyes as she's being hauled in the air look as bizarre as they should. To see what I mean here's some footage NYCB put up. It's way too much arm and hand flapping without the shoulder/back movement that gives those arm movements momentum. How do those Russian ballerinas get such great swan arms? Because they know that the movement comes from working the back and shoulders, and not just the arms.

Hyltin and Danchig-Waring, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The second cast had Sterling Hyltin/Adrian Danchig-Waring/Troy Schumacher/Lauren King/Savannah Lowery/Sean Suozzi was overall superior. Lauren King did not really get enough height and distance on those sideways leapfrog jumps, but Hyltin and Danchig-Waring (making his debut!) were simply fantastic. Hyltin is not technically as strong as Peck, but she finds ways to make her performance of this role more exciting -- for instance, in the ménage of pique turns she starts out slowly and accelerates into the wings with so much force she looks like she'll crash from the momentum. In the pas de deux she and Adrian were just about perfect -- physically and stylistically well-matched, with both of them paying close attention to the Oriental accents of Balanchine's choreography. And Hyltin DID use her shoulders and back to push the movement through her arms.

So that's a wrap for the Winter Season. A few MVP's:

- Adrian Danchig-Waring, who had a potentially career-ending injury, dancing almost every night in so many different ballets (Apollo, Chaconne, Agon, dance odysseyFour Seasons, Symphony in Three Movements) and knocking each performance out of the park.

- Russell Janzen, whose partnering is smooth as silk and whose range is expanding -- he was once mostly a prince/cavalier type but his awesome Phlegmatic in Four Temperaments and tender Duo shows an artist growing in leaps and bounds.

- Joaquin de Luz, who at age 41 is showing the youngsters how it's done. His barnstorming performance of Four Seasons was extraordinary.

- Harrison Coll who is a corps member but dancing like a soloist, and Joseph Gordon who is a soloist dancing as a principal. I am supremely bummed that I missed the Gordon/Pereira Baiser performance as it was apparently great.

- And finally, that stable of female principals (Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, Tess Reichlen, Sterling Hyltin, Ashley Bouder and Megan Fairchild) who go out there night after night and do their thing, and do it with humor.